Kipling and America's
defenceless coast



By George Webb.

First published as an editorial in the
Kipling Journal of December 1989.



[December 1989]

While on holiday lately in San Francisco, I went across the Bay to the University of California, Berkeley, to see a fine exhibition of Kipling items at the Bancroft Library.The theme of the display, as announced in our last issue, commemorated Kipling's arrival in San Francisco from Japan a hundred years ago. It brought to mind some of his outspoken comments on America, and prompted me to delve back through the files of two leading San Francisco newspapers, the Examiner and the Chronicle, for May and June 1889, to read the very issues that he would have read.

The Bancroft Library holds them all on microfilm, and I spent hours engrossed in them, transported back a century in time, finding on every page pointers to the turbulent local scene that fascinated both Kipling (as he recounted in From Sea to Sea) and Stevenson (whose The Wrecker was partly set in San Francisco at that same time). In particular, I came across a political/military topic that could hardly have escaped Kipling's eye. This was the inadequacy of America's coastal defences, typified by the fort built at the Golden Gate thirty years earlier to command the approach to San Francisco Bay. Today it is a museum, nestling under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge.


That gigantic bridge dominating the entrance of the Bay has served for over half a century as a superb symbol: it has become the Golden Gate.

John van der Zee, in The Gate, rightly ranks it with the Statue of Liberty as "one of the two structures that in and of themselves suggest the breadth and promise of America: the western half of the American ellipse".

In 1889 however, the gap it straddles was still unbridged, was deemed unbridgeable; the first man-made object to catch the attention of a traveller sailing in from the Pacific was the severe outline of Fort Winfield Scott, commonly called Fort Point. See this website.

A quadrangular structure of brick and granite, Fort Point had been built to sound specifications in 1853-61. In the Civil War its armament of 55 cannon was considered a formidable deterrent to possible Confederate privateers; in the 1870s provision was made to augment its firepower with a similar number of cannon on higher ground just behind the fort; but in the 1880s it was recognised that the whole position was rendered obsolete by the enhanced capability of modern naval gunnery, which now necessitated, on the part of coastal defence works of any pretension, more massive emplacements of earth and concrete to protect better-concealed guns — rifled breech-loaders of far greater weight and range, preferably raised and lowered on "disappearing" mountings.

When Kipling saw it from the sea on 28 May 1889, while the City of Peking sailed in from Yokohama to her San Francisco mooring, Fort Point retained a few guns but was no longer manned, and had been out of commission since 1886.

Whether he actually gave the fort any critical attention at that moment, beyond the hungry scrutiny a first sight of land evokes after a long sea voyage, is doubtful — even if he did know enough to assess its vulnerability to bombardment. A fortnight later, however, writing up first impressions of America in his 23rd travel despatch to the Allahabad Pioneer, he picked on Fort Point in derisive and belligerent terms:

When the City of Peking steamed through the Golden Gate I saw with great joy that the block-house which guarded the mouth of the "finest harbour in the world, Sir" could be silenced by two gunboats from Hong-Kong with safety, comfort and despatch.
One might well wonder why he chose to utter so hostile a comment. As I will show below, it is partly explained by clues, edited out of his text. However, in my darkened room at the Bancroft Library, staring through a scanner at disembodied ghost pages from the issues of the Examiner and Chronicle that Kipling read, I found further clues —which not only put in perspective his throwaway piece of anti-American bellicosity about Fort Point but illuminate the longer, more measured but less well-known comments that he wrote weeks later, in Buffalo, about what he perceived as the general and dangerous insufficiency of America's defences.

I felt the topic, thus broadened, deserved to be recorded. It would be a fragmentary account, partly speculative, but it would offer a historical context previously lacking.

Before describing the textual evidence missing from that despatch to the Pioneer from San Francisco, let me dispose of a question of tone or style.

It is possible to argue that Kipling's offensiveness about Fort Point had no significance, was merely comparable with other brash sallies that he perpetrated as a young man; that he relished being an enfant terrible, enjoyed shocking or disconcerting with deadpan British humour. By that argument, his rudeness to the Americans resembled the fantasy or hyperbole he often indulged in — as when, in From Sea to Sea, noting the ant-like industriousness of Hong Kong's Chinese, he wrote, "Let us annex China"; or, bewildered by the swarming population of Canton, "This people ought to be killed off because they are unlike any people I ever met"; or, at a disadvantage with an immaculate shopkeeper in Nagasaki, "I hate you because I feel myself your inferior, and you despise me and my boots because you know me for a savage".

However, the parallel is not accurate. The tone is different. Regarding China and Japan, he was resorting to jokes expressive of cultural perplexity. Regarding America, he felt less discomfiture, more antagonism; the joke, though still a joke, was nearer the bone, had acerbity in it. Actually, as I have said, there is textual evidence for this.

Kipling's longhand despatches to the Pioneer in 1889, written as he travelled eastward home from India, were initially edited by its staff in Allahabad (often hastily, creating tiresome errors). Then, in 1899, Kipling himself— or an agent, the details are unknown — put those ten-year-old newspaper texts into book form, as From Sea to Sea. At this stage innumerable changes were made, including drastic cuts which ranged from single words to lengthy passages, and twice to an entire despatch.

Therefore on checking back in the Pioneer, as I have done, it is revealing but not surprising to find two sentences immediately after the remark about the gunboats from Hong Kong — sentences which were omitted in From Sea to Sea. They read as follows:

. . . Also there is not a single American vessel of war in the harbour. This may sound blood-thirsty: but remember I have come with a grievance upon me — the grievance of the pirated English books.
That 'grievance' was an incident in Japan, not long before Kipling left on the City of Peking. He had been enraged — it is not too strong a word — to find in a Yokohama bookshop a variety of pirated English books on open sale without regard to copyright. They were, he noted, the literary works of a dozen contemporary British writers, published by an enterprising United States firm, the Seaside Library. One of his own books from India was among them, which intensified his fury: (incidentally the fact that this unauthorised Kipling has never been identified is a puzzle for bibliographers). For Kipling, book piracy was a lifelong irritant which he was chronically incapable of tolerating.

Anyway, his detailed account of the incident, part of a despatch from Yokohama duly published in the Pioneer, was intemperate. It veered from vituperation against the offending bookshop and the "loathsome library" to a rage about American spelling — "When Thackeray is made to talk about 'travelers' and 'theaters' it is time for England to declare war." It ended in a long and heated "curse" against the whole United States.

In 1899, when the texts were edited into book form, the embarrassing account of the Yokohama incident was deleted. So was the cross-reference to "pirated English books" cited above. But the allusion to Fort Point was left in, bereft of the explanation that had made it inoffensive. Was this an oversight? Or perhaps, in Kipling's mood of 1899, deliberate? The comment, after all, had stated a military fact; also there had recently been enough Anglo-American tensions — especially the Venezuelan boundary affair, only settled in 1899 — to show that war was not impossible.

The question why this or that textual cut was or was not made in 1899 is now past any likelihood of solution; but the question why it originally occurred to Kipling to vent his rιchauffι wrath about book piracy on the vulnerable fort at the Golden Gate will admit of speculation — and, in short, can be explained by the topicality of coast defence in the San Francisco press.

In what follows I make a confident assumption. It is that Kipling, a newspaperman to his fingertips, landing in San Francisco after a seventeen-day Pacific crossing in the era before wireless, read with avidity all the papers he could lay his hands on — at least glancing at the issues covering his period at sea.

Access to newspapers was no problem; he stayed alone for over two weeks in town at the sumptuous Palace Hotel, and enjoyed temporary rights at the Bohemian Club with its library. He had many conversations with journalists, and was himself interviewed at least three times by local reporters, who published accounts in the Examiner and the Chronicle. These were reasonable papers, carrying world news, though — as we know from what he wrote to the Pioneer — he deplored their provincial and anti-British interpretation of events. I have said enough: my case rests. Kipling read much of what I scanned on film and much of what I missed; in the fortnight preceding that despatch of his first impressions he had become thoroughly familiar with the local press.

What he would have read included three topics all tending to colour what he wrote from San Francisco on about 12 June 1889 and what he wrote from Buffalo two months later. They were first, the possibility of war with Britain over sealing rights in the Bering Sea; second, America's vulnerability to naval attack by other powers including, amazingly, China; third, the specific inadequacy of Fort Point to withstand bombardment from the sea.

The Bering Sea dispute had been a delicate issue since 1886, when the Americans had impounded three British sealing schooners for infringeing what the U.S.A. claimed as exclusive rights in the eastern Bering Sea. In 1893 an arbitration tribunal would decide in favour of Britain, but in 1889 the matter was open and sensitive, and came to a crisis. On 28 May, the very day that Kipling reached San Francisco, the Chronicle carried a leader blaming both governments for acting "foolishly and even childishly"; urgent arbitration was required since "War we do not want and must not have, and yet every step now being taken leads us exactly in the direction of war".

Next day, the Examiner had a front page article headed 'DOES IT MEAN FIGHT?', with news of Royal Navy ships heading "under sealed orders" for the Bering Sea: "should American cruisers attempt to seize British sealers a rupture is imminent". The immediate crisis soon receded, but it was a chronic dispute, liable to emotional revival. The Examiner on 22 May had declared that America "will not flinch" from asserting her rights "in spite of [Britain's] bellicose attitude", and that the USS Iroquois, "a modern vessel . . . 1575 tons ... six smooth-bore guns, with a forward and after pivot, consisting of a six-inch muzzle-loading rifle ... will be the equal of any British vessel likely to open fire on her".

Bravado apart, it was recognised that Britain's overall naval superiority was overwhelming. A major article in the Examiner of 26 May listed three grounds of tension with Britain — sealing in the Bering Sea, fisheries in the Atlantic, and transcontinental freight rivalry with the Canadian Pacific Railway — "any one of which is as aggravating... as was the cause of the war of 1812" However, it went on, "What is our condition? Within three days", the British could "have a fleet in this bay powerful enough to compel our unconditional surrender".

Incidentally the same page carried a two-column article bitterly attacking the British record in India, telling how the natives "toil for English taskmasters" whose "palaces and luxurious residences dot the face of the country". Kipling's reaction to that may be imagined.

To return to naval matters, the perceived threat was not only from Britain. A leader in the Examiner of 12 May described San Francisco as"absolutely at the mercy of any of the third-rate naval powers of the world": it possessed "a thousand millions of property" which "could be laid under contribution by the navies of Chile or Spain".

On another page, China and Japan were added to the list of possible enemies: fanciful though that might seem, the excitement aroused by the 'Chae Chang Ping case' lent credibility to a threat from China. Kipling, if not already aware of this case with its ugly xenophobic undertones, would have learned of it from the Chronicle of 1 June, reporting that Chae Chang Ping, hero or villain of the affair, was hiding in San Francisco, defying a court order for his deportation.

His case had attracted much attention in May, when the Supreme Court upheld the judgment of a Californian court against Chae Chang Ping, a Chinese of San Francisco who, having returned to China on a visit, had been denied a right of re-entry to the U.S.A. As the law now stood, an alien's certificated previous residence conveyed no right of return."A great victory", trumpeted the Examiner on 14 May, "absolutely closing the door against all Chinamen". Predictably, China's official reaction had been resentful, and the Examiner article of 26 May which assessed the naval threat from Britain also spared an anxious thought for the offensive capacity of China. Two armoured and six unarmoured Chinese warships were listed with their weaponry: even that "comparatively insignificant fleet could be concentrated in this harbor in from sixty to ninety days", carrying "eighteen of Krupp's breech-loading guns, each capable of shelling San Francisco from outside the Heads".

That was the nub. Up-to-date coastal fortifications capable of deterring warships equipped with modern ordnance were non- existent on the Pacific coast of the United States, as also on the Atlantic. Until a powerful modern U.S. Navy came into being — as it did in the next decade — the position described in 1889 by the San Francisco press was accurate. Four years earlier, President Cleveland had appointed a Board headed by his Secretary of War, W.C. Endicott, to examine and report on the country's entire coastal defences; it would be another year or two before the Endicott recommendations — for the adequate system in fact created in the 1890s — began to show results. Meanwhile America's coasts were fearfully vulnerable: it only took a maritime squabble with Britain or a political tiff with China (its navy not yet discredited by Japan's crushing defeat of it in 1894/95) to induce a mood of panic which the press were not reluctant to exploit.

Fort Point, conspicuously sited at the Golden Gate, not yet old but technologically a relic and anyhow deserted, was a natural focus for local discontent. What Kipling said about it was hurtful to Americans, but was no more critical than what they said themselves if they had the knowledge. Several major articles in the Examiner (notably on 10,12 and 26 May, after a devastating inspection of Fort Point by a Senate Committee connected with the Endicott Board, and by the veteran General Miles) had described in detailed terms, supported by a map with arcs showing ballistic ranges, the hopeless inadequacy of the defences.

Among other criticisms, Fort Point was "a splendid work of its day, but useless now"; its walls were "but six feet thick, and thirty feet of solid masonry is now required"; the sixteen rifled cannon that remained in position "were of no use ... could only be fired with effect 2,000 yards, and a man-of-war could, by keeping out of range, rattle the old building into a pile of bricks in a few minutes".

The newspaper expressed indignation that a harbour with such natural attributes for defence "should be allowed to remain so utterly and absolutely helpless" San Francisco occupied a key position: "It is to this coast more than New York is to the Atlantic; and as Carthage in her prime was mistress of the Mediterranean, so San Francisco should be mistress of the Pacific". Yet she lay "at the mercy of a hostile battle-fleet". It was not all lamentation and rhetoric: the articles also detailed the number and kind of guns, and other requirements, urgently needed to outface any threat from the sea.

The local news of May/June 1889 thus casts a relevant light on Kipling's cheeky comment about Fort Point — indeed on much else that he wrote from California. (His comments on crime, on traffic accidents, on the Cronin murder mystery, on American politics, were plainly influenced by items in the San Francisco press.) Later, heading across America, he retained those early insights, even while his view of the country changed and matured.

In Buffalo in August he wrote another of his despatches, which, for reasons that are unclear, was not published by the Pioneer nor placed in From Sea to Sea . After appearing in 1891 in various newspapers it was reprinted that year in New York as the final chapter of a pirated book, American Notes — selections from Kipling's various accounts of travel in the United States.

That chapter, "America's Defenceless Coasts", was principally a tourist's view of Buffalo, but one passage described in lurid though not unfriendly terms the openness of coastal cities to a hostile navy's military blackmail by threatened bombardment — "ransom at long range ... cash or crash". These thoughts were occasioned, he said, by the "beautifully unprotected condition of Buffalo" on Lake Erie, facing Canada — "a city that could be made to pay up five million dollars without feeling it"; but he would also have in mind the phobias of San Francisco; the Senate Committee's utter condemnation of Fort Point; even perhaps the Examiner's cartoon of 12 May showing a foreign warship, standing out at sea, lobbing shells into the Palace Hotel, whence the residents tumbled in ludicrous disarray.

"From five miles out at sea", he wrote in Buffalo, "(I have seen a test of her 'fortified' ports)", a single modern battleship "would wipe out any or every town from San Francisco to Long Branch [New Jersey]; and three first-class ironclads would account for New York". Why, the country lacked even the resources to see off the Chinese: "China's fleet to-day, if properly manned, could waft the entire American navy out of the water".

As a sample of modern naval force he cited HMS Collingwood, a battleship of new design with the latest twelve-inch guns. But — his passion over copyright in temporary abeyance — he ruled out any British threat to the United States. To be sure, Americans had provocative habits like "chevying Canadian schooners" in the Bering Sea, but it was "perfectly impossible to go to war with these people". They were "of our own blood" and "too nice" to be enemies, even if, as a Republic, they were bound to be unstable friends.

Kipling had affected, at the Golden Gate, to see America as a foe. Now he could envisage her — armed, shorn of complacency — as an ally. She was "supposed to be building a navy now. When the ships are completed her alliance will be worth having."


[G.W.]

©JGeorge Webb 1989 All rights reserved