The Weight of One Man’s Heart: War Wounds Lingering in the Abyss

Drake: “(Egyptians) believed the gods placed the heart in scales against a feather. The Feather of Justice. If the heart spoke of no sin, the scales balanced, and the soul could join the afterlife.”

Reid: “And if the heart spoke up?”

Drake: “It became heavy. And if it outweighed the feather…the dead man’s soul was consumed by a terrible demon.”

In this week’s “Ripper Street,” a new gang of troublemakers arrive in town to stir things up between Sergeant Drake and Inspector Reid. Drake’s old Colonel, Madoc Faulkner, from the Madhist War, drudges up old wounds from their time spent in the Sudan.

The Madhi Revolt, which began in 1870s Egypt, began when a Muslim cleric named Muhammad Ahmad from the Sudan inspired an uprising, and began attracting followers due to the tyranny of the Egyptian government on his people. Ahmad proclaimed himself the “Mahdi,” the promised redeemer of the Islamic world. As the British Empire was financially responsible for the Egyptian government at this time, their involvement in the conflict became a necessary one.

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Sergeant Drake and Colonel Faulkner bear traumatic memories from the bloody war, which they probably became involved with in the mid 1880′s. The conflict included 8,200 British soldiers and 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers commanded by the British Army. The Madhi Forces, also known as the Dervishes, had over 60,000 soldiers. However, they lacked modern weapons, giving the Brits a clear advantage.

Meanwhile, the streets of the East End were experiencing their own form of turmoil and daily struggle.

Whitechapel’s immigrant population was largely unconcerned with the war overseas, as they were busy fighting their own battles at home.

Photography by Jack London

In 1902, the rugged famed novelist Jack London traveled to the underworld of the East End anonymously to live amongst the downtrodden for several months, sleeping in doss houses and at times on the streets to get an accurate portrayal of the way of life there.

It was quite a venture to take on, not to mention a dangerous one. From his experience came ‘The People of the Abyss,’ a 27-volume diary covering the inadequacy of life in the region. The phrase “Abyss” was used loosely at that time to depict the lowest members of society.

Photograph of Jack London by Andrew J. Hill, San Jose (The London Archives)

In Chapter Five, he writes:

My first impression of East London was naturally a general one.  Later the details began to appear, and here and there in the chaos of misery I found little spots where a fair measure of happiness reigned—sometimes whole rows of houses in little out-of-the-way streets, where artisans dwell and where a rude sort of family life obtains. 

In the evenings the men can be seen at the doors, pipes in their mouths and children on their knees, wives gossiping, and laughter and fun going on.  The content of these people is manifestly great, for, relative to the wretchedness that encompasses them, they are well off. But at the best, it is a dull, animal happiness, the content of the full belly.  The dominant note of their lives is materialistic.  They are stupid and heavy, without imagination.  The Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and deadens them. 

Check out a full version of “The People of the Abyss” here.

George Orwell was inspired by Jack London’s accounts when he read “Abyss” in his teens, and would later inspire him to travel to the same region in disguise. London’s influence can be seen in Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” and “The Road to Wigan Pier.”

Fellow novelist and friend of London’s, Upton Sinclair, was also deeply affected by these accounts, reporting that, “for years afterwards, the memories of this stunted and depraved population haunted him beyond all peace.” London himself declared: “No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor.” (The Guardian)