Saturday, September 24, 2011

Imperious tone

The other day a thoughtful senior colleague gave me this photograph. I fancy it was presented to him in turn by a person who spotted the sign somewhere in Jamaica. In both cases one is tempted to wonder what exactly inspired such a charming gift, however I am sure my colleague merely thought that I would be tickled by it, and not necessarily endorse the sentiment. The wacky orthography—the work, perhaps, of some mad but self-disciplined child—made me wonder if this could be a real quotation, or else some sort of subversive Wodehousean fake or pastiche, genuine though it certainly sounds. However, thanks to the awesome power of the Internet it has taken me no time at all to track down what appears to be the original, or a slightly longer version of it. According to Alan Wykes, who used the text as an epigraph to the second chapter of his Abroad: A Miscellany of English Travel Writing, 1700–1914 (London: Macdonald, 1973, p. 54), this snippet comes from the unattributed preface to Experiences of a Missionary on the Dark Continent (1908), and reads: “As a general rule it should be observed that English is always understood if it is spoken clearly and accompanied by appropriate gestures or mime. His Majesty the King Emperor is personified in every Englishman abroad and orders must be given in a suitably imperious manner. Shout if necessary, but never dissemble. God is your authority.” This was presumably the source for an almost identical but likewise sadly un-ascribed quotation that found its way into a humorous article about Englishmen abroad in Punch (vol. 269, 1975, p. 362) where but never dissemble was omitted, presumably to amplify the sound of imperial jingo (if that were possible). Maybe the sign was copied from Punch, and the substitution of tone for manner a simple truncation for space, though admittedly Punch made no mention of the highly suggestive year of 1908. One problem is that there is no record of the publication in 1908 or at any other time of a book entitled Experiences of a Missionary on the Dark Continent—neither in the catalogue of the British Library, nor in that of the Library of Congress, nor anywhere else, as far as I can see, so the identity of its author is therefore maddeningly occluded, and indeed his very existence questionable. According to Clark Worswick (An Edwardian Observer: The Photographs of Leslie Hamilton Wilson, New York: Pennwick Publishing, Inc., 1978, p. 13), the text originally appeared in “a leading travel book of the time,” though naturally this is not cited, nor even in the boiled-down version of Worswick’s impressionistic essay that somewhat expediently appeared at around the same date in American Photographer (“Leslie Hamilton Wilson,” Vol. 1, No. 5, October 1978, p. 59). In both places, Worswick sharpened the emphasis along lines presumably similar to the excision in Punch, by giving always and God is your authority in distinctly un-Edwardian italics. However, an even more tangential and recent source quotes this text exactly as it appears in the sign (in other words tone not manner and nothing at all about not dissembling), and offers quite a different explanation for its origin, or possibly an intermediate step. In his The Lichen Factor: The Quest for Community Development in Canada (Sydney, Nova Scotia: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1998, p. 32), Jim Lotz suggests with much disapproval that the text was originally inscribed on a sign and attached to the exterior of a plantation house in Jamaica. The relevant footnote refers to Destinations magazine (November 1993, p. 9). Alas we do not appear to have that organ here at Yale. I suppose it is just conceivable that, inspired by a close reading of Experiences of a Missionary on the Dark Continent, that “leading travel book,” or something similar, a sugar planter in Jamaica took matters into his own hands; amended the wording; produced his own sign, from which in due course this version was copied. We shall almost certainly never know, but I live in hope.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder, Angus, who is supposed to be greater, God, or the 'King-Emperor'. Were the English colonists angels? It all sounds like there's a bit of a superiority disorder.