This passage from the beginning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness struck me. This passage happens on the Thames river - and at the height of the British Empire. Keep that in mind for context, the swamp rivered to as the very end of the world is the Thames -
His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow. It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even; and presently he said, very slow--"I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago--the other day . . . . Light came out of this river since--you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker--may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine--what d'ye call 'em?--trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries--a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too--used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here--the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina--and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages,--precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay--cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death--death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes--he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga--perhaps too much dice, you know--coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him--all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination--you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate." He paused. "Mind," he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower--"Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency--the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force--nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . ."
Amazing how things change, eh? You read about the Roman legions and various officials in Britannia, and it's very possible to wonder what the heck they felt like when they were there. You could interpret it all sorts of ways, but it's fascinating to think that the "end of the world" - Britannia - eventually became the British Empire, with its "The sun never sets on the British Empire."
The Kindle version is currently free at Amazon.
We have a few sayings in common use where I live, which says it all really:
- There is nothing new under the sun
- The more things change, the more it stays the same
- Shit happens (hope that doesn't offend, it is not meant to be offensive but pragmatic)
I see history as an endless natural tide of cause and effect. Force creates pressure and nature abhors a vacuum. The only free will involved in the process seem to be (human) intent. What is of more importance (to me) is whether humanity is still evolving and to what end result. Are we learning from the mistakes of the conquerors of the past or simply repeating these mistakes in new ways with more destructive tools?
I read this passage and I have to think have things really changed as you say? Sure times have changed, people, places, and ideas have changed. But the struggles of the past and the future are all the same.
A few thousand years ago it was ancient armies fighting for vast swaths of land to please some emperor or king with a superiority complex or support an ideology that appealed to his people. Today it's no different, fighting for resources over ideals the will inevitably bring us to the "end of the world" once more.
What I find interesting is how far closer to that end we are today, then in any other point in human history. And as the years continue to pass we inch closer to such a reality. And in a thousand years after the empires of the world today are long past, I wonder if another novel will be written reflecting on such things and how people must have felt during our time?
Such is human nature, the ability to reflect on past events and continue relive the past as if it never happened and the lessons of our ancestors were never learned. I do enjoy writings like this I just wish more people appreciated history instead of ignoring it.
In the year 1853, the Ottoman Empire had been in power for 554 continuous years. Abdülmecid I was Sultan and, shortly into the year, the Albanian-descended Governor of Crete Giritli Mustafa Naili Pasha took the post of Grand Vizier.
Queen Victoria was the Monarch of the British Empire and Lord Aberdeen was her Prime Minister, though the Queen favored one of his rivals, Benjamin Disraeli, as an advisor.
In France, Napoleon III had been elected President of the Republic in 1848, and had dissolved the National Assembly two years previously in 1851. In December of 1852, the Second French Empire was established, with Louis-Napoleon becoming named "Napoléon III, Emperor of the French."
Across the Atlantic, Franklin Pierce was the President of the United States of America and Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War. There were 31 states at that time, and the American Civil War had not yet been fought.
In mid-1853, the Russian Empire started maneuvering troops to key places on the Baltic Sea near Ottoman territories. Hostilities were about to break out into the Crimean War. The primary forces were Ottoman, British, and French fighting the Russians. The war ended with a decisive British/French/Ottoman victory.
The moon illuminated the gradually darkening sky. It was a cooling evening but his whole body stank of dried sweat. He had been in the same spot for the past two days, braving the scorching afternoon sun, the cold nights and the occasional light showers. It was a lot to endure, but he did not dare to stray away from his post. That would put all his efforts in the past two days to waste. He looked around himself. He was surrounded by enemies. Every single one of these enemies was in the same situation as him. It was tough, but all of them pushed on. Giving up was no longer an option at this stage.
He looked at his watch, in about ten more minute's time, the gates would open and he would charge in, along with all the others with him out here. He ran through the plan one more time in his mind. Which location should he go to first? Which targets should he prioritize? Was there any flaw in the plan that he might have missed out? Failure was not an option right now, the people back home would be so disappointed, and he was determined not to let them down.
Five more minutes.
The moment was finally arriving. He was finding it hard to contain his excitement. He had waited so long for this moment to arrive. He eyed the man nearest to him who was staring right back him. Just like him, this man had been waiting here for the past two days. They shared the same objective but there was no love lost between the two men. The only exchange they had for the past two days were a series of hostile and primitive snarling. Still, it was good to have a companion in this lonely battle.
The two men glared at each other like two hyenas fighting over a carcass on the African savannah. This man would probably be the greatest enemy later, he made up his mind as he began to devise a plan to negate the threat in front of him. Maybe he could push him as they were running in later. Or perhaps he should be more discreet and trip him instead. No, the best way would be to just run faster than all the others and grab the target before they do. Yes, that would be it.