"Judson and the Empire"

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)

the story
notes on the text
[Dec 10 2011]

These notes

In preparing this updated set of notes for the NRG, much use has been made of the original edition. Indeed, these notes contain no changes of sense in what was written by the previous naval contributor, Rear-Admiral P.W. Brock, CB, DSO. The present Editor had not the privilege of knowing the late Admiral, though we were both contributors to the Naval Review, 1974-88, on subjects of naval history. These notes therefore merely amplify those in the earlier edition, with a very few additions.


"Judson and the Empire", Kipling's first naval story, was first published in 1893 in the collection Many Inventions, in England by Macmillan and in the United States by Appleton. It was later included in Volume III of Scribner's Outward Bound Edition, Soldiers Three and Military Tales Part II (New York, 1897).

The extracts from Carrie Kipling’s diary, made by Charles Carrington, for 14 June 1892 (while they were on their honeymoon tour – they were in Yokohama on this date) record: 'A successful dance at the Hunts. R. dances. Busy at ‘Three Sealers’ and an Ortheris story and invents Judson'.

There are various editions of Many Inventions, including this story, available in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon.

The tale

Judson is a junior Lieutenant, Royal Navy, commanding an elderly gunboat, based at Simons Town, on the Cape of Good Hope Station in the early 1890s. There is tension between Great Britain and a neighbouring colonial power (unnamed, but clearly Portugal). Judson is sent to ‘protect British interests’, but is not to get involved. In the river (unnamed, but call it the Zambezi), he removes the buoy marking a shoal, and after the ‘enemy’ gunboat fires on him, unprovoked, draws her on over the shoal where she is left high and dry. Proceeding up-river, Judson meets a column of overland pioneers who are ‘opening up the country’, and the local Governor. After a skirmish, which the Governor is allowed to call a victory, the affair ends with a party, at which the British C-in-C makes a convivial appearance. The little crisis has been ended without bloodshed, and the honour of both sides is intact.

The origins of "Judson and the Empire".

In Something of Myself, describing his 1891 visit to South Africa, RK writes:

The Navy Club there (Simon’s Town, or Simonstown, the naval base just south and a bit east of Capetown) and the tales of the junior officers delighted me beyond words. There I witnessed one of the most comprehensive `rags` I have ever seen. It arose out of a polite suggestion to a newly-appointed Lieutenant Commander that the fore-topmast of his tiny gunboat `wanted staying forward`.
The present Editor feels sure (Naval officers’ conversation today may differ in technical detail, but it is unlikely that its nature does) that the rag in Simons Town included derogatory comments about the general appearance of the “tiny gunboat” and all aspects of her rig; also that Kipling would have extracted every ounce of information he could. In fact, when he wrote this paragraph in Something of Myself, Kipling’s memory betrayed him in one minute detail. The word “fore-topmast” implies that Judson’s command had two masts, a foremast and a mainmast: whereas, in no less than three places in the tale (written little more than a year after his visit to Simonstown), Kipling makes it clear that the gunboat (never named in the tale, but undoubtedly based on HMS Griper) had but one mast – as was the case. [We are obliged to Mr. Philip Holberton for his apposite comments on this point.]

It would seem that the story then took about a year or so to come to fruition: Lisa Lewis has remarked that according to Carrington's notes from Mrs Kipling's diaries, Judson was "invented" in Japan on 14 June 1892, just five days after Kipling's bank went broke during their honeymoon.

Who was Judson, and was there a factual basis for the story?

In “Judson and the Empire” the conversation in the naval Club is very similar in tone to what the real `rag` Kipling witnessed must have been like. Charles Carrington, RK's first 'official' biographer (Rudyard Kipling - His Life and Work, Macmillan 1955) identifies the original of Judson as Lieutenant de Horsey of HMS Gryper. (There is a footnote which cites a letter from de Horsey to B.M. Bazley 23 July 1933.) The 1891 Navy Lists are an obvious starting point, and there he is in the September 1891 list, one of HMS Raleigh’s lieutenants, having been out on the station since March 1888 (Raleigh was the flagship on the station). The Griper (not Gryper) was indeed a `flat-iron` gunboat, stationed at the Cape, but at the time was not, apparently, commissioned. At all events, she has no officers appointed in the Navy List. That, of itself, does not invalidate de Horsey’s claim. It would have been the practice for the Griper only to have been fully-manned and put into commission in the event of some particular threat to Simon’s Town, or other mission. (In 1956, the Editor of these notes, as a junior lieutenant in the station flagship, in much the same way, was given temporary command of a ‘borrowed’ Landing Craft (Tank) in the Persian Gulf at the time of the Suez crisis).

However, there is strong evidence that another naval officer is entitled to claim to be Judson’s original, because the events which form the basis of RK’s story did indeed occur in 1890: in Volume 7 of Clowes’ The Royal Navy (London, 1897-1903 – modern reprint, London 1996-7), there is an account, published in The Times for 17 December 1890 (datelined October 1890) and it is worthwhile quoting extensively, just to show how RK took a true report and worked his magic. It will also be seen that the chief protagonist for the Royal Navy was not de Horsey.