Tropical Education by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

If any one were to ask me (which is highly unlikely) ‘In what university would an intelligent young man do best to study?’ I think I should be very much inclined indeed to answer offhand, ‘In the Tropics.’

No doubt this advice sounds on first hearing just a trifle paradoxical; and no doubt, too, the proposed university has certain serious drawbacks (like many others) on the various grounds of health, expense, faith, and morals. Senior Proctors are unknown at Honolulu; Select Preachers don’t range as far as the West Coast. But it has always seemed to me, nevertheless, that certain elements of a liberal education are to be acquired tropically which can never be acquired in a temperate, still less in an arctic or antarctic academy. This is more especially true, I allow, in the particular cases of the biologist and the sociologist; but it is also true in a somewhat less degree of the mere common arts course, and the mere average seeker after liberal culture. Vast aspects of nature and human life exist which can never adequately be understood aright except in tropical countries; vivid side-lights are cast upon our own history and the history of our globe which can never adequately be appreciated except beneath the searching and all too garish rays of a tropical sun.

Whenever I meet a cultivated man who knows his Tropics–and more particularly one who has known his Tropics during the formative period of mental development, say from eighteen to thirty–I feel instinctively that he possesses certain keys of man and nature, certain clues to the problems of the world we live in, not possessed in anything like the same degree by the mere average annual output of Oxford or of Heidelberg. I feel that we talk like Freemasons together–we of the Higher Brotherhood who have worshipped the sun, praesentiorem deum, in his own nearer temples.

Let me begin by positing an extreme parallel. How obviously inadequate is the conception of life enjoyed by the ordinary Laplander or the most intelligent Fuegian! Suppose even he has attended the mission school of his native village, and become learned there in all the learning of the Egyptians, up to the extreme level of the sixth standard, yet how feeble must be his idea of the planet on which he moves! How much must his horizon be cabined, cribbed, confined by the frost and snow, the gloom and poverty, of the bare land around him! He lives in a dark cold world of scrubby vegetation and scant animal life: a world where human existence is necessarily preserved only by ceaseless labour and at severe odds; a world out of which all the noblest and most beautiful living creatures have been ruthlessly pressed; a world where nothing great has been or can be; a world doomed by its mere physical conditions to eternal poverty, discomfort, and squalor. For green fields he has snow and reindeer moss: for singing birds and flowers, the ptarmigan and the tundra. How can he ever form any fitting conception of the glory of life–of the means by which animal and vegetable organisms first grew and flourished? How can he frame to himself any reasonable picture of civilised society, or of the origin and development of human faculty and human organisation?

Somewhat the same, though of course in a highly mitigated degree, are the disadvantages under which the pure temperate education labours, when compared with the education unconsciously drunk in at every pore by an intelligent mind in tropical climates. And fully to understand this pregnant educational importance of the Tropics we must consider with ourselves how large a part tropical conditions have borne in the development of life in general, and of human life and society in particular.

The Tropics, we must carefully remember, are the norma of nature: the way things mostly are and always have been. They represent to us the common condition of the whole world during by far the greater part of its entire existence. Not only are they still in the strictest sense the biological head-quarters: they are also the standard or central type by which we must explain all the rest of nature, both in man and beast, in plant and animal.

The temperate and arctic worlds, on the other hand, are a mere passing accident in the history of our planet: a hole-and-corner development; a special result of the great Glacial epoch, and of that vast slow secular cooling which preceded and led up to it, from the beginning of the Miocene or Mid-Tertiary period. Our European ideas, poor, harsh, and narrow, are mainly formed among a chilled and stunted fauna and flora, under inclement skies, and in gloomy days, all of which can give us but a very cramped and faint conception of the joyous exuberance, the teeming vitality, the fierce hand-to-hand conflict, and the victorious exultation of tropical life in its full free development.

All through the Primary and Secondary epochs of geology, it is now pretty certain, hothouse conditions practically prevailed almost without a break over the whole world from pole to pole. It may be true, indeed, as Dr. Croli believes (and his reasoning on the point I confess is fairly convincing), that from time to time glacial periods in one or other hemisphere broke in for a while upon the genial warmth that characterised the greater part of those vast and immeasurable primaeval aeons. But even if that were so–if at long intervals the world for some hours in its cosmical year was chilled and frozen in an insignificant cap at either extremity–these casual episodes in a long story do not interfere with the general truth of the principle that life as a whole during the greater portion of its antique existence has been carried on under essentially tropical conditions. No matter what geological formation we examine, we find everywhere the same tale unfolded in plain inscriptions before our eyes. Take, for example, the giant club-mosses and luxuriant tree-ferns nature-printed on shales of the coal age in Britain: and we see in the wild undergrowth of those palaeozoic forests ample evidence of a warm and almost West Indian climate among the low basking islets of our northern carboniferous seas. Or take once more the oolitic epoch in England, lithographed on its own mud, with its puzzle-monkeys and its sago-palms, its crocodiles and its deinosaurs, its winged pterodactyls and its whale-like lizards. All these huge creatures and these broad-leaved trees plainly indicate the existence of a temperature over the whole of Northern Europe almost as warm as that of the Malay Archipelago in our own day. The weather report for all the earlier ages stands almost uninterruptedly at Set Fair.

Roughly speaking, indeed, one may say that through the long series of Primary and Secondary formations hardly a trace can be found of ice or snow, autumn or winter, leafless boughs or pinched and starved deciduous vegetation. Everything is powerful, luxuriant, vivid. Life, as Comus feared, was strangled with its waste fertility. Once, indeed, in the Permian Age, all over the temperate regions, north and south, we get passing indications of what seems very like a glacial epoch, partially comparable to that great glaciation on whose last fringe we still abide to-day. But the Ice Age of the Permian, if such there were, passed away entirely, leaving the world once more warm and fruitful up to the very poles under conditions which we would now describe as essentially tropical.

It was with the Tertiary period–perhaps, indeed, only with the middle subdivision of that period–that the gradual cooling of the polar and intermediate regions began. We know from the deposits of the chalk epoch in Greenland that late in Secondary times ferns, magnolias, myrtles, and sago-palms–an Indian or Mexican flora–flourished exceedingly in what is now the dreariest and most ice-clad region of the northern hemisphere. Later still, in the Eocene days, though the plants of Greenland had grown slightly more temperate in type, we still find among the fossils, not only oaks, planes, vines, and walnuts, but also wellingtonias like the big trees of California, Spanish chestnuts, quaint southern salisburias, broad-leaved liquidambars, and American sassafras. Nay, even in glacier-clad Spitzbergen itself, where the character of the flora already begins to show signs of incipient chilling, we nevertheless see among the Eocene types such plants as the swamp-cyprus of the Carolinas and the wellingtonias of the Far West, together with a rich forest vegetation of poplars, birches, oaks, planes, hazels, walnuts, water-lilies, and irises. As a whole, this vegetation still bespeaks a climate considerably more genial, mild, and equable than that of modern England.

It was in this basking world of the chalk and the Eocene that the great mammalian fauna first took its rise; it was in this easy world of fruits and sunshine that the primitive ancestors of man first began to work upwards toward the distinctively human level of the palaeolithic period.

But then, in the mid-career of that third day of the geological drama, came a frost–a nipping-frost; and slowly but surely the whole arctic and antarctic worlds were chilled and cramped, degree after degree, by the gradual on-coming of the Great Ice Age. I am not going to deal here with either the causes or the extent of that colossal cataclysm; I shall take all those for granted at present: what we are concerned with now are the results it left behind–the changes which it wrought on fauna and flora and on human society. Especially is it of importance in this connection to point out that the Glacial epoch is not yet entirely finished–if, indeed, it is ever destined to be finished. We are living still on the fringe of the Ice Age, in a cold and cheerless era, the legacy of the accumulated glaciers of the northern and southern snow-fields.

If once that ice were melted off–ah, well, there is much virtue in an if. Still, Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace seems to suggest somewhere that the sun is gradually making inroads even now on those great glacier-sheets of the northern cap, just as we know he is doing on the smaller glacier-sheets of Switzerland (most of which are receding), and that in time perhaps (say in a hundred thousand years or so) warm ocean currents may once more penetrate to the very poles themselves. That, however, is neither here nor there. The fact remains that we of Northern Europe live to-day in a cramped, chilled, contracted world; a world from which all the larger, fiercer, and grander types have either been killed off or driven south; a world which stands to the full and vigorous world of the Eocene and Miocene periods in somewhat the same relation as Lapland stands to-day to Italy or the Riviera.

This being so, it naturally results that if we want really to understand the history of life, its origin and its episodes, we must turn nowadays to that part of our planet which still most nearly preserves the original conditions–that is to say, the Tropics. And it has always seemed to me, both a priori and a posteriori, that the Tropics on this account do really possess for every one of us a vast and for the most part unrecognised educational importance.

I say ‘for every one of us,’ of deliberate design. I don’t mean merely for the biologist, though to him, no doubt, their value in this respect is greatest of all. Indeed, I doubt whether the very ideas of the struggle for life, natural selection, the survival of the fittest, would ever have occurred at all to the stay-at-home naturalists of the Linnaean epoch. It was in the depths of Brazilian forests, or under the broad shade of East Indian palms, that those fertile conceptions first flashed independently upon two southern explorers. It is very noteworthy indeed that all the biologists who have done most to revolutionise the science of life in our own day–Darwin, Huxley, Wallace, Bates, Fritz Mueller, and Belt–have without exception formed their notions of the plant and animal world during tropical travels in early life. No one can read the ‘Voyage of the Beagle,’ the ‘Naturalist on the Amazons,’ or the ‘Malay Archipelago’ without feeling at every page how profoundly the facts of tropical nature had penetrated and modified their authors’ minds. On the other hand, it is well worth while to notice that the formal opposition to the new and more expansive evolutionary views came mainly from the museum and laboratory type of naturalists in London and Paris, the official exponents of dry bones, who knew nature only through books and preserved specimens, or through her impoverished and far less plastic developments in northern lands. The battle of organic evolution has been waged by the Darwins, the Huxleys, and the Muellers on the one hand, against the Cuviers, the Owens, and the Virchows on the other.

Still, it is not only in biology, as I said just now, that a taste of the Tropics in early life exerts a marked widening and philosophic influence upon a man’s whole mental horizon. In ten thousand ways, in that great tropical university, men feel themselves in closer touch than elsewhere with the ultimate facts and truths of nature. I don’t know whether it is all fancy and preconceived opinion, but I often imagine when I talk with new-met men that I can detect a certain difference in tone and feeling at first sight between those who have and those who have not passed the Tropical Tripos. In the Tropics, in short, we seem to get down to the very roots of things. Thousands of questions, social, political, economical, ethical, present themselves at once in new and more engagingly simple aspects. Difficulties vanish, distinctions disappear, conventions fade, clothes are reduced to their least common measure, man stands forth in his native nakedness. Things that in the North we had come to regard as inevitable–garments, firing, income tax, morality–evaporate or simplify themselves with instructive ease and phantasmagoric readiness. Malthus and the food question assume fresh forms, as in dissolving views, before our very eyes. How are slums conceivable or East Ends possible where every man can plant his own yam and cocoa-nut, and reap their fruit four-hundred-fold? How can Mrs. Grundy thrive where every woman may rear her own ten children on her ten-rood plot without aid or assistance from their indeterminate fathers? What need of carpentry where a few bamboos, cut down at random, can be fastened together with thongs into a comfortable chair? What use of pottery where calabashes hang on every tree, and cocoa-nuts, with the water fresh and pure within, supply at once the cup, and the filter, and the Apollinaris within?

Of course I don’t mean to assert, either, that this tropical university will in itself suffice for all the needs of educated or rather of educable men. It must be taken, bien entendu, as a supplementary course to the Literae Humaniores. There are things which can only be learnt in the crowded haunts and cities of men–in London, Paris, New York, Vienna. There are things which can only be learnt in the centres of culture or of artistic handicraft–in Oxford, Munich, Florence, Venice, Rome. There is only one Grand Canal and only one Pitti Palace. We must have Shakespeare, Homer, Catullus, Dante; we must have Phidias, Fra Angelico, Rafael, Mendelssohn; we must have Aristotle, Newton, Laplace, Spencer. But after all these, and before all these, there is something more left to learn. Having first read them, we must read ourselves out of them. We must forget all this formal modern life; we must break away from this cramped, cold, northern world; we must find ourselves face to face at last, in Pacific isles or African forests, with the underlying truths of simple naked nature. For that, in its perfection, we must go to the Tropics; and there, we shall learn and unlearn much, coming back, no doubt, with shattered faiths and broken gods, and strangely disconcerted European prejudices, but looking out upon life with a new outlook, an outlook undimmed by ten thousand preconceptions which hem in the vision and obstruct the view of the mere temperately educated.

Nor is it only on the elite of the world that this tropical training has in its own way a widening influence. It is good, of course, for our Galtons to have seen South Africa; good for our Tylors to have studied Mexico; good for our Hookers to have numbered the rhododendrons and deodars of the Himalayas. I sometimes fancy, even, that in the works of our very greatest stay-at-home thinkers on anthropological or sociological subjects, I detect here and there a certain formalist and schematic note which betrays the want of first-hand acquaintance with the plastic and expansive nature of tropical society. The beliefs and relations of the actual savage have not quite that definiteness of form and expression which our University Professors would fain assign to them. But apart from the widening influence of the Tropics on these picked minds, there is a widening influence exerted insensibly on the very planters or merchants, the rank and file of European settlers, which can hardly fail to impress all those who have lived amongst them. The cramping effect of the winter cold and the artificial life is all removed. Men live in a freer, wider, warmer air; their doors and windows stand open day and night; the scent of flowers and the hum of insects blow in upon them with every breeze; their brother man and sister woman are more patent in every action to their eyes; the world shows itself more frankly; it has fewer secrets, and readier sympathies. I don’t mean to say the result is all gain. Far from it. There are evils inherent in tropical life which, as a noble lord remarks of nature generally, “no preacher can heal.” But viewed as education, like Saint-Simon’s thieving, it is all valuable. I should think most men who have once passed through a tropical experience would no more wish that full chapter blotted out of their lives than they would consent to lose their university culture, their Continental travel, or their literary, scientific, or artistic education.

And what are the elements of this tropical curriculum which give it such immense educational value? I think they are manifold. A few only may be selected as of typical importance.

In the first place, because first in order of realisation, there is its value as a mental bouleversement, a revolution in ideas, a sort of moral and intellectual cold shower-bath, a nervous shock to the system generally. The patient or pupil gets so thoroughly upset in all his preconceived ideas; he finds all round him a life so different from the life to which he has been accustomed in colder regions, that he wakes up suddenly, rubs his eyes hard, and begins to look about him for some general explanation of the world he lives in. It is good for the ordinary man to get thus unceremoniously upset. Take the average young intelligence of the London streets, with its glib ideas already formed from supply and demand in a civilised country, where soil is appropriated, and classes distinct, and commodities drop as it were from the clouds upon the middle-class breakfast-table–take such an intelligence, self-satisfied and empty, and place its possessor all at once in a new environment, where everything material, mental, and moral seems topsy-turvy, where life is real and morals are rudimentary–and unless he is a very particular fool indeed, what a lot you must really give that blithe new-comer to turn over and think about! The sun that shifts now north, now south of him; the seasons that go by fours instead of twos; the trees that blossom and bear fruit from January to December, with no apparent regard for the calendar months as by law established; the black, brown, or yellow people, who know not his creed or his social code; the castes and cross-divisions that puzzle and surprise him; the pride and the scruples, deeper than those of civilised life, but that nevertheless run counter to his own; the economic conditions that defy his preconceptions; the virtues and the vices that equally rub him up the wrong way–all these things are highly conducive to the production of that first substratum of philosophic thinking, a Socratic attitude of supreme ignorance, a pure Cartesian frame of universal doubt.

Then again there is the marvellous exuberance and novelty of the fauna and flora. And this once more has something better for us all than mere specialist interest. Sugar and ginger grow for all alike. For we must remember that not only do the Tropics represent the vastly greater portion of the world’s past: they also represent the vastly greater portion of the world’s present. By far the larger part of the land surface of the earth is tropical or subtropical; the temperate and arctic regions make up but a minor and unimportant fraction of the soil of our planet. And if we include the sea as well, this truth becomes even more strikingly evident: the Tropics are even now the rule of life; the colder regions are but an abnormal and outlying eccentricity of nature. Yet it is from this starved and dwarfed and impoverished northern area that most of us have formed our views of life, to the total exclusion of the wider, richer, more varied world that calls for our admiration in tropical latitudes.

Insensibly this richness and vividness of nature all around one, on a first visit to the Tropics, sinks into one’s mind, and produces profound, though at first unconscious, modifications in one’s whole mode of regarding man and his universe. Especially is this the case in early life, when the character is still plastic and the eye still keen: pictures are formed in that brilliant sunshine and under those dim arches of hot grey sky that photograph themselves for ever on the lasting tablets of the human memory. John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography dwells lovingly, I remember, on the profound effect produced on himself by his childish visits to Jeremy Bentham at Ford Abbey in Dorsetshire, on the delightful sense of space and freedom and generous expansion given to his mind by the mere act of living and moving in those stately halls and wide airy gardens. Every university man must look back with pleasure of somewhat the same sort to the free breezy memories of the quadrangles and common rooms of Christ Church or of Trinity. But in the tropical university everybody passes his time in arcades of Greek or Pompeian airiness: the palm-trees wave and whisper around his head as he sits for coolness on his wide verandah; the humming-birds dart from flower to flower on the delicate bouquets that crowd his drawing-room. I knew a lady who made a capital collection of butterflies and moths at her own dinner-table by simply impounding in paper boxes the insects that flitted about the lamp at dessert. Why, if it comes to that, the very bread itself comprises generally a whole entomological cabinet, and contains in fragments the disjecta membra of specimens enough to stock entire glass cases at severe South Kensington. How’s that for an inducement to study life where it is richest and most abundant in its native starting-place?

But above all in educational importance I rank the advantage of seeing human nature in its primitive surroundings, far from the squalid and chilly influences of the tail-end of the Glacial epoch. I admit at once that cold has done much, exceeding much, for human development–has been the mother of civilisation in somewhat the same sense that necessity has been the mother of invention. To it, no doubt, we owe to a great extent, in varying stages, clothing, the house, fire, the steam-engine. Yet none the less is it true that the first levels of society must needs have been passed under essentially tropical conditions, and that nascent civilisation spread but slowly northward, from Egypt and Asia, through Greece and Italy, to the cloudy regions where its chief centres are at present domiciled under canopies of coal smoke. And even to-day the sight of the tropics, green and luxuriant, brings us into touch at once with earlier ideas and habits of the race–makes us more able not only to understand, but also to sympathise with, our ancient ancestors of the naked-and-not-ashamed era of culture. Views formed exclusively in the North tend too much to imitate the reduced gentlewoman’s outlook upon life; views formed in the Tropics correct this refractive influence by a certain genial and tolerant virile expansion, not to be learned at the Common, Clapham.

To one whose economic pendulum has hitherto oscillated between selfish luxury in Mayfair and squalid poverty in Seven Dials, there is indeed a world of novelty in the first view of the tropical poverty that is not squalid but contentedly luxurious–of the dusky father with his wife or wives (the mere number is a detail) sprawling at full length, half clad, in the eye of the sun, before the palm-thatched hut, while the fat black babies and the fat black little pigs wallow together almost indistinguishably in the dust at his side, just out of reach of the muscular foot that might otherwise of pure wantonness molest them. What a flood of light it all casts upon the future possibilities of society, that leisured, cultureless household, on whose garden-plot yam or bread-fruit or bananas or sweet potatoes can be grown in sufficient quantity to support the family without more labour than in England would pay for its kitchen coals; where the hut is but a shelter from rain, or a bed-curtain for night, and where the untaxed sun supplies the place of a drawing-room fire all the year round, and warms the water for the baby’s bath at nothing the gallon! If there is any man who doesn’t sympathise with his dusky brother when he sees him thus at home in his airy palace–any man who doesn’t fraternise closely with his kind when thus brought face to face with our primitive existence, I don’t envy him his stern and wild Caledonian ethics. The beach-comber instinct should be strong in all sane minds. Or if that blunt way of putting it perchance offend the weaker brethren, let us say rather, the spirit of the Lotus-eaters. For the man who doesn’t want to eat of the Lotus just once in his life has become too civilised: the iron of the Gradgrind era of universal competition and payment by results has entered to deeply into his sordid soul. He wants a course of Egypt and Tahiti.

Oh, yes; I know what you are going to object, and I grant it at once: the influence of the Tropics is by no means an ascetic one. They, tend rather to encourage a certain genial and friendly tolerance of all possible human forms of society–even the lowest. They are essentially democratic, not to say socialistic and revolutionary in tone. By bringing us all down to the underlying verities of life, apart from its conventions, they beget perhaps a somewhat hasty impatience of Court dress and the Lord Chamberlain’s regulations. But, per contra, they teach us to feel that every man, whether black, brown, or white, is very human, and every woman and child, if possible, even a trifle more so. Wicked as it all is, there is yet in tropical political economy more of the Gospel according to St. John, and less of Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus, than in any orthodox political economy prescribed by examiners for the University of London. It is something to see a world where ceaseless toil is not the necessary and inevitable lot of all who don’t pay income tax on a thousand a year, even if Board schools are unknown and quadratic equations a vanishing quantity. It is something to see a stick of sugar-cane protruding from the mouth of every child, and oranges retailed at twelve for a ha’penny. It is something to know how the vast majority of the human race still live and move and have their being, and to feel that after all their mode of life, though lacking in Greek iambics, wallpapers, and the Saturday Review, yet appeals in its own beach-comberish way to some of one’s inmost and deepest yearnings. The hibiscus that flames before the wattled hut, the parrot that chatters from the green and golden mango-tree, the lithe, healthy figures of the children in the stream, are some compensation for the lack of London mud, London fog, and London illustrations of practical Christianity in the Isle of Dogs and the Bermondsey purlieus. I don’t know whether I am knocking the last nail into the completed coffin of my own contention, but I believe every right-minded man returns from the Tropics a good deal more of a Communist than when he went there.

One word of explanation to prevent mistake. I am not myself, like Kingsley or Wallace, an enthusiastic tropicist. On the contrary, viewed as a place of permanent residence, I don’t at all like the Tropics to live in. I am pleading here only for their educational value, in small doses. Spending two or three years there in the heyday of life is very much like reading Herodotus–a thing one is glad one had once to do, but one would never willingly do again for any money. We northern creatures are remote products of the Great Ice Age, and by this time, like Polar bears, we have grown adapted to our glacial environment. All the more, therefore, is it a useful shaking-up for us to get transported bodily from our cramped and poverty-stricken northern slums, just once in our life, to the palms and temples of the South, the lands where the human body is a hardy plant, not a frail exotic. We come back to our chilly home among the fogs and bogs with wider projects for the thawing down of the social ice-heap, and the introduction of the bread-fruit-tree and the currant-bun-bush into the remotest wilds of the borough of Hackney. I am not even quite sure that tropical experience doesn’t predispose us somewhat in favour of planting the sweet potato instead of grazing battering-rams in the uplands of Connemara. But hush; I hear an editorial frown. No more of this heresy.

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