The Devil and the Deep Sea

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)


This story first appeared in The Graphic (London) Christmas Number 1895, and next in The Pocket Magazine for January 1896. It is collected in The Day’s Work, 1898. It was further published in:
Scribner’s Edition, Volume XIII, page 181.
Sussex Edition, volume VI, page 155.
Burwash Edition, volume VI.

On its first appearance (The Graphic) it was illustrated by a full page (9″x11½”) drawing in full colour by Frank Brangwyn, who was later a Royal Academician and famous as a mural artist.

The Story

The Haliotis, a small steamer, and her crew have been sailing close to the wind for a number of years. Their present ‘scam’ is illicit pearling in the East Indies, in what is now Indonesia. They are caught in flagrante, and the gun-boat which traps them puts a shell into Haliotis’ engine-room, comprehensively wrecking the engine.

The remainder of the tale largely concerns Mr. Wardrop (a gude Scots name), the engineer. Firstly, the means by which he bamboozles the colonial authorities into thinking that the engine is irreparable are described: and then, after the crew have been employed as an unofficial army “up the ulu” (20th century naval slang for “in the backwoods”, but the phrase is entirely suitable here, because it is taken from the Malayan word meaning “headwaters”), the story describes the rebuilding of the engine, so that they can escape. Finally, the captain and crew have their revenge, by scuttling their ship so that the gun-boat is sunk by running on to the wreck.

This is one of Kipling’s most technically abstruse stories, but it is suggested that it can be read without technical knowledge because of his ability as a storyteller. However, the notes which follow endeavour to explain the technicalities. As in the notes to “Bread upon the Waters”, the dissection of the tale, phrase by phrase, has revealed some inconsistencies in the details, but this does not detract from the merit of the story nor its telling.


In 2010, an article appeared in The Mariner’s Mirror (Society for Nautical Research, Vol. 96, No. 1, February 2010 p. 28) which suggests that Kipling had some inside information for the pearling background to this tale.

The article, by Steve Mullins, Associate Professor of History at Central Queensland University, is entitled ‘Vrijbuiters! Australian Pearl-shellers and Colonial Order in the late Nineteenth Century Moluccas’, and concerns the efforts of the local colonial power to control the incursions of specifically Australian pearl-fishers – strictly mother-of-pearl, for which there was an enormous market at that time; at the end of the 19th century, goods worth £500,000 were reaching the London market annually.

The area concerned was centred on the Aru Islands, in the Arafura Sea, lying between Timor, New Guinea and northern Australia, matching very well Kipling’s description of a “semi-inland sea” (p. 151, line 5). In 1893, there was a Netherlands Governor at Ambon, on the island of Ambon, at the northern apex of the sea, who exercised a fairly loose suzerainty over the local Rajas: his name was Baron G. van Hoëvell, the grit in the oyster) was – or were – well-equipped Australian ‘floating stations’, mother-ships (still sail-powered) with full diving equipment and a fleet of smaller subsidiary craft to work the pearl-shell beds. The details of the dispute are irrelevant here, but there are a number of similarities to the situation into which the fictional Haliotis intruded. The Dutch did indeed bring up another gunboat (it was a “newly-brought up third and a fourteen-knot boat”) to police the area, although they did not arrest the Australians). And the Governor did have a little jungle war to prosecute; in November 1892 Governor van Hoëvell arrived at Dobo in Aru with 50 troops, after being informed that a number of traders had been murdered on the east coast of Aru. And Dobo was remarkably like the fictional village where the Haliotis was interned.

Because the local population regarded the Australians as pirates, taking their local resources (the pearl-shell beds) from them without authority or payment – a fact which the Australians disputed, but let us just say that they drove a very hard bargain – relations between the Netherlands and Great Britain were rather strained in 1893-4. No doubt there were accounts of the ‘local difficulty’ in the papers in Europe and even in the U.S.A. (though undoubtedly well tucked away inside the latter). And maybe Kipling picked this up, and embroidered the tale, to centre it round the engineering wizardry of Mr. Wardrop. The dust settled in 1895 (the year the tale was first published) when HMS Lizard, an archetypal gunboat, was sent up from Sydney, and the Australians were persuaded to take themselves elsewhere. In fact they went to Burmese waters, where they wouldn’t cause a ruckus with any other government.

The ORG contained an introductory note, reproduced below, of which the present Editor did not have the benefit when he compiled the Notes to the Text which follow Mr Inwood’s introduction. However, it is encouraging to note that the present Editor, Mr. Inwood, and Mr. Langer (see Mr.Inwood’s note below) are, quite independently, of the same mind.

A guide to the story

It is to be hoped that the following exposition will help the reader to find his way among the rocks and shoals of the long-standing controversy among the engineers, some of whom say that the story is technically irreproachable, while others claim that it is far from being technically accurate and the repair work described in it utterly impossible in the circumstances.

So that the reader may judge for himself with some confidence, the professional advice has been secured of F.E. Langer, Esq., O.B.E., M.R.I.N.A., M.I.Mar.E., Principal Technical Adviser to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service of the Royal Navy, to whom the warmest thanks of those concerned in the production of the Reader’s Guide are due. He winds up the argument (conclusively it is to be hoped) with the following opinion:

“The story to my mind is technically accurate as the description of the propelling machinery and equipment which would be fitted in a ship with compound engines of vintage 1850-70.

The repairs described in pages 168-175 would be technically impossible with the primitive facilities available. Faced with a similar situation, I would have attempted to transform the engine into a single-cylinder propulsion unit. It would have to be non-condensing if the air-pump was damaged beyond repair, or, alternatively, condensing, allowing the condensate (water) to drain to the bilges. I should reduce the boiler pressure to 30 lbs. per square inch (2.11 kg./cm²) and use salt water for boiler-feed.”

But after all, if the fictional repairs had not been performed there would have been no story – to our great loss. [P W Inwood]


©Alastair Wilson 2006 All rights reserved