THE TRAGEDY OF THE KOROSKO
Early in The Tragedy of the Korosko is a discussion that takes place between some of the characters while still on the boat traveling south on the Nile. This discussion has eerie echoes today and I think it's a great read in addition to being very topical.
In the first two chapters there is a discussion of world politics between a Frenchman, two British men, and an American which show how although the world has changed much in just over a century, some things have not.
Mons. Fardet – “good natured but argumentative Frenchman, who held the most decided views as to the deep machinations of Great Britain and the illegality of her position in Egypt.”
John Headingly – “a New Englander, a graduate of Harvard, who was completing his education by a tour round the world.”
Colonel Cochrane – “was one of those officers whom the British Government, acting upon a large system of averages, declares at a certain age to be incapable of further service, and who demonstrate the worth of such a system by spending their declining years in exploring Morocco, or shooting lions in Somaliland.”
Cecil Brown – “was a young diplomatist from the Continental Embassy, a man slightly tainted with the Oxford manner, and erring upon the side of unnatural and inhuman refinement, but full of interesting talk and cultured thought.”
End of Chapter 1, Headingly and Fadet talk about the existence of Dervishes and the role of England in Egypt.
“Dervishes, Mister Headingly!” said he, speaking excellent English, but separating his syllables as a Frenchman will. “There are no Dervishes. They do not exist.”
“Why, I thought the woods were full of them,” said the American.
Monsieur Fardet glanced across to where the red core of Colonel Cochrane’s cigar was glowing through the darkness.
“You are an American, and you do not like the English,” he whispered. “It is perfectly comprehended upon the Continent that the Americans are opposed to the English.”
“Well,” said Headingly, with his slow deliberate manner, “I won’t say that we have not had our tiffs, and that there are some of our people – mostly of Irish stock – who are always mad with England; but the most of us have a kindly thought for the mother country. You see, they may be aggravating folk sometimes, but after all they are our own folk, and we can’t wipe that off the slate.”
“Eh bien!” said the Frenchman. “At least I can say to you what I could not without offence say to these others. And I repeat there are no Dervishes. They were an invention of Lord Cromer in the year 1885.”
“You don’t say!” cried Headingly
“It is well known in Paris, and has been exposed in La Patrie and other of our so well-informed papers.”
“But this is colossal,” said Headingly.”
“Do you mean to tell me, Monsieur Fardet, that the siege of Khartoum and the death of Gordon and the rest of it was just one great bluff?”
“I will not deny that there was an emeute, but it was local, you understand, and now long forgotten. Since then there has been profound peace in the Soudan.”
“But I have heard of raids, Monsieur Fardet, and I’ve read of battles, too, when the Arabs tried to invade Egypt. It was only two days ago that we passed Toski, where the dragoman said there had been a fight. Is that all bluff also?”
“Pah, my friend, you do not know the English. You look at them as you see them with their pipes and their contented faces, and you say, ‘Now these are good simple folk who will never hurt anyone.’ But all the time they are thinking and watching and planning. ‘Here is Egypt weak,’ they cry. ‘Allons!’ and down they swoop like a gull on a crust. ‘You have no right there,’ says the world. ‘Come out of it!’ But England has already begun to tidy everything, just like the good Miss Adams when she forces her way into the house of an Arab. ‘Come out,’ says the world. ‘Certainly,’ says England; ‘just one little minute until I have made everything nice and proper.’ So the world waits for a year or so, and then it says once again, ‘Come out.’ ‘Just wait a little,’ says England; ‘there is trouble at Khartoum, and when I have set that all right I shall be very glad to come out.’ So they wait until it is all over, and then again they say, ‘Come out.’ ‘How can I come out,’ says England, ‘when there are still raids and battles going on? If we were to leave Egypt would be run over.’ ‘But there are no raids,’ says the world. ‘Oh, are there not?’ says England, and then within a week sure enough the papers are full of some new raid of Dervishes. We are not all blind, Mister Headingly. We understand very well how such things can be done. A few Bedouins, a little backsheesh, some blank cartridges, and, behold-a raid!”
“Well, well,” said the American, “I’m glad to know the rights of this business, for it has often puzzled me. But what does England get out of it?”
“She gets the country, monsieur.”
“I see. You mean, for example, that there is a favourable tariff for British goods?”
“No, monsieur; it is the same for all.”
“Well then, she gives the contracts to Britishers?”
“For example, the railroad that they are building through the country, the one that runs alongside the river, that would be a valuable contract for the British?”
Monsieur Fardet was an honest man, if an imaginative one.
“It is a French company, monsieur, which holds the railway contract,” said he.
The American was puzzled.
“They don’t seem to get much for their trouble,” said he. “Still, of course, there must be some indirect pull somewhere. For example, Egypt no doubt has to pay and keep all those red-coats in Cairo.”
“Egypt, monsieur! No, they are paid by England.”
Well, I suppose they know their own business best, but it seems to me to take a great deal of trouble, and to get mighty little in exchange. If they don’t mind keeping order and guarding the frontier, with a constant war against the Dervishes on their hands, I don’t know why anyone should object. I suppose no one denies that the prosperity of the country has increased enormously since they came. They tell me, also, that the poorer folks have justice, which they never had before.”
“What are they doing here at all?” cried the Frenchman, angrily. “Let them go back to their island. We cannot have them all over the world.”
“Well, certainly to us Americans who live in our own land it does seem strange how you European nations are for ever slopping over into some other country which was not meant for you. It’s easy for us to talk, of course, for we have still got room and to spare for all our people. When we start pushing each other over the edge we will have to start annexing also. But at present just here in North Africa there is Italy in Abyssinia, and England in Egypt, and France in Algiers---“
“France!” cried Monsieur Fardet. “Algiers belongs to France. You laugh monsieur. I have the honor to wish you a very good-night.” He rose from his seat, and walked off, rigid with outraged patriotism, to his cabin.
Chapter 2 - (excerpts)
The young American hesitated for a little, debating in his mind whether he should not go down and post up the daily record of his impressions which he kept for his home-staying sister. But the cigars of Colonel Cochrane and of Cecil Brown were still twinkling in the far corner of the deck, and the student was acquisitive in the search of information. He did not quite know how to lead up to the matter, but the Colonel very soon did it for him.
“Come on, Headingly,” said he, pushing a camp-stool in his direction. “This is the place for an antidote. I see that Fardet has been pouring politics into your ear.”
“I can always recognise the confidential stoop of his shoulders when he discusses la haute politique,” said the dandy diplomatist.
“But what a sacrilege upon a night like this! What a nocturne in blue and silver might be suggested by that moon rising above the desert. There is a movement in one of Mendelssohn’s songs which seems to embody it all, ---a sense of vastness, of repetition, the cry of the wind over an interminable expanse. The subtler emotions which cannot be translated into words are still to be hinted at by chords and harmonies.”
“It does seem more savage then ever tonight,” remarked the American. “It gives me the same feeling of pitiless force that the Atlantic does upon a cold, dark, winter day. Perhaps it is the knowledge that we are right there on the very edge of any kind of law or order. How far do you suppose we are from any Dervishes, Colonel Cochrane?”
“Well, on the Arabian side,” said the Colonel, “we have the Egyptian fortified camp of Sarras about forty miles to the south of us. Beyond that are sixty miles of very wild country before you would come to the Dervish post at Akasheh. On this other side, however, there is nothing between us and them.”
“Abousir is on this side, is it not?”
“Yes. That is why the excursion to the Abousir Rock has been forbidden for the last year. But things are quieter now.”
“What is to prevent them from coming down on that side?”
“Absolutely nothing,” said Cecil Brown in his listless voice.
“Nothing, except their fears. The coming, of course, would be absolutely simple. The difficulty would lie in the return. They might find it hard to get back if their camels were spent and the Halfa garrison with their beasts fresh got on their track. They know it as well as we do, and it has kept them from trying.”
“It isn’t safe to reckon upon a Dervish’s fears,” remarked Brown. “We must always bear in mind that they are not amenable to the same motives as other people. Many of them are anxious to meet death, and all of them are absolute, uncompromising believers in destiny. They exist as a reduction ad absurdum of all bigotry, ---a proof of how surely it leads towards blank barbarism.”
“You think these people are a real menace to Egypt?” asked the American. “There seems from what I have heard to be some difference of opinion about it. Monsieur Fardet, for example does not seem to think that the danger is a very pressing one.”
“I am not a rich man,” Colonel Cochrane answered, after a little pause, “but I am prepared to lay all I am worth that within three years of the British officers being withdrawn, the Dervishes would be upon the Mediterranean. Where would the civilization of Egypt be? Where would the hundreds of millions be which have been invested in this country? where the monuments which all nations look upon as most precious memorials of the past?”
“Come now, Colonel,” cried Headingly, laughing, “surely you don’t mean that they would shift the pyramids?”
“You cannot foretell what they would do. There is no iconoclast in the world like an extreme Mohammedan. Last time they overran this country they burned the Alexandrian library. You know that all representations of the human features are against the letter of the Koran. A statue is always an irreligious object in their eyes. What do these fellows care for the sentiment of Europe? The more they could offend it the more delighted they would be. Down would go the Sphinx, the Colossi, the Statues of Abou-Simbel, ---as the saints went down in England before Cromwell’s troopers.”
"Well now,” said Headingly, in his slow, thoughtful fashion, “suppose I grant you that the Dervishes could overrun Egypt, and suppose also that you English are holding them out, what I’m asking is, what reason have you for spending all these millions of dollars and the lives of so many of your men? What do you get out of it, more than France gets, or Germany, or any other country, that runs no risk and never lays out a cent?”
“There are a good many Englishmen who are asking themselves that question,” remarked Cecil Brown. “It’s my opinion that we have been the policemen of the world long enough. We policed the seas for pirates and slavers. Now we police the land for Dervishes and brigands and every sort of danger to civilisation. There is never a mad priest of a witch doctor, or a firebrand of any sort on this planet, who does not report his appearance by sniping at the nearest British officer. One tires of it at last. If a Kurd breaks loose in Asia Minor, the world wants o know why Great Britain does not keep him in order. If there is a military mutiny in Egypt, or a Jehad in the Soudan, it is still Great Britain who has to set it right. And all to an accompaniment of curses such as the policeman gets when he seizes a ruffian among his pals. We get hard knocks and no thanks, and why should we do it? Let Europe do its own dirty work.”
“Well,” said Colonel Cochrane, crossing his legs and leaning forward with the decision of a man who has definite opinions, “I don’t at all agree with you, Brown, and I think that to advocate such a course is to take a very limited view of our national duties. I think that behind national interests and diplomacy and all that there lies a great guiding force, --a Providence, in fact, --which is for ever getting the best out of each nation and using it for the good of the whole. When a nation ceases to respond, it is time that she went into hospital for a few centuries, like Spain or Greece, ---the virtue has gone out of her. A man or a nation is not here upon this earth merely to do what is pleasant and profitable. It is often called upon to carry out what is unpleasant and unprofitable; but if it is obviously right, it is mere shirking not to undertake it.”
Headingly nodded approvingly.
“Each has it’s own mission. Germany is predominant in abstract thought; France in literature, art, and grace. But we and you, --for the English-speakers are all in the same boat, however much the New York Sun may cream over it, --we and you have among our best men a higher conception of moral sense and public duty than is to be found in any other people. Now, these are the two qualities which are needed for directing a weaker race. You can’t help them by abstract thought or by graceful art, but only by that moral sense which will hold the scales of Justice even, and keep itself free from every taint of corruption. That is how we rule India. We came there by a kind of natural law, like air rushing into a vacuum. All over the world, against our direct interests and our deliberate intentions, we are drawn into he same thing. And it will happen to you also. The pressure of destiny will force you to administer the whole of America from Mexico to the Horn.”
“Our Jingoes would be pleased to hear you, Colonel Cochrane,” said he. “They’d vote you into our senate and make you one of the Committee on Foreign Relations.”
“The world is small, and it grows smaller every day. It’s a single organic body, and one spot of gangrene is enough to vitiate the whole. There’s no room upon it for dishonest, tyrannical, irresponsible Governments. As long as they exist they will always be centres of trouble and of danger. But there are many races which appear to be so incapable of improvement that we can never hope to get a good Government out of them. What is to be done, then? The former device of Providence in such a case was extermination by some more virile stock. An Attila or a Tamerlane pruned off the weaker branch. Now, we have a more merciful substitution of rulers, or even of mere advice from a more advanced race. That is the case with the Central Asian Khanates and with the protected States of India. If the work has to be done, and if we are the best fitted for the work, then I think that it would be cowardice and a crime to shirk it.”
“But who is to decide whether it is a fitting case for your interference?” objected the American.
“A predatory country could grab every other land in the world upon such a pretext.”
“Events – inexorable, inevitable events – will decide it. Take this Egyptian business as an example. In 1881 there was nothing in this world further from the minds of our people than any interference with Egypt; and yet 1882 left us in possession of the country. There was never any choice in the chain of events. A massacre in the streets of Alexandria, and the mounting of guns to drive out our fleet – which was there, you understand, in fulfillment of solemn treaty obligations – led to the bombardment. The bombardment lead to the landing to save the city from destruction. The landing caused an extension of operations – and here we are, with the country upon our hands. At the time of trouble we begged and implored the French or any one else to come and help us set the thing to rights, but they all deserted us when there was work to be done, though they were ready to scold and to impede us now. When we tried to get out of it, up came this wild Dervish movement, and we had to sit tighter than ever. We never wanted the task; but now that is has come, we must put it through in a workmanlike manner. We’ve brought justice into the country, and purity of administration, and protection for the poor man. It has made more advance in the last twelve years than since the Moslem invasion in the seventh century. Except the pay of a couple of hundred men, who spend their money directly in the country, England has neither directly nor indirectly made a shilling out of it, and I don’t believe you will find in history a more successful and more disinterested bit of work.”