Travel – Guernsey

Guernsey is only a few miles from the English coast; it is in daily communication with English ports; practically all of its intercourse, alike business and social, is with England; and yet King George is given allegiance as heir of the Norman line rather than as King of Great Britain. When, here in Guernsey, his accession was officially proclaimed, it was as Norman Duke as well as Indian Emperor and English King-and the people take it seriously, and not as an empty form. They bitterly- resent any naming of their isle as one of the British, and equally do they resent being accounted French, for they are Norman.

Nowhere in the world do conditions so inexplicable exist, for there has not for centuries been a concomitant Norman environment to preserve the Norman tradition.

Magna Charta has never touched Guernsey; there is no trial by jury; there is a general absence of supposedly indispensable adjuncts of liberty and good government. Many of the people still speak the Norman-French, which long a go vanished from Normandy itself. And, with Guernsey’s fascinating survivals of the ancient, there goes a delightful charm of roads and coast-line, of flowers a ad houses and sea.

Now that Africa and the frozen Poles have yielded their mysteries, one wonders, at times, what is left to explore. For civilized man eternally demands the titillatory touch of novelty! And more marvelous than to find novelty in Africa or the Arctic is to find it at the very edge of England, just off that beaten path which is so submissively trod.

If I begin with William the Conqueror it is not that I am about to write history; I shall write only of the present day. Yet to do that in Guernsey is always to go dipping back into the misty past.

When they prepared to bury William in the great abbey church which he had built at Caen, a poor man fell upon his knees and cried aloud: “Ha! Ro! Ha! Ro! Ha! Ro! A l’aide, mon prince! On me fait tort!” (“To my aid! They are wronging me!”) And the burial of the puissant duke and king did not proceed until the appeal had been listened to and the wrong set right. William had taken the man’s land, so it appeared, in building the church, and, as is sometimes the way wit h great men, had conveniently forgotten to pay.

This Clameur de Haro, as it is legally termed, this very perfection of injunction peremptory, had long been recognized even in William’s time, and it is formally set down in the code which, compiled from the most ancient laws and printed at Rouen centuries ago, is still in daily use in Guernsey.

For the Clameur is no mere antiquarian dead letter. It is with dread that the conjuration is employed, for it is like the calling of spirits from the vasty deep, yet seldom does a year pass without its being heard. And when invoked there is no man, however high, who dares disregard it, for it would bring down extraordinary penalties from an extraordinary and arbitrary court.

It was but a few months ago that an unhappy citizen applied the injunction to one of the rulers of the island who was tearing down a building whose ownership was in dispute between them. He knelt upon the steps of the court-house, and his voice went quaveringly as he began the ancient cry, and then shrilled high and loud; and people stood about in silent awe until, the rite complete, the man arose, all trembling, and looked about him, uncertain and in fear. And the rich man desisted instantly, and when the court heard the case it decided for the demand of the poor.

I talked with both appealer and appealed against. “He had to stop,” said the poor man, quietly; “he had no choice.” “I had to stop when he cried ‘Ha! Ro ! “said the rich man, quietly. “I had no choice.” And this in the twent eth century, at the edge of England, because of the memory of a certain Duke Rollo, contemporary with the English Alfred, who was so stern for instant justice, with none of those civilized delays which make lawyers rich and justice difficult, that merely to call thrice upon his name (Ro being an abbreviation of its Norman form) had become incorporated as a legal proceeding of highest moment long before the time of William the Conqueror! And that there were a King Alfred and a Duke Rollo contemporaries, and that law could be superior to castle and sword, shows, too, that feudal days were not of unmitigated savagery. To hold men to be savages merely because they fought one another would lead to embarrassing conclusions even in these modern times.

St. Peter-Port, the capital of Guernsey, rises steeply from the sea, in red-tiled houses, narrow and gabled and tall, and upon a rock in the midst of the harbor an old castle sullenly thrusts up its walls from amid a rising huddle.

Not an ancient town, this; and yet, as you mount its streets, you see aspects of age in their wavering, doddering lines, and now and then you find oldtime buildings with projecting stories nodding over the ways. Many a street is but a lengthening stairway of stone; and in its Sunday calm the town is lighted up by the red-coated soldiers marching in a body to church.

Outside of the city there are Norman houses and Norman roads, and the green and glimmering hedges are Norman, and there are tandem teams so dear to Norman hearts, and Norman roses clambering over Norman walls, and Norman blouse and gown in red or purple or blue, and ancient white-capped women endlessly knitting just outside of Norman cottage doors. Guernsey, and not England, is the “mother country,” asserts the islander, for Guernsey was Norman long before the Conquest.

Forty thousand people there are upon the island. They are not all of Norman type, business having led many others hither, and this but adds to the marvel of it, that forty thousand inhabitants, of mixed race, should continue under the control of laws ten hundred years old. For Guernsey is ruled by a court and parliament which date back their forms and powers a thousand years, and in which judicial and legislative functions are inextricably blended.

The island is divided into douzaines, each with its twelve douzainiers. A few of the douzainiers are also jurats. The jurats and bailiff (he being appointed by the Crown and having only advisory powers) form the lower and higher courts; and those of the higher court, with the rectors of the island, who are a politically powerful body, form the parliament or States. A few deputies, added recently, have not altered the conditions. Douzainiers, jurats, and rectors–not clad in a little brief authority, these!-are all in office for life, and when a douzanier or jurat dies his fellows fill the vacancy. Never was there so striking a division into political “ins” and “outs,” for those who are in can never fall out. And yet it is believed that the political machine originated in America!

There are few crimes committed in Guernsey. The knowledge that the accusecd is seldom acquitted acts admirably as a practical d eterrent. And there is a very amusing side to it, were it not so serious for the prisoners.

The accused is first subjected to a private interrogatoire before he is allowed to see a friend or lawyer. The bailiff and two jurats searchingly question him, alone and uncautioned and unadvised of any rights. Indeed, a man accused has no rights that a jurat is bound to respect. “The private interrogatoire is often necessary for a conviction” is the way it was naively put to me.

The prisoner next appears before the Cour de Police. (Not the “police cour :”; for in this part of the English Channel French- is the official language, in which every law is recorded, every contract made, every parliamentary resolution written. Even the parliament only recentl y resolved that English may be spoken when preferred, and now a meeting is a babel of tongues. In Guernsey a man be comes a linguist perforce, there being the English and the Norman and the French. I even noticed the crowning absurdity of an Ecole Wesleyenne; one would think that that, at least, would remain English under the English flag.)

In the Cour de Police the unhappy prisoner finds himself facing the same two jurats and bailiff, who, having heard him in secret, are quite prepared to reward him openly; and they have brought two more jurats with them.

He had best be content, now, with whatever fortune gives him, for should he appeal to the upper court he is led from his cell through an underground passage up a straight and narrow stair, and finds himself, emergent, confronted by the four jurats and bailiff, who, with their minds quite made up, have brought along several more jurats for good measure. It is as cumulative as the nursery-house that Jack built, for the prisoner, all forlorn, finds that nothing which is added to the jingle is ever allowed to drop out.

Any person may be arrested on the bare word of a complainant, and no action for false imprisonment lies. A man’s house is not his castle, for the police may search without warrant. Ex post facto laws may be made. A stranger, arrested, is not admitted to bail. The whipping-post is in constant operation (not, however, for wife-beating), and the punishments are precisely graded, as, from twentyfive to fifty strokes with a twelve-thonged whip, or from eighteen to twenty-four with a vicious bunch of jagged twigs. In Guernsey mercy does not always fall like the gentle dew from heaven.

Indefinite imprisonment for debt is in force, even when there has been no fraud. There was but one debt-prisoner when I was there however. And there is even banishment! It was but a few months ago that a long-time resident, convicted of forgery, was sentenced to an imprisonment of two months and a banishment of six years. Strangers may be banished if deemed undesirable sojourners. And all this in the Channel, in an island doing a heavy business with England in quarrie I rock and prosaic tomatoes!

Peculiarly a people, these, who must not throw stones, for that very tomato business has put more glass houses in Guernsey than are in any other place of similar area. And the island would have given a chivalrous revel to Don Quixote, for in every direction wind-mills are seen flinging their giant arms.

History here is suggestive rather than insistent. For people who so adhere to tile old in customs there is a curious disregard for the old as expressed in buildings. So much has been destroyed that the past never obtrudes. There is never the sense that here is a history lesson that must dutifully be learned. To find details of the iron past one must scrape away the accumulated rust of centuries. Yet, for those who care for it, there is much to summon up remembrance of things past. There are ruins on rocky headlands, and on isolated heights rising out of lone and level flats, and every solitary inlet has its tower of stone.

There are splendid views of cliff and sea, the water is tropical in its coloring, and by the lonely shore you forget that you are on an island of business and population.

Those who seek for memorials of “The Toilers of the Sea” will meet with disappointment. The haunted house still stands, and it still stands lonely on a cliff-edge, but it is prosaically altered and fenced, and is used for a signal station for ships. At Sampson, where Gilliat lived, not only have all reminders of the story disappeared, but it is a part of the island which business has made quite unpicturesque; a pity, too, for it is the only point to which electric cars run, and so every visitor naturally makes his initial trip in that direction. But even at Sampson there is a ruined monastery, built in the long ago by monks sent. here on account of ungodly lives; and one wonders to what torturing use they put, those men of evil, certain deep-sunk dungeons within the rocky walls.

A high and violent tide is that of Guernsey. The sea goes sweeping out, laying bare bleak secrets for daws to peck at, and leaving ships high-stranded in the harbor; and then it comes hurriedly racing back, as if to catch some victim unawares.

To know any people one must know their monuments; and the fact that Guernsey set up a costly memorial to that Albert who d d nothing to distinguish himself but be married to the Queen, shows the innate absurdity that one is all along expecting to find. For you ca nnot always take Guernsey quite seriously; it takes itself too seriously for that.

But they honor others far more than Albert. Where, as here, the footprints on the sands of time have been blurred and mingled by the centuries, such individual prints as are preserved gain thereby an access of importance; and so, when a right brave son of Guernsey fights a right ht brave sea-fight, they put up for him a shaft of ninety feet. And when a governor devotes himself to the making of roads they raise to his memory a shaft six feet higher than the other! It is as F the mathematical islanders figured it out that as ninety is to ninetysix, so is the fighter of fights to the builder of roads.

And many a road is a road of allurement. There are miles and miles of twisting, 1 abyrinthine charm. Many of the lanes are so narrow that two wagons cannot pass. There are myriads of flowers. There are endless stone walls. Horses and oxen plough together, attached in anomalous fraternity. Men and women out of Millet’s paintings go stoopingly together over the soil. Roofs are of time-stained tile and age-bent thatch. Cottages are tucked into corners with that haphazard instinct which, when it is a true instinct, is so much superior to art.

In everything Guernsey is the place that is different. Men are of age at twenty; the weekly halfholiday is on Thursday; the gallon is five per cent. smaller than the English; cabbages grow so tall that the inhabitants dry and varnish the long stalks and sell them as walking sticks to English visitors; to reduce English pounds of weight to Guernsey pounds one must multiply by twenty-nine and divide by thirty-two; and one is given thirteen Guernsey pennies, expressed in terms of the “doubles” of its own coinage, for every English shilling. He who handles money in Guernsey is as certain of trouble as that the sparks fly upward, for there is a. hopeless mixture of French and Guernsey and English coin, all of which is legal tender.

Is it tax-paying day or quarter day? Behold a long line of islanders with wagons, and other islanders with paniers, for great part of rents and taxes is payable in wheat and corn, in butter and eggs and chickens and eels; and contracts calling for chickens are likely to specify the minimum length of “queue.”

Does a man wish to sell or devise his real estate? He is not a free agent. The eldest son has the right indefeasible to the house and to part of the land, and the other children have the right to the remainder. If there are no children, and the man makes a deed of sale, it must be publicly announced, and any one of kin as near as the se venth degree may stop the transaction and purchase the land himself. One easily understands why land remains in the same families for generations.

A man dies, leaving persona property. It is divided into as many shares, plus one, as there are children; the eldest son selects two shares, and the other children choose one each in order of age the original division, by a clever device to insure fairness, having been made by the youngest, who, perforce, takes the share that is finally left!

But the inhabitants themselves see nothing curious in all these things. They are merely matter of course, and the visitor learns of them only by patient inquiry and observation.

The other Channel Islands, alike remnants of old Normandy, have their own survivals of the old, but they are not nearly as strange as those of Guernsey. And Jersey and Alderney and Guernsey are jealous rivals in every particular and especially so in regard to cattle and foot-ball. When Eve, in naming the animals, came to the cows, she remembered all three of these bits of land, and a most rigid quarantine against other cattle preserves the strains. And as to football: I saw the Guernsey eleven hailed with mighty accla m returning from Jersey flushed with victory, and I saw the Alderney men come and play them; and a l Guernsey was in excitement, and the Governor himself appeared at the game amid clamor of band and acclamation of people.

The Governor, appointed by the Crown, has charge of military affairs. He may sit in the States, but has no vote. He may veto, but that power has practically lapsed through long disuse. Guernsey seriously holds that the British Parliament; has absolutely no power over it; that the only power is with the King (the Duke of Normandy) and his privy council.

The high court meets with formal informality, turning readily from criminal cases to laws. Every law must be originated here to be passed on by the States later. And if any private citizen wishes to express his opinion regarding a proposed law he steps out, as I have seen one do, to a railed space, says his say, his neighbors meanwhile watching and listening open-mouthed, and then shuffles back with bashful haste, rubbing a reddening nose as he furtively tries to gain some indication of how well he played his part.

Purple gowns, and square-topped caps, and white “rabbet” ties are matter of moment to jurats and douzainiers and bailiff, with cognate question of ermine or silk or cloth inferior; but they are chary of wasting their regalia on the outside air.

A tranquil, placid, contented island, in spite of the Draconian severity of its laws and the Vehmgericht powers of its rulers. A law-abiding people, in spite of the petty thefts requiring flagellatory discipline. A beneficent people, in spite of a firm dislike to give aid to those who ask for it. A fund, established over three centuries ago, yields five hundred pounds annually for the help of people who help themselves, and it expresses the Guernsey standpoint. There must be no begging. If an islander should beg he would be imprisoned instantly. A stranger, begging, is shipped to a point “as near as possible” to his home. And what that Flace may do with him is of no manner of importance to Guernsey.

This illustrates a certain canny quality that at times peeps out; as it does in the long lists of corporations whose headquarters ire printedly supposed to be in lawyers’ offices near the court-house, because articles of incorporation mean revenue for the island and advantage to th e corporations-as in some of our own smaller Eastern States. And speaking of our own country, one is reminded of the fact that in Ohio there is a county of Guernsey, so named from a large emigration on account of financial troubles due to the Napoleon wars.

Though Guernsey has preserve her usages for a thousand years immutable, the end of their long dominion is approaching. Less than another century, perhaps only another decade, will see their obliteration. And with the passing of the old there will likewise be a passing of the picturesque. Glass houses are encroaching upon the bleakness of the coast, upon the hills yellow with gorse, upon the paths zigzagging steeply downward to the sea. Quarrymen are blasting underneath the walls of ancient castles. The British Parliament has begun to inquire, with curious belatedness, what manner of folk these are who claim exemption from Parliamentary control and get along so comfortably without modern individual rights. And among the inhabitants themselves there are numbers of stone and tomato interests, working quietly for a change; and, indeed, the nature of the rule of the potent signiors is disconducive to wide popularity among men who have lived under systems different.

And so, the long shadows are falling and the evening of Guernsey’s romance draws nigh.