Being the account of a traveller to parts unknown
I took ship from Bristol in my thirtieth year, being resolved to join my uncle in a trading venture in the Indies. Three weeks into our voyage, after a day of unusual calm, a great storm blew up which tossed us around for many days and snapped the foremast. When it abated, we were still able to make headway, but the Captain confessed that he did not know in what part of the world we were.
We steered westward, but by now we were in need of water, since one of the barrels had been breached in the rolling of the ship. As we debated in which direction the nearest land might lie, the lookout spied an island five leagues to starboard. We changed course and the Captain directed me, with three others, to go with a cask in the ship’s boat and try to obtain water.
When we were within a league of this island we saw a crowd of people on it who were making a great commotion. They had gathered on the cliff, which rose to about a hundred foot at that point, and were wielding long wooden poles that reached down to the water. These poles ran through iron hoops that had been inserted into the face of the cliff.
I concluded that they were fishing and that the fish they were attempting to catch could for some reason only be caught from a great height. They quarrelled continually among themselves as they did this, and so churned up the water that I thought it would be unlikely they caught anything at all.
So intent were they on their task that we were within hailing distance of them before they saw us, and then they were greatly alarmed. They conferred together, and at last one of them came forward to the edge of the cliff and demanded to know what we wanted.
I responded courteously, saying that we were seafarers who had been driven off our course by a storm and needed to replenish our water-cask, which I hoped he would be Christian enough to allow us to do. His reply astonished me by its barbarity: it was, “We have little enough water for ourselves; why should we give any of it to you?”
As we rested our oars and considered whether we should row to a remoter part of the island and try to find water there, I pulled out my pocket-glass and was able to discern, quite clearly on the horizon, the outline of another island, or – it might be – the mainland itself. I said to my companions that it would be better to return at once with this news to the ship, rather than wait on the pleasure of this surly fellow. But, as we debated, he was pulled back from the cliff by another, who took his place. This gentleman, of pleasanter aspect (for the first glowered as if a pin had been stuck in a tender part of him), called out to us that we were welcome to “come aboard”, as he expressed it, and could leave our boat on a patch of sand below the cliff. But he must warn us that the island created much turbulence in its passage and we could not leave the boat for long.
I did not understand the latter part of his speech; however, trusting to the first part of it, we rowed to the patch of sand and drew the boat up on it, securing the rope around a rock.
He came down the cliff path to meet us, accompanied by two young men whom he introduced as his sons. He was a magistrate of the nearest town. He said his sons would come with us to the stream, where we could fill our cask, and afterwards he would be very pleased to entertain us at his house. He made it plain that he would be as indebted to us as we to him, since fresh faces were never seen on the island of Glumdreary and he, though he durst not say so, heartily regretted that it had ever severed itself from the mainland.
I could make no more of this speech than of his earlier one, but said nothing. At the top of the path the cliff-edge was greatly crowded by people jostling and instructing those with the poles in how to use them, which advice was not welcomed, and men bringing ropes and other equipment and insisting in its immediate employment in the task. The two sons brought us a cart, to which was harnessed a thin-looking mare, and we put our cask in it and walked together into the countryside.
It had a puzzling appearance: in some parts the soil looked thin and dry from over-use; in other places it was fertile but had been long neglected. The road was bad; often we had to steady the cart with our hands to prevent it from overturning. After about half an hour had passed in which we had seen cattle and cereal crops, but not in great abundance, and numerous women working in the fields but no men, we ventured to ask where all the men of that island were.
“On the cliffs,” said the younger of the two.
We asked what they were doing there, for such had been the confusion that it was impossible to make out.
The elder said with solemnity, “There is a constant need of oarsmen.”
I said, bewildered, “Those long poles are oars?”
“They are indeed, sir,” said the elder.
“It is heavy work,” the younger one explained, “and only men are fit for it.”
“But what,” I said, “are they rowing?”
They looked at me in astonishment. “Why, the island, of course,” they said.
We had now reached the stream, and my companions and I were glad to occupy ourselves with manhandling the cask out of the wagon and into the water. The stream flowed fast at that point since there was a declivity in the bed, and the cask was easily filled. Returning the way we had come, we talked of the countryside, of what crops were grown and in what the people’s diet chiefly consisted. It seemed to me lacking in variety although there was no shortage of potatoes, greens and carrots. Oats were grown for the horses, we were told, and the upper classes had meat. Fish were caught in nets: this was the young men’s trade. However, the shoals were diminishing for a reason that was not understood but might, it was conjectured, have to do with the speed of the island through the water.
I had decided to reserve my questions for the magistrate. But he, having seen to the lowering of our cask into the boat and set a man to guard it, then took us to his house where, directing his wife to bring refreshments, he began to ply us with questions about our voyage, the country from which we came, our various adventures, and the like. These we answered as well as we could, but never fully enough for his taste, for truly his curiosity was insatiable and arose, I thought, from some terrible affliction of the spirit, for often as we spoke he would groan, as though being shown an image of something he greatly desired but could not possess.
When we could tell him no more he said, in a quiet voice, that we were happy mortals, to rejoice still in that liberty which God had given to all men but which his fellow-countrymen had foolishly thrown away in pursuit of a dream.
I begged him to explain what he meant. Then, rising from his chair, he walked to the parlour door and locked it and afterwards cast a glance out of the window. Resuming his seat, he began to tell us the story of his island.
It had once, he said, been a great nation: one would not think it now, seeing the poverty of its inhabitants, the ruinous state of the highways, the deserted villages and abandoned mills, the silent boatyards and the rotting wharves. And although he acknowledged the smallness of it, he said with pride that it had once ruled half the world. How it had come to lose that lofty position was a tale too long to be told in an afternoon, but the effect of the loss had been twofold: it had fatally weakened the island’s polity and economy, and it had addled the brains of its inhabitants.
In this enfeebled state, it had entered into an alliance with the mainland. At the time, there had been some who maintained that by this act it would lose its ancient liberties. To which the rest retorted that ancient liberties did not feed anyone and that the alliance promised, through an increase in commerce, great prosperity. And for a while, said the magistrate, it appeared to be true. Trade flourished, there was peace where in former times there had been war, and many people came and went between the island and the mainland and lived in either place with amity.
But then a faction arose, drawn from the original number who had objected to the alliance, to whom were now joined others who had been swayed by various arguments, that said the benefits gained from the alliance were vastly outweighed by the evil and tyrannous behaviour of the mainlanders, whose sole purpose was to enslave the inhabitants of the island. And indeed, said the magistrate, they had at times been over-mighty towards other nations to which they were allied, although not, he judged, to his own; and it was also true that they demanded the islanders obey a great many of their laws, although, again, it had to be said that the laws were trifling and mainly concerned things like weights and measures and the proper appearance of apples, and were easily evaded. So that he himself, being a young man at the time, did not know what to think, and nor did most of the populace, but all might still have been well and the trouble confined to bad-tempered muttering in the market place, had not the government taken it into its head to ask the people what their opinion was.
Now since, as he had explained, they did not know what their opinion was, but since that did not constitute an opinion, they were reduced to saying the only thing they could say, which was that they were mightily discontented. And so they were, but largely with the government. But this reply was construed as meaning that the island should forthwith leave the alliance.
No sooner had this been announced than half the population realised that this was not what they had meant at all, while the other half rejoiced greatly (for they believed that by this means their lives would be much improved) and heaped insults upon the first half, calling them traytors. Which insult was richly returned by the first half, who called the second half fools. And thus, said the magistrate, what had been a contented and prosperous country became overnight a bear-pit of backbiters, traducers, stiletto-wielders, blackmailers, plotters, cheats, lawyers, special advisers, felons, newspaper magnates and knaves, while all the mainlanders who had come to live in the island made haste to leave, and all the islanders who had gone to live on the mainland clamoured to stay there because they preferred it, but were told they could not.
The government being replaced by a new one more in accord with the decision that had been taken, a further resolution was made whose carrying-through would necessarily be difficult. Nevertheless it was confident, the government said, that the thing could be done, and it added that in the circumstances there was no alternative because of the increasing malevolence of the mainland.
It was resolved to sunder the island from its base on the seabed and row it out to sea.
Examining our faces, the magistrate acknowledged that it was a bold undertaking, but said it was not beyond the capacity of his countrymen. It was evident that, while not agreeing with it, he admired the scope of its ambition.
“No-one was supposed to know,” he said, “in case our enemies tried to stop us, but we could all hear the quarrying and tunnelling, the falling of the rocks. Occasionally some poor wretch would be seen on the streets with a crushed leg, that had been injured in the workings. It took fourteen months to the day.”
“That seems not very long,” I said, chusing my words with care.
“It was done in haste. Medals were presented to the engineers and workers, and there was a publick celebration. We still had wine in those days. Now there is only beer.” He touched his cup. “And this.”
We were drinking a watery concoction flavoured with some herb. It was too astringent: I wondered if they had sugar. Certainly, in this latitude they could not grow it.
“So you see what has become of us through this ill-judged policy,” said our host. “Everyone has fled from us because they say we are mad. Nobody comes here. Your company, gentlemen, is the first diversion I have had in many years in this place. And nobody is allowed to leave.”
“Nobody is allowed to leave?” I protested in alarm.
“You will be, of course. But it is considered treason for any islander to leave the island. The attempt is punished by imprisonment. And, to be frank with you, that is a mercy, because if, for instance, I attempted to escape and was apprehended but left at liberty, I would not long survive, such is the feeling against citizens who do not entirely support the government in its bid for freedom.”
I said I did not understand his use of the word when what he had just described was the opposite of it.
He explained that he was talking about the untiring efforts of the islanders to free themselves from the influence of the mainland. It was hoped that within a year the rowing could stop: Glumdreary would have reached the mid-point of the ocean and would be able to drop anchor.
In respect to this hope, or our own thoughts, none of us said anything for a while. Then we all spoke with a common impulse, offering to smuggle him on to our boat inside a blanket, and assuring him he could disembark wherever he wished. I was confident that the Captain, out of humanity, would allow this.
He thanked us but refused. He had a wife and two sons, a house and garden where he grew vegetables, his post as a magistrate. He could not abandon these.
We left him at evening, with much gratitude for his kindness. As we rowed away from the island, I took out my spyglass: the mainland appeared not a whit further away than when we had landed.
With acknowledgements to Jonathan Swift