The Five Nations


A note on the background

by Mary Hamer



[December 1st 2007]


Britain and the Boer Republics

Kipling became intensely involved in the war between Britain and the Boer republics which took place between 1899 and 1902, years during which a number of the poems in this collection were composed. He was unquestioning, not to say fanatic, in his support of British policies in southern Africa.

Others have been more critical: for many years it was believed that a desire on the part of financiers like Cecil Rhodes to control the gold mines of the Transvaal underlay England’s declaration of war against the Boers. More recent thinking has focussed instead on the strategic interests of Britain within Africa, where as early as 1815 Britain had taken possession of the crucially situated Cape Colony. For thirty years previous to the Anglo-Boer War Britain had been pursuing a programme of annexations, taking over Basutoland, southern Bechuanaland, Zululand and Togoland, in a drive to contain the Boer republics and deny them direct access to the Indian Ocean. It was intended to prevent them from operating entirely outside the sphere of British influence, lest, with increasing wealth from their mineral assets, they should come to pose a threat to any future expansion of British interests in Africa. Direct military intervention on the part of Britain was only the logical conclusion of this policy. Around the world, however, liberal opinion, as distinct from the views of other empire-building governments, condemned Britain for its attempt to crush these two small nations, which had chosen to govern themselves as republics.

The Anglo-Boer War in the life of Rudyard Kipling

Yet for Kipling, this war came at a critical moment in his own life, a moment when that life almost came to an end. Anxieties which are personal colour even his most public writing concerning the war, requiring us to read his work of this period with a doubled awareness, an ear for the voice of private feeling. In March 1899 pneumonia very nearly killed Rudyard Kipling and while he was still too ill to be told the news, his eldest and most precious child Josephine did die. Kipling had to begin his life again from scratch. Once he had regained his health, he immersed himself in the affairs of South Africa, where in October 1899 the political conflict between Britain and the two Boer republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, erupted into war.

One of Kipling’s earliest moves was to publish two poems, each very different in tone and intention. “The Old Issue” was the earlier of these: eventually collected in The Five Nations (see below) it was issued as a political warning. The second, entitled “The Absent-Minded Beggar”, which was not collected in 1903 was an appeal for funds for the dependents of British soldiers who had left to fight in South Africa. Early in 1900 Kipling himself travelled out there with his family. (It was a visit he would repeat every year until 1908, in part since with his weakened lungs he had to avoid the English winter.) In South Africa he busied himself in visiting hospitals; following a request from Lord Roberts between 19 March and 3 April he worked on The Friend, a newspaper put together in Bloemfontein for the troops.

In Africa Kipling saw for himself that the army was ill-prepared. This patent vulnerability seemed to have a special resonance for him; it was around this period, following the Boer War, that his intensified concern with national defence and the urgent often angry tone in which he wrote of it began to offend readers and to compromise his reputation. Today readers may be intrigued rather than disturbed by the work of this period: we may be ready today to connect Kipling’s anger with the experience of one offering insights which repeatedly either went unregistered or were dismissed and left unheard.

The Five Nations

As a title The Five Nations celebrates the ties between England and its white colonies in Australia , New Zealand, Canada and Cape Colony in South Africa. Kipling put this collection together for 1903 autumn publication in the Unite States and Britain. In November 1902 he had written to Charles Eliot Norton that he was working on a new book of verses and ‘very happy to have the steam turned on again in that direction’, though he was soon complaining to Dr Conland of the difficulty of finishing off poems to a deadline.

In publishing the collection in 1903, Kipling’s aims went beyond compiling those poems written since 1896 which he intended to preserve. The Boer War had come to an end in July 1902 with the Treaty of Veereningen. As an imaginative writer he had recorded the transforming effect which soldiering in South Africa as part of an empire-wide force had had on the troops. More than thirty years later fourteen veterans of that war accompanied General Sir Ian Hamilton in attendance at Kipling’s funeral in Westminster Abbey.

Kipling had a confident sense of public mission. Throughout his life as a writer, beginning as a young journalist, he had relished his responsibility for bringing unpalatable truths to the attention of his readers: now he intended to guide the British public, sharing with them his vision of empire and at the same time issuing a warning. Unlike the politicians at home, who had left Britain unprepared for it, Kipling had recognised the signs which told of the coming war in Europe.

At the same time this collection, in particular the poems dated 1902 and 1903, bears witness to the state of the poet’s own inner world at that period. Poetry came back to him in 1902, after a dry spell: it is the poems of this period above all that deserve our attention. T.S. Eliot, his most acute reader, observed that it was difficult to know what prompted Kipling in choosing the subjects for his poems. Eliot also wrote of the difference between poems which forced themselves into the consciousness of the poet and those which did not. In the poems of 1902 we have a group which demanded to be written, which ‘turned on the steam’ for themselves.

Some further reading

For the wider context of The Five Nations as a collection of poetry see the following:

  • Peter Keating, Kipling the poet, Secker and Warburg 1994.
  • Ann Parry, The poetry of Rudyard Kipling, Routledge 1992.
  • Malvern Van Wyk Smith, Drummer Hodge: the poetry of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, 1978.


[M.H.]

©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved