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This is a excerpt from the 1982 book by Laurens van der Post titled, Yet Being Someone Other. This portion of the story occurs during his passage on the Japanese cargo ship Canada Maru in 1926 from Port Natal, to Mombasa in Kenya, and thru the islands `slung along the equator like a girdle of emeralds' as Conrad's Lord Jim had found Malaysia and what is today called Indonesian to be, and on to Japan.
This segment is included here because it serves to convey some inkling of the love the author had for history and its deeper psychic significance than what usually passes for the story telling of what our forebearers saw and did. But history includes so much more than what it is usually consigned to by this sort superficial recounting as van der Post describes in the beginning of his 1975 biography of Carl Jung, Jung and the Story of Our Time :History was written in a way that did not explain history and threw no light on its latent meaning. The legends and myths in which it has its roots and of which the dreaming process seemed so dynamic an element, as I had concluded in my amateur way. There seemed an underworld of history filled with forces far more powerful than the superficial ones that it professed to serve. Until this world was brought out into the light of day, recognised, and understood, I believed, an amply discredited pattern of self-inflicted death and disaster would continue to reiterate itself and dominate the human scene. I had even coined a name of my own for it and called it the "mythological dominant of history." I came to suspect that this area in myself, from which my childhood interest in dreams had come, was connected with it in a way not understood, because it was itself the subject of one of the most dangerous errors in our thinking. We assumed that "without" and "objective" were one and the same thing, as were "subjective" and "within." I believed that they were by no means synonymous and that there was something as objective within the human being as great as the objective without, and that men were subject to two great objective worlds, the physical world without and a world within, invisible except to the sensibilities of the imagination. [pp.20-21]This segment begins with the approach of the Canada Maru to the tropical shores of east Africa south of the equator. It is with the sixth paragraph that van der Post begins his explication of his own sense of the changes in European Empire that were underway throughout the world at that time, and the openings such change provides the possibility of for "a recharging of the arrested post-renaissance spirit into greater and more significant forms of being."
In this fashion, after many days, almost precisely at noon (wherein, my teacher had just informed me, midnight is born), we had our first glimpse since we had left Port Natal, of the coast of East Africa. It did not cause much excitement in Plomer or Mori, for whom it was little more than a landmark proving how faultless his navigation had been. Seen from the shade of our little deck on a day white with heat and a haze almost as dense as fog, it was indeed not a dramatic sight. It appeared just a dark line drawn firmly on the infirm air; now and then surges of white of a ghostly kind against it marked the breakers of the Indian Ocean swell. But through the glasses that I borrowed and when Mori told me it was the port of Mozambique, it was another matter. I could then just see the flamingo pink coral below the line of the land, and the fort or castle resting still intact on the foundations Vasco da Gama had provided for it (so legend had it), in stones carried as ballast from Lisbon, four hundred and twenty-eight years before. I knew both legend and history well. The Portuguese had had to fight desperately against disease, malnutrition and stubborn rivals like the Dutch, in order to maintain their hold on that strategic base on their route to the Far East. Immediately that mere outline in the light of a day so fierce that it hissed like a serpent in my ears, became an ideogram of the kind that I had been studying that morning with direct access to all the emotions of endeavour and seeking that had brought us to Africa and, in sense, had impelled me to follow through as an odd sort of pilgrim of history, in the wake of Vasco da Gama and his successors. I continued to watch the land until it vanished not below the horizon but burnt out like ashes into the fire of the day. I went to lunch marvelling at the indifference of everyone at table to the event, and resolved that no matter how far and long I travelled I would not allow so culpable an ennui to overcome my spirit at any first glimpse of land after days at sea.
At last we came to our first landfall after Port Natal. The drama for me was set the evening before when the Canada Maru felt her way delicately through the last coral water between Dar-es-Salaam (The Haven of Peace) and the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Almost on the equator now, the sky was heavy with thunder-clouds, black as Mohamet's coffin below but piled so high above it that they were pure and white in a sky of peacock blue. From somewhere behind them, the sun at the exit of the world enfolded all with wide arch-angel's wings of light, in an immense and final clasp of valediction. Just then we saw to the east on our starboard bow the sail of our first chow, all gold in the last of the sun. It came to us like a bird out of A Thousand and One Nights pecking away at the dark blue fathoms between us, as it went up one roll of the satin swell and then over into the gleaming stretch of smoothed-out water before the next swell. Behind us, the wake of the Canada Maru changing course became more and more calligraphic. English helmsmen used to speak of their steering as writing their names on the sea. Our helmsman seemed to be doing so with the hand of a Zen master recording sudden revelation and illumination. My excitement was heightened when I saw that, small as the Arab ship was, it looked an exact reproduction of the craft that I knew from the earliest Portuguese and Dutch lithographs and paintings. Also, of course, it was still bound on the same sort of occasion then as its predecessors had monopolised for years between the Persian Gulf, the coast of Malabar and Africa. A light stirring of air out of the east brought a sharp, provocative scent to fall over our ship from the pagoda of its masts to the inner sanctuary of its captain behind the bridge. It was the smell of cloves which grew in islands of coral, emerald and palm just beyond the edge of the dark. These cloves, I was to find, spilt out from their bales for inspection on the floors of the market in Zanzibar so profusely that I had to wade up to my knees through them. Even in our ship the air was heavy as if filled with the scent of pinks and carnations. As a result we went ashore the next day, as if initiated in an order of centuries.
Yet there was little of history on show in the offshore island of Mombasa itself and particularly where the Canada Maru lay. She had been tied up at the new harbour of Kilindini to load a dull cargo of potash from the strange lake of Magadi in the south-east of Kenya. All around us were cranes, sheds, railroads and trucks of steel. Compounds of tin and metal, glittering piercingly in the sun, brought an ague offever to the heat of the shimmering day. Beyond a scattered and sprawling township of galvanized iron roofs, brick walls and dark little verandahs behind mosquito-proof netting, any expectation that one might have had of a continuation of history in stone was killed. The influence of Arabia was visually absent except in the loose, white, ankle-length dress of tall men who looked more Bantu than Hamitic as they tacked like sails from one sandy street to another. The atmosphere of the East, however, was out in force along the streets lined with Indian stores and eating houses. The smell of hot curry seemed to be as much a part of the day as the sunlight. Every now and then a flash of colour from some Indian lady in a sari (one of the few forms of dress that defies change because of its perfection of line and colour) appeared briefly in a pool of silver light between one purple shadow and another, and was as fresh and immediate as an explosion of cannas in Cochin.
Yet what redeemed Mombasa was not town and modern endeavour, brave as it was, but the land and what issued so abundantly and passionately from it in vegetation. It was my first encounter with tropical Africa and the quick, electric-green of the thick, surging grass, brush, flamboyants, jacarandas, acacias already crowded with sun-beetles and crickets to salute the day with platinum voices. In a few hours Plomer and I had seen most of the town and hastened back to our cabin and its shade. There we were visited by the editor of the local paper. He was a courageous, independent Scot of forty who looked seventy, aged by the impact of the powerful, overbearing character of the land of Africa and its influence on his interests and expectations. It appeared that now he seemed to live only for the redemption of the violent exercise of its power and assault on body and senses during the day by the coming of night and alcohol. Resentment and disappointment were so deep in his defeated, romantic character that all his adjectives were pejoratives of the coarsest kind, uttered loudly and constantly in an abrasive voice. Plomer, who could never deal with violence of mind and deed in others, withdrew into himself and maintained a total and somewhat apprehensive silence which the basically insensitive Scot felt to be an immediate and undeserved cause of offence. I had to work hard to keep the peace, and succeeded in doing so only because even at my age I had known many people like him and understood how desperate human beings became when Africa did not allow their lives to fulfil the love and hope with which they had begun. Gradually, with the help of ice-cold bottles of Japanese lager, the Scot was reduced to relative calm. And when he heard that Plomer was a poet and novelist, he convinced himself that Plomer's withdrawal from the conversation was proof of great artistic sensibility. So he set out then to find common ground between them and talked about books.
There was a book, he said, which had just caused the greatest uproar in Kenya he had ever experienced. This was Norman Leys's Kenya. Plomer had reviewed it for Voorslag and welcomed it as an attack on colour and racial prejudice. I had not read it myself then and when I later did so, although I basically agreed with Plomer, I had reservations about sitting in judgement as Dr Leys was. I also felt as concerned for the accused and for the plaintiff. Undoubtedly, however, at that moment it was a devastating reappraisal of the colony's history and condemnation of the ethics of Empire and the men who served it. Yet, not interested in either illumination or understanding, it was particularly scathing about the settlers, their great buccaneer and titled pioneers as also the commercial community. So I asked the editor if I could buy the book in Mombasa. He assured me that no one in the town, or even in Kenya, would be so foolhardy as to put the book on sale, let alone be seen in possession of it. But he had a copy of it in his office and would gladly let me have it, indeed would welcome the chance to be relieved of the burden of a tiresome and provocative volume. In due course he sent the Canada Maru's agent on board with the book wrapped in an African blanket.
I mention this apparently trivial episode at some length because it was one of the first straws in what Harold Macmillan was to call many years later, `the wind of change', not only in Africa but in the European Empire everywhere in the world. Plomer's book, of course, was such another in a different and deeper level of the contemporary spirit. It was no `wind'. In those windless days under the mediumistic blue of Africa in the year 1926, it was little more than a change of atmosphere which foretells the breaking of a drought before the thunderclouds mass and the rain falls. But to us it was like a postman's knock on the door of our time delivering an express summons of fate. Yet, I do not want to imply that these immense processes of change with which Leys's book was connected began precisely at that time. The notion of a precise beginning to living things and events is a highly abstract and arbitrary one. In a sense all, at any and every moment, is a beginning, and the most one can say, perhaps, is that when one refers to something as having begun at such and such a point, one is speaking only of one awesome minute (which Kipling once called `unforgiving') and where a stream of endings are converted into beginnings as fast as they occur; then suddenly one can become conscious of a particular change. `Alles ist ubergang': `All is transition', an inscription on a church high in a mountain valley in Switzerland, was to inform me. So in that sense the day in Mombasa was part both of a time of great transition and of personal beginning. I accept, therefore, that I was predisposed to project an overwhelmingly subjective sense of change into the world and the larger scene of life around me. Yet, this book was some objective evidence of how much more there was of change growing great in the human spirit of the day. But, like its mathematical opposite, it may have possessed no substance as yet but only position. For I still assert there was already something in the heart of the darkness of Africa and that age at large, which marked the end of the era in which Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama had been instruments of `beginning'. And this `ending' was being made more evident daily by increasing tangibles of the beginnings; of cataclysmic convulsions in the lives of men and their societies in my lifetime; the falls of darkness; the trembling of the earth; the tearing apart of the heavy curtains of the temples of the world that always precede the birth of something new and unforeseen . . . except by a few whose vision of the future is rejected and they themselves left to the cold comfort of their own tears. But what then was this objective evidence?
To give an example of something which deserves mention, there was for instance the presence there of the Canada Maru. It was, in its modest way, evidence of change brought about by the victory of Japan in the early years of the century in their war against Russia. The consequences of that victory for the European empires which were to continue to expand so confidently and brilliantly for another generation were, perhaps, too subtle to be understood by a singularly impervious age. But they were, nonetheless, lethal to Empire: as is said of the incurable illnesses of medicine, they were `terminal'. The Japanese shattered forever the European hubris of a power and right over the lives of non-western peoples all over the world, which they held to be as absolute and lasting as it was self-evident. Since the peoples in the empires over which Europe did not make the inflexible distinction which it drew itself between matter and spirit, but held them to be one and indivisible manifestations, the power of the West over their lives was automatically regarded for centuries as proof of a spiritual authority greater than they themselves possessed. The worst consequence of European empire, therefore, was not the exploitation of their imperial subjects for greed and commercial gain, as is held against it by its critics today. Had that been all there was to Empire, it could not have lasted as long, and engaged so much of what was good and noble in the many who served it with devotion to the welfare of its subjects. That dedication was incomparable, and particularly impressive when measured, as it should be measured, in the balance of values of its own time. It gave, I believe, far more than it took, and hurt itself in the end far more than it hurt others, except in the one dimension of Empire. There, its worldly power, so great over their lives and so ambivalent in their minds, had a paralytic effect on the spirit of the governed. It was as if they were hypnotised out of being themselves. They lost the will and even desire to `do' and `be' in their own natural right. But the Japanese defeat of Russia broke that spell, overnight. The paralysis of natural spirit vanished, and from that moment on began with a swiftly accelerating surge to mobilize sullen and long-arrested forces against the authors of empire.
Already there was Gandhi, who had found his Damascus a quarter of a century before in the Port Natal from which we had just come. He had broken out of this paralysis of spirit and, with the diabolic cunning of which only the saintly are capable, mobilized the forces of shame in the British, and used their own innate decency as the ultimate weapon of their destruction. The time was coming fast when this kind of decency would be carried to indecent lengths, and when the Chinese exhortation to men to `be modest also about modesty', should have been adapted in relation to the British to urge modesty in decency and self-criticism upon them. Norman Leys's book was startling evidence of how quick that poison of shame had been to act in the spirit of the British, and how far already this deadly, partial re-examination of their motives and manner of Empire had penetrated their judgement, even to the extent of identifying the revolt against Empire with what they sloganized as the `class war within our own society'. It was easy enough to laugh at these simple settlers for their outrage over the book. As simple people do the world over, they recognised far more clearly the consequences and the deadly intent of a cold calculated disregard of their own humanity than did the intellectuals and leaders of the crusade against Empire in Britain and Europe.
More important even, this process of change was not confined to colonial Empire alone. At that very moment while we loaded potash at Mombasa, leaders of the Commonwealth were being summoned to London for the gathering that ended in the Statute of Westminster, which was as revolutionary an event in the history of Empire as the Great Durham Act of 1830. Nor was evidence of change to be found only in the British Empire. The year 1926 saw the significant and strangely overlooked revolt in Bantam in Java, which was part of what was held to be Holland's superior model of empire, despite a long, unfinished war in the Atjeh of Sumatra. The Governor-Generals of the Dutch East Indies were by the year making more and more use of their powers to exile people in `the public interest' and making political prisons out of some of the smaller of those outer islands. Because they could do so without explanation, and without the bringing of formal charges and public trial, the world was not to know this until the end of the last War. In French Indo-China the incipient war of centuries between North and South which was to explode in Vietnam had not been resolved by a central metropolitan authority; and the whole of South-East Asia was uneasy, resentful and depressed as the air before a typhoon.
I could not pretend to have had a fore-knowledge then of the end to which these illustrations pointed. But I use them merely as evidence of a submission that my own awareness of change in myself was not unrelated to vast forces released in the world in 1926 to give impetus to the formidable energies accumulating on a wide front for the transformation of an entire world.
There is far more to the German concept of Zeitgeist than the antiseptic, highly sterilised rationalism of our day will admit. Nor is it German alone. The Greeks had it in their concept of the Platonic year; the Arabs and their alchemists in Astrology. The Ancient Chinese, too, held earlier than any others that time was seasonal and not merely a measure of distance travelled by the spirit of man. It was also an element with a character of its own which contributed significantly to the nature of all things born and enclosed in the same moment of itself. Not surprisingly, therefore, the German Spangler, however short in specifics but long in his intuitive vision of the Zeitgeist or character of the time, had recently delivered himself of his resounding warning in The Decline of the West - all the more awesome under a German title which reverts to the ancient Sanskrit name of Europe: `The Place Where the Sun Goes Down' or `The Land of Evening'. Even my own sensei had just planted the seed of greater awareness of these huge imponderables of life and time in me, through that simple Taoist proverb I have cited: `At noon midnight is born'. Perhaps that is as good an epigram as can be coined for the essentials of all I felt in the atmosphere of time around me in 1926: it was a high-noon in which the midnight of today was being born.
Yet, I must add that even the instruments of the universal change implied were not conscious of what they were doing or had done. They confused the elemental urge by lusting after the very things they were destroying, just as the long-distance men who had encouraged the Canada Maru's mission were already busily conceiving a dream of the greatest Empire ever. In Japan itself, the external catalyst for precipitation of fearsome change suspended in the national soul was about to be released. Two generations and some years of the great Meiji era were about to be relegated forever to history. The Emperor Meiji's successor was dying, and indeed was to die before I finally said farewell to the world of the Canada Maru. The cold of one of the coldest New Years was to begin under a new Emperor, and to bring into rapid being a new, dangerous, and, like those of Hitler and Mussolini, self-destructive society. But it was on the mainland of Asia, across the Sea of Japan in China, that the end of Western Empire was nearest of all. A young Chinese soldier, Chiang Kai-Shek, fresh from a Russian Military Academy and married to the formidable Mei-Lin, one of three gifted sisters of perhaps the most powerful Chinese family of the day, was collecting his forces at that very moment for his famous march on Nanking. In so doing he began the campaign against the great warlords for the reunification of a long fragmented civilization, as well as the abolition of the rich, self-regulating concessions the British, French, Germans and Japanese had established on the most strategic areas of the coast, like Canton, Shanghai, Tsingtau and Tientsin.
In Europe, too, Hitler, the sleep-walking missionary and therefore the most dangerous of all, was starting his Götterdämmerung conversion of a whole people in the back streets of Bavaria, as if in total subservience to an ancient Teutonic mythological pattern which is the only one I know wherein the gods themselves have to be defeated by the forces of evil for the quenching of all but a very little light. Mussolini, already installed in Italy, had picked up this stirring of strange ambitions in Japan and spoken openly against the Japanese, referring to them not by name but as "a species of people who resembled nothing so much as monkeys who had newly come down from the trees". If they did not desist, they would find, I seem to remember him thundering at Milan, "thirty million Italian breasts and thirty million bayonets barring their way". The Japanese were duly insulted but the rest of the world did not, as I did, see it as the first open hint that he also had his sights on Abyssinia and a dream of Roman Empire resurrected by Italy as the pilot of his mind.
All these things came unbidden, as did the foam and spray of the Indian Ocean that we were sailing, to whet my imagination. And at times, most unbidden and prominent of these crowding premonitions of change, there rose the beautiful face and words of the prophet, newly arisen among the Zulu people whom I had sought out just before our departure following my instinct despite the cynical disapproval bordering on an outright veto from my Cockney news editor. But I knew in my blood how profoundly Africa was an Old Testament country almost more in need of prophets than medical officers. Therefore I was aware how significant an event this could be. And how strange, therefore, that my last piece became one of the few things I ever wrote not to be published because it was, I quote from both News and Chief Sub-Editor: "All my eye, Betsy Martin and mumbo-jumbo." The face of the prophet I will always remember. It was transfigured and of compelling beauty. My final image of the prophet is of him telling how at midnight as a boy, a Zulu Samuel, he heard a voice that could not be denied, calling and telling him to go to the top of the Sacred Hill of Inanda and look up. He did so. He looked up, in another August night, to see with blinding lucidity five great stars fall out of procession and proceed, against the natural order, to move from west to east. He rushed back to his bee-hive hut full of fear at so unnatural a sight. Five days later he was told that on the morning after the midnight vision, five great nations, five great stars of humanity, had fallen out of the lawful progression of the universe and gone to war: Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France and Great Britain. The First World War had begun. Many more stars were about to fall out of their courses, he warned me, and that, he stressed, was how and why he had been called on to prophesy and warn, for that was all a prophet could do. But warn to what effect? It was not for prophet or man to say in an age, he declared tragically, when no-one spoke any more of Umkulunkulu, the great first spirit. His praise-names were forgotten, and men now spoke only of things useful to them. How could I, a child of the same Africa, myself have failed then to conclude that no year for centuries had been of so meaningful a transition as this year of our absent Lord, 1926?
It would have been even more startling had I known what I was to discover only after the last World War, which was in itself such a gruesome confirmation of the objective aspect of my subjective feelings of change. But then, in the very Kenya which Mombasa served as port, Carl Gustav Jung had just terminated his sojourn among the Elgonyi of Mount Elgon and returned to Europe satisfied that he now possessed all the objective evidence that he needed to confirm his hypothesis of a `collective unconscious' in man. This, in time, seemed to me at least as great a breakthrough for the human spirit as Einstein's `Theory of Relativity' and those illustrious others who penetrated the secret of the atom and discovered a mysterious universe expanding in reverse. I mention these three re-directions of human seeking not because they were the only ones but because they are all, for me, part of one another. They are aspects of a potential of mind and spirit out of which will come, however much and tragically societies were about to crumble, the energies for a renewal of life and its movement, a recharging of the arrested post-renaissance spirit into greater and more significant forms of being. [pp.134-142]