Si partem tacuisse velim, quodeumque relinquam,
Majus erit. Veteres actus, primamque juventam
Prosequar? Ad sese mentem praesentia ducunt.
Narrem justitiam? Resplendet gloria Martis.
Armati referam vires? Plus egit inermis.
CLAUDIAN DE LAUD. STIL.
(Translations.) -- If I desire to pass over a part in silence, whatever I omit will seem the most worthy to have been recorded. Shall I pursue his old exploits and early youth? His recent merits recall the mind to themselves. Shall I dwelt on his justice? The glory of the warrior rises before me resplendent. Shall I relate his strength in arms? He performed yet greater things unarmed.
|There is something,| says Harrington, in the Preliminaries to the Oceana, |first in the making of a commonwealth, then in the governing of it, and last of all in the leading of its armies, which though there be great divines, great lawyers, great men in all ranks of life, seems to be peculiar only to the genius of a gentleman. For so it is in the universal series of history, that if any man has founded a commonwealth, he was first a gentleman.| Such also, he adds, as have got any fame as civil governors, have been gentlemen, or persons of known descents. Sir Alexander Ball was a gentleman by birth; a younger brother of an old and respectable family in Gloucestershire. He went into the navy at an early age from his own choice, and, as he himself told me, in consequence of the deep impression and vivid images left on his mind by the perusal of |Robinson Crusoe.| It is not my intention to detail the steps of his promotion, or the services in which he was engaged as a subaltern. I recollect many particulars indeed, but not the dates, with such distinctness as would enable me to state them (as it would be necessary to do if I stated them at all) in the order of time. These dates might perhaps have been procured from the metropolis; but incidents that are neither characteristic nor instructive, even such as would be expected with reason in a regular life, are no part of my plan; while those which are both interesting and illustrative I have been precluded from mentioning, some from motives which have been already explained, and others from still higher considerations. The most important of these may be deduced from a reflection with which he himself once concluded a long and affecting narration: namely, that no body of men can for any length of time be safely treated otherwise than as rational beings; and that, therefore, the education of the lower classes was of the utmost consequence to the permanent security of the empire, even for the sake of our navy. The dangers, apprehended from the education of the lower classes, arose (he said) entirely from its not being universal, and from the unusualness in the lowest classes of those accomplishments which he, like Dr. Bell, regarded as one of the means of education, and not as education itself. If, he observed, the lower classes in general possessed but one eye or one arm, the few who were so fortunate as to possess two would naturally become vain and restless, and consider themselves as entitled to a higher situation. He illustrated this by the faults attributed to learned women, and that the same objections were formerly made to educating women at all; namely, that their knowledge made them vain, affected, and neglectful of their proper duties. Now that all women of condition are well educated, we hear no more of these apprehensions, or observe any instances to justify them. Yet if a lady understood the Greek one-tenth part as well as the whole circle of her acquaintances understood the French language, it would not surprise us to find her less pleasing from the consciousness of her superiority in the possession of an unusual advantage. Sir Alexander Ball quoted the speech of an old admiral, one of whose two great wishes was to have a ship's crew composed altogether of serious Scotchmen. He spoke with great reprobation of the vulgar notion, the worse man the better sailor. Courage, he said, was the natural product of familiarity with danger, which thoughtlessness would oftentimes turn into fool-hardiness; and that he always found the most usefully brave sailors the gravest and most rational of his crew. The best sailor he had ever had, first attracted his notice by the anxiety which he expressed concerning the means of remitting some money, which he had received in the West Indies, to his sister in England; and this man, without any tinge of Methodism, was never heard to swear an oath, and was remarkable for the firmness with which he devoted a part of every Sunday to the reading of his Bible. I record this with satisfaction as a testimony of great weight, and in all respects unexceptionable; for Sir Alexander Ball's opinions throughout life remained unwarped by zealotry, and were those of a mind seeking after truth, in calmness and complete self-possession. He was much pleased with an unsuspicious testimony furnished by Dampier (vol. ii. part 2, page 89): |I have particularly observed,| writes this famous old navigator, |there and in other places, that such as had been well-bred were generally most careful to improve their time, and would be very industrious and frugal where there was any probability of considerable gain; but on the contrary, such as had been bred up in ignorance and hard labour, when they came to have plenty would extravagantly squander away their time and money in drinking and making a bluster.| Indeed it is a melancholy proof how strangely power warps the minds of ordinary men, that there can be a doubt on this subject among persons who have been themselves educated. It tempts a suspicion that, unknown to themselves, they find a comfort in the thought, that their inferiors are something less than men; or that they have an uneasy half-consciousness that, if this were not the case, they would themselves have no claim to be their superiors. For a sober education naturally inspires self- respect. But he who respects himself will respect others; and he who respects both himself and others, must of necessity be a brave man. The great importance of this subject, and the increasing interest which good men of all denominations feel in the bringing about of a national education, must be my excuse for having entered so minutely into Sir Alexander Ball's opinions on this head, in which, however, I am the more excusable, being now on that part of his life which I am obliged to leave almost a blank.
During his lieutenancy, and after he had perfected himself in the knowledge and duties of a practical sailor, he was compelled by the state of his health to remain in England for a considerable length of time. Of this he industriously availed himself to the acquirement of substantial knowledge from books; and during his whole life afterwards, he considered those as his happiest hours, which, without any neglect of official or professional duty, he could devote to reading. He preferred, indeed he almost confined himself to, history, political economy, voyages and travels, natural history, and latterly agricultural works; in short, to such books as contain specific facts or practical principles capable of specific application. His active life, and the particular objects of immediate utility, some one of which he had always in his view, precluded a taste for works of pure speculation and abstract science, though he highly honoured those who were eminent in these respects, and considered them as the benefactors of mankind, no less than those who afterwards discovered the mode of applying their principles, or who realised them in practice. Works of amusement, as novels, plays, etc., did not appear even to amuse him; and the only poetical composition of which I have ever heard him speak, was a manuscript poem written by one of my friends, which I read to his lady in his presence. To my surprise he afterwards spoke of this with warm interest; but it was evident to me that it was not so much the poetic merit of the composition that had interested him, as the truth and psychological insight with which it represented the practicability of reforming the most hardened minds, and the various accidents which may awaken the most brutalised person to a recognition of his nobler being. I will add one remark of his own knowledge acquired from books, which appears to me both just and valuable. The prejudice against such knowledge, he said, and the custom of opposing it to that which is learnt by practice, originated in those times when books were almost confined to theology, and to logical and metaphysical subtleties; but that at present there is scarcely any practical knowledge which is not to be found in books. The press is the means by which intelligent men now converse with each other, and persons of all classes and all pursuits convey each the contribution of his individual experience. It was, therefore, he said, as absurd to hold book-knowledge at present in contempt, as it would be for a man to avail himself only of his own eyes and ears, and to aim at nothing which could not be performed exclusively by his own arms. The use and necessity of personal experience consisted in the power of choosing and applying what had been read, and of discriminating by the light of analogy the practicable from the impracticable, and probability from mere plausibility. Without a judgment matured and steadied by actual experience, a man would read to little or perhaps to bad purpose; but yet that experience, which in exclusion of all other knowledge has been derived from one man's life, is in the present day scarcely worthy of the name -- at least for those who are to act in the higher and wider spheres of duty. An ignorant general, he said, inspired him with terror; for if he were too proud to take advice he would ruin himself by his own blunders, and if he -- were not, by adopting the worst that was offered. A great genius may indeed form an exception, but we do not lay down rules in expectation of wonders. A similar remark I remember to have heard from a gallant officer, who to eminence in professional science and the gallantry of a tried soldier, adds all the accomplishments of a sound scholar and the powers of a man of genius.
One incident, which happened at this period of Sir Alexander's life, is so illustrative of his character, and furnishes so strong a presumption, that the thoughtful humanity by which he was distinguished was not wholly the growth of his latter years, that, though it may appear to some trifling in itself, I will insert it in this place with the occasion on which it was communicated to me. In a large party at the Grand Master's palace, I had observed a naval officer of distinguished merit listening to Sir Alexander Ball, whenever he joined in the conversation, with so marked a pleasure that it seemed as if his very voice, independent of what he said, had been delightful to him; and once, as he fixed his eyes on Sir Alexander Ball, I could not but notice the mixed expressions of awe and affection, which gave a more than common interest to so manly a countenance. During his stay in the island, this officer honoured me not unfrequently with his visits; and at the conclusion of my last conversation with him, in which I had dwelt on the wisdom of the Governor's conduct in a recent and difficult emergency, he told me that he considered himself as indebted to the same excellent person for that which was dearer to him than his life. |Sir Alexander Ball,| said he, |has, I dare say, forgotten the circumstance; but when he was Lieutenant Ball, he was the officer whom I accompanied in my first boat expedition, being then a midshipman and only in my fourteenth year. As we were rowing up to the vessel which we were to attack, amid a discharge of musketry, I was overpowered by fear, my knees trembled under me, and I seemed on the point of fainting away. Lieutenant Ball, who saw the condition I was in, placed himself close beside me, and still keeping his countenance directed toward the enemy, took hold of my hand, and pressing it in the most friendly manner, said in a low voice, 'Courage, my dear boy! don't be afraid of yourself! you will recover in a minute or so. I was just the same when I first went out in this way.' Sir,| added the officer to me, |it was as if an angel had put a new soul into me. With the feeling that I was not yet dishonoured, the whole burden of agony was removed, and from that moment I was as fearless and forward as the oldest of the boat's crew, and on our return the lieutenant spoke highly of me to our captain. I am scarcely less convinced of my own being than that I should have been what I tremble to think of, if, instead of his humane encouragement, he had at that moment scoffed, threatened, or reviled me. And this was the more kind in him, because, as I afterwards understood, his own conduct in his first trial had evinced to all appearances the greatest fearlessness, and that he said this, therefore, only to give me heart and restore me to my own good opinion.|
This anecdote, I trust, will have some weight with those who may have lent an ear to any of those vague calumnies from which no naval commander can secure his good name, who knowing the paramount necessity of regularity and strict discipline in a ship of war, adopts an appropriate plan for the attainment of these objects, and remains constant and immutable in the execution. To an Athenian, who, in praising a public functionary, had said, that every one either applauded him or left him without censure, a philosopher replied, |How seldom then must he have done his duty!|
Of Sir Alexander Ball's character, as Captain Ball, of his measures as a disciplinarian, and of the wise and dignified principle on which he grounded those measures, I have already spoken in a former part of this work, and must content myself therefore with entreating the reader to re-peruse that passage as belonging to this place, and as a part of the present narration. Ah! little did I expect at the time I wrote that account, that the motives of delicacy, which then impelled me to withhold the name, would so soon be exchanged for the higher duty which now justifies me in adding it! At the thought of such events the language of a tender superstition is the voice of nature itself, and those facts alone presenting themselves to our memory which had left an impression on our hearts, we assent to, and adopt the poet's pathetic complaint:-
O sir! the good die first,
And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the socket.
Thus the humane plan described in the pages now referred to, that a system in pursuance of which the captain of a man-of-war uniformly regarded his sentences not as dependent on his own will, or to be affected by the state of his feelings at the moment, but as the pre- established determinations of known laws, and himself as the voice of the law in pronouncing the sentence, and its delegate in enforcing the execution, could not but furnish occasional food to the spirit of detraction, must be evident to every reflecting mind. It is indeed little less than impossible, that he, who in order to be effectively humane determines to be inflexibly just, and who is inexorable to his own feelings when they would interrupt the course of justice; who looks at each particular act by the light of all its consequences, and as the representative of ultimate good or evil; should not sometimes be charged with tyranny by weak minds. And it is too certain that the calumny will be willingly believed and eagerly propagated by all those who would shun the presence of an eye keen in the detection of imposture, incapacity, and misconduct, and of a resolution as steady in their exposure. We soon hate the man whose qualities we dread, and thus have a double interest, an interest of passion as well as of policy, in decrying and defaming him. But good men will rest satisfied with the promise made to them by the Divine Comforter, that by her children shall Wisdom be justified.