The Head of the District

(notes edited by John McGivering and Philip Holberton)


This story first appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine for January 1890 and was collected in Life’s Handicap the following year.

KJ133 suggests that the scene of the first part of the story is the River Indus at Mianwali

The story

Yardley-Orde, in charge of a District on the North-West Frontier, is dying. It is a wild region, with lawless tribesmen in the mountains just over the Border, fanatical Mullahs stirring up hatred against the English, and a tradition of blood-feuds and cattle-raiding. Such a district could only be governed effectively by tough fair-minded men who understood the people and commanded their respect.

Then the Indian Government, in their wisdom, appoint a highly educated Bengali, Grish Chunder Dé, to succeed Orde. Bengalis are emphatically not respected by the tribesmen. When the rumour of his appointment spreads, there is serious trouble, killings of coolies on the canal embankment, and plans for murderous raids against villages within the Border. Orde’s Deputy, Tallantire, responds vigorously, meeting force with force, and the tribesmen are driven back. Dé, who has not yet taken up his post, declines responsibility and flees for safety. He reports sick. and is transferred to his own home district.

Meanwhile Tallantire takes firm command, and clearly this is what is needed.

Verse heading

In Life’s Handicap the story is headed by the following lines, also collected in Songs from Books (1913).

There’s a convict more in the Central Jail,
Behind the old mud wall;
There’s a lifter less on the Border trail,
And the Queen’s Peace over all,
Dear boys
The Queen’s Peace over all.


For we must bear our leader’s blame,
On us the shame will fall,
If we lift our hand from a fettered land
And the Queen’s Peace over all,
Dear boys,
The Queen’s Peace over all!

Philip Holberton writes: These verses describe the state of the District at the end of the story, when peace and good government have been restored.
A lifter (line 3) is a cattle-thief. c.f. “The Ballad of East and West” line 6:

And he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride.

The metre, where Dear boys is interjected before a repeat of the last line, is also used in the poem “The Lost Legion” published a few years later, in 1895. As published at the head of the story in Life’s Handicap these verses are titled “The Running of Shindand.” Under that title they were set to music by Percy Grainger in about 1902, and can still be found on CD and online. (Shindand is a town in western Afghanistan, a long way from the scene of the story.) [P.H.]
Some critical comments

This is a somewhat controversial story, sensitively analysed by Shamsul Islam in his Kipling’s ‘Law’, a Study of his Philosophy of Life with a Foreward by Dr. J.M.S. Tompkins who observes on p. xii:

Dr. Islam is well aware that certain parts of Kipling’s writings have given offence to Indian readers and, by reflection, to English ones, and he knows what the offence is; but such notorious tales as “The Head of the District” and “The Enlightenments of Pagett, M.P.” do not, in fact, offend him and he is able to read them without disturbance and to estimate how much of them is true and probable.
[See Islam, Chapter 4, passim for a further examination of this line of thought.]

Angus Wilson is inclined to agree (p. 74):

… one of Kipling’s best stories ….. which, for a number of understandable but ultimately irrelevant reasons, has been a source of so much hostility to him. In particular … always a cause of offence to liberal and Indian readers.

Other commentators argue pro and con but cannot get away from the inescapable fact that like “In Flood Time” (Soldiers Three), “The Head of the District” is another powerful story that grips the attention from start to finish. See also Seymour-Smith, pp. 169 ff. who refers to the old error of attributing to the author the statements of his characters (p. 170).
Knowles (p.123) quotes The Athenæum: This story) sums up, in its two dozen pages, the whole question of Indian administration.
Alan Sandison (p. 78) may, perhaps, be given the last word in this summary:

…I have also claimed that Kipling is eminently more than a commentator upon a changing political reality. Even where he is dealing with a highly political action or character we are continually being offered insights more characteristic of the artist’s eye than that of the political propagandist.


[J H McG/P.H.]

©John McGivering and Philip Holberton 2005 All rights reserved