[February 8th 2006]
First published in the Civil and Military Gazette, 21 August 1889. Collected Volume VII, No. 49 of Turn-overs, 1889, and in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions), 1909 (Story No. 1). It was No. 8 of the Original Series.
The Captain of the Whanghoa relates to some of his passengers the story of Erastasius, the “tailless Japanese” one-eared ship’s cat; a tom-cat where “the abruptness of his termination gave him a specially brusque appearance.” “Erastasius was raised by the Devil” but on an earlier voyage in the China Sea, had saved the ship, together with a “full cargo of tea, silk and opium, and thirteen thousand dollars in bar silver” worth a quarter of a million dollars, from piracy by some 800 Chinese steerage passengers.
Erastasius refused to settle down one night and roused first the non-Chinese passengers and finally the Captain, communicating his “crawling, shaking fear” to them. They all came on deck and fired their revolvers into the mass of pirates, and also ran down the junk that was coming to collect the pirates and their booty. Thus the ship was saved and Erastasius, as “grandfather-in-chief”, lived a life of ease on board thereafter. As the Captain said to him at the beginning of the story, after Erastasius had fallen down a ventilator into the stoke-hole “You’re too well fed to trouble of rats. Drink was it.”
Kipling had left India on 9 March 1889, travelling with Professor “Aleck” and Mrs Edmonia Hill via Burma, Malaya, China, Japan and the U.S.A. on his way back to England. The reports that he sent back to the Pioneer describing his travels were collected in From Sea to Sea (1899). Chapter VII starts with the China Sea:
When you are in the China Seas be careful to keep all your flannel-wear to hand. In an hour the steamer swung from tropical heat (including prickly) to a cold raw fog, as wet as a Scotch mist.The stopover in China is described in Chapters VII to X, and then his arrival in San Francisco on 28 May and his stay in that city in Chapters XXIII to XXV.
Kipling had been exposed to the Chinese en masse in Hong-Kong and Canton, and was less than impressed. In Chapter X, describing the voyage to Canton, he relates the story of the looting of a river-steamer under somewhat similar circumstances to those described in “Erastasius”. In Chapter XXIV he describes how he was taken on a tour of the San Francisco Chinese quarter and visited a tenement in which there was a poker gambling hell. During his visit he saw a Chinaman shot dead by a Mexican in an argument over the cards.
Thus, at the presumed time of writing of this story (summer 1889), he had recently sailed through the waters which are the setting for this story. and acquired some personal impressions of the Chinese at home and abroad.
©David Page 2006 All rights reserved