The Uncommercial Traveller, by Charles Dickens

CHAPTER VIII— THE GREAT TASMANIA’S CARGO

I travel constantly, up and down a certain line of railway that has a terminus in London. It is the railway for a large military depot, and for other large barracks. To the best of my serious belief, I have never been on that railway by daylight, without seeing some handcuffed deserters in the train.

It is in the nature of things that such an institution as our English army should have many bad and troublesome characters in it. But, this is a reason for, and not against, its being made as acceptable as possible to well-disposed men of decent behaviour. Such men are assuredly not tempted into the ranks, by the beastly inversion of natural laws, and the compulsion to live in worse than swinish foulness. Accordingly, when any such Circumlocutional embellishments of the soldier’s condition have of late been brought to notice, we civilians, seated in outer darkness cheerfully meditating on an Income Tax, have considered the matter as being our business, and have shown a tendency to declare that we would rather not have it misregulated, if such declaration may, without violence to the Church Catechism, be hinted to those who are put in authority over us.

Any animated description of a modern battle, any private soldier’s letter published in the newspapers, any page of the records of the Victoria Cross, will show that in the ranks of the army, there exists under all disadvantages as fine a sense of duty as is to be found in any station on earth. Who doubts that if we all did our duty as faithfully as the soldier does his, this world would be a better place? There may be greater difficulties in our way than in the soldier’s. Not disputed. But, let us at least do our duty towards HIM.

I had got back again to that rich and beautiful port where I had looked after Mercantile Jack, and I was walking up a hill there, on a wild March morning. My conversation with my official friend Pangloss, by whom I was accidentally accompanied, took this direction as we took the up-hill direction, because the object of my uncommercial journey was to see some discharged soldiers who had recently come home from India. There were men of HAVELOCK’s among them; there were men who had been in many of the great battles of the great Indian campaign, among them; and I was curious to note what our discharged soldiers looked like, when they were done with.

I was not the less interested (as I mentioned to my official friend Pangloss) because these men had claimed to be discharged, when their right to be discharged was not admitted. They had behaved with unblemished fidelity and bravery; but, a change of circumstances had arisen, which, as they considered, put an end to their compact and entitled them to enter on a new one. Their demand had been blunderingly resisted by the authorities in India: but, it is to be presumed that the men were not far wrong, inasmuch as the bungle had ended in their being sent home discharged, in pursuance of orders from home. (There was an immense waste of money, of course.)

Under these circumstances — thought I, as I walked up the hill, on which I accidentally encountered my official friend — under these circumstances of the men having successfully opposed themselves to the Pagoda Department of that great Circumlocution Office on which the sun never sets and the light of reason never rises, the Pagoda Department will have been particularly careful of the national honour. It will have shown these men, in the scrupulous good faith, not to say the generosity, of its dealing with them, that great national authorities can have no small retaliations and revenges. It will have made every provision for their health on the passage home, and will have landed them, restored from their campaigning fatigues by a sea-voyage, pure air, sound food, and good medicines. And I pleased myself with dwelling beforehand, on the great accounts of their personal treatment which these men would carry into their various towns and villages, and on the increasing popularity of the service that would insensibly follow. I almost began to hope that the hitherto-never-failing deserters on my railroad would by-and-by become a phenomenon.

In this agreeable frame of mind I entered the workhouse of Liverpool. — For, the cultivation of laurels in a sandy soil, had brought the soldiers in question to THAT abode of Glory.

Before going into their wards to visit them, I inquired how they had made their triumphant entry there? They had been brought through the rain in carts it seemed, from the landing-place to the gate, and had then been carried up-stairs on the backs of paupers. Their groans and pains during the performance of this glorious pageant, had been so distressing, as to bring tears into the eyes of spectators but too well accustomed to scenes of suffering. The men were so dreadfully cold, that those who could get near the fires were hard to be restrained from thrusting their feet in among the blazing coals. They were so horribly reduced, that they were awful to look upon. Racked with dysentery and blackened with scurvy, one hundred and forty wretched soldiers had been revived with brandy and laid in bed.

My official friend Pangloss is lineally descended from a learned doctor of that name, who was once tutor to Candide, an ingenious young gentleman of some celebrity. In his personal character, he is as humane and worthy a gentleman as any I know; in his official capacity, he unfortunately preaches the doctrines of his renowned ancestor, by demonstrating on all occasions that we live in the best of all possible official worlds.

‘In the name of Humanity,’ said I, ‘how did the men fall into this deplorable state? Was the ship well found in stores?’

‘I am not here to asseverate that I know the fact, of my own knowledge,’ answered Pangloss, ‘but I have grounds for asserting that the stores were the best of all possible stores.’

A medical officer laid before us, a handful of rotten biscuit, and a handful of split peas. The biscuit was a honeycombed heap of maggots, and the excrement of maggots. The peas were even harder than this filth. A similar handful had been experimentally boiled six hours, and had shown no signs of softening. These were the stores on which the soldiers had been fed.

‘The beef — ‘ I began, when Pangloss cut me short.

‘Was the best of all possible beef,’ said he.

But, behold, there was laid before us certain evidence given at the Coroner’s Inquest, holden on some of the men (who had obstinately died of their treatment), and from that evidence it appeared that the beef was the worst of possible beef!

‘Then I lay my hand upon my heart, and take my stand,’ said Pangloss, ‘by the pork, which was the best of all possible pork.’

‘But look at this food before our eyes, if one may so misuse the word,’ said I. ‘Would any Inspector who did his duty, pass such abomination?’

‘It ought not to have been passed,’ Pangloss admitted.

‘Then the authorities out there — ‘ I began, when Pangloss cut me short again.

‘There would certainly seem to have been something wrong somewhere,’ said he; ‘but I am prepared to prove that the authorities out there, are the best of all possible authorities.’

I never heard of any impeached public authority in my life, who was not the best public authority in existence.

‘We are told of these unfortunate men being laid low by scurvy,’ said I. ‘Since lime-juice has been regularly stored and served out in our navy, surely that disease, which used to devastate it, has almost disappeared? Was there lime-juice aboard this transport?’

My official friend was beginning ‘the best of all possible — ‘ when an inconvenient medical forefinger pointed out another passage in the evidence, from which it appeared that the lime-juice had been bad too. Not to mention that the vinegar had been bad too, the vegetables bad too, the cooking accommodation insufficient (if there had been anything worth mentioning to cook), the water supply exceedingly inadequate, and the beer sour.

‘Then the men,’ said Pangloss, a little irritated, ‘Were the worst of all possible men.’

‘In what respect?’ I asked.

‘Oh! Habitual drunkards,’ said Pangloss.

But, again the same incorrigible medical forefinger pointed out another passage in the evidence, showing that the dead men had been examined after death, and that they, at least, could not possibly have been habitual drunkards, because the organs within them which must have shown traces of that habit, were perfectly sound.

‘And besides,’ said the three doctors present, ‘one and all, habitual drunkards brought as low as these men have been, could not recover under care and food, as the great majority of these men are recovering. They would not have strength of constitution to do it.’

‘Reckless and improvident dogs, then,’ said Pangloss. ‘Always are — nine times out of ten.’

I turned to the master of the workhouse, and asked him whether the men had any money?

‘Money?’ said he. ‘I have in my iron safe, nearly four hundred pounds of theirs; the agents have nearly a hundred pounds more and many of them have left money in Indian banks besides.’

‘Hah!’ said I to myself, as we went up-stairs, ‘this is not the best of all possible stories, I doubt!’

We went into a large ward, containing some twenty or five-and-twenty beds. We went into several such wards, one after another. I find it very difficult to indicate what a shocking sight I saw in them, without frightening the reader from the perusal of these lines, and defeating my object of making it known.

O the sunken eyes that turned to me as I walked between the rows of beds, or — worse still — that glazedly looked at the white ceiling, and saw nothing and cared for nothing! Here, lay the skeleton of a man, so lightly covered with a thin unwholesome skin, that not a bone in the anatomy was clothed, and I could clasp the arm above the elbow, in my finger and thumb. Here, lay a man with the black scurvy eating his legs away, his gums gone, and his teeth all gaunt and bare. This bed was empty, because gangrene had set in, and the patient had died but yesterday. That bed was a hopeless one, because its occupant was sinking fast, and could only be roused to turn the poor pinched mask of face upon the pillow, with a feeble moan. The awful thinness of the fallen cheeks, the awful brightness of the deep set eyes, the lips of lead, the hands of ivory, the recumbent human images lying in the shadow of death with a kind of solemn twilight on them, like the sixty who had died aboard the ship and were lying at the bottom of the sea, O Pangloss, GOD forgive you!

In one bed, lay a man whose life had been saved (as it was hoped) by deep incisions in the feet and legs. While I was speaking to him, a nurse came up to change the poultices which this operation had rendered necessary, and I had an instinctive feeling that it was not well to turn away, merely to spare myself. He was sorely wasted and keenly susceptible, but the efforts he made to subdue any expression of impatience or suffering, were quite heroic. It was easy to see, in the shrinking of the figure, and the drawing of the bed-clothes over the head, how acute the endurance was, and it made me shrink too, as if I were in pain; but, when the new bandages were on, and the poor feet were composed again, he made an apology for himself (though he had not uttered a word), and said plaintively, ‘I am so tender and weak, you see, sir!’ Neither from him nor from any one sufferer of the whole ghastly number, did I hear a complaint. Of thankfulness for present solicitude and care, I heard much; of complaint, not a word.

I think I could have recognised in the dismalest skeleton there, the ghost of a soldier. Something of the old air was still latent in the palest shadow of life I talked to. One emaciated creature, in the strictest literality worn to the bone, lay stretched on his back, looking so like death that I asked one of the doctors if he were not dying, or dead? A few kind words from the doctor, in his ear, and he opened his eyes, and smiled — looked, in a moment, as if he would have made a salute, if he could. ‘We shall pull him through, please God,’ said the Doctor. ‘Plase God, surr, and thankye,’ said the patient. ‘You are much better to-day; are you not?’ said the Doctor. ‘Plase God, surr; ’tis the slape I want, surr; ’tis my breathin’ makes the nights so long.’ ‘He is a careful fellow this, you must know,’ said the Doctor, cheerfully; ‘it was raining hard when they put him in the open cart to bring him here, and he had the presence of mind to ask to have a sovereign taken out of his pocket that he had there, and a cab engaged. Probably it saved his life.’ The patient rattled out the skeleton of a laugh, and said, proud of the story, ‘‘Deed, surr, an open cairt was a comical means o’ bringin’ a dyin’ man here, and a clever way to kill him.’ You might have sworn to him for a soldier when he said it.

One thing had perplexed me very much in going from bed to bed. A very significant and cruel thing. I could find no young man but one. He had attracted my notice, by having got up and dressed himself in his soldier’s jacket and trousers, with the intention of sitting by the fire; but he had found himself too weak, and had crept back to his bed and laid himself down on the outside of it. I could have pronounced him, alone, to be a young man aged by famine and sickness. As we were standing by the Irish soldier’s bed, I mentioned my perplexity to the Doctor. He took a board with an inscription on it from the head of the Irishman’s bed, and asked me what age I supposed that man to be? I had observed him with attention while talking to him, and answered, confidently, ‘Fifty.’ The Doctor, with a pitying glance at the patient, who had dropped into a stupor again, put the board back, and said, ‘Twenty-four.’

All the arrangements of the wards were excellent. They could not have been more humane, sympathising, gentle, attentive, or wholesome. The owners of the ship, too, had done all they could, liberally. There were bright fires in every room, and the convalescent men were sitting round them, reading various papers and periodicals. I took the liberty of inviting my official friend Pangloss to look at those convalescent men, and to tell me whether their faces and bearing were or were not, generally, the faces and bearing of steady respectable soldiers? The master of the workhouse, overhearing me, said he had had a pretty large experience of troops, and that better conducted men than these, he had never had to do with. They were always (he added) as we saw them. And of us visitors (I add) they knew nothing whatever, except that we were there.

It was audacious in me, but I took another liberty with Pangloss. Prefacing it with the observation that, of course, I knew beforehand that there was not the faintest desire, anywhere, to hush up any part of this dreadful business, and that the Inquest was the fairest of all possible Inquests, I besought four things of Pangloss. Firstly, to observe that the Inquest WAS NOT HELD IN THAT PLACE, but at some distance off. Secondly, to look round upon those helpless spectres in their beds. Thirdly, to remember that the witnesses produced from among them before that Inquest, could not have been selected because they were the men who had the most to tell it, but because they happened to be in a state admitting of their safe removal. Fourthly, to say whether the coroner and jury could have come there, to those pillows, and taken a little evidence? My official friend declined to commit himself to a reply.

There was a sergeant, reading, in one of the fireside groups. As he was a man of very intelligent countenance, and as I have a great respect for non-commissioned officers as a class, I sat down on the nearest bed, to have some talk with him. (It was the bed of one of the grisliest of the poor skeletons, and he died soon afterwards.)

‘I was glad to see, in the evidence of an officer at the Inquest, sergeant, that he never saw men behave better on board ship than these men.’

‘They did behave very well, sir.’

‘I was glad to see, too, that every man had a hammock.’ The sergeant gravely shook his head. ‘There must be some mistake, sir. The men of my own mess had no hammocks. There were not hammocks enough on board, and the men of the two next messes laid hold of hammocks for themselves as soon as they got on board, and squeezed my men out, as I may say.’

‘Had the squeezed-out men none then?’

‘None, sir. As men died, their hammocks were used by other men, who wanted hammocks; but many men had none at all.’

‘Then you don’t agree with the evidence on that point?’

‘Certainly not, sir. A man can’t, when he knows to the contrary.’

‘Did any of the men sell their bedding for drink?’

‘There is some mistake on that point too, sir. Men were under the impression — I knew it for a fact at the time — that it was not allowed to take blankets or bedding on board, and so men who had things of that sort came to sell them purposely.’

‘Did any of the men sell their clothes for drink?’

‘They did, sir.’ (I believe there never was a more truthful witness than the sergeant. He had no inclination to make out a case.)

‘Many?’

‘Some, sir’ (considering the question). ‘Soldier-like. They had been long marching in the rainy season, by bad roads — no roads at all, in short — and when they got to Calcutta, men turned to and drank, before taking a last look at it. Soldier-like.’

‘Do you see any men in this ward, for example, who sold clothes for drink at that time?’

The sergeant’s wan eye, happily just beginning to rekindle with health, travelled round the place and came back to me. ‘Certainly, sir.’

‘The marching to Calcutta in the rainy season must have been severe?’

‘It was very severe, sir.’

‘Yet what with the rest and the sea air, I should have thought that the men (even the men who got drunk) would have soon begun to recover on board ship?’

‘So they might; but the bad food told upon them, and when we got into a cold latitude, it began to tell more, and the men dropped.’

‘The sick had a general disinclination for food, I am told, sergeant?’

‘Have you seen the food, sir?’

‘Some of it.’

‘Have you seen the state of their mouths, sir?’

If the sergeant, who was a man of a few orderly words, had spoken the amount of this volume, he could not have settled that question better. I believe the sick could as soon have eaten the ship, as the ship’s provisions.

I took the additional liberty with my friend Pangloss, when I had left the sergeant with good wishes, of asking Pangloss whether he had ever heard of biscuit getting drunk and bartering its nutritious qualities for putrefaction and vermin; of peas becoming hardened in liquor; of hammocks drinking themselves off the face of the earth; of lime-juice, vegetables, vinegar, cooking accommodation, water supply, and beer, all taking to drinking together and going to ruin? ‘If not (I asked him), what did he say in defence of the officers condemned by the Coroner’s jury, who, by signing the General Inspection report relative to the ship Great Tasmania, chartered for these troops, had deliberately asserted all that bad and poisonous dunghill refuse, to be good and wholesome food?’ My official friend replied that it was a remarkable fact, that whereas some officers were only positively good, and other officers only comparatively better, those particular officers were superlatively the very best of all possible officers.

My hand and my heart fail me, in writing my record of this journey. The spectacle of the soldiers in the hospital-beds of that Liverpool workhouse (a very good workhouse, indeed, be it understood), was so shocking and so shameful, that as an Englishman I blush to remember it. It would have been simply unbearable at the time, but for the consideration and pity with which they were soothed in their sufferings.

No punishment that our inefficient laws provide, is worthy of the name when set against the guilt of this transaction. But, if the memory of it die out unavenged, and if it do not result in the inexorable dismissal and disgrace of those who are responsible for it, their escape will be infamous to the Government (no matter of what party) that so neglects its duty, and infamous to the nation that tamely suffers such intolerable wrong to be done in its name.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30