The Glamour of a Consulship: Reminiscences of an Ex-Consul

FORTUNATE indeed is the American citizen who has never been afflicted with the itch for government office. I must confess I fell an easy victim to this complaint in my senior year at college when first I began anxiously to plan for the future and to cast about for a suitable occupation. Then it was that Cæsar’s sententious phrase, “Let the consuls see to it that the Republic suffer no harm, ” rang in my ears and solved the problem. Yes, I would be a CONSUL, a name to conjure with, evoking the majestic shades of Cæsar and Napoleon and visions of imperial grandeur. The moment for action was certainly auspicious : the Republican party had just returned to “its own” after four lean years of bitter exile; the inauguration was over, and already the consular plum tree was being vigorously shaken at the behest of an army of eager patriots.

I promptly decided upon a certain consulate in Europe, and sent my petition to the President of the United States, laying stress upon the desire to continue my studies abroad as the motive of the application. The circumstance that I was not yet of legal age by a few months caused me no little uneasiness, but I considered it a good beginning in diplomacy not to obtrude that fact upon the attention of the President. In support of the application I secured and forwarded several choice testimonials in the form of letters of recommendation from the president and professors of the university. I was especially proud of the president’s letter, superbly couched in exquisite language, and quite what one would expect from the noble pen that revised a standard dictionary and bequeathed to the world The Human Intellect. These precious papers filed, I waited several weary months, vainly seeking my name from day to day in the list of presidential nominations. Graduation came and I returned to my home town and its peaceful routine ; not hopeless,— officeseekers very rarely become that, — but quite reconciled to private life. Suddenly — really unexpectedly — I was appointed consul at Ghent, Belgium.

How well I remember the day I was struck by government lightning! It was the manner of my notification that was so delightful. Unconscious of the momentous event, I was at home poring over the intricacies of Blackstone, when an aggressive ring at the door-bell interrupted my train of legal thought and in a moment a reporter on The Daily Record stood before me with a telegram announcing the appointment. He had been sent to interview me about myself and Ghent and Belgium and international relations. Verily I had been magically transformed into a personage whose opinions were in public demand! In gratitude for the joyful tidings, I responded glibly to the journalist’s interrogatories, and he went on his way contented. When the door closed I threw Blackstone into the corner with a shout of triumph.

But it was a mistake. In the light of experience, let me earnestly advise any ambitious youth face to face with the alternative that confronted me that day not to drop his law books for the siren call of a consulship, unless, perchance, the pending Lodge Bill, or some other equally meritorious measure for the reorganization of the consular service, shall meantime have been enacted into law, whereby that branch of the government shall afford a permanent tenure, adequate compensation, and regular promotion as a reward of merit. Only on that condition can he afford to abandon a career of usefulness at home to enter the consular service; but if there shall be no radical reform, and he fail to take my advice, he will surely live to rue it, just as I have done and hundreds before me and scores since. He will waste the most potential years of life in a more or less remote place, amid more or less uncongenial people, out of touch with American institutions and progress, and almost forgotten by friends; and when finally his precarious tenure of office is terminated, he will return to find himself outstripped by his contemporaries, demoralized for competitive work, and a laggard in the race. This applies to the favored sons of fortune as well as to those who must “keep the pot boiling,” but, of course, emphatically to the latter.

Shortly after the visit of the journalist, I received the official notification of appointment, with instructions respecting the formalities of qualification, and hastened to Washington, where I presented my formal acceptance, took the oath of office, and filed a goodly sized bond to protect the official fees belonging to the government. Then followed the usual “instruction period ” of thirty days, with salary, which, by the way, begins with the oath of office and continues until the consul leaves the service on completion of the homeward journey. The salary was small and the additional income from notarial fees inconsiderable enough to modify my transports, but all financial misgivings were swallowed up in the honor of being incorporated into the foreign service of the United States; then there was always the possibility of transfer to a more lucrative post, — every little consul has nursed that illusive hope, — and, most important of all, a vague, half-formed belief that I was entering the service at the opportune moment for a life career. At the previous session of Congress some wise statesman had introduced a bill to reform the consular service along the lines of the classified service in the executive departments at Washington. The proposed legislation perhaps raised scarcely a ripple at the Capitol, but it certainly elicited widespread favorable comment in the press of the country, and I began to assume the certainty of its adoption. Fortunately for those now embraced in the consular service, the present movement for its reorganization on a solid foundation has advanced too far to fail so ignominiously as did that to which I clung as to an anchor of hope.

At Washington I paid my respects to President Harrison, who inquired if I had read How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, and to Secretary Blaine, and then spent a few days in the department looking over the official dispatches on file from my predecessors. The chief of the Consular Bureau at that time was Dr. Francis O. St. Clair, a most efficient and sympathetic official. His principal instruction to me was to apply myself diligently, yea, with religious fanaticism, to the study of the Consular Regulations, a fat little volume of some seven hundred pages. I took this cheerful injunction literally, and supplemented it by consulting works on international law treating of the functions and duties of consuls, their rights and privileges under the law of nations and by virtue of special treaties. At the outset the information was disappointing in one respect: it was emphatically stated that consuls have no diplomatic functions nor representative character as regards the government to which they are accredited (excepting under certain conditions which did not concern me), but are merely the official representatives of the commercial interests of their country. I derived no little comfort, however, in the distinction so finely drawn by one writer, that while the diplomatic agent represents his government at the seat of government of the foreign country and is therefore an envoy of one government to another, the consul is the official representative in the consular district of the individuals of his own country. This was a just source of pride: I was to represent some sixty million sovereign American citizens, including Alaskans, in the provinces of East and West Flanders, wherein dwelt no less than two million thrifty souls. Could I have foreseen the present epoch of national expansion, how I would have envied the American Consul of A. D. 1903, who represents nearly ninety millions of people living under the protection of the Stars and Stripes in lands upon which the sun never sets! (This is astronomically true of the summer sun.)

I was highly gratified to discover in the Consular Regulations that consuls of the United States rank with colonels in the regular army, or captains in the navy, although, even before learning this, I felt quite as important as any colonel. The chapter on the Official Relations of Consuls to Naval Officers was also pleasant reading. Whenever an American war vessel (or squadron) visits a port where a United States consul is stationed, it is the duty of the commander to send a boat ashore with an officer, to visit the consul and tender him a passage to the ship. The consul must accept the invitation, visit the commander, and tender him his official services. While the vessel is in port the consul is entitled to a salute of seven guns (nine for a consul-general), which is usually fired while he is being conveyed from the vessel to the shore. The official etiquette requires the consul to face the ship, and at the end of the salute acknowledge it by raising his hat. All this has practical significance to our consuls at Mediterranean ports, but none whatever in the case of Ghent, situated some twenty miles inland. But, nevertheless, Ghent is technically a “seaport,” thanks to a ship canal to Terneuzen, on the lower Scheldt, admitting vessels of eighteen or nineteen feet draught. My vain hope was that some inquisitive man-of-war of the United States would manage to penetrate to Ghent; whereupon the seven guns would boom forth, shaking the dust of ages from the ancient belfry, and reverberating through the ruins of the mediæval castle of the counts of Flanders . This, of course, was a mere dream.

The scales have long ago dropped from my eyes, and, looking back through the years, I realize that I was afflicted with an insidious malady very common — almost universal — among newly appointed consuls, and which we may appropriately call consular megalomania. It appears at once on appointment, increases in intensity throughout the instruction period, reaches the crisis on shipboard, — where the consul sits in the seat of honor at the captain’s table and receives the homage of his compatriots, — and then gradually abates until the temperature of self-esteem is normal.

On arrival in Belgium I paid my respects to the United States Minister at Brussels and proceeded to my post, where, on the receipt of my exequatur from the Belgian government, and completion of the inventory of official property, I relieved my predecessor of his “public trust,” inheriting a native Belgian as vice-consul, a British subject as clerk, and a room in the aforesaid Belgian’s counting-house as the office of the consulate, — three flies in the ointment of our present consular system.

In pursuance of custom I made ceremonious calls upon the governor of the province of East Flanders, who is the local representative of the king, and upon the burgomaster of the city. I also left cards at the homes of all the members of the Consular Corps, forty in number and representing thirty-six nations, including every European power with the exception of Switzerland, nine countries of South America, all those of Central America, Persia, Hawaii, Liberia, and one or two other petty governments. Of course, the great majority of these offices were only titular, and, in fact, all but three of the consuls, vice-consuls, and consular agents composing the corps were native citizens of Belgium, who had sought appointment on account of the social prestige conferred, or (formerly) in order to secure exemption from service in the garde civique. The exceptions were the consul of the United States, the German consul, and the British vice-consul in charge.

We were all embraced in an association styled the Cercle Consulaire, whose constitution contained the following article : —

“Il a pour but d’offrir à ses membres un centre de réunion pour poursuivre la réalisation des progrès reconnus favorables à la prospérité et a la dignité du Corps Consulaire.”

It was presided over by a dean, the consul longest in commission, and in its relations with the local authorities and with official society closely resembled the diplomatic corps. We addressed one another as “mon cher collègue,” and, once a year, held a banquet, where the nations of the earth met to exchange toasts in grandiloquent sentiments, and each worthy Belgian, laying aside petty business rivalries and for the nonce denationalizing himself, strove hard to uphold the dignity of his appointing government. At ceremonious functions, such as the celebration of a Te Deum in the cathedral, we followed close at the heels of the governor, passing between long lines of saluting soldiery, every consul, except myself, resplendent in a uniform prescribed by the government he represented.

Much might be said of the multitudinous duties imposed by our laws upon consular officers, and hence the importance of the appointment of men of irreproachable character, intelligence, and education, resourcefulness, and sound judgment; but I need not dwell on these matters. My routine duties consisted in certifying invoices of merchandise exported to the United States, making commercial reports, performing notarial services, and replying to letters of inquiry relating chiefly to the extension of American trade. American vessels coming but very rarely to Ghent, I had not the police control to exercise over shipping which is an important function of the consul at a large seaport, and only infrequently had occasion to intervene with the local authorities in behalf of the personal rights of American citizens.

Ghent being to one side of the beaten highway pursued by the restless army of tourists, I met comparatively few compatriots traveling for pleasure, and hence was but rarely called upon to cater to the whims and fancies of the unreasonable, as is the lot of the average American consul in Europe. As a rule, the Americans who sought me out belonged to the class which every consul dreads : the stranded and the importunate, as well as the tricky and the unscrupulous. Perhaps as many as two thirds of all the Americans who set foot in the consulate during my four years came to solicit a “loan ” of from five to twenty francs to enable them to continue their homeward journey. Sometimes they had drifted on the waves of charity from consulate to consulate, from as far eastward as Berlin. By the time they reached Ghent they had become past masters in the art of wheedling money out of the consul; their stories were gems of pathos and their acting creditable to any star of the footlights. Many of the applicants appealed to me as a matter of right, and displayed astonishment, if not unbelief, when informed that the government of the United States makes no provision for the relief of its destitute citizens other than seamen, when stranded abroad. But, fund or no fund, it is quite natural that distressed American travelers should turn in their trouble to the official representative of their country, and in meritorious cases it was a pleasure personally to extend some slight measure of relief.

But for self-protection against bankruptcy, I had a hard-and-fast rule of action in these cases. The third-class railway passage to Antwerp with its boundless sailing possibilities cost about half a dollar. To every applicant who was not manifestly a downright fraud, I offered this aid from my own pocketbook, and whenever accepted sent the clerk with the person to the railway station, with iron-bound instructions to purchase the ticket and speed the parting stranger on his way. This was policy as well as humanity, for if the unfortunate remained without resources in my district he might be landed in jail as a vagrant or for doing something desperate, and might then invoke consular intervention, thus involving more or less thankless labor.

I remember one instance rather out of the usual order. A fashionably attired young man, of commanding presence and polite manners, called at the consulate one day in a cab. He stated that he was a resident of Boston and on the way home from a tour of the Continent. After chatting interestingly a full hour, he turned to leave, but suddenly wheeled about and said in a blasé tone: “ Oh, by the way — hem — hem — such a trifling matter, I hate to mention it, but I find myself deucedly short most unexpectedly. Instructed my father to send my usual remittance of a thousand to me at my hotel here — hasn’t come — some mistake. If you let me have, say, twenty-five francs, I ’ll try to make ends meet until I get to Antwerp, and remit you double from there to-night. Thousand pardons for bothering you for such a trifle.” His final acting had the consummate touch of a professional dead-beat and swindler, and so I promptly declined, and then unfolded to his crestfallen majesty my relief plan. Rising to his full height, and withering me with a scornful look, he spurned the offer, and left the office in wrathful indignation. But an hour or so later he returned — still in the cab — and humbly applied for the ticket-money, which was given him without the usual formality of sending the clerk to purchase the ticket. That same evening the cabman in question drove up and announced that “my friend ” had swindled him out of three hours’ fare. He had driven his passenger to a hotel on a corner near the station, and the latter entered to get his baggage; this was the last he had seen of him. All that the hotel proprietor could say by way of enlightenment was that a stranger had come in the front door and, after setting his watch by the clock, had passed out the side entrance. That cabman thinks to this day that he has a strong case in equity against me for his lost fare.

The most peculiar individual whom I served in an official capacity was an American who called one day to secure the authentication of a document to be used in court in the United States. This service duly performed, he inquired the fee, and, learning that it was two dollars, looked troubled, and alleged that he had expected to pay only about twentyfive cents; but after fumbling in his pockets for some time his face brightened, and he offered an extraordinary compromise. He was, he said, a “glasseater ” by occupation, and temporarily out of employment after filling engagements at the annual fairs in several towns of France and Belgium. In discharge of his obligation he proposed to give me a special performance of his art. Believing him to be one of the numerous fakirs who rely on sleight of hand in so-called glass-eating feats, I expressed incredulity. “Gimme a thin goblet,” said he, “and I ’ll eat it all up.” I complied. Grasping it firmly with both hands, as a boy would a big apple, he unhesitatingly munched off a large piece, the fragments crackling horribly under his massive teeth and disappearing down his throat. He was precisely what he claimed to be, — a human ostrich; but it was not a pleasant way of receiving a notarial fee, and I hastened to inform the glass-eater that his debt was discharged.

Soon after my arrival, an American negro, who had formerly been employed as barber on one of the transatlantic liners, drifted to Ghent with a little capital, and blossomed out as the proprietor of an estaminet at the docks; the sailors patronized him and he flourished. Although there was a resident English colony, this lone negro was, for a long time, my only compatriot in the city of Ghent. Aware of that fact, he called frequently at the consulate to greet his consul, whom he insisted on addressing as “Your Excellency.” No self-expatriated American whom I ever knew was more patriotic than he; it was touching to see the fervent admiration with which he gazed up at the coat-ofarms on the facade of the consulate, and I doubt not he was made of the same heroic stuff as the gallant troopers of the Tenth United States Cavalry, whose devoted lifeblood stained San Juan hill. It therefore grieves me to reflect that I was obliged to deny the only favor he ever asked of me. It was this way.

Shortly before the Fourth of July he presented himself, all excitement and enthusiasm, and announced that he was making preparations to celebrate our national holiday in handsome fashion at his place of business. His saloon would be decorated with evergreens and bunting, and the first free lunch in the history of Ghent would be served to all comers; he begged me to be present on the festive occasion, and to loan him the consular flag, which, he assured me, would be draped in the post of honor over the bar. It was easy to dispose of the flag question: it sufficed to explain that it must fly from its own staff on that Day of all Days; but the matter of personal attendance required the exercise of diplomacy, even of the Machiavelian brand. He had gone to the expense of having cards of invitation printed, and it was with intense dismay that I read at the bottom thereof: “ The American Consul will be present.” To avoid hurting the poor darky’s feelings I am afraid that I may have given him the impression that the Consular Regulations require every consul to remain in retreat at the consulate throughout Independence Day. But it was quite as well that I did not attend the celebration at the estaminet, for I afterwards learned that the news of the free lunch attracted such a large rough crowd, and the scramble for food was so eager, that the police had to be summoned to quell an incipient riot.

The years rolled by and the political complexion of the Administration changed. New officials took charge of the Department of State, and then ensued a consular Reign of Terror unsurpassed since the foundation of the government, the apotheosis of the spoils system. Just as St. Bartholomew’s Day stands out in ghastly prominence in the history of the Huguenots, so does the year 1893 in the annals of the consular service of the United States. Within a period of less than ten months exactly thirty consuls-general out of a total of thirty-five, and 133 consuls of the first class out of a total of 183, besides the great majority of the minor consuls, were superseded, and their places hastily filled by persons belonging to the dominant party, to the disorganization of the service and consequent detriment to the business interests of this country. After all, however, it was nothing more than an unusually drastic exhibition of the time-honored practice following a change of administration involving transfer of partisan power.

My turn came at last, and, rather curiously, it was the press again that gave me the first intelligence; for one evening I read in the list of appointments by the President simply this: “Mr. So-and-so, Consul at Ghent, Belgium.” A few weeks later, stripped of my consular halo and shorn of power, I began my homeward journey, convinced for the first time that the spoils system is brutal and barbarous. Sic transit gloria consulis.

John Ball Osborne.