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Basil Hall, RN: Toe the Line

In the early 1802, a well-educated young man named Basil Hall joined the British Royal Navy and started traveling extensively.  His voyages were sometimes military, sometimes scientific, and he saw much more of the world than most people of his day did, or even of the modern day.  His education was encouraged by his father, who also suggested that he keep diaries of all he saw and did.  This habit had been impressed upon him when he was a boy, before he ever set sail, and he kept it up all his life.

It was quite a life to keep notes on, too.  Hall was present for a lot of the action during the Napoleonic Wars, including the Battle of Waterloo.  In 1817, two years after the wars ended, Hall had the opportunity to interview Napoleon Bonaparte himself at the deposed emperor’s home/prison on St. Helena.  He explored Korea, Japan, Java, Peru, South Africa, and other far-flung locales, making copious notes along the way.  His scientific research included rock formations in the north Atlantic, Chile, and South Africa, helping to establish the geologic record of the earth that had been begun by previous explorers (sometimes referred to as “natural philosophers” like himself, as well as by later ones to keep adding to the body of knowledge, including Charles Darwin.

It’s a small wonder that Hall contributed a great deal to the Encyclopedia Britannica.  He kept his prolific journaling habit going until he retired from the Royal Navy in 1823, at the ripe old age of 35.  At that point, he set about writing down what he saw during his career abroad.  In all he wrote eight books chronicling what he saw, several of which recollected his experience in the Navy.  It was in Hall’s memoirs that the expression “toe the line” first appears.  This comes from the military discipline that was part of naval life.  When the sailors were called to muster, they were to stand in rows on their ship’s decks.  Since navies were wooden back then, the sailors would all stand along one particular plank, on the line on the deck where two planks came together, in as perfect a row as they could.  Sometimes this was also referred to as “toeing the plank”, but it was Hall’s observation that made it into the English language.

One of Hall’s books caused considerable chafing in America.  This was Travels in North America 1827-28, which covered his experiences traveling the United States, just over fifty years old.  He called things as he saw them, which many Americans did not care for.  One of the many passages reflected on Americans’ attitudes when speaking about their country.  Here is Hall recalling conversations with Americans around Albany, New York:

We were introduced with much kindness to many persons, most of whom, the instant we were presented, began to exact our admiration of their country, their people, their institutions, all while praising every thing so highly themselves, that there was hardly room for us to slip in a word edgewise.  The praising of one’s own country, its manners and customs, in conversation with a foreigner, comes so near to praising one’s self, that the person to whom it is addressed feels a sort of awkwardness either in joining, or declining to join, in such commendations.

Persons of sense and information were, of course, above descending to such arts to extort praise, and many Americans whom I met with at Albany, and elsewhere, were fully of my opinion of the impolity of making such demands upon the admiration of their guests—but I speak of the general, average mass of society in America, the current of whose thoughts, whether flowing at the surface or beneath it, appears always to set in one direction, and prompts such expressions as the following:

“Don’t you think this is a wonderful country?  Don’t you allow that we deserve great credit for what we are doing?  Do not we resemble the Old Country much more than you expected?  Had you any idea of finding us so far advanced?”

Perhaps Hall’s book gave offense by suggesting that Americans can be braggarts.  Probably the real sin in Americans’ eyes was that he suggested that there’s a better sort of American who is more considerate and solicitous of others’ opinions and a lower sort of American who can find nothing to talk about but how impressive America and the Americans are.  Are Americans really like this?  Well, consider that I’m an American, and I have spent about half this piece talking about the part that concerns Americans.  Captain Hall might have a point.

Hall’s mental health eventually declined and he died in a mental institution at the age of 55.  The details of his mental illness are not recorded, not by Hall or anyone else who has chosen to make them public.  


Anonymous said…
This isn't displaying properly (Firefox). Each paragraph is one long line with no wrapping. :(
Kurt Kaletka said…
Anonymous - Thanks for calling my attention to that! Sometimes that happens; usually I catch it. Anyway, it's fixed now.

Thanks for reading!


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