The Ballad of Boh Da Thone

Burma War, 1883-1885

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

This ballad was first published in Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses in 1892. See David Alan Richards, p. 74 for other details of publication. See also ORG Volume 8, page 5219 (Verse No. 331).

It was later collected in:

  • Later editions of Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses
  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, page 261
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

The theme

This is a short story in verse, in the manner of a ballad. A band of Burmese dacoits—murderous bandits—led by their Boh (Tribal Chief), have been robbing and killing up and down the land. A company of the ‘Black Tyrone’, led by Captain ‘Crook’ O’Neil—himself a fearsome fighter— have been pursuing them without success. Crook gets a bullet in the arm, and as the wound festers, he becomes even more determined to capture the Boh, dead or alive. ‘I’d give a hundred to look at his head.’

Crook and his Irish soldiers fail, he is posted away, and marries a delicate young wife, who knows little of the violent and bloody lives that soldiers lead. Meanwhile a Bengali clerk, a heavy fearful man, who had overheard O’Neil’s offer, is in a convoy that is attacked by the dacoits. He falls out of his cart on top of the Boh, and inadvertently crushes him to death. He takes off the Boh’s head, and sends it to O’Neil, with compliments and a request for a hundred rupees.

Some writers would have made this into a novel with accounts of the birth and childhood of the protagonists, together with the love-affair between O’Neil and his bride, perhaps something akin to “The Story of the Gadsbys” in Soldiers Three. Kipling tells it in 210 lines— some five or six pages in the Pocket Edition of his works. After a six-line heading it has one hundred rhyming couplets and a triplet.

Kipling’s Burma

Kipling’s writings on Burma (now Myanmar) in peace and war, include “The Taking of Lungtungpen in Plain Tales from the Hills, in which a force of young soldiers captures a town full of dacoits after swimming naked across a river. In “A Conference of the Powers” in Many Inventions, a Boh is captured by a young Englishman who takes a flying leap and lands on him in bed under his mosqito net. In “The Grave of the Hundred Head” a force of Indian soldiers take the heads of a hundred villagers to avenge the death of their officer.

Captain Crook O’Neil—Old Crook—Cruik-na-bul-leen—also figures in “With the Main Guard in Soldiers Three, also written in 1888. That tale is told by Mulvaney, whose first regiment was the ‘Black Tyrone’.

In more reflective mood there is the sad story of “Georgie Porgie” in Life’s Handicap, “Mandalay”, “The Ladies”, and the reports in From Sea to Sea Volume 1, letters II, III, and IV, which record Kipling’s delight in Burma and the Burmese people.
Charles Carrington (p. 103) looks at the role of the British Army on the frontiers of India, including the campaigns in Afghanistan which began in 1888, a few weeks before Kipling left India, concluding that:

Kipling’s earlier stories of frontier fighting must therefore have been derived from books, or from soldiers’ yarns about their experiences in earlier wars before he came to the East … during the ‘eighties the Indian Army was twice employed in foreign wars: in the Egyptian war of 1884-5 and in the conquest of Burma 1885-7 … Of Burma, Kipling knew nothing at first-hand, until he called in a sea-going liner at Rangood and Moulmein for a few days in 1889. Accordingly we find his Burmese pieces somewhat remote and romantic. Two that give graphic accounts of incidents in the war (“The Ballad of Boh Da Thone” (August 1888), and “A Conference of the Powers” (May, 1890) are carefully disposed to focus attention on the circumstances in which the tale is told afterwards, not on the local colour of the Burmese jungle.

For the historical background to the poem one cannot do better than read George Webb’s address to the Royal Society for Asian Affairs on 16 June 1983, on “Kipling’s Burma, A Literary and Historical Review”, which we have reproduced for this Guide. It was reprinted in the Kipling Journal in KJ 301/25 & KJ 302/10.

On Burma more generally there are KJ 070/13, KJ 090/09, KJ 151/21, KJ 219/12, & 18, KJ 237/52, KJ 242/06, KJ 301/25, & KJ 302/10.

For present-day Myanmar it may also be useful to take a look at the Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar.

[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved