This poem was published in the Civil and Military Gazette on 18 December 1885, with the signature ‘R.K.’, subtitled ‘A Personal View of a Public Question’ and the heading:
‘Exchange is now quoted at 1–5⅞, CMG Gazette, December 17th.’
Pinney notes (p. 2254) that against this title in his copy of Chandler’s Summary (The Grolier Club, New York, 1930) Kipling has written ‘not mine’. However
it is included in Kipling’s Scrapbooks of his own press cuttings in the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex Special Collections. It was never collected by Kipling but is to be found in Rutherford (p. 298) and Pinney (p. 1779).
This is a lament for the falling value of the rupee against the £ sterling, particularly as affecting the breadwinner of a growing family. This was a matter of continual concern to Anglo-Indians in the late 1800’s.
The £ sterling was based on the gold standard, while the Indian rupee, in which Anglo-Indians were paid, on the value of silver. If the principle of ‘Bi-metallism’ had been sustained, the ratio between them would have been fixed, but the discovery of large quantities of silver in the United States and several European colonies had caused a panic on the currency exchanges in the 1870s. This had resulted in a steady decline in the exchange rate for silver relative to gold during the last quarter of the century. The value in sterling of Anglo-Indian salaries diminished accordingly.
To explain the numbers quoted in the CMG:
In the old British decimal currency which was used until 1971, there were 240 pence to the £ sterling, divided into twenty shillings of twelve pence each. A shilling was called a ‘bob’. Two shillings was ‘two bob’.
At ‘two bob and something over’ a rupee was worth two shillings, or 24 pence, in effect a rate of ten rupees to the £. At ‘One and Ten’ it was worth one shilling and ten pence, 22 pence. At ‘Nine, eight and seven’ it was falling from one shilling and nine pence down to one shilling and seven pence, 19 pence.
Now, on December 17th 1885, at ‘1–5⅞’ it was devalued further to one shilling and five and seven-eighth pence, roughly one and a half shillings, or 18 pence. This was a depreciation of some 25% from the good old days of two shillings to the rupee.
The depreciation in the value of the rupee affected the cost of any goods imported into India, expenses ‘at Home’ (ie in the UK) and travel to and from Britain. By the last years of the century it stood at one shilling and four pence, or 16 pence, ie 15 rupeees to the £. (Incidentally, in 1920, after the Great War, the value of silver increased, and the rupee was exchanged at 10 to the £)
The reference to Malthusian in Verse 7 refers to Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), the celebrated English economist. In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1788) he maintains that population has a natural tendency to increase faster than the means of subsistence. The point is neatly illustrated in the poem, where the value of the rupee drops whenever Mrs. Smith has another baby.
See also The Great Exchange Question by Brigadier Mason, written for the ORG.
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