The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House

Notes on the text

(by David Page)


[Title] Boarding-House In Chapter IV of The City of Dreadful Night page 226, line 9 in “On the Banks of the Hugli”, Kipling distinguishes between the establishments of :

‘Honest Bombay Jack’ who supplies nothing but Burma Cheroots and whisky in liqueur-glasses, but in Lal Bazar, not far from ‘The Sailors’ Coffee-rooms’ a board gives bold advertisement that ‘officers and seamen can find good quarters.’

The latter is a boarding-house, not always as respectable as it describes itself, but necessary for those seamen who have discharged or deserted from an incoming ship and are awaiting employment on another vessel. Fisher need not have been a ‘crimp’, but probably was – likewise ‘Honest Jack’. A ‘crimp’ is defined by The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea as:

One who makes it his business to persuade seamen to desert from a ship that has just completed a voyage, usually by the offer of free liquor, in order to sell them as a ready-made crew to an outward-bound vessel. Most of the crimps operated as keepers of seamen’s lodging or taverns in the ports around the world, and kept their victims drunk and incapable until they were shipped out again about an hour before sailing.

The Epigraph

The first stanza, set in a different type from the remainder of the poem, is nevertheless in the same meter and is undoubtedly by Kipling. It effectively sets the scene for the main body of the Ballad, and the allusions in it tie the whole story to Calcutta and the Hughli River. In effect, Kipling is setting up a frame, as he does so frequently for his stories.

[Epigraph, line 1] mooring-chains: permanent positions in harbours, rivers and estuaries to which ships can moor without using their own anchors. The shipping at Calcutta suffered particularly badly in a cyclone of October 1864, and requests were made to Parliament in England for the supply of screw piles with mooring chains already attached.
[Epigraph, line 2] the wide-eyed corpse: the body of Hans, the blue-eyed Dane. (see the main Ballad)

[Epigraph, line 3] Garden Reach: the section of the Hughli three to four miles below the Howrah Bridge and just below Fort William. It is opposite the Government Botanical Gardens.

[Epigraph, line 3] Kedgeree: or Khijiri or Kijari, a village and police station on the west bank of the Hugli near its mouth, opposite the north end of Saugor Island and some 68 miles below Calcutta. It was formerly well known as a usual anchorage for the larger Indiamen. (See Hobson-Jobson.)
The Ballad

[Verse 1, line 1] Fultah Fisher: In his Glossary to some of the early editions of Departmental Ditties Kipling identifies ‘Fultah’ as being: ‘a village in Bengal situated on the Hughli; also an anchorage for vessels.’

Fultah, Fulta or Falta, is situated on the eastern bank of the river, just before the confluence with the Damodar River. It should also be noted that just upstream of Fultah is the ‘Fisherman’s Point Anchorage’. Kipling must also have known this, and it probably suggested the alliterative name of ‘Fultah Fisher’ for this Ballad.

[Verse 1, line 4] From Missisip to Clyde: from the Mississippi River in the U.S.A. which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, to the Clyde River in western Scotland debouching into the Firth of Clyde.

[Verse 2, line 1] purple Sea: an allusion to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, at least in some English translations; the related expression ‘wine-dark sea’ is also found.

[Verse 2, line 6] Black rum when that was red: allusion to Proverbs 23,31: ‘Look not upon the wine when it is red’.

[Verse 3, line 4] Brimstone of the Lord: allusion to Luke 17,29: ‘and it rained fire and brimstone from heaven’.

[Verse 5, line 2] Pamba the Malay: a native of the Malay Archipelago in the South China Sea. Kipling used this character in his dark story of revenge “The Limitations of Pambé Serang” (Life’s Handicap) first published in 1889.

[Verse 5, line 3] Guinea cook: a native of the West African Coast whose trade was that of ship’s cook.

[Verse 5, line 4] Vigo Bay: an estuary on the NW Atlantic coast of Spain, just north of the border with Portugal.

[Verse 5, line 6] Honest Jack: almost certainly the ‘Honest Bombay Jack’ referred to in chapter IV of City of Dreadful Night page 226, line 9 in “On the Banks of the Hugli”.

slops: ready-made clothing for seamen. In Chap. IV of City of Dreadful Night page 226, lines 18-20, Kipling remarks: ‘Perhaps ‘Honest Bombay Jack’ only keeps one kind of felt hat and one brand of suit.’

[Verse 6, line 2] Bostonian: a native of Boston, Massachusetts on the NE coast of the U.S.A.

[Verse 7, line 1] Anne of Austria: There were at least two Queen Consorts of this name – Anne or Anna, the first wife of Sigismund III of Poland, (1573-1598); and Anne or Ana, the wife of Louis XIII of France (1601-1666). Obviously, neither of these ladies is referred to in this ballad, but Kipling may have been captivated by the euphonious alliteration of their names.

[Verse 7, line 1] Austria: part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time this Ballad was written. At its height, the Empire included Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Slovakia, Bukovina, Transylvania in Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Galicia in Poland, and the NE section of Italy. (Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary)

[Verse 7, line 2] Collinga: James Fulford writes to suggest that this should be the ancient kingdom of Kalinga which is not far from Calcutta.

[Verse 7, line 3] Tarnau:  or Tarnow, a city now in the Krakow Province, S. Poland, 45 miles east of Krakow. (Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary)
Galicia: former Austrian crownland in E. Central Europe, including Krakow. In the partitions of Poland in 1772 and 1795, it was annexed to Austria. (Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary)

[Verse 7, line 4] Jaun Bazaar: was in Calcutta and Jaun Bazar Street ran just to the south of Dharmatala Road and roughly parallel with it. The street was renamed Coronation Street in the early 1900s, and is now S.N. Banerjee Road. A description of Coronation Street is as follows:

Formerly known as Jaun Bazaar Street, a place of ill repute and the resort of some of the worst characters and budmashes in Calcutta. It was a dirty, filthy, narrow sort of lane having no side-paths and the houses being built most irregularly and without any attempt at symmetry or alignment. In fact it had altogether a most disreputable and evil appearance. The street as all can see has undergone quite a transformation, more particularly in that section near the Chowringhee end, and has now become an ornament and acquisition to the city.
[Recollections of Calcutta for over half a century by Montague Massey, 1918].

[Verse 7, line 6] wage of shame: not to put too fine a point on it, she was a ‘lady of very easy virtue’.

[Verse 10, line 2] Howrah to the Bay: Howrah is the city on the Western bank of the Hughli, opposite Calcutta. The Bay referred to is the Bay of Bengal into which the Hughli flows.

[Verse 12, line 4] round the Skaw: or Cape Skagen, on the northern extremity of Jutland, Denmark, which extends into the Skagerak. (Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary)

[Verse 12, line 5] down the Cattegat: or Kattegat. A broad arm of the North Sea between Sweden on the East and Jutland on the West, it connects with the North Sea through the Skagerrak and with the Baltic Sea through the Øresund, the Great Belt and the Little Belt. (Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary)
by Hjelm: an island with a town of the same name in the Kattegat: just off the Jutland coast near Aarhus.

[Verse 12, line 6] Besser in Saro: There is a small town named Besser on the island of Samsø in the Kattegat at the mouth of the Great Belt. It is 20 miles SSW of Hjelm. (Google Earth). No information has been found for ‘Saro’, and whilst there is a town of Sorø in Sjaeland, it is thought that in this instance “Saro” is Kipling’s misspelling of Samsø.


©David Page 2009 All rights reserved