The Disturber of Traffic

(notes edited by Peter Havholm)


First printed in the September 1891 Atlantic Monthly as “A Disturber of Traffic”, and collected in Many Inventions (1893). As collected, the story has a verse heading consisting of verses 1, 2, and 5 of the five verses of “The Prayer of Miriam Cohen”. The last verse is perhaps most apropos to this tale about a lighthouse keeper whose ‘head began to feel streaky from looking at the tide so long’:

A veil ’twixt us and Thee, dread Lord,
A veil ’twixt us and Thee:
Lest we should hear too clear, too clear,
And unto madness see!

The story

Fenwick, the lighthouse keeper of St. Cecilia’s light, tells the story of his friend Dowse, driven mad by loneliness and “the streaking of the tides” he attributes to passing ships while he was keeper of the light in Flores Strait, in what is now Indonesia. With the help of Challong, an “Orang laut”, Dowse blocks the strait with spurious wreck buoys and ropes and flares, determined that ships will go around by Ombay Passage instead.

When a British survey ship comes to inspect, Dowse goes aboard naked (he has ceased to bother with clothing, but does not notice until he sees his reflection in the binnacle brasses) and says to the captain, ‘And when the ship began to move, The captain says, ‘Quack-quack!’ whereupon he is relieved of his position and taken home, there to become “a wherryman from Portsmouth to Gosport, where the tides run crossways, and you can’t row straight for ten strokes together”.


In 1942, Kipling’s sister wrote:

R.K. lived at 101 Earls Court Road in 1890, with our parents. We were all four (‘the family square’) together again … there R. wrote “The Disturber of Traffic”, laughing so much at the names he found in the Admiralty maps he was consulting.

Charles Carrington tells us the story was provided by a visit to the Isle of Wight with the Balestiers in July 1891 (p. 142). St. Catherine’s Light has points in common with “St. Cecilia-under-the-Cliff” in the story, but if Kipling really visited it – contrary to Trinity House regulations – he would have taken special care not to identify it too closely. The light in Flores Strait is imaginary, and there is no evidence that Kipling had any first-hand knowledge of the place. If a light had existed, it is unlikely that it would have been of the screw pile type described, and the Dutch authorities are said to have been even more reluctant to employ Britons than Kipling suggests.

See also Ruth McAllister in KJ 368/13, and Janice Lingley in KJ 372/62

Criticism of the story

J M S Tompkins comments:

It is a funny tale, and, if we like, a tragic one … [Fenwick] tells his story, with its mixture of torment and farce, very methodically. Such a story could, however, have been told quite differently, and Kipling indicates this in the verses that he prefixes to the tale … They are a prayer for a veil between the human soul and the lord … There is nothing of this in the tale as it stands, and there could not be; but it is a latent potentiality of the subject. (p. 104).

Angus Wilson, quoted by Norman Page, sees it as a: ‘a horrible and purposely puzzling tale’. Norman Page (p. 83) comments:

… the fog that features in the frame-story seems to be a metaphor for the baffling obscurity of the central tale.

This Editor takes the story to be comic rather than tragic because, as Tompkins notices, the serious potential is almost ignored, and the story is full of ridiculous moments. On the one hand the lines “I” uses to end the opening frame seem serious:

Dowse … believing that the guilt of blood is on his head, and finding no rest either at Portsmouth or Gosport Hard. (5)

But within Fenwick’s story, the picture seems more ridiculous when Fenwick wrests Dowse from the clutches of the Salvation Army who have:

produced him in their papers as a Reformed Pirate … ‘John Dowse, you was mad then, but you are a damn sight madder now. Take off that there [Salvation Army] jersey!’

And given that there are no streaks between Portsmouth and Gosport, Dowse does find rest.

[P. H.]

©Peter Havholm 2006 All rights reserved