Erastasius of the Whanghoa

Notes on the text

by David Page

[Page 3, Title] Erastasius The ORG suggested that this name was perhaps derived by mistake from “Erastianism” the doctrine of State Supremacy propounded by the Swiss Theologian, Thomas Erastus (1524-83). A possible alternative source is the Byzantine Roman Emperor Flavius Anastasius (430-518 C.E.).

[Page 3, Title] Whanghoa The ship’s name almost certainly derives from “Whang Ho” or “Hwang Ho”, the name of the Yellow River that flows for 2,903 miles through North central and Eastern China.

[Page 3, line 1 & 6] ventilator A cylindrical pipe bent at the upper end with a bell-shaped mouth, four feet high in this instance. It is located on deck and carries air down to the lower decks, this particular one to the stoke-hole.

[Page 3, line 2-3] furnace-door in the stoke-hole. The Whanghoa was fitted with engines, the steam for which was raised in boilers. The furnace door gives access to the fires under the boiler. The stoke-hole is where the stokers work and shovel coal from the coal-bunkers into the furnace.

[Page 4, line 25] ventilators are a little too broad in the beam The internal diameter of the ventilator is too great to prevent the cat sliding down it.

[Page 5, line 6] tailless Japanese cat. This breed of cat is not actually tailless, but has a natural bob tail not unlike a rabbit’s scut.

[Page 5, line 15] after six bells After the third hour of any watch on board ship. To be specific, Kipling should have named the watch, but in the context of the story, the First watch (8 p.m. to midnight) is the most likely with six bells being 11 p.m.

[Page 5, line 21] the China Seas Part of the Pacific Ocean reaching from Japan to the Southern end of the Malay Peninsula. It borders China and is split by the island of Taiwan into the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It runs from the Equator to 35º N.

[Page 6, line 11] Foochow A seaport on the SE China coast halfway between Hong Kong and Shanghai. It was once famous for being the chief port for the export of black tea (bohea).

[Page 6, line 25] steerage passengers are those travelling at the cheapest rate. Steerage was a large space below deck, the sides being lined with one or more tiers of bunks and was directly below the quarterdeck in the stern of the ship.

[Page 7, line 13] ’tween-decks These passengers were located between the decks and normally did not have access to the upper deck other than the ’tween decks hatch.

[Page 7, line 14] dominoes The Chinese are said to have been playing dominoes since about 1120 C.E., and it is thought that the game is the precursor to the Chinese gambling game Mah-Jongg. There are 32 tiles in the Chinese domino set as opposed to 28 in the European version.

[Page 7, line 19] Engines rotten as Congress, and under sail half the time. The state of the engines is compared to the corruption that existed in elections to the Congress of the U.S.A. after the American Civil War. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) in A Tramp Abroad [Chap.2. “Heidelberg” (1880)] wrote:

A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise.

“under sail half the time” demonstrates that the Whanghoa was in that intermediate stage of the transition from sail to steam when vessels were still equipped to take advantage of both means of propulsion. [see KJ 307, Sep 2003, p.26 for an illustration of a vessel rigged this way, supplied by Roger Ayers].

[Page 7, line 21] Gatling The Gatling mechanical machine gun. with six rotating barrels, was designed in 1861 with a patent taken out in 1862 by Dr. J. R. Gatling (1848-1903). He was an American Doctor but never practised. The Gatling was eventually superseded by the Maxim machine gun which was not hand-cranked but used the gas or recoil blowback concept.

See also the NRG entry for “Judson and the Empire” (Many Inventions) (Page 343, lines 11 and 22).

[Page 7, line 24] about a hundred and fifty thousand islands. One of Kipling’s frequent humorous exaggerations. It probably refers to either the Ryukyu Islands that stretch from Taiwan to Japan and bound the eastern side of the East China Sea, or the Philippines which form the eastern boundary of the South China Sea.

[Page 8, line 4] pigtails a derogatory term for the Chinese. Hobson-Jobson [see the Introduction to “Abaft the Funnel”] says:

This term is often applied to the Chinaman’s [sic] long plait of hair, by transfer from the queue of our grandfathers, to which the name was much more appropriate. Though now universal among the Chinese, the fashion was only introduced by their Manchu conquerors in the 17th century . . .

[Page 8, line 6] ’Frisco San Francisco in California was well-known for its Chinese colony and their way of life. Bret Harte summed it up in “Plain Language from Truthful James” (1870), the last stanza being:

Which is why I remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark,
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,—
Which the same I am free to maintain.

[See also the Background to the story.]

[Page 8, line 13] heeled American slang for “armed” (usually with a revolver), but Erastasius was armed with claws. Literally “provided” (with weapon understood). Perhaps there is a double meaning here, Erastasius carrying his weapons in his feet if not his heels. [ORG]

[Page 8, line 18] shanty the Captain’s cabin, possibly built on deck.

[Page 9, line 12] six-shooter American slang for a revolver, a handgun with six chambers which could be fired six times simply by pressing the trigger before reloading became necessary.

[Page 9, line 15] Maine The most North-easterly State of the U.S.A., bordered by Canada and the Atlantic.

[Page 9, line 18] Celestials Chinamen. So called from one of the Chinese names for China – “The Celestial Empire”.

[Page 10, line 5] spar-deck strictly speaking, a temporary deck laid in any part of the ship, but also used to describe the quarterdeck or forecastle deck where the crew would be on or off watch respectively.

[Page 10, line 8] Junk on the port bow. A junk is especially a Chinese or Javanese sailing vessel with a flat bottom, high stern and square bow, usually rigged with fully-battened lugsails made from matting.
“On the port bow” means that the junk is to the left and in front of the Whanghoa.

[Page 10, line 17] Dahlgren signal-gun This gun is named after the inventor, Admiral John A. Dahlgren (1809-1870) of the U.S. Navy. The artillery piece is a smoothbore muzzleloading cannon with the breech end made of very much thicker metal than the muzzle, giving it the approximate shape of a beer-bottle. A signal-gun would be a scaled-down version of one of these, for use as a distress signal or to draw attention to the vessel, perhaps to call for a pilot.

[Page 10, line 19] break of the fo’c’sle The end of the forecastle where it meets the main deck. The crew quarters were usually located in the forecastle which is in the bows of a ship.

[Page 11, line 2] the Glassy Sea A recollection of Bishop Reginald Heber’s hymn, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’. The second line of the second verse, concerning the Saints: “Casting down their golden crowns upon the glassy sea”. This phrase for Heaven, derives ultimately from The Revelation of St. John the Divine, iv, 6 [ORG]:

“And before the Throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal”.

[Page 11, line 6] touch-hole A touch hole is a small hole at the breech end, through which the propellent charge of a cannon or muzzleloading gun is ignited.

[Page 11, line 12] stiff uns slang for dead men or corpses.

[Page 11, line 25] handspikes Wooden or metal bars used on ships as levers. But Kipling probably means marline spikes which are short pieces of steel, pointed at one end and used for lifting strands of a rope when splicing it (joining it to itself or to another rope). As Whanghoa had a full sailing rig, the quartermaster would undoubtedly have had a good supply of these tools which could well be loaded into a muzzle loading gun. Another possibility could have been belaying pins, but like handspikes, they would really be too large for the purpose.


©David Page 2006 All rights reserved