First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent school and non-school editions of the book.
It was placed within chapter IX, ‘The Fall of the Stuarts and the Revolution, 1660-1688.’ Harbord numbers it as 985 (o) in ORG Verse I (1969) but gives no additional information. The poem was reprinted in I.V., 1919, under its present title and with the sub-titled dates (1664-72) inserted for the first time; in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol., 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol., 37. There were no changes made for the Sussex Edition. In A History of England the poem is accompanied by a Henry Ford coloured plate also called ‘The Dutch in the Medway’ which was omitted from the School History.
During the seventeenth century there were three naval wars between England and Holland. The first (1652-4) was during Cromwell's Protectorate, under which Britain was ruled for a time after the victory of Parliament in the Civil War; the second (1665-67) and third (1672-74) during the reign of Charles II. All of these wars were caused by the world-wide commercial rivalry between the two countries, with battles fought in the North Sea, English Channel, the Far East, and off the coasts of West Africa and North America. It was at this time that England captured New Amsterdam from Holland and renamed it New York.
The dates added to the title of the poem are peculiar, stretching as they do from just prior to the formal outbreak of the second Anglo-Dutch war in March 1665 to the start of the third war in 1672. In the School History and more fully in his Introductory History of England, vols. II and III, Fletcher gives more accurate dates, and offers a comprehensive summary of these important and complex wars, though Kipling seems to have decided to focus on just one spectacular incident - the brilliantly successful attack on Chatham by the Dutch Fleet in 1667.
Kipling’s main concern in the poem is with King Charles’s neglect of the navy and, consequently, England’s general unpreparedness for war. The necessary framework for this line of criticism is provided by Fletcher, who points out that one of the unsatisfactory results of the overthrow of the Protectorate was the tendency of Charles (and the English people generally) to underestimate the value of maintaining strong armed forces at all times: ‘The Cromwellians had bequeathed to him [Charles] a very fine Navy; but too often he let it rot for want of spending money on it. His sailors were badly paid and badly cared for; he let his contractors swindle him, and he was too idle to look into small but important matters himself’ (A School History, p. 165).
The stern, critical tone of the poem, with its opening sarcastic jibes at those who believe that ‘wars’ may be won by ‘feasting’ and ‘victories’ won by ‘song,’ through the stirring denunciation of ruling-class incompetence, to its final appeal for understanding by the neglected sailors of England, comes from the great tradition of militant hymns on which Kipling draws so often. It is not difficult to imagine ‘The Dutch in the Medway’ being sung heartily, and movingly, by a congregation. It is a fine example of Kipling stepping forward to act as the spokesman for the ordinary sailor, in the same way as he had earlier campaigned on behalf of Tommy Atkins, the ordinary soldier: it is also central to the prophetic tradition of Kipling poems, written throughout his life, in which the people of England (rulers and ruled) are warned of military dangers to come.
The catchy common sense of the refrain - these things are ‘known’ by our enemies
(actual or potential) if not by us – is intended to carry, like so much else in A School History, not only an historical lesson about England and Holland, but also, in 1911, a current one about England and Germany.