The Ballad of the Bolivar

(notes edited by John McGivering)

Publication history

This ballad was first published in the St. James’s Gazette on 29 January 1892. See the definitive (Feb 2010) Bibliography by David Alan Richards (p.74; also ORG Vol. 8 p. 5329 (Verse No. 520).

It is collected in

  • Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses,
  • Standard Recitations New York 1893, (as “The Ocean Tramp”)
  • Inclusive Verse
  • Songs for Youth 1924
  • Definitive Verse
  • Scribner’s Edition Volume 11, page 116
  • The Sussex Edition Vol. 32, page 284
  • The Burwash Edition, Vol. 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

The theme


Some sailors celebrate their safe return from a perilous voyage from Sunderland in northern England to Spain, in bad weather, in an ill-found, unseaworthy and over-insured vessel, by getting drunk and creating a disturbance. It is not clear if the owners intended them to be scuttled or overwhelmed by the storm, but they survived and brought the Bolivar safely into Bilbao.

The story is told with great verve and is neatly encapsulated by Lieutenant-Commander A.D. Roake writing in KJ 312/48. This is an extract:

Kipling’s “The Ballad of the ‘Bolivar’ ” is a poem for which I have a great “fellow feeling”. He had done his homework as always. He knows his navigation too, going down-Channel past ‘Start’ [Srart Point in Devon – Ed.] and ‘The Wolf [Wolf Rock,off Cornwall – Ed.], then south across the Bay of Biscay to Bilbao in Spain.

His reference to ‘pully-haul’ in emergency steering, the hogging and sagging as she pitches, and the ‘plummer-block’ (which takes the thrust) are all real technical terms. The’greybeard’ sea is also a term used in particular by “Cape Horners”. ‘Bluffed the Eternal Sea’ also has meaning for me, and many other seamen. And there is the lovely bit of irony in the last two lines;

‘Ain’t the owners gay,
Cause we took the Bolivar safe across the Bay?’.


Charles Carrington (p. 195.) records how:

Kipling thought the ballad over for months and was able to sit down in the office of the St. James’s Gazette with Sidney Low and strike off the fair copy. For payment on the nail, the sum of fifteen guineas. [£15-75 – worth £1,270 in 2010]


Charles Carrington continues his observations on Barrack-Room Ballads on page 196:

a collection of such richness, variety, and gusto, if we claim no other merit for it, as to inflate the Kipling boom seven times larger. The authorized English edition … was reprinted three times in 1892, and fifty times in the next thirty years,

Harry Ricketts (page 188) also reports Sidney Low recalling this incident:

We had been writing strongly in support of a bill, then before Parliament, intended to prevent unscrupulous ship-owners from risking the lives of sailors by sending ships to sea in a dangerous condition. One morning Kipling strode into my office and began at once with breezy vehemenence ‘I say, you know, I like those screeds of yours on the coffin-ships. Do you want a poem about them ?’

I assured him I did.

‘All right,’ he replied, ‘give me some paper, something to smoke and something to drink and you shall have it’.

I supplied his simple needs, put him in a room by himself, and left him … .In about half-an hour, or a little longer, I went in to see how he was getting on. ‘Here’s your poem,’ he said.

Meryl Macdonald notes (p. 89) that Kipling recited this poem at a concert aboard Empress of India during the trip to America after his wedding the same year.

Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898), M.P. for Derby, campaigned for laws to end the practice of sending overloaded vessels to sea. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 had laid down rules and specified the marks on the hull indicating the depth to which the vessel could be loaded; this became known as “The Plimsoll Line”.

Some critical opinions

Robert Buchanan in “The Voice of the Hooligan, A Discussion of Kiplingism” (New York, 1900) quoted in Kipling and the Critics, ed. Gilbert, p. 20) dismisses Barrack-Room Ballads:

….the majority are (sic) descriptive of whatever is basest and most brutal in the character of the British mercenary …
The best of these, “The Ballad of the Bolivar” is put into the mouth of seven drunken sailors “rolling down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain”, and loudly proclaiming, with the true brag and bluster so characteristic of modern British heroism, how “they took the (waterlogged) Bolivar across the Bay” It seems, by the way, a favourite condition with Mr. Kipling, when he celebrates acts of manly daring, that his subjects should be mad drunk, and, in any rate, as drunken as possible………..

A more appreciative contemporary view is expressed by F. W. Powell, Professor of Modern History at Oxford, writing in The English Illustrated Magazine for December 1903 (collected in R.L. Green’s Kipling, The Critical Heritage, p. 285):

Neither Tennyson nor (I think) Browning could write a good ballad, but Mr. Kipling can. “Fisher’s Boarding-House” ,”The Bolivar”, “The Last Suttee” and Danny Deever” for instance, are real ‘little epics’.

See “Themes in Kipling’s Works” – ‘The Sea’ on this site. See KJ 227/25 for a report of a parody sung by schoolboys on the Dart Valley Railway in Devon. See also The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea

Notes on the Text

[Title] The vessel is probably named after Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) the Venezuelan leader who played an important part in the South American struggle for independence from Spain.

At that time Kipling knew little of Latin America, though in Just So Stories ten years later he wrote not only of the ‘great grey-green greasy Limpopo River’, but of the ‘turbid Amazon’ in “The Beginning of the Armadilloes”. That tale was followed by the poem “Rolling Down to Rio”, though he didn’t get to Rio until his trip in 1926, described in Brazilian Sketches . He probably simply liked the name ‘Bolivar’.

[Verse 1]

Docks: the London Docks, just east of the Tower. of London.

Ratcliffe Road: perhaps the thoroughfare now known as The Highway, running alongside the London Docks in Stepney, where the Bolivar might have berthed. It was previously called Ratcliffe Highway and was notorious for dreadful murders in 1811,

raising Cain: causing an uproar, making trouble – an echo of the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, related in Genesis 4,1 onwards.

the Bay: in this context the Bay of Biscay to the west of France and north of Spain, notorious for bad weather. (See “The Dog Hervey” in A Diversity of Creatures, p. 148 line 14)

[Verse 2]

Sunderland: a large port on the northeast coast of England, just north of Durham.

The Start: one of the most southerly points in Devon with a lighthouse, an important sea-mark for the mariner on passage up or down the Channel. (There are two others of the same name – in Cornwall and in the Orkneys off the north coast of Scotland).

[Verse 3]

Rivets: metal pins with heads are heated and inserted into matching holes in the plate-work of a ship (or other construction) to hold them together tightly when the other end is also formed into a head. See “The Ship That Found Herself” in The Day’s Work, page 93.

smoke-stack: a funnel; this is the American usage, which John Masefield (1878-1967) employs in his poem “Cargoes”. After writing lyrically of a ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh’ and a ‘Stately Spanish Galleon’, he describes a ship not unlike the Bolivar:

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days

smokestack’ scans more elegantly in both poems, though Kipling also uses ‘funnel’ in Verse 5

lobster-pot: a trap to catch lobsters, then constructed of basket-work.

dray: a low cart without sides used for heavy loads – usually barrels of beer.

[Verse 4]

the Lights: the various light-houses on her course.

coal and fo’c’sle short: She has barely enough coal to take her to her destination, and the forecastle (pronounced as printed) where the crew is accommodated, is short of men or provisions – or both.

laid us down: The gale blew her over on her beam-ends—her side.

heard a bulkhead fly: the failure of one of the vertical partitions that divide a vessel into compartments in the hope that she will remain afloat if one is flooded. See “The Mary Gloster” line 185.

The Wolf: the Wolf Rock Lighthouse off Land’s End, in Cornwall, on a very dangerous coast – an important departure and landfall for mariners.

a two-foot list to port: A ‘list’ here means that the vessel has an inclination to one side or the other, caused by shifting cargo, weather or excess water aboard her, usually measured in degrees out of the perpendicular on the inclinometer. This is a pointer pivoted at the top with the lower end working on a calibrated scale after the fashion of the “swingometer” used on television to indicate the results of elections. Port in this context is the left-hand side of the vessel, looking forward.

[Verse 5]

smithy-shop: usually known as a smithy, where a blacksmith carries on his trade of forging and shaping red-hot iron.

threshed: went ahead with difficulty, laboured. [D.H.]

[Verse 6]

hog: in this context a vessel supported amidships but not at bow and stern.

sag: the vessel supported at bow and stern – see “The Ship that Found Herself” in The Day’s Work p. 89, line 30.

raced: in this context the rapid revolutions of the engine(s) when the screw or screws are lifted out of the water as she pitches; the engineer on duty will stand by with his hand on the steam valve(s) ready to slow her down when necessary so as to reduce the risk of severe damage to the machinery or the loss of a screw. In a single-screw vessel, this would probably mean the end of her with all hands. See “Bread Upon the Waters” in The Day’s Work p. 310, lines 12-13.

strake: the name given to each line of planking in a wooden vessel or plating in a metal one, but here intended to mean the ship’s side generally. (Also, Kipling wanted a rhyme for ‘break’.)

thumb on the plummer-block: a primitive way of taking the temperature of an important bearing to ensure that it is not overheating. [It is a ‘journal bearing’ consisting of a box-form casting holding the roller bearing or bearing brasses that support the shaft]. See “McAndrew’s Hymn” lines 134-5. This is discussed in KJ 143/31.

[Verse 7]

bilges: the lowest part of the interior of the hull, where water and all manner of filth accumulate

Judgement Day: In Christian tradition, the final and eternal judgement by God of all nations and people. It will take place after the Resurrection of the Dead and the Second Coming of Christ. (See Revelations 20,12–15).

[Verse 8]

the money paid at Lloyds: the insurance premium paid to Lloyd’s of London, the insurance and reinsurance market, a meeting place where financial backers, underwriters, or corporations, come together to pool and spread risk. Unlike most of its competitors in the insurance and reinsurance market, it is not a limited company. The Society of Lloyd’s was incorporated by the Lloyd’s Act of 1871. See our Notes to m “Bread Upon the Waters” in The Day’s Work, page 282, line 15.

caught her by the keel: a figure of speech indicating that good fortune saved her; the keel is the lowest part of the ship’s hull. This is similar to “‘Three turns for Mistress Ferguson’ in “McAndrew’s Hymn” Line 16, which is the equivalent of “The girls have got hold of the tow-rope’.

[Verse 9]

rotten rivets: draw, see Verse 3

took it green: shipped a very solid sea. See “Bread Upon the Waters” in The Day’s Work, p. 292, line 19.

compass chase its tail: the magnetic compass is affected by the metal in the ship. Perhaps in this case the cargo of rails shifted, or there was an electrical storm.

[Verse 10]

squalls:  sudden stronger gusts of wind.

Liner: in this context a large passenger steamer, running to a schedule.

swampin’  filling woth water. [D.H.

[Verse 11]

greybeard:  a large wave.

rig the winches aft / yoke the kicking rudder-head: preparations to improvise emergency steering by hauling on one winch with a wire to the bar or quadrant on the rudder-head, and veering (slacking away) the other. There is usually emergency steering aft but it may have been damaged in the storm.

pulley-haul: pidgin-English for men hauling on a rope.

[Verse 12]

Bilbao bar: Bilbao ia a major seaport and capital of the Biscay Province of Spain. A ‘bar’ in this context is a sand-bank at the entrance to a harbour, which is liable to be dangerous at certain states of the tide.

meant to founder … over insured, overloaded and ill-found: She was deliberately sent to sea in bad weather in the hope that she would sink, so that the owners could collect the insurance-money. See above, and our notes on “The Mary Gloster” line 18. More stringent rules and inspections today have probably reduced the frequency of this crime.

Euchred: Blocked. In Euchre, a card-game in which the player making the trump is required to take at least three tricks to win, to ‘euchre’ is to prevent an opponent from doing so.

[Verse 13]

town: in this context (and usually with a capital T) London. See “The Song of the Banjo” verse 3.

Ain’t the owners gay: a sarcastic observation. The owners would be very angry that the ship had survived the passage and that they were thus unable to collect the insurance money. See ‘meant to founder’ above. In this context ‘gay’ means ‘happy’.

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved