A Liliput Province
TOWARDS the close of summer, all well-feathered Londoners migrate, and may at that season be observed flying from their native streets or squares in large flocks, like wild geese, with outstretched necks, and round, protruding eyes. Some settle on the Scotch moors, where they industriously waddle themselves thin. Others take short flights to neighboring bathing-places, where they splash in the water with their goslings, strut proudly on the sands, display a tendency to pair, and are often preyed upon by the foxes which also resort to those localities. Many more cross the Channel, and may be heard during two months cackling more or less loudly in every large hotel upon the Continent. And in addition to all these there are the stragglers, — a small and select race, which defy the great gregarious laws, and delight in taking solitary, and, if possible, unprecedented flight.
I must own that it is my weakness to pry into the untrodden nooks and corners of life. I have wasted many precious hours in toiling through blackletter folios and tracts which had no other merit than their rarity. And I have put myself to the greatest pains and inconvenience to arrive at a desert island out at sea, or some obscure village hid away among mountains, simply for the pleasure of feeling that I had been where few other civilized travellers had been. I have seldom received any better reward than that, but once or twice I have fallen upon a store of facts, which, however insignificant, had at least the charm of being new, and which have answered the purpose of stimulating me to fresh absurdities.
A few months ago I was standing on the deck ot a steamer bound from London to Hamburg. It was midnight, and we were approaching the mouth of the Elbe. Right ahead was a light of great brilliancy and power; this, the captain informed me, shone from Heligoland, and was seen so clearly because the island was about a hundred and fifty feet above the level of the sea, — a great boon to navigators, the neighboring coasts being very low. But my informant had been in the habit of regarding Heligoland as a lighthouse and nothing more; he could tell me nothing about its constitution, its manners, or its customs, and I determined to visit it forthwith.
By the late wars upon the Continent, the political geography of the Elbe has been completely changed. Between the mouth of the river and Hamburg, the right bank formerly belonged to Holstein, and the left to Hanover. Now both are Prussian. Hamburg itself is under the wing of the Prussian eagle, and may soon be under its claw. The feeling in that city is anti-Prussian ; but the citizens were wise enough to side with their powerful neighbor, and to contribute troops. This has certainly saved them from the fate of Frankfort, but it is not probable that Hamburg will be allowed to remain a thoroughly independent state. Prussia will probably abolish her diplomatic, and perhaps her consular service, and permit her to retain certain important rights and privileges. It is, at the present moment, an anxious crisis for the great merchants. In Hamburg, fortunes are made with a rapidity, and to an extent, unequalled in any Continental town ; this is owing to the freedom of the port; but, were the Prussian customhouse system to be introduced, Stettin and Königsberg would spring into dangerous rivalry, and her commercial interests would decline.
Hamburg is the only city in Europe which bears much resemblance to New York. It has no antiquities, for the old town was entirely burnt down about twenty years ago. It has no treasurehouse of art, it has not many “historical associations.” It is a city of business, and four thousand persons meet together every day in its Exchange. Its river is crowded with shipping; American cars rattle along its streets ; and ferry-boats built on the American principle steam to and fro across the Alster-Dam. Its hospitals, sailors’home, libraries, and ornamental gardens are not inferior to those of New York itself: in these two cities, if the dollar does jingle too often in conversation, it is sometimes made to shine in a worthy cause. After dusk, Hamburg becomes dissolute and gay. It is difficult to pass through a single street without hearing a violin. Lager-bier saloons, oystercellars, cafés, dancing-rooms, and restaurants of every kind are lighted up, and quickly filled. Debauchery runs riot, and yet, strange to say, there is very little crime. The respectable classes are less well provided for as regards amusement. I went to the opera, and heard William Tell. The performance was mediocre, though far superior to anything that could be done upon the English operatic stage. But I was chiefly amused in watching the habits of the gentlemen who patronized the stalls.
The custom of visiting and receiving at the opera was invented by the Italians, to avoid the trouble and expense of receiving in their own homes ; from Italy it spread through Europe ; and although the opera-houses of London and Paris do not so closely resemble a public drawing-room as those of Florence and Milan, yet the Italian opera could scarcely exist in those cities unless it were supported as much by people of fashion as by people of taste. But I was hardly prepared to find in Hamburg a parody of polite life in this respect. During the whole performance there was a continual interchange of social greetings between corpulent ship - chandlers, their heads violently greased for the occasion, and certain frowsy women sprinkled scantily through the house. There was an old gentleman sitting next to me who turned the performance to a nobler use ; he had apparently brought his son there for the purpose of tuition ; holding the libretto between them, he translated with great rapidity and in a clear voice the Italian words, at the moment that they were sung, into one of the most guttural of German dialects, thus playing the part of Dutch chorus to the entertainment, and producing a conflict of sounds which it would be difficult to describe.
I discovered, to my astonishment, that Heligoland, in summer at all events, was by no means an isolated rock; that since 1840 it has been blessed with a Season ; that, celebrated for its waves, it has become the Scarborough of Northern Germany, and is visited by thousands of sea-bathers every year.
I took my passage in the little steamer which runs from Hamburg, and arrived at my destination at 10 P. M. In the dim light of the moon and stars the island bore a fantastic resemblance to the Monitor, a little magnified ; the lights of the village answering to those of the hull, and the lighthouse to the lantern at the mast-head. The island presents this appearance only at a distance and in a doubtful light. When I walked over it the next morning I found that it was composed of a sandbank lying under a red cliff. The sand-bank was covered with houses, which were divided by three or four streets ; these were paved with wooden boards. Every house was a shop, an inn, or a lodging-house. The cliff is accessible on one side only, and is ascended by means of sinuous wooden staircases. When the summit is reached, one stands upon the real island, for the sand-bank below is an accident and an intruder. Heligoland proper may be described as a precipice-plateau, containing a small cluster of houses, a lighthouse, various pole-nets, springes, and other contrivances for catching woodcocks in their migratory flights, and a few miniature potato and corn fields. The extent of this plateau is not quite equal to that of Hyde Park. As soon as I had made this discovery I felt an intense compassion for all persons of the Teutonic race to whom sea-bathing once a year happens to be indispensable. However, if dull, it must at least be economical, I thought; but this illusion was dispelled when I found that there was a roulette-table in the dingy little Conversations - Haus, and when my landlord handed me in a bill which would not have disgraced any hotel in Bond Street or the Fifth Avenue.
How on earth, thought I, can these poor deluded creatures pass their time ? They get up at some absurd hour in the morning ; they sail to a neighboring sand-bank where they bathe and then take coffee in a whitewashed pavilion ; they return to breakfast, and then — what can they do ? There is nowhere to walk ; there is nothing to read ; and in the height of the season there must be a scarcity of elbow-room. Although every house offers accommodation to visitors, it has not unfrequently happened that persons have been obliged to sleep on board the steamers which brought them, and to return to the main-land. Imagine an island being full, like an omnibus !
Then a thought came upon me which wrung my heart. The Governor ! How could this unfortunate man exist ? With a precipice on one side of his house and a potato-field on the other, what could save him from despair and selfdestruction ? This question was answered for me when I heard that he was married.
My eccentric wanderings have at least served to convince me of this, — that a man’s sole refuge from the evils of solitude is to be found in the domestic sentiments. There is, it is true, a solitude of genius ; there are minds which must climb out of the common air and breathe alone. There is also the solitude of enthusiasm, which is more common, and which is found among a lower order of men, who become so possessed with a single idea that it leaves them neither by day nor night, but is their bride, their bosom friend, and their constant occupier. But what becomes of the ordinary man, if he is excluded from the busy regions of the world, and if his heart remains as solitary as his life ? Everything dries up in him ; he becomes uncouth, bigoted, selfish, egotistical, and usually ends by falling into a semi-torpid state, and by hibernating into death.
I remember that once I had contrived to creep into the centre of one of the most remote of the Cape Verde Islands. My mule suddenly turned into a by-path and broke into a cheerful amble. Experience has proved to me that, when a mule has thoroughly made up its mind, resistance is out of the question. I contented myself with asking my youthful companion what the animal’s probable intentions were. The boy said that the mule was going to see the judge, and pointed to a lovely little cottage which came in view at that moment. Then I recollected that I had heard this gentleman spoken of, and that I had a letter of introduction to him. The mule carried me into the stable from which I was conducted into a drawing-room. There, for the first time during many months, for I had been travelling in strange lands, I saw a number of the Revue de Deux Maudes. I plunged into it, and made an ineffectual effort to read every article at once. The Judge came in, and I at once perceived that I was in the presence of a remarkable man. After an hour’s conversation we began to interchange confidences. He told me about his student dreams at Coimbra, — of the nights which he had passed in book-toil, — of his aspirations, his poverty, and his exile. Perhaps he saw a little compassion in my eyes when he had finished, for he added, “ Those young hopes have all been crushed, and yet I am happier in this desolate spot than I have ever been in my life before.” The door opened at that moment, and a beautiful woman came in, leading two little children by the hands.
“This is my happiness, sir,” he said, as he introduced me to his wife. Then he looked at his children, and his eyes filled with unutterable love. “And these,” he said “ are my ambition.”
But before my visit to the island was concluded, I found that a governorship of Heligoland was very far from being a tranquil retreat. The present Governor, it seems, had founded a new constitution, and was charged with having assumed despotic powers, and with having perpetrated various acts of inhumanity. Governor Wall himself appeared in the light of a philanthropist as compared with this military ogre, who, having acquired a taste for blood in the Crimean War, had been sent to Heligoland to gratify his ruthless propensities. He was as bad as Eyre, for he had suspended a native politician from the Council. He was worse than Sir Charles Darling, who had defied a constitution ; for he had destroyed one.
My curiosity having been excited by these complaints, I went to the proper sources of information, and in a few hours had mastered the political history of Heligoland.
In 1807 it was captured by Vice-Admiral Russell from the Danes. From that time until 1864 the government of the colony consisted of a Governor, six magistrates, and a closed popular body called the Vorsteherschaft, containing, besides the magistrates aforesaid, eight quartermasters and sixteen elders. The elders were the tribunes of the people ; the quartermasters acted as pilot officers, and superintended all questions of pilotage and wreck; while the magistrates had the power of nominating persons to fill vacancies in the Vorsteherschaft, and appointed to them their own particular adherents, or else dangerous political antagonists. The Governor was a Doge.
A colony governed by pilots, lodginghouse - keepers, and small tradesmen could scarcely be expected to prove a success. In 1820 there was a debt of £ 1,800 ; in 1864, of £ 7,200. Owing to the rapacity of the quartermasters, the pilot-trade fell into the hands of the people of Cuxhaven. And in the island itself the wildest anarchy prevailed. The six magistrates were unable to execute their own decrees ; there was no prison in the island, and it seems to have been the custom for the authorities to kidnap convicted criminals and deposit them on the main-land. Petitions were being constantly presented to the ‘Home Government from the magistrates, asking for more power; and from the people, demanding the right to elect their own representatives.
So, in 1864, a new constitution was inaugurated, by an order of her Majesty in Council. Its plan is similar to that extant in many other British colonies, consisting of an executive council to advise the Governor ; of a legislative body, twelve members of whom are nominated by the crown, and twelve others annually elected by the people, and forming the so-called Combined Court, by whom all money ordinances have to be passed. The right of franchise is exercised by all persons of sound mind who have arrived at the age of twenty-one, and who have not been convicted of felony, — the last proviso, by the by, might be introduced with propriety in New York. The candidates for representation must be, to a certain extent, men of property; that is, they must own land to the value of £ 1 per annum ; or the half of a boat; or the fourth part of a fishingvessel ; or the tenth part of a decked vessel; or must have a yearly income £ 4 ; or must pay a house-rent of not less than thirty shillings a year.
The new constitution was at first popular enough. The Heligolanders were willing to accept the benefits, but they soon began to complain of the burdens, of civilization. The new Governor determined to strike at the two great abuses of Heligoland, — the roulette-table, and the public debt,— which were entangled together in a very embarrassing way. Were the gaming-table at once abolished, the number of visitors would decrease, and those who, on the security of the gaming-table, had invested their money in the colonial funds, would suffer pecuniary loss. It was therefore enacted that the table should be abolished at the expiration of the lease (1871), and that in the interim every measure should be taken to increase the revenue with a view to the reduction of the debt.
Heligoland, indeed, after a period of bungling and robbery, was placed in the same financial position as the United States after a period of war. In one case, as in the other, taxation was the only remedy. But the Heligolanders did not like their medicine, and, like children, protested that they were quite well. They refused to entertain a new and startling idea,—still less, to pay for it. They had never heard of such a thing before ; their fathers and grandfathers had never paid taxes, and why should they? It was no use telling them that other people paid taxes. They were not other people. They were Heligolanders. This, it seems, when spoken in their own patois, means a great deal ; for they consider themselves intellectually and morally superior to all the other nations of the earth, whom they call, individually and collectively, skit, — a word in their language signifying dirt. As soon as it was known that “ an ordinance enacting taxation on real and personal property ” had been “enacted by the Governor of Heligoland, with the advice and consent of the Legislative Council, and the concurrence of the Combined Court,” there was a grand disturbance. A reactionary party immediately arose, with the cry of The old state of things, and no taxation ! When the tax-collectors went round, the men laughed in their faces, and the women called them names. It was in vain that the Governor summoned a meeting of the inhabitants, and addressed them in very excellent German, and gave them six months to turn the matter over in their minds. At the end of that time they were still obstinate, the tax-collectors resigned, and this victory was celebrated with festivities. But suddenly a British man-of-war appeared ; a file of marines marched on shore ; the ringleaders of the reactionists were put into durance vile — for an afternoon; and the taxes were paid up with marvellous rapidity.
The next move of the opposition was a petition, which was signed by three hundred and fifty out of the two thousand islanders, and was sent into the Colonial Office, protesting against the new constitution, and requesting the abolition of all the ordinances which it had passed. Since a certain occurrence which took place in the reign of George III., the British government has been in the habit of paying most careful attention to all popular petitions from the colonies, but this one, as may well be imagined, was refused. The constitution being popular, and the taxes being light, (there is but one person on the island who pays as much as a £3 a year.) and the population extracting considerable wealth from their season visitors, they have no real grievance to complain of, and when last I heard from the island I was informed that the public debt was rapidly melting away, and that peace and good feeling had been quite restored.
This Liliput Province, in which the Governor is the only Englishman, and his cow almost the only quadruped, deserves to be more frequently visited by tourists, as it is perfectly unique in its way. It also merits the study of English politicians. This island rock is the Gibraltar of the North Sea. With a few companies of infantry and casemated batteries, it might be held against any force, and it commands the mouths of the Weser and the Elbe. The Heligolanders are not Germans, — ethnology perhaps would rather class them with the Danes, — and they have no German sympathies. There can be no excuse, therefore, for giving up the island to Prussia, as has been seriously recommended in an English journal; though the objection to this — that by so doing England might lose prestige upon the Continent — is a groundless fear : at the present moment she has none to lose.