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Confessions Of An Inquiring Spirit Etc by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

ESSAY V. Whose powers shed round him in the common strifeà

Whose powers shed round him in the common strife,
Or mild concerns of ordinary life,
A constant influence, a peculiar grace;
But who, if he be call'd upon to face
Same awful moment, to which Heaven has join'd
Great issues, good or bad for human kind,
Is happy as a lover, is attired
With sudden brightness like a man inspired;
And through the heat of conflict keeps the law
In calmness made, and sees what he foresaw.

An accessibility to the sentiments of others on subjects of importance often accompanies feeble minds, yet it is not the less a true and constituent part of practical greatness, when it exists wholly free from that passiveness to impression which renders counsel itself injurious to certain characters, and from that weakness of heart which, in the literal sense of the word, is always craving advice. Exempt from all such imperfections, say rather in perfect harmony with the excellences that preclude them, this openness to the influxes of good sense and information, from whatever quarter they might come, equally characterised both Lord Nelson and Sir Alexander Ball, though each displayed it in the way best suited to his natural temper. The former with easy hand collected, as it passed by him, whatever could add to his own stores, appropriated what he could assimilate, and levied subsidies of knowledge from all the accidents of social life and familiar intercourse. Even at the jovial board, and in the height of unrestrained merriment, a casual suggestion, that flashed a new light on his mind, changed the boon companion into the hero and the man of genius; and with the most graceful transition he would make his company as serious as himself. When the taper of his genius seemed extinguished, it was still surrounded by an inflammable atmosphere of its own, and rekindled at the first approach of light, and not seldom at a distance which made it seem to flame up self-revived. In Sir Alexander Ball, the same excellence was more an affair of system; and he would listen, even to weak men, with a patience, which, in so careful an economist of time, always demanded my admiration, and not seldom excited my wonder. It was one of his maxims, that a man may suggest what he cannot give; adding, that a wild or silly plan had more than once, from the vivid sense or distinct perception of its folly, occasioned him to see what ought to be done in a new light, or with a clearer insight. There is, indeed, a hopeless sterility, a mere negation of sense and thought, which, suggesting neither difference nor contrast, cannot even furnish hints for recollection. But on the other hand, there are minds so whimsically constituted, that they may sometimes be profitably interpreted by contraries, a process of which the great Tycho Brahe is said to have availed himself in the case of the little Lackwit, who used to sit and mutter at his feet while he was studying. A mind of this sort we may compare to a magnetic needle, the poles of which have been suddenly reversed by a flash of lightning, or other more obscure accident of nature. It may be safely concluded, that to those whose judgment or information he respected, Sir Alexander Ball did not content himself with giving access and attention. No! he seldom failed of consulting them whenever the subject permitted any disclosure; and where secrecy was necessary, he well knew how to acquire their opinion without exciting even a conjecture concerning his immediate object.

Yet, with all this readiness of attention, and with all this zeal in collecting the sentiments of the well informed, never was a man more completely uninfluenced by authority than Sir Alexander Ball, never one who sought less to tranquillise his own doubts by the mere suffrage and coincidence of others. The ablest suggestions had no conclusive weight with him, till he had abstracted the opinion from its author, till he had reduced it into a part of his own mind. The thoughts of others were always acceptable, as affording him at least a chance of adding to his materials for reflection; but they never directed his judgment, much less superseded it. He even made a point of guarding against additional confidence in the suggestions of his own mind, from finding that a person of talents had formed the same conviction; unless the person, at the same time, furnished some new argument, or had arrived at the same conclusion by a different road. On the latter circumstance he set an especial value, and, I may almost say, courted the company and conversation of those whose pursuits had least resembled his own, if he thought them men of clear and comprehensive faculties. During the period of our intimacy, scarcely a week passed in which he did not desire me to think on some particular subject, and to give him the result in writing. Most frequently, by the time I had fulfilled his request he would have written down his own thoughts; and then, with the true simplicity of a great mind, as free from ostentation as it was above jealousy, he would collate the two papers in my presence, and never expressed more pleasure than in the few instances in which I had happened to light on all the arguments and points of view which had occurred to himself, with some additional reasons which had escaped him. A single new argument delighted him more than the most perfect coincidence, unless, as before stated, the train of thought had been very different from his own, and yet just and logical. He had one quality of mind, which I have heard attributed to the late Mr. Fox, that of deriving a keen pleasure from clear and powerful reasoning for its own sake -- a quality in the intellect which is nearly connected with veracity and a love of justice in the moral character.

Valuing in others merits which he himself possessed, Sir Alexander Ball felt no jealous apprehension of great talent. Unlike those vulgar functionaries, whose place is too big for them, a truth which they attempt to disguise from themselves, and yet feel, he was under no necessity of arming himself against the natural superiority of genius by factitious contempt and an industrious association of extravagance and impracticability, with every deviation from the ordinary routine; as the geographers in the middle ages used to designate on their meagre maps the greater part of the world as deserts or wildernesses, inhabited by griffins and chimaeras. Competent to weigh each system or project by its own arguments, he did not need these preventive charms and cautionary amulets against delusion. He endeavoured to make talent instrumental to his purposes in whatever shape it appeared, and with whatever imperfections it might be accompanied; but wherever talent was blended with moral worth, he sought it out, loved and cherished it. If it had pleased Providence to preserve his life, and to place him on the same course on which Nelson ran his race of glory, there are two points in which Sir Alexander Ball would most closely have resembled his illustrious friend. The first is, that in his enterprises and engagements he would have thought nothing done, till all had been done that was possible:-

Nil actum reputans, si quid superesset agendum.

The second, that he would have called forth all the talent and virtue that existed within his sphere of influence, and created a band of heroes, a gradation of officers, strong in head and strong in heart, worthy to have been his companions and his successors in fame and public usefulness.

Never was greater discernment shown in the selection of a fit agent, than when Sir Alexander Ball was stationed off the coast of Malta to intercept the supplies destined for the French garrison, and to watch the movements of the French commanders, and those of the inhabitants who had been so basely betrayed into their power. Encouraged by the well-timed promises of the English captain, the Maltese rose through all their casals (or country towns) and themselves commenced the work of their emancipation, by storming the citadel at Civita Vecchia, the ancient metropolis of Malta, and the central height of the island. Without discipline, without a military leader, and almost without arms, these brave peasants succeeded, and destroyed the French garrison by throwing them over the battlements into the trench of the citadel. In the course of this blockade, and of the tedious siege of Valetta, Sir Alexander Ball displayed all that strength of character, that variety and versatility of talent, and that sagacity, derived in part from habitual circumspection, but which, when the occasion demanded it, appeared intuitive and like an instinct; at the union of which, in the same man, one of our oldest naval commanders once told me, |he could never exhaust his wonder.| The citizens of Valetta were fond of relating their astonishment, and that of the French, at Captain Ball's ship wintering at anchor out of the reach of the guns, in a depth of fathom unexampled, on the assured impracticability of which the garrison had rested their main hope of regular supplies. Nor can I forget, or remember without some portion of my original feeling, the solemn enthusiasm with which a venerable old man, belonging to one of the distant casals, showed me the sea coombe, where their father Ball (for so they commonly called him) first landed, and afterwards pointed out the very place on which he first stepped on their island; while the countenances of his townsmen, who accompanied him, gave lively proofs that the old man's enthusiasm was the representative of the common feeling.

There is no reason to suppose that Sir Alexander Ball was at any time chargeable with that weakness so frequent in Englishmen, and so injurious to our interests abroad, of despising the inhabitants of other countries, of losing all their good qualities in their vices, of making no allowance for those vices, from their religious or political impediments, and still more of mistaking for vices a mere difference of manners and customs. But if ever he had any of this erroneous feeling, he completely freed himself from it by living among the Maltese during their arduous trials, as long as the French continued masters of their capital. He witnessed their virtues, and learnt to understand in what various shapes and even disguises the valuable parts of human nature may exist. In many individuals, whose littleness and meanness in the common intercourse of life would have stamped them at once as contemptible and worthless, with ordinary Englishmen, he had found such virtues of disinterested patriotism, fortitude, and self-denial, as would have done honour to an ancient Roman.

There exists in England a gentlemanly character, a gentlemanly feeling, very different even from that which is the most like it, the character of a well-born Spaniard, and unexampled in the rest of Europe. This feeling probably originated in the fortunate circumstance, that the titles of our English nobility follow the law of their property, and are inherited by the eldest sons only. From this source under the influences of our constitution, and of our astonishing trade, it has diffused itself in different modifications through the whole country. The uniformity of our dress among all classes above that of the day labourer, while it has authorised all classes to assume the appearance of gentlemen, has at the same time inspired the wish to conform their manners, and still more their ordinary actions in social intercourse, to their notions of the gentlemanly, the most commonly received attribute of which character is a certain generosity in trifles. On the other hand, the encroachments of the lower classes on the higher, occasioned, and favoured by this resemblance in exteriors, by this absence of any cognisable marks of distinction, have rendered each class more reserved and jealous in their general communion, and far more than our climate, or natural temper, have caused that haughtiness and reserve in our outward demeanour, which is so generally complained of among foreigners. Far be it from me to depreciate the value of this gentlemanly feeling: I respect it under all its forms and varieties, from the House of Commons to the gentleman in the shilling gallery. It is always the ornament of virtue, and oftentimes a support; but it is a wretched substitute for it. Its worth, as a moral good, is by no means in proportion to its value, as a social advantage. These observations are not irrelevant; for to the want of reflection, that this diffusion of gentlemanly feeling among us is not the growth of our moral excellence, but the effect of various accidental advantages peculiar to England; to our not considering that it is unreasonable and uncharitable to expect the same consequences, where the same causes have not existed to produce them; and, lastly, to our proneness to regard the absence of this character (which, as I have before said, does, for the greater part, and, in the common apprehension, consist in a certain frankness and generosity in the detail of action) as decisive against the sum total of personal or national worth; we must, I am convinced, attribute a large portion of that conduct, which in many instances has left the inhabitants of countries conquered or appropriated by Great Britain, doubtful whether the various solid advantages which they derived from our protection and just government, were not bought dearly by the wounds inflicted on their feelings and prejudices by the contemptuous and insolent demeanour of the English as individuals. The reader who bears this remark in mind, will meet, in the course of this narration, more than one passage that will serve as its comment and illustration.

It was, I know, a general opinion among the English in the Mediterranean, that Sir Alexander Ball thought too well of the Maltese, and did not share in the enthusiasm of Britons concerning their own superiority. To the former part of the charge I shall only reply at present, that a more venial, and almost desirable fault, can scarcely be attributed to a governor, than that of a strong attachment to the people whom he was sent to govern. The latter part of the charge is false, if we are to understand by it, that he did not think his countrymen superior on the whole to the other nations of Europe; but it is true, as far as relates to his belief, that the English thought themselves still better than they are; that they dwelt on and exaggerated their national virtues, and weighed them by the opposite vices of foreigners, instead of the virtues which those foreigners possessed and they themselves wanted. Above all, as statesmen, we must consider qualities by their practical uses. Thus, he entertained no doubt that the English were superior to all others in the kind and the degree of their courage, which is marked by far greater enthusiasm than the courage of the Germans and northern nations, and by a far greater steadiness and self-subsistency than that of the French. It is more closely connected with the character of the individual. The courage of an English army (he used to say) is the sum total of the courage which the individual soldiers bring with them to it, rather than of that which they derive from it. This remark of Sir Alexander's was forcibly recalled to my mind when I was at Naples. A Russian and an English regiment were drawn up together in the same square: |See,| said a Neapolitan to me, who had mistaken me for one of his countrymen, |there is but one face in that whole regiment, while in that| (pointing to the English) |every soldier has a face of his own.| On the other hand, there are qualities scarcely less requisite to the completion of the military character, in which Sir A. did not hesitate to think the English inferior to the continental nations; as for instance, both in the power and the disposition to endure privations; in the friendly temper necessary, when troops of different nations are to act in concert; in their obedience to the regulations of their commanding officers, respecting their treatment of the inhabitants of the countries through which they are marching, as well as in many other points, not immediately connected with their conduct in the field: and, above all, in sobriety and temperance. During the siege of Valetta, especially during the sore distress to which the besiegers were for some time exposed from the failure of provision, Sir Alexander Ball had an ample opportunity of observing and weighing the separate merits and demerits of the native and of the English troops; and surely since the publication of Sir John Moore's campaign, there can be no just offence taken, though I should say, that before the walls of Valetta, as well as in the plains of Galicia, an indignant commander might, with too great propriety, have addressed the English soldiery in the words of an old dramatist -

Will you still owe your virtues to your bellies?
And only then think nobly when y'are full?
Doth fodder keep you honest? Are you bad
When out of flesh? And think you't an excuse
Of vile and ignominious actions, that
Y' are lean and out of liking?
CARTWRIGHT'S Love's Convert.

From the first insurrectionary movement to the final departure of the French from the island, though the civil and military powers and the whole of the island, save Valetta, were in the hands of the peasantry, not a single act of excess can be charged against the Maltese, if we except the razing of one house at Civita Vecchia belonging to a notorious and abandoned traitor, the creature and hireling of the French. In no instance did they injure, insult, or plunder, any one of the native nobility, or employ even the appearance of force toward them, except in the collection of the lead and iron from their houses and gardens, in order to supply themselves with bullets; and this very appearance was assumed from the generous wish to shelter the nobles from the resentment of the French, should the patriotic efforts of the peasantry prove unsuccessful. At the dire command of famine the Maltese troops did indeed once force their way to the ovens in which the bread for the British soldiery was baked, and were clamorous that an equal division should be made. I mention this unpleasant circumstance, because it brought into proof the firmness of Sir Alexander Ball's character, his presence of mind, and generous disregard of danger and personal responsibility, where the slavery or emancipation, the misery or the happiness, of an innocent and patriotic people were involved; and because his conduct in this exigency evinced that his general habits of circumspection and deliberation were the results of wisdom and complete self- possession, and not the easy virtues of a spirit constitutionally timorous and hesitating. He was sitting at table with the principal British officers, when a certain general addressed him in strong and violent terms concerning this outrage of the Maltese, reminding him of the necessity of exerting his commanding influence in the present case, or the consequences must be taken. |What,| replied Sir Alexander Ball, |would you have us do? Would you have us threaten death to men dying with famine? Can you suppose that the hazard of being shot will weigh with whole regiments acting under a common necessity? Does not the extremity of hunger take away all difference between men and animals? and is it not as absurd to appeal to the prudence of a body of men starving, as to a herd of famished wolves? No, general, I will not degrade myself or outrage humanity by menacing famine with massacre! More effectual means must be taken.| With these words he rose and left the room, and having first consulted with Sir Thomas Troubridge, he determined at his own risk on a step, which the extreme necessity warranted, and which the conduct of the Neapolitan court amply justified. For this court, though terror-stricken by the French, was still actuated by hatred to the English, and a jealousy of their power in the Mediterranean; and in this so strange and senseless a manner, that we must join the extremes of imbecility and treachery in the same cabinet, in order to find it comprehensible. Though the very existence of Naples and Sicily, as a nation, depended wholly and exclusively on British support; though the royal family owed their personal safety to the British fleet; though not only their dominions and their rank, but the liberty and even the lives of Ferdinand and his family, were interwoven with our success; yet with an infatuation scarcely credible, the most affecting representations of the distress of the besiegers, and of the utter insecurity of Sicily if the French remained possessors of Malta, were treated with neglect; and the urgent remonstrances for the permission of importing corn from Messina, were answered only by sanguinary edicts precluding all supply. Sir Alexander Ball sent for his senior lieutenant, and gave him orders to proceed immediately to the port of Messina, and there to seize and bring with him to Malta the ships laden with corn, of the number of which Sir Alexander had received accurate information. These orders were executed without delay, to the great delight and profit of the shipowners and proprietors; the necessity of raising the siege was removed; and the author of the measure waited in calmness for the consequences that might result to himself personally. But not a complaint, not a murmur, proceeded from the court of Naples. The sole result was, that the governor of Malta became an especial object of its hatred, its fear, and its respect.

The whole of this tedious siege, from its commencement to the signing of the capitulation, called forth into constant activity the rarest and most difficult virtues of a commanding mind; virtues of no show or splendour in the vulgar apprehension, yet more infallible characteristics of true greatness than the most unequivocal displays of enterprise and active daring. Scarcely a day passed in which Sir Alexander Ball's patience, forbearance, and inflexible constancy were not put to the severest trial. He had not only to remove the misunderstandings that arose between the Maltese and their allies, to settle the differences among the Maltese themselves, and to organise their efforts; he was likewise engaged in the more difficult and unthankful task of counteracting the weariness, discontent, and despondency of his own countrymen -- a task, however, which he accomplished by management and address, and an alternation of real firmness with apparent yielding. During many months he remained the only Englishman who did not think the siege hopeless, and the object worthless. He often spoke of the time in which he resided at the country seat of the grand master at St. Antonio, four miles from Valetta, as perhaps the most trying period of his life. For some weeks Captain Vivian was his sole English companion, of whom, as his partner in anxiety, he always expressed himself with affectionate esteem. Sir Alexander Ball's presence was absolutely necessary to the Maltese, who, accustomed to be governed by him, became incapable of acting in concert without his immediate influence. In the outburst of popular emotion, the impulse which produces an insurrection, is for a brief while its sufficient pilot: the attraction constitutes the cohesion, and the common provocation, supplying an immediate object, not only unites, but directs the multitude. But this first impulse had passed away, and Sir Alexander Ball was the one individual who possessed the general confidence. On him they relied with implicit faith; and even after they had long enjoyed the blessings of British government and protection, it was still remarkable with what child-like helplessness they were in the habit of applying to him, even in their private concerns. It seemed as if they thought him made on purpose to think for them all. Yet his situation at St. Antonio was one of great peril; and he attributed his preservation to the dejection which had now begun to prey on the spirits of the French garrison, and which rendered them unenterprising and almost passive, aided by the dread which the nature of the country inspired. For subdivided as it was into small fields, scarcely larger than a cottage garden, and each of these little squares of land inclosed with substantial stone walls; these too from the necessity of having the fields perfectly level, rising in tiers above each other; the whole of the inhabited part of the island was an effective fortification for all the purposes of annoyance and offensive warfare. Sir Alexander Ball exerted himself successfully in procuring information respecting the state and temper of the garrison, and, by the assistance of the clergy and the almost universal fidelity of the Maltese, contrived that the spies in the pay of the French should be in truth his own confidential agents. He had already given splendid proofs that he could outfight them; but here, and in his after diplomatic intercourse previous to the recommencement of the war, he likewise outwitted them. He once told me with a smile, as we were conversing on the practice of laying wagers, that he was sometimes inclined to think that the final perseverance in the siege was not a little indebted to several valuable bets of his own, he well knowing at the time, and from information which himself alone possessed, that he should certainly lose them. Yet this artifice had a considerable effect in suspending the impatience of the officers, and in supplying topics for dispute and conversation. At length, however, the two French frigates, the sailing of which had been the subject of these wagers, left the great harbour on the 24th of August, 1800, with a part of the garrison: and one of them soon became a prize to the English. Sir Alexander Ball related to me the circumstances which occasioned the escape of the other; but I do not recollect them with sufficient accuracy to dare repeat them in this place. On the 15th of September following, the capitulation was signed, and after a blockade of two years the English obtained possession of Valetta, and remained masters of the whole island and its dependencies.

Anxious not to give offence, but more anxious to communicate the truth, it is not without pain that I find myself under the moral obligation of remonstrating against the silence concerning Sir Alexander Ball's services or the transfer of them to others. More than once has the latter aroused my indignation in the reported speeches of the House of Commons: and as to the former, I need only state that in Rees's Encyclopaedia there is an historical article of considerable length under the word Malta, in which Sir Alexander's name does not once occur! During a residence of eighteen months in that island, I possessed and availed myself of the best possible means of information, not only from eye-witnesses, but likewise from the principal agents themselves. And I now thus publicly and unequivocally assert, that to Sir A. Ball pre-eminently -- and if I had said, to Sir A. Ball alone, the ordinary use of the word under such circumstances would bear me out -- the capture and the preservation of Malta were owing, with every blessing that a powerful mind and a wise heart could confer on its docile and grateful inhabitants. With a similar pain I proceed to avow my sentiments on this capitulation, by which Malta was delivered up to his Britannic Majesty and his allies, without the least mention made of the Maltese. With a warmth honourable both to his head and his heart, Sir Alexander Ball pleaded, as not less a point of sound policy than of plain justice, that the Maltese, by some representative, should be made a party in the capitulation, and a joint subscriber in the signature. They had never been the slaves or the property of the Knights of St. John, but freemen and the true landed proprietors of the country, the civil and military government of which, under certain restrictions, had been vested in that Order; yet checked by the rights and influences of the clergy and the native nobility, and by the customs and ancient laws of the island. This trust the Knights had, with the blackest treason and the most profligate perjury, betrayed and abandoned. The right of government of course reverted to the landed proprietors and the clergy. Animated by a just sense of this right, the Maltese had risen of their own accord, had contended for it in defiance of death and danger, had fought bravely, and endured patiently. Without undervaluing the military assistance afterwards furnished by Great Britain (though how scanty this was before the arrival of General Pigot is well known), it remains undeniable, that the Maltese had taken the greatest share both in the fatigues and in the privations consequent on the siege; and that had not the greatest virtues and the most exemplary fidelity been uniformly displayed by them, the English troops (they not being more numerous than they had been for the greater part of the two years) could not possibly have remained before the fortifications of Valetta, defended as that city was by a French garrison that greatly outnumbered the British besiegers. Still less could there have been the least hope of ultimate success; as if any part of the Maltese peasantry had been friendly to the French, or even indifferent, if they had not all indeed been most zealous and persevering in their hostility towards them, it would have been impracticable so to blockade that island as to have precluded the arrival of supplies. If the siege had proved unsuccessful, the Maltese were well aware that they should be exposed to all the horrors which revenge and wounded pride could dictate to an unprincipled, rapacious, and sanguinary soldiery; and now that success has crowned their efforts, is this to be their reward, that their own allies are to bargain for them with the French as for a herd of slaves, whom the French had before purchased from a former proprietor? If it be urged, that there is no established government in Malta, is it not equally true that through the whole population of the island there is not a single dissentient? and thus that the chief inconvenience which an established authority is to obviate is virtually removed by the admitted fact of their unanimity? And have they not a bishop, and a dignified clergy, their judges and municipal magistrates, who were at all times sharers in the power of the government, and now, supported by the unanimous suffrage of the inhabitants, have a rightful claim to be considered as its representatives? Will it not be oftener said than answered, that the main difference between French and English injustice rests in this point alone, that the French seized on the Maltese without any previous pretences of friendship, while the English procured possession of the island by means of their friendly promises, and by the co-operation of the natives afforded in confident reliance on these promises? The impolicy of refusing the signature on the part of the Maltese was equally evident; since such refusal could answer no one purpose but that of alienating their affections by a wanton insult to their feelings. For the Maltese were not only ready but desirous and eager to place themselves at the same time under British protection, to take the oaths of loyalty as subjects of the British Crown, and to acknowledge their island to belong to it. These representations, however, were overruled; and I dare affirm from my own experience in the Mediterranean, that our conduct in this instance, added to the impression which had been made at Corsica, Minorca, and elsewhere, and was often referred to by men of reflection in Sicily, who have more than once said to me, |A connection with Great Britain, with the consequent extension and security of our commerce, are indeed great blessings: but who can rely on their permanence? or that we shall not be made to pay bitterly for our zeal as partisans of England, whenever it shall suit its plans to deliver us back to our old oppressors?|

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