Brown Bess

(notes by Peter Keating)

Publication history

First published in A History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. It was used to open Chapter X, ‘William III to George II, 1688-1760; The Growth of Empire.’ The illustrations included in the chapter are particularly pertinent. There is a Henry Ford line drawing of two armed soldiers, one ‘in Marlborough’s days’ and the other ‘in Wellington’s Time’, indicating the long period of time during which Brown Bess was the principal musket used by the English infantry; and also a map of ‘The British Colonial Empire after the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713’ which displays the new territory obtained with Brown Bess’s help. A History of England carried two coloured plates relevant to the historical period covered by this poem which were omitted from the School History: ‘George II at Dettingen, 1743’ and ‘Quiberon Bay, 1759.’

The poem carried its present title in the School History, with the subtitle being added in I.V.,1919. It was then reprinted in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 37. For the Sussex all double quotation marks were changed to single quotation marks, and the hyphen in ‘out-spoken’ (line 3) was deleted. In the ORG, Verse 1, 1969, it numbered 986 (p).

Unusually for the School History poems, we know exactly when Kipling wrote “Brown Bess” because he discussed it in letters to his father and his close friend Colonel Feilden. These are to be found in The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 1911-1919, (Ed. Thomas Pinney] pp. 7-11. The Kipling family was on one of its regular winter holidays in the Swiss skiing resort of Engleberg. On 4 January 1911 he told his father:

I have not been altogether idle for I’ve done an additional set of verses for my history book – a metrical version of the life, death and adventures of the old Tower musket which from 1710 to 1835 or 40 was the arm of England and won for us all the main blocks of Empire. Naturally the refrain is “Brown Bess.”

Just over a week later, on 13 January, he also tells Feilden about the ‘new set of verses called “Brown Bess.”’ In both letters he quotes from the poem. Some of the lines were to have slight changes made to them, and one couplet didn’t make it at all to the final version, but it seems clear that by the second of the letters the poem was pretty well completed.

Kipling makes it clear to both of these correspondents that he is rather pleased with the poem, and to his father he explains why: ‘A conceit somewhat elaborately beaten out but it amused me in the doing – sign that may be t’will amuse other folks to read.’

The illustrations referred to above can be found on the Internet

A Henry Ford line drawing of two armed soldiers: here

There is  map of ‘The British Colonial Empire after the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713  here

George II at Dettingen, 1743  here

Quiberon Bay, 1759 here


The period of time covered by Chapter X opens with the ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688 in which the catholic King James II was replaced by the protestants William III and Mary II. The next sixty or so years saw enormous national expansion, with England’s Union with Scotland in 1707; victorious wars against the French, culminating in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which brought England important new overseas territory, especially in Canada; and a substantial growth of imperial power in India. Even all of this is only half of Brown Bess’s story as presented in the poem. To gain a complete historical chronology, it needs to be continued in Chapter XI which deals with the loss of the American Colonies, the long years of the Napoleonic wars, and victory at Waterloo.

Brown Bess is presented as the heroine of this century of national and imperial expansion, and in more senses than simply one. The female name was given by the soldiers who carried Brown Bess to battle. They would have had many jokes, macabre and bawdy, to make about her, and no doubt some of them are of the kind used by Kipling himself. But what Kipling makes of the female name is entirely his own. In a book written very consciously for children, Kipling’s approach comes over as as unusually daring or ‘adult.’

The entire poem is an elaborate ‘conceit,’ as Kipling himself called it in the letter to his father quoted earlier, based on a comparison between the activities of war and those of courtship. Its full meaning is conveyed by a flurry of puns, double entendres, and allusions. Brown Bess is a powerful weapon of destruction and a sexually attractive woman who, in her own way, is just as destructive as a musket and most certainly as ruthless in her determination to succeed. She is given various roles throughout the poem, some of which are socially accepted, some of which are usually kept hidden, others which Kipling delicately hints at.

Her theatre of operations, her battlefield, is the ballroom, and the poem may have been written with a particular dance rhythm in mind – a method often used by Kipling. It would be interesting to know whether this conjecture is correct. But, whether or not, the dance performed by Brown Bess is the perennial danse macabre or dance of death which introduces yet further allusions to the comparative thrills of war and sex. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of a very remarkable poem is its jaunty tone. Whether a specific dance or not, it is clearly a very jolly one. And why not? The story, after all, is ultimately one of military triumph which is constantly equated with sexual triumph. With victory in sight, and the final ball/battle over, Brown Bess can relax, fully satisified with the crucial part she has played, and hand on a very successful campaign to a new generation of weapons and women: ‘I have danced my last dance for the world,’ said Brown Bess (line 36).

©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved