The Captive

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


First published as a copyright pamphlet in the USA in 1902 and then in Collier’s Weekly for 6 December the same year: the first appearance in the UK was the Summer Number of The Illustrated London News for 1903. The story was collected in Traffics and Discoveries in 1904, that title being taken from The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation by Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552-1616) It is also in the Sussex Edition Volume 7, page 5, Burwash Edition Volume 7 and Scribner’s Edition, Volume 22, page 3.

The story

This is both a tale and a tract, preaching the virtues of professionalism in war, and the need for preparedness in peacetime.

During the South African War of 1899-1902 between the United Kingdom and the Boer Republics, the author visits a camp for Boer prisoners of war. He encounters Laughton Zigler, from Ohio, who tells his story. Zigler is a talented professional inventor, who has developed a new light field gun and a new explosive, and has been looking for buyers for them. He had captured the interest of Van Zyl, a far-sighted Boer commander, who was engaged with the British in a particular sector of the war, out on the high veldt. There was little movement of the armies, and each side had fallen into a routine of bombarding the other, with no decisive effects.

Zigler, with his gun, had conducted his own, highly technical, private war against the Royal Artillery, who turned out to be more dangerous and effective than he had expected. In the end the British win the contest, putting the Zigler gun out of action, and wounding both Zigler and Van Zyl. He is taken prisoner, and gets to know the British officers well. Behind their casual style they are highly professional, and Zigler comes to respect them as ‘brainy men, languishing under an effete system, which , when you take holt of it, is England, – just all England.’

The Boers know they cannot win the war, and want it to end as soon as possible, so that they can get back to their farms. The British commanders are in no hurry. They see the campaign as a way of training their raw young recruits into effective soldiers. It is ’a first class dress parade for Armageddon.’

Zigler, and Kipling’s readers in 1902, are left with a great deal to ponder for the future.

The ‘Boer War’

This war, precipitated by the Jameson raid into Boer territory, had deep-seated causes. The Afrikaans-speaking Boer Republics wanted their independence. The British wanted to protect the rights of the British settlers in South Africa against the Boers, and assert their Imperial authority. (See the notes on the text).

These issues are well explained in Kipling by Jad Adams (Haus Publishing 2005) p. 129, in a chapter headed “No End of a Lesson”. This is a quotation from Kipling’s verses “The Lesson” and “The Islanders” in which he reflects on the war and what it should have taught the British. See also Niall Ferguson, Empire, (Allen Lane, 2003) p. 273. The rights and wrongs of this conflict are still discussed, but Theodore Roosevelt had a point when he wrote to his sister in 1900:

…the trouble with the war is not that both sides are wrong, but from their different standpoints both sides are right.
[The South African War ed. Peter Warwick, (Longmans, 1980, p. 317]

Theodore Roosevelt was later President of the United States. Kipling knew and admired him, and marked his death with the poem “Greatheart” See page 8, line 19 below, and Something of Myself, p. 121 passim.

See also ORG Volume 4, pp. 1872 and 1892 which contains much valuable background information which although of great interest, is not necessary for the enjoyment of the story. The Boer War (1899-1902) (Osprey, 1999) by Martin Marix Evans, is also a mine of information with excellent photographs.

Kipling in South Africa

Kipling spent some time in South Africa during the war, working as a journalist, and this story was inspired by his encounter with a lone agent of an American gun firm, tied to his exhibit, sorely disillusioned with the Dutch, his employers, and doing his methodical best to be captured by the British. (Letter to Mr. Macmeechan, Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 6 1903; James McG Stewart Collection, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia.)

See also “The Way that He Took” (Land and Sea Tales), “A Sahibs’ War”, “The Comprehension of Private Copper”, “Mrs. Bathurst”, and, for a possible military reorganisation after the war, “The Army of a Dream”, all later in this volume, together with Something of Myself Chapter 6, “South Africa”, together with “Bridge-Guard in the Karroo” and other verses.

See also John Gross (Ed.) Rudyard Kipling, the man, his work and his world (p. 82) for “Kipling and the Boer War”, with photographs of him as a war-correspondent and Julian Ralph, War’s Brighter Side (D. Appleton & Co, New York, 1901). (There is also an edition published by C. Arthur Pearson Ltd, London, in the same year.)

There are also Notes and an Introduction by Andrew Rutherford to this and other writings in Rudyard Kipling, War Stories and Poems, published by Oxford University Press as a World Classics paperback in 1990.

Critical responses

J M S Tompkins (p. 109) believes this is a case when the reader can probably identify the narrator of the story with the author, despite her admonition (p. 25.) that we should not !
Charles Carrington, himself a soldier who served in the trenches in France throughout the1914-18 war, refers (p. 326) to this story as:

…one of Rudyard’s most sophisticated, most thoroughly elaborate, stories packed with allusion and technicality, and making no concession to the casual reader.

Angus Wilson, however, observes (p.220) that:

…the story has been highly praised, but here we are confronted with all the growing faults of Kipling’s later work – over-technical language, too elaborate a framework of narration – and there is none of the compensating depth that makes the best of his later stories so fine. He starts with a splendidly visual opening picture of a prisoner-of-war camp by the Cape seaside, but this is all swallowed up in the story of an American enlisted on the Boer side and how he learns that he has been wrong.

Andrew Lycett, on the other hand, says (p. 358):

Even in the more prosaic stories, such as “The Captive”, the influence of Rudyard’s nagging daemon can be sensed, pushing him to create a work that is not so much conventional but metaphysical history.

The present Editor has always regarded this as a rattling good yarn even though he cannot recall when he first read it – probably in his schooldays before he had heard of metaphysics.

[J H McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2007 All rights reserved