Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book III. Durande and Deruchette.
II. The Old Story of Utopia.
A STEAMBOAT was a prodigious novelty in the waters of the Channel in I82-. The whole coast of Normandy was long strangely excited by it. Nowadays, ten or a dozen steam-vessels, crossing and recrossing within the bounds of the horizon, scarcely attract a glance from loiterers on the shore. At the most, some persons, whose interest or business it is to note such things, will observe the indications in their smoke of whether they burn Welsh or Newcastle coal. They pass, and that is all. "Welcome," if coming home; "a pleasant passage," if outward bound.
Folks were less calm on the subject of these wonderful inventions in the first quarter of the present century; and the new and strange machines, and their long lines of smoke, regarded with no goodwill by the Channel Islanders. In that Puritanical Archipelago, where the Queen of England has been censured for violating the Scriptures1 by using chloroform during her accouchements, the first steam-vessel which made its appearance received the name of the Devil Boat. In the eyes of these worthy fishermen, once Catholics, now Calvinists, but always bigots, it seemed to be a portion of the internal regions which had been somehow set afloat. A local preacher selected for his discourse the question of "Whether man has the right to make fire and water work together when God had divided them. This beast, composed of iron and fire, did it not resemble Leviathan? Was it not an attempt to bring chaos again into the universe? This is not the only occasion on which the progress of civilisation has been stigmatised as a return to chaos."
"A mad notion-a gross delusion-an absurdity! " Such was the verdict of the Academy of Sciences when consulted by Napoleon on the subject of steamboats, early in the present century. The poor fishermen of St. Sampson may be excused for not being in scientific matters any wiser than the mathematicians of Paris; and in religious matters a little island like Guernsey is not bound to be more enlightened than a great continent like America. In the year 1807, when the first steamboat of Fulton, commanded by Livingston, furnished with one of Watt's engines, sent from England, and manoeuvred, besides her ordinary crew, by two Frenchmen only, Andre Michaux and another, made her first voyage from New York to Albany, it happened that she set sail on the 17th of August. The Methodists took up this important fact, and in numberless chapels preachers were heard calling down a malediction on the machine, and declaring that this number 17 was no other than the total of the ten horns and seven heads of the beast of the Apocalypse. In America, they invoked against the steamboats the beast from the book of Revelation; in Europe, the reptile of the book of Genesis. This was the simple difference.
The savants had rejected steamboats as impossible; the priests had anathematised them as impious. Science had condemned, and religion consigned them to perdition. Fulton was a new incarnation of Lucifer. The simple people on the coasts and in the villages were confirmed in their prejudice by the uneasiness which they felt at the outlandish sight. The religious view of steamboats may be summed up as follows: Water and fire were divorced at the creation. This divorce was enjoined by God Himself. Man has no right to join what his Maker has put asunder; to reunite what He has disunited. The peasants' view was simply, "I don't like the look of this thing."
No one but Mess Lethierry, perhaps, could have been found at that early period daring enough to dream of such an enterprise as the establishment of a steam-vessel between Guernsey and St. Malo. He alone, as an independent thinker, was capable of conceiving such an idea, or as a hardy mariner, of carrying it out. The French part of his nature, probably, conceived the idea, the English part supplied the energy to put it in execution.
How and when this was, we are about to inform the reader.