A Book of Words, by Rudyard Kipling

The Verdict of Equals

AS I understand it and as recent events have, I believe, proved, the Royal Geographical Society is the supreme Court of ultimate appeal and final revision throughout the geographical world.

To you, Gentlemen, in the long run, come all the survivors of all the expeditions — the men who, like many of you here to-night, have borne the extremes of adventure and hardship, to report what they have done in man’s secular battle against Space and Time. To your tribunal they submit the records of their toil. From your hands that record receives its final stamp of worth.

I confess there is something, to me as terrible as it is touching, in the thought of the men even now scattered under the shadow of death, from the Poles to the deserts, the crown of whose labours, when, please God, they return, will be your judgement. I have had the honour of meeting many such men of many nationalities, explorers of sand-buried cities in Central Asian deserts, bold hunters of big game or of meridians across unexplored mountains. They have told me many tales. But in one tale they never varied. Each took it for granted all he had done availed little till it had been weighed and passed by you — to the end, if I may paraphrase one of the old geographers — to the end that “these men which were the painful and personal travellers might reap that good opinion and just commendation which they had deserved”.

So high stands your credit; so unquestioned is your authority after nearly a hundred years!

And when one thinks a little on the illustrious roll of the living and the dead who have returned from the ends of the earth to speak before your assemblies, one realises that you have preeminently the right to seek from your President all the qualities that mark a leader of men.

If courage, organisation, tenacity, and the habit of commanding achievement are needed in the wilderness where men make their names, they are at least as necessary at headquarters where the work and the names are enrolled. As everyone knows: “Work begins when the work is finished”. And there is yet another saying out of the Bureaucratic East which I am sure His Excellency — I mean your President — knows well. It holds good where anything is being done: “If you give a man more than he can do he will do it. If you only give him what he can do he’ll do nothing”.

It does not lie in my mouth to speak of the continuous, unnoticed, but vitally important work on which an organisation such as yours must be based. In common with thousands of others I have freely availed myself of the information which your Society always stands ready to offer or point the way to. For that reason I am specially glad to know that you are now on the road to house yourselves in a manner more befitting your merits. If the building matched the work, there should arise not only the headquarters of a great Society, but a vast and ample hall — not of lost footsteps, but a Valhalla, as it were, of all the “personal and painful travellers” whose sacrifices have won us the use of the world; a sumptuously equipped Lodge of Instruction where men could find to their hand or see spread out before their eyes the whole history of travel which, after all, is the history of civilisation — where they could consult the sum of recorded science so far as it touches travel.

Maybe this is a dream. We are a race more given to employing the spirit of man in great works than to building temples in his honour. But I believe it will not be all, not always a dream. And when it comes true, the realisation will be due to your President.

It has been his fortune in the past to administer revenues of some size in the interests of a considerable society. If his present work concerns itself with smaller sums and the interests of a body which does not number one-fifth of the world’s inhabitants, the power and personality that spent themselves ungrudgingly on the one, have not been and will not be withheld from the other.

For it is no small part of England glory, as it is her strength, that those who serve her do so without limit or reservation equally in all things. So it is natural to us; it is accepted as part of the order of our nature; that your President should bring to your use and devote to your service energies and experience proven in schools that are neither cramped nor unworthy. I need not speak of that side of his life. It will endure.

Of the man himself it can fairly be said what the pious Richard Hakluyt, who was surely in spirit your first President, wrote of himself: “Howbeit, the honour and benefit of this commonwealth wherein I live and breathe hath made all difficulties seem light, all pains and industry pleasant, and all expenses of light value and moment unto me”.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38