The Comprehension of Private Copper

Notes on the text

These notes, by John McGivering, are partly new, and partly based on the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of Traffics and Discoveries, as published and frequently reprinted between 1904 and 1950.


[Page 159 line 1] Copper An old Sussex name. and the name of a famous family of Sussex folk-singers known to Kipling, and, happily, still with us (2007). Parish records locate the ‘Coper’ family in Rottingdean on the Sussex coast in 1593. See KJ 267/13 and 268/28, together with Michael Smith’s “Kipling’s Sussex”.

a Southdown shepherd He tended sheep on the South Downs. See “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” (Rewards and Fairies) also the verses “The Run of the Downs” and “Sussex”

[Page 159 line 7] Colesberg kopjes The town, between Capetown and Johannesberg, lies in typical Karoo veldt and is surrounded by kopjes, the characteristic little hills of the area which were often of strategic or tactical use in the war.

[Page 159 line 9] helmet back-first, the foreign service helmet. Issued from around 1870 remained in use until about 1905. Its construction was such that a man crawling along the ground could not see ahead unless he wore it back-to-front. See the illustrations in Newark’s Kipling’s Soldiers, p. 19.

[Page 159 lines 11-15] picket in this context a small party of troops patrolling ahead of the main body.

[Page 159 line 17] Naauwport an important railway junction near Colesberg.

[Page 159 line 21] conies rabbits.

[Page 160 line 6] khaki Hindi dusty. the colour of the uniform gradually adopted by the British army from 1857 onwards. Also a Boer nickname for the British soldier.

[Page 160 line 9] Lee-Metford this rifle combined James Paris Lee’s rear-locking bolt system and ten-round magazine with a seven groove rifled barrel designed by William Ellis Metford which replaced the Martini-Henry rifle in 1888,

[Page 160 line 10] graven images usually taken to mean statues of heathen gods – an echo of the Third Commandment (Exodus 20, 2): ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’.

[Page 160 line 15] suit of grey tweed generally only the Boer Artillery and Police wore uniforms – the rest wore plain clothes of one sort or another with bandoliers.

[Page 160 line 25] a clipped cadence a somewhat sing-song intonation when speaking English, typical of those of mixed English and Indian descent.

[Page 160 line 27] Umballa or Ambala , a city and district of India, in the Punjab,

[Page 160 line 28] Wilmington a village five miles from Eastbourne in Sussex.

[Page 160 line 31] Cuckmere a beautiful valley with a river that runs into the sea at Cuckmere Haven between Seaford and Eastbourne, in Sussex.

[Page 161 line 16] renegid renegade – one who deserts his faith, country etc.– a traitor.

[Page 161 line 21] old Krujer Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger (1825-1904) President of the Transvaal 1883-1900 and the political leader of the Boers.

[Page 161 line 21] What was you wanted for at ‘ome ? what crime had you committed at home ?

[Page 161 line 29] Ragged Schools a name given to 19th century charity schools in the United Kingdom which provided education and, in most cases, food, clothing, and lodging for destitute children. They received no government support. The Education Acts of 1870 and later provided for free elementary education for all so Copper is unlikely to have attended one – the remark is obviously intended as an insult.

[Page 161 line 30] Tommy Tommy Atkins, the classic nickname of the British soldier.

[Page 162 line 4] “True Affection” Hignett’s True Affection tobacco; this tobacco came in the form of a block which was sliced (page 164, line 30 below) rubbed between the hands and put carefully into a pipe. Alternately a slice could be cut or bitten off and chewed; then quite a common practice.

[Page 162 line 8] We take it from the trains The Boers replenished their stores from captured trains and columns. See “The Captive” p. 24 line 9 earlier in this volume.

[Page 162 line 9] po-ah Tommee this is the intonation referred to at page 160 line 25.

[Page 162 line 14] Allahabad Railway Volunteers Allahabad is a major railway centre in India, with connections to all major cities. In Kipling’s day many railway workers were Eurasian and most were members of the Volunteer forces run by their railway. See “Among the Railway Folk” (From Sea to Sea, Volume 2, p. 273) and “The Bold ‘Prentice. (Land and Sea Tales)

[Page 162 line 22] drift in this context a ford.

[Page 162 line 32] ‘istory history – another insult.

[Page 163 lines 17 onwards] workhouse then a public institution in Britain for the relief of paupers; it was looked upon as a disgraceful place in which to have to live or be born.

your kind, honourable brave country sent an English gentleman…etc This sarcastic reference is to the speech by Lord Wolseley in 1879, (Field Marshal Garnet Joseph Wolseley, 1833–1913) reported in ORG quoted above.

[Page 163 line 33] Transvaal see Page 161 line 21 above.

[Page 164 line 15] they beat them six times
Four Boer victories were:

  • Bronkorst Spruit, 20 December 1880 – the opening engagement of the First Boer war
  • Laing’s Nek
  • Ingogo
  • Majuba

The other two have not been identified.

[Page 164 line 23] handed over to the Transvaal as a prisoner of war Without any dates for guidance this is unclear: the son is a ‘burgher’, born in the Transvaal, but the father was an uitlander (‘foreigner’ in Afrikaans). People of English descent were defined as uitlanders by the leaders of the Boer Republics, which were seen as refuges from British domination for the Boer people.

[Page 165 line 2] sjambok a rhinocerous-hide whip.

[Page 165 line 20] cross bridges an echo of the proverb Do not cross your bridges until you come to them.

[Page 165 line 28] wagon-wheel prisoners being flogged were often tied to a waggon- wheel.

[Page 166 line 11] plover-tinted eyeballs the eggs of the plover are a buffish-yellow or spotted; those of the lapwing (which were sold as ‘Plovers Eggs’ ) are creamy buff, stone, olive or brown, and might well resemble the slight darkening of the whites of the eyes sometimes seen in Eurasian people.

[Page 166 line 31] Majuba see page 164, line 16 above.

[Page 167 line 5] Ladysmith a town in Natal, named after the wife of Sir Harry Smith, sometime Governor of Cape Colony and scene of a famous siege.

Estcourt about forty miles from Ladysmith.

[Page 167 line 13] our loyall (sic) people in Cape Town The Cape Dutch, who were somewhat occasionally ambivalent in their allegiance. See the notes to “The Captive” earlier in this volume.

[Page 167 line 21] nigger an offensive name for people with black skins, not now used.

[Page 167 line 30] snicked like a gun-lock cocking a gun ready for firing makes a characteristic click.

[Page 167 page 33] cross-bandoliers leather straps with pockets for ammunition worn across the body by the Boers. See the note on page 160 line 15 above.

[Page 168 line 1] looked … at the finger-nails the white half-moons at the bases of the finger-nails were thought to be a little darker in the case of those of mixed European and Asian descent.

[Page 168 line 13] the muzzle of my rifle … on your collar-button obviously the back of the neck.

[Page 168 line 15] serviceable vertebree he means the cervical vertebrae – the top sections of the backbone.

[Page 168 line 27] reconnoiterin’ reconnoitering: spying out the land.

[Page 168 line 32] chee-chee – pukka bazar chee-chee the accent spoken by people of mixed European and Asian descent in the marketplaces of India.

[Page 169 line 3] mounting mountain.

[Page 169 line 15] a loyal farmer with dynamite in both boots see “A Sahib’s War” earlier in this volume (Page 88 line 14) for those actively backing the Boers, while professing loyalty to the British with certificates signed by the British authorities to prove it.

[Page 169 line 20] Jerrold’s Weekly Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper was one of several founded and edited by Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857) and his son, including the Illuminated Magazine, Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, with a circulation of over half a million. Some were barred from South Africa by the Censor owing to their pro-Boer viewpoint.

[Page 169 line 22] a militia subaltern doin’ Railway Staff Officer The militia was a volunteer force of part-time soldiers, sometimes seen as a ‘back-door’ into the regular army which regarded it somewhat patronisingly. [see “The Army of a Dream” later in this volume and the poem “Folly Bridge” (text in KJ 132/05).

[Page 169 line 23] Majuba see page 64, line 16 above.

[Page 169 line 33] coun- he is about to say ‘county’ but changes his mind.

[Page 170 line 1] squire in this context a local landowner – not necessarily titled, but usually, like most of his tenants, resident in his county for many generations.

[Page 170 line 12] ‘Ebrew financeer Hebrew (Jewish) financier. it was believed by some that financial circles were backing the war in order to secure the South African gold and diamond-fields for Great Britain.

[Page 170 line 17] ‘ektacomb he means hecatomb a great public sacrifice of one hundred oxen in Roman times.

[Page 171 line 8] Old Barbarity Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) Liberal politician who became Prime Minister. In a speech in 1901 he referred to the British ‘concentration camps’ in South Africa as ‘methods of barbarism’, hence this nickname. (J.A. Spender, Campbell-Bannerman, volume 1, p. 171)

[Page 171 line 9] lady friends these would include the ‘Ladies Committee’ headed by Miss Emily Hobhouse and the feminist leader Dame Millicent Fawcett, who was appointed to lead the Fawcett Commission to South Africa to investigate the concentration camps, where insanitary conditions caused many deaths

[Page 171 line 24] His Majesty’s Opposition some Members of Parliament not in the government party were opposed to the war but were not necessarily pro-Boer.

[Page 171 line 25 onwards] The night-picket arrived … without paying any compliments it appears the relief just walked into the position without being challenged.

[Page 172 line 4] Bermuda, Umballa or Ceylon then British colonies to which Boer prisoners were sent.

[Page 173 line 5] ‘E sent us ‘is blessin’ from London town / The beggar that kept the cordite down this is Campbell-Bannerman (see page 171 line 8 above) and KJ 137/31 and 138/31; he failed to supply enough cordite for the army.

[Page 173 line 32] K o’ K. Field-Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum (1850-1916), Commander-in-Chief in South Africa from 1900.

[Page 174 line 2] I want to ‘ave a squint myself I want to have a look at it myself.

[Page 174 line 7] a tot a generous measure of rum. Probably one-eighth of a pint.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2007 All rights reserved