Henry Mayers Hyndman

The Record of an Adventurous Life

Chapter IX

Back from Levuka to New Zealand, on to Sydney and Melbourne again, where I saw and bade farewell to my friends, then back to Auckland, and from Auckland to Honolulu by the WongaWonga; from there to San Franciso by the Moses Taylor, the “rolling Moses,” one of the oldest and most rickety of the old beam steamers which then crossed the Pacific. The Central and Union Pacific Railways had not then long been completed, the former by Chinese labour, and it is strange to recall nowadays that I saw myself great herds of buffalo as we crossed the plains, and that Brigham Young was still lord of all he surveyed when I took a run down to Salt Lake City.

My companions from Auckland were, with two exceptions, very pleasant agreeable people. San Francisco, a charming city, had just recovered from a serious earthquake, and there were great gaps in the pavements. My fellow-traveller across America was Captain Lees, head of the San Francisco detective police. I have often wondered since whether his friendly attentions on the way over and in New York were wholly disinterested. Certainly, when I came to think the matter over I was scarcely ever out of his sight, and it is within the bounds of possibility that I had been pointed out to this famous officer as a dangerous criminal by a fellow-passenger named Neilson to whom I had taken a great dislike. However that may be, Captain Lees’s presence gave me the opportunity of seeing the seamy side of New York as few honest men, I think, have ever seen it. Since then I have never been in the least surprised at tales of murder or disappearance in that city.

Some of the most dangerous dens I went into with him were located in fairly well-situated respectable-looking houses; while on the first-floor of one of the finest buildings then in Broadway I made the acquaintance of what Lees told me was the strongest firm of “fences” in the east of the United States. It was scarcely complimentary to me, I thought, that Lees and the members of the firm talked quite familiarly in my presence of the whereabouts of this or that notorious burglar or manslayer, either “doing time” or qualifying for that monotonous occupation; but the extraordinary “lay outs” they showed me to facilitate cheating at faro and other gambling games, interested me so much that I forgot all about the strange company I was in. The marvellous mechanical ingenuity displayed in devising and constructing these implements for getting the better of the unsuspecting punter amazed me, and enabled me afterwards to understand certain remarkable runs in favour of the bank I witnessed out West. I likewise feasted my eyes upon some of the very finest jewellery it has ever been my lot to see. Magnificent stones, splendidly set, which I presume had been “conveyed” with sufficient dexterity to their temporary owners to relieve them from the necessity for great caution in showing them. At any rate, Captain Lees took it all as a matter of course, and I did my best to maintain similar coolness of demeanour; though I will admit I felt more comfortable when I was again tramping the sidewalk amid less adventurous folk.

But if anybody invites you to investigate the hells with two entrances, which I believe are still to be found in the Empire City, even when accompanied by a capable officer armed to the teeth – and Captain Lees was armed to the teeth and was regarded as a dare-devil even on the Pacific Slope – let me recommend you not to go. It may not have been such a narrow squeak for us both as I thought it was at the time; but when in New York I have never passed University Place, from that day to this, without feeling that I might have omitted to notice a hole through me, and Lees himself admitted that such a visit as ours that night “held some risk.” And yet nobody would have thought of danger at first. Why my first visit to New York should have taken me into such very queer regions and such still queerer company, male and female, is a question which Lees might perhaps have answered correctly. I certainly cannot.

But all through my life, without having any predilection for getting into peril, or boasting of any high personal courage, I have drifted into very ugly scrapes and dilemmas indeed, from which I have emerged unscathed, far more by good luck than good management. So I was a little surprised when, a few years later, a well-known Oxford man, whose close acquaintance I first made on Levuka beach, asked me, we being both members of the New University Club, to go with him in a yacht he was having built in New Zealand on a trip to the New Hebrides, the Solomon Islands, and the then almost unknown groups of the Sooloo Sea. I had, however, then plunged in earnest into journalism and politics and was deep in my studies of India. I therefore declined. He was, nevertheless, kind enough to press me again more than once to accompany him, pointing out the charm of the adventure. Annoyed at being unable to accept I said at last, “There are at least a score of men around us here in the Club whom you know even better than you know me, who have nothing to do and would jump at the chance of going with you.” “Yes,” he replied, “I know them very well indeed here in Pall Mall and Piccadilly, but I don’t know them out in the South Seas.” And there is, I suppose, a difference.

I crossed from New York in the Guion liner Manhattan, of about 1800 tons. That sounds to-day as if I had remarked casually that I visited Rhode Island in an Icelander’s boat. The change from the Manhattan to the Mauretania is almost as great as the contrast between a Viking craft and the Manhattan. And so I found myself in London, after just two years’ absence, on February 18, 1871.

The great Franco-German War, which so completely transformed the European situation, had taken place in the meantime, and now, with the German army still cantoned around Paris, we were on the eve of the Commune. Those were stirring times. That Great Britain ought to have taken the lead in calling a halt after the collapse of the Empire at Sedan would, I take it, be disputed by few at the present time. But the sympathies of our German Court with the German conquerors and the incredible cowardice of the pusillanimous Ministry then in power, rendered scarcely necessary the braggadocio threats which Prince Bismarck tumbled out upon Lord Granville. It was decreed that we should play our silly part in constituting the piratical Hohenzollerns the future dictators of Europe, and the full effects of this imbecile policy are only being fully felt now, forty years afterwards, though foreseen and predicted by many of us at the time.

But the short and frightful tragedy of the Commune of Paris swept away for a few months the memories of the recent war, and even the records of the siege of the French Metropolis, with all the terrible suffering from famine and privation which accompanied that memorable investment and occupation. To myself as an Englishman who had known Paris since 1858, who had watched the marvellous transformation of that great city by Napoleon III. and Baron Haussmann, who had sympathised with the protests of the noble Frenchmen led by Victor Hugo against the Imperial regime, and had read with delight Les Propos de Labienus, the trenchant sarcasms of Rochefort and the delightful irony of that master of veiled satire, the unfortunate Prevost-Paradol, there was to me something of almost personal sorrow at the disasters which befell the combined Athens and Corinth of modern Europe.

Few cities in history have a personality of their own. Babylon, Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Carthage, Rome and Florence exhaust the list in the past, and Paris alone takes up the tale for our times. That indescribable quality which we speak of as “charm” ever surrounds and beautifies her. She is the capital of the world of art and intellect as well as of fashion and pleasure. The joy of life to those who really live can be felt nowhere on earth so keenly as there. Nowhere are men of ability and genius so easily accessible, nowhere is the influence of brilliant women so readily admitted, or so highly esteemed. Even in these days of the omnipotence of mere wealth Paris still possesses men of genius who gratuitously give their services to students in art and science, and it is not essential that such people should be rich in order that they should be deeply respected. The very defects of this great city make her a portion of the daily world-interest of mankind. But that which entitles her to the highest regard is that, notwithstanding their apparent lightness of manners and indifference to outside opinion, the inhabitants of Paris have ever been in the front rank when efforts have been made for the uplifting of the human race and the development of the human intelligence.

And that is why the rising of the people, on behalf of their Commune and the freedom of their city, after the great siege, stirred up such a wave of sympathy on the part of all democrats and such deep hatred on the part of all reactionists throughout the civilised world. The revolt itself was hopeless from the first. Even if better organisation and a bolder strategy had routed the Versailles troops, as might perhaps have been done, the German army still held its ground, and time would have enabled the forces of reaction to rally again to the assault. Nor is it too much to say that the failure and the butchery which followed threw back the movement of the proletariat of Paris fully twenty years. Leaders of the type of Delescluze and others who fell in the strife, or were slaughtered by Gallifet and his kindred ruffians in cold blood, are not very plentiful even in France. But when every account is taken of the blunders and mismanagement of the Commune the fact remains that this assertion by the workers of Paris of their right to control the administration of their own city, and their declaration of the solidarity of the workers of the world, marks a stage in the history of the advance of the “Fourth Estate” in its struggle for emancipation; and the martyrs of the Commune have since been revered as martyrs in the cause of human freedom by Socialists all over the world. This, of course, was by no means the view taken of them at the time by the governing classes of Europe. In England the feeling against Communards was particularly bitter. Our leaders of opinion made out even the pulling down of the Vendôme Column glorifying Napoleon’s victories by the great artist Courbet, to be a crime against civilisation. Our own capitalist press of that date in particular covered itself with infamy, rejoicing in the wholesale massacre of men, women and children without trial against the wall at Père La Chaise and on the plain of Satory.

Though not then a Socialist my sympathies were on the side of the men and women of Paris, who were hopelessly fighting for what they believed to be right. Yachting with my old friend Henry Spicer in his cutter the Dione we went together at Ryde to dine with a Mr. Bishop, the owner of a very fine schooner of that day. This was when the Commune was in full swing and I presume I championed the cause of the Parisian people rather vigorously, because I heard afterwards that Mr. Bishop complained that “Spicer actually brought a red-hot Communist to dine with me.” The Positivists, however, could scarcely be accused of coming within the category of “red-hot Communists.” Far from it. As I have often said of them, “their theories are all wrong but their actions are all right.” This was no exception to the rule. As in the case of their admirable defence of Trade Unionism and Trade Unionists against the furious attacks of the majority of Englishmen of their own class in 1866, when the Broadhead outrage at Sheffield had set public opinion in bitter antagonism to working class combinations of every kind; so in this instance of the Communards of Paris the whole of the followers of Comte took the unpopular side and Mr. Frederic Harrison voiced the opinions of Messrs. Beesly, Bridges, Coventry, Crompton and other Positivists, who made themselves heard elsewhere, in his memorable article in The Fortnightly Review, then edited by the present Viscount Morley of Blackburn.

This pronouncement by Mr, Frederic Harrison ran directly counter to the prevailing views of the well-to-do in this country. Not only so, but the Positivist leaders busied themselves in procuring employment for the Communist refugees. Later, I knew some of these Communists more or less intimately and it seems strange nowadays that such men as Clemenceau, Longuet, Camelinat, Jourde, Beslay, Rochefort, Felix Pyat and Cluseret, to speak only of the educated leaders, should have been put down as bloodthirsty desperadoes eager to massacre their fellow-citizens and to destroy the great monuments of their metropolis. But towards the end of the two months of resistance by the Communards to the invasion of M. Thiers and his army of reaction a positive blood-lust had seized upon the possessing classes here and elsewhere. Nothing was too bad for the supporters of the Commune. And had the hideous “torture of the boat,” so graphically described by Plutarch, been suggested as a punishment for the principal Communists it is my firm belief the proposal would have been greeted with acclamation by some of the leading lights of English Society. Certain it is that the most atrocious slaughterings in cold blood and without trial ever known in Western. Europe were regarded as quite a legitimate and even laudable vengeance for the attempt of the workers of Paris to control the destinies of their own city.

It so happened, however, that my old friend E.B. Michell, the famous amateur sculler and athlete and my brother Hugh, both of them members of Magdalen College, Oxford, and thorough-going Conservatives, were in Paris during the Commune period, having succeeded, in company with Frederick Myers of Trinity, Cambridge, the author of St. Paul, etc., in getting into the city, just after the armistice and temporary German occupation. Michell also, I may say, was at the time a French avocat as well as an English barrister and thoroughly understood what was being said and done around him. They both came and dined with me the very day they got back from Paris, and hungry enough I remember they both were, in spite of previous efforts to make up for lost meals. Their personal experiences were alike interesting and exciting; but though they had not been very well treated by the Communist authorities they agreed that never in their time, and they both knew Paris well, had that city been so admirably managed in every way as under the rule of the Commune. All the most objectionable features of Paris life had been greatly mitigated or entirely suppressed, the streets were kept in perfect order, the police regulations were excellent without being oppressive, and the various public departments were well managed.

Michell published his view of the matter at the time in an article in Fraser’s Magazine, then a monthly periodical of high standing, and it remains a cool, unprejudiced statement of a highly-educated English barrister, quite devoid of revolutionary ideas, of what he actually saw under his eyes. Some of the important reforms introduced by the Communards were of such manifest public utility that they have been maintained to this day. And the administrators themselves, with all the resources of Paris at their command, lived on a few francs a day. In fact, they did not recognise that they were committed to a revolutionary policy at all, and endeavoured to keep within the lines of commonplace bourgeois ethic even in the midst of revolution. Thus with £60,000,000 of gold in the Bank of France, which nobody could have prevented them from using, a sufficient sum to have ensured them at any rate temporary success, the heads of the Commune actually went and borrowed £40,000 from the Rothschilds for public purposes. Revolutions are not made with rose-water in that way. Scrupulousness in leaders is at such times criminal.

The Commune failed as it was bound to fail. The Hotel de Ville, the Tuileries and other public buildings were burnt down, whole streets were wrecked in the fighting, and Paris was given over to the reactionary troops for days upon days. So general was the opinion that the metropolis of France had sustained an irremediable shock that I remember being one night at a music hall in London and overhearing two Parisians discussing the situation. They both agreed that the condition of their city was most deplorable, and that the destruction wrought by desperate people within and infuriated reactionaries from without would take years to repair. One of the two was much more pessimist than the other. He was the owner of a fine flat in the Champs Elysées worth at least £1000 a year. “I would gladly let it for a term of years for 5000 francs a year.” “Would you really?” said his friend. “Certainly, but I don’t know any one who would be foolish enough to take it.” “I am the foolish person you want. I will agree to take it now and run my chance.” They actually went off together to the lounge, whither I followed them, drew up an agreement and signed it there and then.

As all the world knows, within three years, France and Paris had so completely recovered from the German conquest, that Prince Bismarck would have attacked her again but for the menacing attitude of Russia. A few years later still and the despised refugees of the Commune were among the leaders of the Republic. A few years more and the ideas for which the men and women of the Commune fought and fell were being championed by an organised party in the French Assembly. No wonder the personality of Paris attracts the admiration and love of all advanced men and women throughout the civilised world. May her future be as glorious as her past!

From 1871 onwards I was again active in political journalism, with perhaps a little more of personal adventure than is usually associated with that sort of work. This was due to the fact that most of my writing was done for my old friend Frederick Greenwood, the best and most generous of editors, and that, happily for me, I was not at all dependent on my pen for my livelihood. It is strange in these days of trustified journalism to look back to the time when editors controlled the newspapers they edited, and Delane of the Times and Walker of the Daily News and Greenwood of the Pall Mall Gazette exerted a direct and recognised personal influence. The latter collected around him on the staff of the Pall Mall Gazette a remarkable set of men, who wrote, in the main, because they had, or believed they had, something to say which they were anxious the public should hear. Sir James Stephen, Sir Henry Maine, Leslie Stephen, George Henry Lewes, Maurice and Francis Drummond, H.D. Traill, D. Lathbury, with Huxley, John Morley and Coventry Patmore contributing scientific and literary articles and reviews, were all writing for the paper at the same time. Goldwin Smith called it “an atheistical Tory organ “; but in truth it was much more a literary sceptical organ than either, and allowed, also, as free expression to out-and-out democratic opinions, if ably expressed, as any journal in the country.

Greenwood himself was quite an admirable editor, and until he permitted his strong feeling against Mr. Gladstone to warp his judgment, a mistake from which I should have thought his admirable sense of humour would have saved him, he was thoroughly impartial in his views. But when once he became an active political journalist, Greenwood took the imperial duties of England very seriously indeed, and there was something in what Karl Marx called “the oleaginous hypocrisy” of the great Liberal leader which upset my old friend’s equanimity altogether, and caused him to attribute to Mr. Gladstone all sorts of unscrupulous devices, which were, in truth, no more than evidence of what Thomas Carlyle called “Mr. Gladstone’s extraordinary faculty of convincing himself that he conscientiously believes whatsoever tends to his political advantage” – a most convenient quality of mind for a party orator, but one exasperating to the last degree to a writer like Greenwood. But keen, incisive, humorous and original as Greenwood was as a publicist, and quite exceptionally sympathetic as his touch was as an editor – I never knew a contributor complain of Greenwood’s editing – he attached far more importance to his suggestion of the purchase of the Suez Canal Shares than to the high position he achieved as a journalist and man of letters, who not only was independent himself but was the cause of independence in others. In this, in my opinion, he was wrong. No doubt it was an extraordinary thing for a private individual to bring about a State transaction which resulted in a market enhancement in the value of the shares, bought at his instance, of close upon £20,000,000 in his own lifetime. But the other work he did was in a higher sphere, and it is strange he did not recognise this.

I saw the whole of that Suez Canal business very close indeed, and I remember it all as if it were yesterday. The Khedive Ismail was very anxious to sell these shares, and was pressing them for sale in Paris. Greenwood heard of this, and the idea occurred to him that the best possible buyer would be the British Government. I happened to be at the Pall Mall Gazette office when he had made up his mind to deal seriously with the matter. He asked me in an off-hand way what I thought of it. I said it seemed to me a splendid notion. Greenwood then called in Traill from another room. On being told what the suggestion was, he, too, was quite as confident of the merit of the scheme as I was. Then and there Greenwood went off in a cab to Lord Derby’s, and the upshot of his visit is well known. What is not so well known, and Greenwood never referred to it afterwards, is that Lord Beaconsfield, according to him, was, or pretended to be, at first unfavourable to the project. Another point is that he made not a shilling by the business himself in the way of purchasing shares on the market; neither did the two men to whom he originally mentioned the matter. For sheer folly this piece of quixotry, under the conditions of our time, in my opinion, beats the record. Greenwood, who conceived the plan, died a poor man, Traill was certainly not rich, and the writer of these memories is perennially short of cash. More fools we.

I was, for some years, in the habit of contributing to the Pall Mall, in addition to anonymous articles and criticism letters signed “H.” These letters more than once brought me into public controversies outside the paper, when I was invariably sure of Greenwood’s support. One of these was in regard to the famous traveller and newspaper correspondent, H.M. Stanley. I met Stanley on his return from the Ashanti Campaign in company with George Henty, Melton Prior, and others who had been out with that expedition. Although he was pleasant enough to me, his personality did not make at all a favourable impression upon me, and he certainly was of quite a different calibre from such men as Sir Richard Burton, Captain Grant, and others, his contemporaries, whom likewise I knew. When in 1873 he wrote an elaborate description to the Daily Telegraph of how he, with, as it seemed to me, no sufficient justification whatever, shot down numbers of African natives at Bambireh just to “mak’ sicker,” as the Scotch might say, I attacked him, being at the time a member of the Royal Geographical Society myself.

I did this not only because Stanley’s methods were brutal and cruel in themselves, but because such behaviour was quite certain to put in jeopardy the lives of any white men who followed him on the same route. I myself had seen something of that sort of thing in Polynesia. Stanley’s friends, of course, objected to my criticisms, and defended him as well as they could. But I think I got the better of the argument. At any rate I proposed a vote of censure upon him at the Royal Geographical Society. I had at that time, and for several years afterwards, no experience in public speaking. So when I rose to move my resolution of censure I was unable to make head against the organised opposition which I met with all round me. Stanley was famous: I was comparatively unknown. I had, therefore, a good opportunity of judging of the sort of conduct my class considers fair and decent when any one takes up a case on behalf of mere “niggers,” who don’t count, especially when the guilty person happens to be more or less of a popular hero. I was howled down, and the Royal Geographers present thought that was the end of it. Not so, however. Colonel Yule, a member of the Council of the Society, was of opinion I ought to have been heard, and took up the case himself. He and I wrote and published a joint pamphlet, the matter was reopened, and Stanley’s methods, as explained by himself, were held to need still further explanation when he came home. That was all the satisfaction we could get. But I still believe my action at that time, and then Colonel Yule’s chivalrous behaviour, for feeling ran very high even against the respected editor of Marco Polo’s works, did something to check filibustering journalistic missioners in their ruthless destruction of natives of the countries they explore.

Last updated on 30.7.2006