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Transcribed from the 1919 Mills and Boon edition by David Price, email
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THE HUMAN DRIFT
by Jack London


Contents:

The Human Drift
Small-Boat Sailing
Four Horses and a Sailor
Nothing that Ever Came to Anything
That Dead Men Rise up Never
A Classic of the Sea
A Wicked Woman (Curtain Raiser)
The Birth Mark (Sketch)




THE HUMAN DRIFT


"The Revelations of Devout and Learn'd
Who rose before us, and as Prophets Burn'd,
Are all but stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return'd."

The history of civilisation is a history of wandering, sword in hand, in
search of food. In the misty younger world we catch glimpses of phantom
races, rising, slaying, finding food, building rude civilisations,
decaying, falling under the swords of stronger hands, and passing utterly
away. Man, like any other animal, has roved over the earth seeking what
he might devour; and not romance and adventure, but the hunger-need, has
urged him on his vast adventures. Whether a bankrupt gentleman sailing
to colonise Virginia or a lean Cantonese contracting to labour on the
sugar plantations of Hawaii, in each case, gentleman and coolie, it is a
desperate attempt to get something to eat, to get more to eat than he can
get at home.

It has always been so, from the time of the first pre-human anthropoid
crossing a mountain-divide in quest of better berry-bushes beyond, down
to the latest Slovak, arriving on our shores to-day, to go to work in the
coal-mines of Pennsylvania. These migratory movements of peoples have
been called drifts, and the word is apposite. Unplanned, blind,
automatic, spurred on by the pain of hunger, man has literally drifted
his way around the planet. There have been drifts in the past,
innumerable and forgotten, and so remote that no records have been left,
or composed of such low-typed humans or pre-humans that they made no
scratchings on stone or bone and left no monuments to show that they had
been.

These early drifts we conjecture and know must have occurred, just as we
know that the first upright-walking brutes were descended from some kin
of the quadrumana through having developed "a pair of great toes out of
two opposable thumbs." Dominated by fear, and by their very fear
accelerating their development, these early ancestors of ours, suffering
hunger-pangs very like the ones we experience to-day, drifted on, hunting
and being hunted, eating and being eaten, wandering through thousand-year-
long odysseys of screaming primordial savagery, until they left their
skeletons in glacial gravels, some of them, and their bone-scratchings in
cave-men's lairs.

There have been drifts from east to west and west to east, from north to
south and back again, drifts that have criss-crossed one another, and
drifts colliding and recoiling and caroming off in new directions. From
Central Europe the Aryans have drifted into Asia, and from Central Asia
the Turanians have drifted across Europe. Asia has thrown forth great
waves of hungry humans from the prehistoric "round-barrow" "broad-heads"
who overran Europe and penetrated to Scandinavia and England, down
through the hordes of Attila and Tamerlane, to the present immigration of
Chinese and Japanese that threatens America. The Phoenicians and the
Greeks, with unremembered drifts behind them, colonised the
Mediterranean. Rome was engulfed in the torrent of Germanic tribes
drifting down from the north before a flood of drifting Asiatics. The
Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, after having drifted whence no man knows,
poured into Britain, and the English have carried this drift on around
the world. Retreating before stronger breeds, hungry and voracious, the
Eskimo has drifted to the inhospitable polar regions, the Pigmy to the
fever-rotten jungles of Africa. And in this day the drift of the races
continues, whether it be of Chinese into the Philippines and the Malay
Peninsula, of Europeans to the United States or of Americans to the wheat-
lands of Manitoba and the Northwest.

Perhaps most amazing has been the South Sea Drift. Blind, fortuitous,
precarious as no other drift has been, nevertheless the islands in that
waste of ocean have received drift after drift of the races. Down from
the mainland of Asia poured an Aryan drift that built civilisations in
Ceylon, Java, and Sumatra. Only the monuments of these Aryans remain.
They themselves have perished utterly, though not until after leaving
evidences of their drift clear across the great South Pacific to far
Easter Island. And on that drift they encountered races who had
accomplished the drift before them, and they, the Aryans, passed, in
turn, before the drift of other and subsequent races whom we to-day call
the Polynesian and the Melanesian.

Man early discovered death. As soon as his evolution permitted, he made
himself better devices for killing than the old natural ones of fang and
claw. He devoted himself to the invention of killing devices before he
discovered fire or manufactured for himself religion. And to this day,
his finest creative energy and technical skill are devoted to the same
old task of making better and ever better killing weapons. All his days,
down all the past, have been spent in killing. And from the
fear-stricken, jungle-lurking, cave-haunting creature of long ago, he won
to empery over the whole animal world because he developed into the most
terrible and awful killer of all the animals. He found himself crowded.
He killed to make room, and as he made room ever he increased and found
himself crowded, and ever he went on killing to make more room. Like a
settler clearing land of its weeds and forest bushes in order to plant
corn, so man was compelled to clear all manner of life away in order to
plant himself. And, sword in hand, he has literally hewn his way through
the vast masses of life that occupied the earth space he coveted for
himself. And ever he has carried the battle wider and wider, until to-
day not only is he a far more capable killer of men and animals than ever
before, but he has pressed the battle home to the infinite and invisible
hosts of menacing lives in the world of micro-organisms.

It is true, that they that rose by the sword perished by the sword. And
yet, not only did they not all perish, but more rose by the sword than
perished by it, else man would not to-day be over-running the world in
such huge swarms. Also, it must not be forgotten that they who did not
rise by the sword did not rise at all. They were not. In view of this,
there is something wrong with Doctor Jordan's war-theory, which is to the
effect that the best being sent out to war, only the second best, the men
who are left, remain to breed a second-best race, and that, therefore,
the human race deteriorates under war. If this be so, if we have sent
forth the best we bred and gone on breeding from the men who were left,
and since we have done this for ten thousand millenniums and are what we
splendidly are to-day, then what unthinkably splendid and god-like beings
must have been our forebears those ten thousand millenniums ago!
Unfortunately for Doctor Jordan's theory, those ancient forebears cannot
live up to this fine reputation. We know them for what they were, and
before the monkey cage of any menagerie we catch truer glimpses and hints
and resemblances of what our ancestors really were long and long ago. And
by killing, incessant killing, by making a shambles of the planet, those
ape-like creatures have developed even into you and me. As Henley has
said in "The Song of the Sword":

"_The Sword Singing_ -

Driving the darkness,
Even as the banners
And spear of the Morning;
Sifting the nations,
The Slag from the metal,
The waste and the weak
From the fit and the strong;
Fighting the brute,
The abysmal Fecundity;
Checking the gross
Multitudinous blunders,
The groping, the purblind
Excesses in service
Of the Womb universal,
The absolute drudge."

As time passed and man increased, he drifted ever farther afield in
search of room. He encountered other drifts of men, and the killing of
men became prodigious. The weak and the decadent fell under the sword.
Nations that faltered, that waxed prosperous in fat valleys and rich
river deltas, were swept away by the drifts of stronger men who were
nourished on the hardships of deserts and mountains and who were more
capable with the sword. Unknown and unnumbered billions of men have been
so destroyed in prehistoric times. Draper says that in the twenty years
of the Gothic war, Italy lost 15,000,000 of her population; "and that the
wars, famines, and pestilences of the reign of Justinian diminished the
human species by the almost incredible number of 100,000,000." Germany,
in the Thirty Years' War, lost 6,000,000 inhabitants. The record of our
own American Civil War need scarcely be recalled.

And man has been destroyed in other ways than by the sword. Flood,
famine, pestilence and murder are potent factors in reducing
population - in making room. As Mr. Charles Woodruff, in his "Expansion
of Races," has instanced: In 1886, when the dikes of the Yellow River
burst, 7,000,000 people were drowned. The failure of crops in Ireland,
in 1848, caused 1,000,000 deaths. The famines in India of 1896-7 and
1899-1900 lessened the population by 21,000,000. The T'ai'ping rebellion
and the Mohammedan rebellion, combined with the famine of 1877-78,
destroyed scores of millions of Chinese. Europe has been swept
repeatedly by great plagues. In India, for the period of 1903 to 1907,
the plague deaths averaged between one and two millions a year. Mr.
Woodruff is responsible for the assertion that 10,000,000 persons now
living in the United States are doomed to die of tuberculosis. And in
this same country ten thousand persons a year are directly murdered. In
China, between three and six millions of infants are annually destroyed,
while the total infanticide record of the whole world is appalling. In
Africa, now, human beings are dying by millions of the sleeping sickness.

More destructive of life than war, is industry. In all civilised
countries great masses of people are crowded into slums and
labour-ghettos, where disease festers, vice corrodes, and famine is
chronic, and where they die more swiftly and in greater numbers than do
the soldiers in our modern wars. The very infant mortality of a slum
parish in the East End of London is three times that of a middle-class
parish in the West End. In the United States, in the last fourteen
years, a total of coal-miners, greater than our entire standing army, has
been killed and injured. The United States Bureau of Labour states that
during the year 1908, there were between 30,000 and 35,000 deaths of
workers by accidents, while 200,000 more were injured. In fact, the
safest place for a working-man is in the army. And even if that army be
at the front, fighting in Cuba or South Africa, the soldier in the ranks
has a better chance for life than the working-man at home.

And yet, despite this terrible roll of death, despite the enormous
killing of the past and the enormous killing of the present, there are to-
day alive on the planet a billion and three quarters of human beings. Our
immediate conclusion is that man is exceedingly fecund and very tough.
Never before have there been so many people in the world. In the past
centuries the world's population has been smaller; in the future
centuries it is destined to be larger. And this brings us to that old
bugbear that has been so frequently laughed away and that still persists
in raising its grisly head - namely, the doctrine of Malthus. While man's
increasing efficiency of food-production, combined with colonisation of
whole virgin continents, has for generations given the apparent lie to
Malthus' mathematical statement of the Law of Population, nevertheless
the essential significance of his doctrine remains and cannot be
challenged. Population _does_ press against subsistence. And no matter
how rapidly subsistence increases, population is certain to catch up with
it.

When man was in the hunting stage of development, wide areas were
necessary for the maintenance of scant populations. With the shepherd
stages, the means of subsistence being increased, a larger population was
supported on the same territory. The agricultural stage gave support to
a still larger population; and, to-day, with the increased food-getting
efficiency of a machine civilisation, an even larger population is made
possible. Nor is this theoretical. The population is here, a billion
and three quarters of men, women, and children, and this vast population
is increasing on itself by leaps and bounds.

A heavy European drift to the New World has gone on and is going on; yet
Europe, whose population a century ago was 170,000,000, has to-day
500,000,000. At this rate of increase, provided that subsistence is not
overtaken, a century from now the population of Europe will be
1,500,000,000. And be it noted of the present rate of increase in the
United States that only one-third is due to immigration, while two-thirds
is due to excess of births over deaths. And at this present rate of
increase, the population of the United States will be 500,000,000 in less
than a century from now.

Man, the hungry one, the killer, has always suffered for lack of room.
The world has been chronically overcrowded. Belgium with her 572 persons
to the square mile is no more crowded than was Denmark when it supported
only 500 palaeolithic people. According to Mr. Woodruff, cultivated land
will produce 1600 times as much food as hunting land. From the time of
the Norman Conquest, for centuries Europe could support no more than 25
to the square mile. To-day Europe supports 81 to the square mile. The
explanation of this is that for the several centuries after the Norman
Conquest her population was saturated. Then, with the development of
trading and capitalism, of exploration and exploitation of new lands, and
with the invention of labour-saving machinery and the discovery and
application of scientific principles, was brought about a tremendous
increase in Europe's food-getting efficiency. And immediately her
population sprang up.

According to the census of Ireland, of 1659, that country had a
population of 500,000. One hundred and fifty years later, her population
was 8,000,000. For many centuries the population of Japan was
stationary. There seemed no way of increasing her food-getting
efficiency. Then, sixty years ago, came Commodore Perry, knocking down
her doors and letting in the knowledge and machinery of the superior food-
getting efficiency of the Western world. Immediately upon this rise in
subsistence began the rise of population; and it is only the other day
that Japan, finding her population once again pressing against
subsistence, embarked, sword in hand, on a westward drift in search of
more room. And, sword in hand, killing and being killed, she has carved
out for herself Formosa and Korea, and driven the vanguard of her drift
far into the rich interior of Manchuria.

For an immense period of time China's population has remained at
400,000,000 - the saturation point. The only reason that the Yellow River
periodically drowns millions of Chinese is that there is no other land
for those millions to farm. And after every such catastrophe the wave of
human life rolls up and now millions flood out upon that precarious
territory. They are driven to it, because they are pressed remorselessly
against subsistence. It is inevitable that China, sooner or later, like
Japan, will learn and put into application our own superior food-getting
efficiency. And when that time comes, it is likewise inevitable that her
population will increase by unguessed millions until it again reaches the
saturation point. And then, inoculated with Western ideas, may she not,
like Japan, take sword in hand and start forth colossally on a drift of
her own for more room? This is another reputed bogie - the Yellow Peril;
yet the men of China are only men, like any other race of men, and all
men, down all history, have drifted hungrily, here, there and everywhere
over the planet, seeking for something to eat. What other men do, may
not the Chinese do?

But a change has long been coming in the affairs of man. The more recent
drifts of the stronger races, carving their way through the lesser breeds
to more earth-space, has led to peace, ever to wider and more lasting
peace. The lesser breeds, under penalty of being killed, have been
compelled to lay down their weapons and cease killing among themselves.
The scalp-talking Indian and the head-hunting Melanesian have been either
destroyed or converted to a belief in the superior efficacy of civil
suits and criminal prosecutions. The planet is being subdued. The wild
and the hurtful are either tamed or eliminated. From the beasts of prey
and the cannibal humans down to the death-dealing microbes, no quarter is
given; and daily, wider and wider areas of hostile territory, whether of
a warring desert-tribe in Africa or a pestilential fever-hole like
Panama, are made peaceable and habitable for mankind. As for the great
mass of stay-at-home folk, what percentage of the present generation in
the United States, England, or Germany, has seen war or knows anything of
war at first hand? There was never so much peace in the world as there
is to-day.

War itself, the old red anarch, is passing. It is safer to be a soldier
than a working-man. The chance for life is greater in an active campaign
than in a factory or a coal-mine. In the matter of killing, war is
growing impotent, and this in face of the fact that the machinery of war
was never so expensive in the past nor so dreadful. War-equipment to-
day, in time of peace, is more expensive than of old in time of war. A
standing army costs more to maintain than it used to cost to conquer an
empire. It is more expensive to be ready to kill, than it used to be to
do the killing. The price of a Dreadnought would furnish the whole army
of Xerxes with killing weapons. And, in spite of its magnificent
equipment, war no longer kills as it used to when its methods were
simpler. A bombardment by a modern fleet has been known to result in the
killing of one mule. The casualties of a twentieth century war between
two world-powers are such as to make a worker in an iron-foundry turn
green with envy. War has become a joke. Men have made for themselves
monsters of battle which they cannot face in battle. Subsistence is
generous these days, life is not cheap, and it is not in the nature of
flesh and blood to indulge in the carnage made possible by present-day
machinery. This is not theoretical, as will be shown by a comparison of
deaths in battle and men involved, in the South African War and the
Spanish-American War on the one hand, and the Civil War or the Napoleonic
Wars on the other.

Not only has war, by its own evolution, rendered itself futile, but man
himself, with greater wisdom and higher ethics, is opposed to war. He
has learned too much. War is repugnant to his common sense. He
conceives it to be wrong, to be absurd, and to be very expensive. For
the damage wrought and the results accomplished, it is not worth the
price. Just as in the disputes of individuals the arbitration of a civil
court instead of a blood feud is more practical, so, man decides, is
arbitration more practical in the disputes of nations.

War is passing, disease is being conquered, and man's food-getting
efficiency is increasing. It is because of these factors that there are
a billion and three quarters of people alive to-day instead of a billion,
or three-quarters of a billion. And it is because of these factors that
the world's population will very soon be two billions and climbing
rapidly toward three billions. The lifetime of the generation is
increasing steadily. Men live longer these days. Life is not so
precarious. The newborn infant has a greater chance for survival than at
any time in the past. Surgery and sanitation reduce the fatalities that
accompany the mischances of life and the ravages of disease. Men and
women, with deficiencies and weaknesses that in the past would have
effected their rapid extinction, live to-day and father and mother a
numerous progeny. And high as the food-getting efficiency may soar,
population is bound to soar after it. "The abysmal fecundity" of life
has not altered. Given the food, and life will increase. A small
percentage of the billion and three-quarters that live to-day may hush
the clamour of life to be born, but it is only a small percentage. In
this particular, the life in the man-animal is very like the life in the
other animals.

And still another change is coming in human affairs. Though politicians
gnash their teeth and cry anathema, and man, whose superficial
book-learning is vitiated by crystallised prejudice, assures us that
civilisation will go to smash, the trend of society, to-day, the world
over, is toward socialism. The old individualism is passing. The state
interferes more and more in affairs that hitherto have been considered
sacredly private. And socialism, when the last word is said, is merely a
new economic and political system whereby more men can get food to eat.
In short, socialism is an improved food-getting efficiency.

Furthermore, not only will socialism get food more easily and in greater
quantity, but it will achieve a more equitable distribution of that food.
Socialism promises, for a time, to give all men, women, and children all
they want to eat, and to enable them to eat all they want as often as
they want. Subsistence will be pushed back, temporarily, an exceedingly
long way. In consequence, the flood of life will rise like a tidal wave.
There will be more marriages and more children born. The enforced
sterility that obtains to-day for many millions, will no longer obtain.
Nor will the fecund millions in the slums and labour-ghettos, who to-day
die of all the ills due to chronic underfeeding and overcrowding, and who
die with their fecundity largely unrealised, die in that future day when
the increased food-getting efficiency of socialism will give them all
they want to eat.

It is undeniable that population will increase prodigiously-just as it
has increased prodigiously during the last few centuries, following upon
the increase in food-getting efficiency. The magnitude of population in
that future day is well nigh unthinkable. But there is only so much land
and water on the surface of the earth. Man, despite his marvellous
accomplishments, will never be able to increase the diameter of the
planet. The old days of virgin continents will be gone. The habitable
planet, from ice-cap to ice-cap, will be inhabited. And in the matter of
food-getting, as in everything else, man is only finite. Undreamed-of
efficiencies in food-getting may be achieved, but, soon or late, man will
find himself face to face with Malthus' grim law. Not only will
population catch up with subsistence, but it will press against
subsistence, and the pressure will be pitiless and savage. Somewhere in
the future is a date when man will face, consciously, the bitter fact
that there is not food enough for all of him to eat.

When this day comes, what then? Will there be a recrudescence of old
obsolete war? In a saturated population life is always cheap, as it is
cheap in China, in India, to-day. Will new human drifts take place,
questing for room, carving earth-space out of crowded life. Will the
Sword again sing:

"Follow, O follow, then,
Heroes, my harvesters!
Where the tall grain is ripe
Thrust in your sickles!
Stripped and adust
In a stubble of empire
Scything and binding
The full sheaves of sovereignty."

Even if, as of old, man should wander hungrily, sword in hand, slaying
and being slain, the relief would be only temporary. Even if one race
alone should hew down the last survivor of all the other races, that one
race, drifting the world around, would saturate the planet with its own
life and again press against subsistence. And in that day, the death
rate and the birth rate will have to balance. Men will have to die, or
be prevented from being born. Undoubtedly a higher quality of life will
obtain, and also a slowly decreasing fecundity. But this decrease will
be so slow that the pressure against subsistence will remain. The


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Online LibraryJack LondonA Collection of Stories → online text (page 1 of 8)