The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 9

Conference in Vaduz

It was an odd sort of war, if indeed it could be called a war at all; as there was no newt state nor any acknowledged newt government which could be officially held responsible for the hostilities. The first country to find itself in a state of war with the salamanders was Great Britain. Within the first few hours the newts had sunk almost all British ships at anchor in harbour; there was nothing that they could have done about that. A number of ships on the open sea were, for the time being, comparatively safe, mainly because they were over deep ocean; in this way part of the Royal Navy was saved and was able then to break through the newt blockade of Malta and gather over the depths of the Ionian Sea; but even these units were soon sought out by the newts in their mini-submarines and sunk one by one. Within six weeks the United Kingdom had lost four fifths of its total tonnage. John Bull was given another moment in history to display his famous doggedness. His Majesty’s Government refused to negotiate with the newts and did not call off its ban on giving them any supplies. “An Englishman,” declared the prime minister on behalf of the entire nation, “will protect animals but will not haggle with them.” Just a few weeks later there was a desperate shortage of foodstuffs in the British Isles. The last few scraps of bread and last few spoonfuls of tea or milk were reserved for the children to consume each day; the British nation bore it with exemplary dignity, despite having sunk so low that they had even eaten all their racehorses. The Prince of Wales dug the first furrow in the greens of the Royal Golf Club with his own hand so that carrots could be grown there for the orphans in London. Wimbledon tennis courts were turned over to the cultivation of potatoes, and wheat was sown over the race course at Ascot. “We can endure the greatest of sacrifices,” the leader of the Conservative Party declared in parliament, “but British honour is something we will never give up.”

The blockade of British coasts was total, and so England was left with only one way of obtaining supplies and maintaining communications, and that was by air. “We need a hundred thousand aircraft,” the minister for aviation declared, and all forces were applied to fulfilling this edict; but then the governments of other European powers raised bitter protests that this would disturb the balance of power in the skies; the government of the United Kingdom would have to abandon its plans and promise never to build more than twenty thousand aircraft and even that not within the next five years. They would simply have to remain hungry or pay horrifying prices for foodstuffs supplied by the aircraft of other states; a loaf of bread cost ten shillings, a rat sausage one guinea, a box of caviar twenty-five pounds sterling. This was simply a golden age for business, industry and agriculture on the continent. All military shipping had been removed at the very start of hostilities, and so the war against the newts had to be carried out on dry land and from the air. Armies fired into the water with their cannons and machine guns but without, it seemed, doing the newts any serious harm; although the bombs dropped into the sea from aircraft seemed somewhat more successful. The newts responded by firing on British ports from their underwater cannons, reducing them to piles of rubble. They even fired on London from the Thames Estuary; then the chiefs of staff tried to attack the salamanders with harmful bacteria, petroleum and acid poured into the Thames and several other bays and estuaries. The newts responded by releasing a cloak of poisonous gas over a hundred miles of British coastline. It was no more than a demonstration, but it was enough; for the first time in history the British government was forced to call on foreign powers to intervene on its behalf, citing the ban on the use of poisonous gas in warfare.

That night, the rasping, angry and heavy voice of Chief Salamander was heard once again on the airwaves: “Hello you people! England must stop its foolishness! If you poison our water we will poison your air. We use no more than your own weapons. We are not barbarians. We have no wish to wage war with people.  All we wish is to be allowed to live. We offer you peace. You will supply us with your products and sell us your land. We are willing to pay you well. We offer you more than peace. We offer you trade. We offer you gold for your land. Hello, calling the government of Great Britain. Tell me your price for the southern part of Lincolnshire around The Wash. You have three days to consider the matter. For this period I will suspend all hostilities apart from the blockades.”

At that moment the rumbling of underwater cannons off the coasts of England ceased. The land cannons were also silent. There was a strange, almost eerie quiet. The British government declared in parliament that it had no intention of negotiating with animals. The residents of south Lincolnshire were warned that there was clear danger of a major attack by the newts and that they should evacuate coastal areas and move inland; the trains, cars and buses provided, however, carried only children and some women. All the men remained where they were; it simply did not enter their heads that an Englishman might lose the land he lives on. One minute after the three-day truce had expired the shooting began; these were shots from English cannons fired by the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment to the sound of the regimental march, The Red Rose. There was then the thunder of an enormous explosion. The mouth of the River Nene was flooded up as far as Wisbech and the whole of the area around The Wash was inundated by the sea. A number of notable sites collapsed into the water, including the famous Wisbech Abbey, Holland Castle and the George and Dragon.

The following day the British government answered questions in parliament: all military measures for the protection of British coasts had been taken; the possibility of further and much more extensive attacks on British soil could not be excluded; that His Majesty’s Government was nonetheless unable to negotiate with an enemy which was unwilling even to spare civilians and women. (Agreement)  This was a time that would not merely determine the fate of England, but of the entire civilised world. The United Kingdom would be willing to enter into international agreements which would limit these terrible and barbaric attacks which threaten the future of mankind itself.

Some weeks later, the nations of the world met together in Vaduz.

The conference took place in Vaduz because in the height of the Alps there was no danger from the newts and because most of the world’s most powerful and socially important people had already fled there from coastal areas. It was generally agreed that the conference progressed quickly to reach solutions to all the worlds’ current problems. Every country (with the exceptions of Switzerland, Afghanistan, Bolivia and some other land-locked countries) agreed emphatically not to recognise the newts as an independent military power, mainly because they would then have to acknowledge their own newts as members of a salamander state; it was even possible that a salamander state of this sort would want to exercise its sovereignty over all the shores and waters occupied by newts. For this reason it was legally and practically impossible to declare war against the newts or put any other sort of international pressure on them; each state would have the right to take measures only against its own newts; it would be a purely internal matter. This meant that it was impossible to speak of any collective diplomatic or military campaign against the newts. Any state that came under attack from the salamanders could receive international aid only in the form of overseas loans for them to help defend themselves.

At this, England put forward the proposal that every state should at least bind itself to stop supplying the newts with weapons or explosives. After full consideration the proposal was turned down, mainly because those obligations were already contained in the London Convention; secondly because it would not be possible to prevent any state from providing its newts with equipment and weaponry to defend its own shores “according to its needs”; and thirdly, seafaring nations would “understandably wish to maintain good relations with residents of the sea”, so that it was deemed appropriate “not to be precipitate in taking any measure that the newts might feel to be repressive”; every state was nonetheless willing to promise to supply weaponry and explosives to any state under attack from the newts.

A suggestion put forward by the Colombian delegates in private session, that at least unofficial negotiations with the newts should take place, was accepted. Chief Salamander was to be invited to send his representatives to the conference. Great Britain protested loudly at this and refused outright to sit at the same table with the newts; but in the end the British delegation had to be content to depart, temporarily, to Engadin, for reasons of health. That night, all seafaring powers sent out an invitation to His Excellency Chief Salamander to name his representatives and send them to Vaduz. The answer was a rasping “Yes; this time we will come to meet you; next time we will expect your delegates to come into the water to meet me.” The official announcement followed: “The accredited newt representatives will arrive in two days time at Buchs station by the Orient Express.”

Every preparation for the arrival of the newts was made with all haste; the most luxurious bathrooms in the city were prepared for them and a special train was chartered to bring cisterns of sea water for the newt delegates to bathe in. The reception for them that evening at the railway station in Vaduz had been meant to be unofficial, but it was still attended by many of the delegates’ secretaries, representatives of government offices and around two hundred journalists, photographers and film makers. At exactly twenty-five minutes past six the Orient Express arrived at the station and came to a halt beside the red carpet. From the saloon car emerged three tall and elegant gentlemen with a number of sophisticated-looking secretaries carrying heavy briefcases. “Where are the newts, then?” somebody muttered. Two or three officials went forward uncertainly to meet the three gentlemen; but the first of the gentlemen had already begun, quickly and quietly, to say, “We are the newt delegation. I’m Professor van Dott from The Hague. Maître Rosso Castelli, avocat de Paris. Doctor Manoel Carvalho, avocado of Lisbon.” The officials bowed and introduced themselves.

“So you are not newts, then,” the French secretary said with a sigh.

“Of course we are not newts,” said Dr. Castelli. We are their lawyers. Excuse me, but I think these gentlemen might want to take some photographs.” And then the photographers and newsreel makers took a great many pictures of the smiling newt delegation. The secretaries of the legatees already present also showed their pleasure. It was, after all, only reasonable and proper that the newts should send human beings to represent them. Human beings were easier to deal with. And most of all, it would avoid certain social unpleasantnesses. The first discussions with the newts’ delegates took place that same night, addressing the question of how to renew peace with the United Kingdom as soon as possible. Professor van Dott asserted that there was no question that the newts had come under attack from Great Britain; the British gunboat, Erebus, had fired on the newts radio ship on the open sea; the British admiralty had broken peaceful trading with the newts by preventing the Amenhotep from unloading the cargo of explosives they had ordered; thirdly, the British government had instigated a blockade against the newts by its ban on their receiving any supplies of any sort. The newts were unable to make a complaint about these hostile acts either at The Hague, because the London Convention denied them the right to make any complaint, or in Geneva, because the newts were not a member of the United Nations; they were therefore left with no alternative but to defend themselves. Chief Salamander was nonetheless willing to end hostilities under, of course, the following conditions: 1. The United Kingdom was to apologise for the offences cited above; 2. All restrictions on supplies to the newts were to be lifted; 3. As compensation, the newts were to be ceded the lowland areas of the Punjab where they would create new bays and shorelines. The chairman of the conference stated that he would pass these conditions on to his honourable friend, the representative of the United Kingdom, who was currently unable to attend; however he made no secret of his fear that Britain would find these conditions difficult to accept; but we could all hope that they might be the starting point for further negotiations.

Next on the agenda was the complaint by France about the newts having caused explosions on the coast of Sengambia, thus interfering in a French colonial dependency. This was answered by the famous Parisian lawyer, Dr. Julien Rosso Castelli. “Prove it!” he said. Seismographs around the world indicate that the earthquake in Senegambia was of volcanic origin and was connected with volcanic activity in Mount Pico on the island of Fogo. “Here in this dossier,” he declared as he slapped his hand against it, “are all the scientific proofs you need. If, on the other hand, you have any proof that the earthquake in Senegambia was caused by any activity of my clients, then we await them with interest.”

BELGIAN DELEGATE, CREUX: Your Chief Salamander declared himself that it was done by the newts”

PROFESSOR VAN DOTT: His speech was not official.

M. ROSSO CASTELLI: We are authorised by our clients to deny the contents of that speech. I request that expert witnesses be heard on whether the technology is available to create a fissure in the Earths crust sixty-seven kilometres long. I suggest they should try the experiment of creating such a fissure. Unless, gentlemen, you have proof of the opposite, then we will be forced to talk of volcanic activity. Nevertheless, the bay created in Senegambia would be suitable for settlement by a population of newts and Chief Salamander is willing to purchase it from the government of France. We are authorised by our clients to negotiate a price.

FRENCH DELEGATE, MINISTER DEVAL: If this is understood to be an offer of compensation for the damage caused, then we are willing to discuss the matter.

M. ROSSO CASTELLI: Very well. Although the newt government does request that the contract of purchase cover also the territory of the Landes, extending from the mouth of the Gironde as far as Bayonne, an area covering six thousand seven hundred square kilometres. In other words, the newt government is willing to buy this piece of land in southern France.

MINISTER DEVAL (native of Bayonne, member of parliament for Bayonne): So that these salamanders of yours turn part of France into seabed? Never! Never!

DR. ROSSO CASTELLI: France will come to regret these words of yours, monsieur. Today we have still been talking of purchase.

At this, the session was brought to an end.

The subject of the next meeting was a substantial international offer made to the newts: to cause damage to established and densely populated was unacceptable, but they would be able to build new shores and islands for themselves; in which case they could be assured of substantial loans to cover the costs; the new lands and island would then be recognised as their independent and sovereign territory.

DR. MANOEL CARVALHO, renowned lawyer from Lisbon, offered his thanks for this proposal which he would convey to the newts; but any child could understand, he said, that building new land would take much longer and cost far more than demolishing old land.  Our clients are in need of new bays and shorelines as soon as possible; it is for them a matter of life and death. It would be better for mankind to accept Chief Salamander’s generous offer of buying the world from the human beings instead of taking it by force. Our clients have found a way of extracting the gold contained in seawater; so that they have almost unlimited means; they would be able to pay for your world very well, very well indeed. You would do well to bear in mind that, from their point of view, the price of the world will become lower with time, especially if - as might well be expected - any further volcanic or tectonic disasters take place which might well be far larger than anything we have been witness to so far, and these might well substantially reduce the size of the continents. Today you still have the opportunity to sell the world while it is still its present size; when there is nothing left above water but the ruins of a few mountains no-one will want to pay you a penny for it. I am here as representative and legal advisor for the newts, and it is my duty to defend their interests; but I am also a human being just like yourselves, gentlemen, and the well-being of mankind is just as close to my heart as it is to yours. This is why I advise you, indeed I implore you: Sell the continents before it is too late! You can sell them as a whole or sell them country by country. Everyone now is aware of Chief Salamander’s generosity and modernity; he gives his assurance that in the course of these unavoidable changes to be made to the surface of the Earth everything possible will be done to protect human life; the continents will be flooded in stages and in a way that will avoid any panic or unnecessary catastrophe. We have been authorised to negotiate either with the this illustrious world conference as a whole or with individual states. The presence of such outstanding lawyers such as Professor van Dott and Maître Julien Rosso Castelli is your assurance that we are concerned not only to defend the legitimate interests of our clients but will also co-operate closely with yourselves to protect those things that are dearest to us all; human culture and the good of all mankind.

The atmosphere of the conference had become somewhat tense when another proposal was put forward: that the salamander should be allowed to flood and occupy central China; in return for which the newts would bind themselves in perpetuity to stay away from the shores of Europe and its population.

DR. ROSSO CASTELLI: In perpetuity, that is rather a long time. Let us say for a period of twenty years.

PROFESSOR VAN DOTT: Central China is not a very large area. Let us say the provinces of Nganhuei, Honan, Kiangsu, Chi-li and Fung-tien.

The Japanese representative protested at the ceding of Fung-tien which lay in the Japanese sphere of interest. The Chinese delegate said something, but nobody, unfortunately, was able to understand him. There was an air of growing anxiety in the negotiating chamber; it was already one o’clock in the morning.

Just then the secretary to the Italian delegation came into the room and whispered something into the ear of the Italian representative, Count Tosti. The count turned pale, stood up, and although the Chinese delegate, Dr. Ti, was still speaking, he called out hoarsely: “Mister Chairman, may I say something. Reports have just come through that the newts have flooded part of the region of Venice near Portogruaro.”

There was a chill silence, broken only by the Chinese delegate who was still speaking.

“Chief Salamander did warn you of this long ago,” grumbled Dr. Carvalho.

Professor van Dott turned impatiently and raised his hand. “Mister Chairman, may we return to the subject at hand. We were discussing the province of Fung-tien. We have been authorised to offer the Japanese government compensation for it in the form of gold. The question following on from that is what our clients would receive from the states concerned for the task of evacuating China.”


At that moment, radio hams were listening to the newts broadcast. “You have just been listening to the barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann on gramophone records,” the announcer rasped. “Hello, hello, we are now transferring you to Venice.”

And then, all that could be heard was a black and fathomless soughing, like the sound of rising water.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52