With Drake in the Tropics

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Title] With Drake in the Tropics (A.D. 1580). The poem celebrates Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world, 1577-80, the first time this had been achieved by an Englishman. Drake was consciously aiming to emulate and surpass the pioneering voyages of earlier explorers such as Sebastian Cabot, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and especially Ferdinand Magellan. It was because of their achievements that Spain and Portugal felt able to claim exclusive rights to the newly discovered lands and seas. Drake’s expedition, challenging that attitude, was organised by a syndicate of financial investors, adventurers, courtiers, politicians, and diplomats.

Queen Elizabeth I was personally involved in the scheme, though her participation, along with many other details of the voyage, was treated as a state secret and not acknowledged at the time. Drake’s crew and most of the businessmen and courtiers travelling on board ship were entirely ignorant of the voyage’s true purpose and destination. Loaded with booty and navigational knowledge, his secret mission triumphantly accomplished, Drake’s expedition returned home to Plymouth Sound on 26 September 1580, hence the solitary date in the sub-title.

[line 1] South and far south below the Line. The moment when the crew and passengers realised just how perilous the expedition was likely to be was when they crossed ‘the Line’ (i.e. the equator) and entered the South Atlantic “tropics” on their way to South America and Magellan’s Strait. The seas and the lands “south of the line” were largely uncharted and all but unknown to English sailors.

[line 2] Our Admiral. The “admiral” was the commander of a fleet, but the title can be very misleading. Here, it seems to follow modern usage, indicating simply that Drake was in charge. But in his Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (1976), p. 6, Peter Kemp indicates the difficulties this word can create: “As well as signifying the chief commander of the fleet, the title [Admiral] was also applied to his ship, and in many of the Elizabethan descriptions of voyages published in England the word almost invariably applied to the ship; the commander himself frequently being described as ‘general’ or ‘captain.’” Ralph Durand, in A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling (1914), p. 285, offers an explanation that usefully combines both

In Drake’s day every fleet, even if it consisted
of only two or three ships, sailed under the direction
of an admiral. At night lanterns were lighted on the
poop of the admiral’s ship and the other ships which
did not carry poop-lanterns had to keep these in sight.

[lines 6-7] The silent deep ablaze … far-down sharks. Phosphorescent lights and sparks on the surface of the sea, caused by a combination of factors, including the movement of the waves and secretions emitted by certain kinds of tropical fish. They could also make the sea translucent, creating still more eerie effects.

[lines 13-16] the rank moon ….. in her glare. Probably a double meaning is at work here. The moon is “rank” in the sense of being totally dominant in the cloudless skies, and is also regarded as possibly harmful to the sailors who are driven to sleep on deck under the hostile “glare” of the moon because of the sultry, airless atmosphere. It becomes the duty of the “watch” (i.e. the seaman on duty) to wake the sleeping sailors and save them from the baleful influence of the moon.

[line 17] How long the time ’twixt bell and bell! The passage of time on a ship is divided into six “watches” which are marked by the ringing of the ship’s bell. Here the sailors “on watch” are longing for the bell to sound that will end their nerve-racking spell of night-time duty.

[line 18] lanthorn. Lantern.

[lines 27-28] And loneliness and gathering fright… if we think. Because there was so little knowledge of the southern waters, the sailors fully believed the area to be inhabited by strange beings, monstrous animals, and spectres. Their views often seemed to be confirmed by the climatic conditions they experienced, many of the fish and sea creatures they were seeing for the first time, and by the unfamiliar inhabitants of the lands they visited.

[lines 33-8] Kindly … are gone! In the final stanza Kipling presents, as characteristic of Drake’s great leadership qualities, his gentleness and humanity as he takes it upon himself to walk on deck calming “the childish woes” (line 35) and the “midnight fears” (line 38) of his men. Although learning to navigate these new seas was one of the most important tasks of the expedition, Drake even temporarily “thrusts away the chart” (line 32) to play the role of comforter. Whatever the justice of describing Drake in this way, it is clear that he was quite a bit more forceful and ruthless than the sanitised father-figure Kipling is presenting here, as indeed he would have needed to be to lead such a perilous expedition with a crew that was often terrified, constantly tempted by thoughts of mutiny, and, in certain instances, openly treacherous.

It is revealing that in the letter of 1893 referred to above, Kipling himself shows he knew all about the harder side of Drake. He was even aware of its dramatic poetic possibilities: “Somewhere in the blue beyonds there’s a big poem waiting for the man who can do it – the last supper at St. Julian’s wasn’t it – the sacrament supper when Drake got ready to slay his traitorous friend where Magellan had hanged certain of his mutineers – away down in the south, beyond the reach of God or man” (Letters, II, p.115).