The Dutch in the Medway

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Title] The Dutch in the Medway: In June 1667 the Dutch navy sailed up the Thames to the naval shipyard of Chatham, which is situated on the North Kent coast at the estuary of the river Medway. Unchallenged, they destroyed a large number of ships and towed away, as a prestigious trophy, the Royal Charles, one of the largest and heaviest-armed vessels in the English fleet.

[Lines 13-14] fish and cheese … scurvy: Scurvy was a wasting disease, caused by a dietary absence of vitamin C, prevalent among sailors on long sea voyages. The word was coined about this time, though it was many years before it came to be understood that scurvy could be prevented by a ready supply of fresh food, especially fruit and vegetables. Whether the cause was known or not, Charles is still held responsible for the ill-health of his sailors by being too mean and selfish to provide them with decent food.

[Line 20] oakum: a material made from the tarred fibres of old ropes which was used to mend the decks and sides of wooden ships.

[Line 21] caulkers: the men who repaired ships by packing oakum into gaps in the planks and sealing them with hot pitch.

[Line 28] Whitehall: now a cluster of government offices in the centre of London, but in the 1660s it was a royal palace where Charles II and his uncaring courtiers are portrayed as ‘revelling’ in luxury while the neglected sailors struggle to keep themselves alive.

[Line 29] doublets: short, tight-fitting jackets.

[Line 35] disport: fun or amusement.

[Line 36] Do sell the very Thames!:  Fletcher and Kipling both stress Charles’s extravagant private life and his willingness to finance it by shady loans and deals, the most notorious being the sale of Dunkirk to France in 1662. Kipling accuses him of selling ‘the very Thames,’ not literally, of course, but because of his willingness to spend money on his own pleasures rather than on the country’s defence.

[Line 37] De Ruyter’s topsails: Michiel de Ruyter, Dutch naval hero, and the admiral in charge of the raid on the Medway. The ‘topsails’ of a square-rigged ship were not, as the name would seem to suggest, the highest on a mast, but were in the middle. Perhaps Kipling is using this detail to emphasise that Ruyter was able to sail so near to Chatham that the ‘topsails’ of his ship were clearly visible.

[Line 38] naked: defenceless.




Daniel Hadas adds:  this poem is in sharp contrast to Dryden’s ‘Annus mirabilis‘, the first half of which celebrates English sea victories against the Dutch, with specific emphasis in stanza 149 for Charles II’s care for the repair of ships:

Our careful Monarch stands in Person by,

  His new-cast Canons firmness to explore:

The strength of big-corn’d powder loves to try,

  And ball and Cartrage sorts for every bore.

All of stanzas 142-49 are devoted to ship repair, and in stanza 146 Dryden has “Okum” and “the Calking-iron”, just as Kipling has “oakum” in l.20 and “caulkers” in l.21.  [D.H.]