The Comprehension of Private Copper

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in The Strand Magazine and Everybody’s Magazine of October 1902 and collected in Traffics and Discoveries in 1904. In this collection it is preceded by sixteen lines of verse called “The King’s Task” which is entitled “The Saxon Foundations of England” in Fletcher and Kipling’s A School History of England. (It was later expanded to seventy-six lines and collected elsewhere.)

The story

Private Copper is one of a ‘picket’, a patrol of irregulars sent out to reconnoitre the ground between the British and the Boer commandoes, out on the veldt. Out ahead of his comrades, he is taken prisoner by a Boer sentry, a young ‘burgher’, who hates the British because his father – a loyalist farmer in the Transvaal – has lost everything in the wars.

Despising Copper as a half-educated Englishman of the working classes, a ‘poor Tommy’, and confident of his own superiority, the ‘burgher’ lets him get too near, and Copper turns the tables on him, knocking him out, taking his rifle, and bringing him back to the rest of the picket at rifle-point The burgher has a popular English weekly newspaper, which is full of highly coloured and highly misleading accounts of British atrocities. The British soldiers, who have a sophisticated understanding of what is at stake in the war, find them richly entertaining. In the words of “The King’s Task”, the British are sure of themselves:

Stubborn all were his people, a stark and a jealous horde–
Not to be schooled by the cudgel, scarce to be cowed by the sword,
Blithe to turn at their pleasure, bitter to cross in their mood,
And set on the ways of their choosing…

The burgher totally fails to understand his captors, and they take him off into captivity.


This is a somewhat unlikely anecdote of the Second Boer War of
1899-1902 with a curious description of a young rifleman on the Boer side who is sometimes represented as a renegade Englishman and sometimes as an Indian half-caste (which is what Laski – p. 138 – calls him); on the evidence of his finger-nails, this is evidently not so. However, he has a long-held family grudge against the British which is examined at length in ORG (Volume 4, p. 1892), but it emerges as the story unfolds, so suffice it to say that his family was promised much by politicians but given very little.

This paradox is clarifieded by Bodelsen, (p. 155) who, with his usual insight, speaks of Kipling’s extreme verbal economy in the short stories (p. 160). He takes the view that Kipling’s repetition of ‘half-caste’ is for a purpose, and explains that the Uitlanders – or non-Boers resident in the Boer republics who had not been granted the vote – would be regarded as second-class without being citizens.

See also the notes to “A Sahib’s War” earlier on this volume , where Umr Singh discusses the same theme and “The Way that He Took” (Land and Sea Tales).
See also John Gross (Rudyard Kipling, the man, his work and his world, Twenty Critical Essays, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1972) p. 82.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2007 All rights reserved