The Islanders

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

The London Weekly Times, 3 January 1902; The Times, 4 January, 1902; New York Herald, 4 January 1902; New York Tribune, 4 January 1902; World’s Work, February 1902.

Collected in The Five Nations, I.V. 1919, D.V. 1940 and in the Sussex Edition vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.

On its first appearance in The Times “The Islanders” was prefaced by five snippets of prose, some purporting to be typical reports taken from the daily press, one purportedly extracted from a private letter. These snippets juxtaposed notes on the lack of properly trained soldiers with a buoyant account of the prospects of a good shooting season on the game moors. Once collected for volume publication, however, this prose heading was omitted. In its place a four-line stanza in italics was introduced, one patterned on the poem’s closing stanza. The body of this long poem is not divided by stanzas.


Following the Anglo-Boer War, Kipling was convinced that it was only a matter of time before Germany provoked a war against Britain. The Times leader which accompanied the first publication backed up Kipling, in his hostility to the prominence of sport, though it did not support his call for compulsory national service. It argued that athletic contests should not be treated ‘as if issues depended upon them as vital to our race as those decided at Trafalgar or Waterloo.’

Disturbing, to some at least, in its vitriolic fury, the poem was not well-received; it was read as an affront to values that were widely shared. In fact, its attack is reserved for the wealthy land-owning classes living without thought for the need to protect their country from external attack and with it their own privileged way of life.

In a letter of January 28, 1902 to Rider Haggard Kipling wrote with contempt of the ‘d-d hired pros.’ who were making money playing cricket in the recent Tests in Australia. In his view, they should have been fighting in South Africa. He wished he had written hired’ fools instead of flannelled. That might have made my meaning clearer. But as usual, people have gone off on a side issue.’ [ Morton Cohen ed., Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard, the record of a friendship, 1965.]

Pending a hoped-for commitment to national conscription, in 1901 the National Service League had been formed as an interim measure: Kipling established and supported a Rifle Club at Rottingdean, where the family was then living

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Stanza 1] No doubt but ye are the People: see Job’s sarcastic response to his critics, Job 12,2

[l.11] beasts of warren and chase: Both archaic legal terms refer to land over which the right to keep or hunt certain kinds of wild creature has been granted. Chase specifically refers to unenclosed parkland; in 1628 the ‘beasts of warren’ included hare, rabbits, pheasant, partridge, and other game birds

[l.12] Ye grudged … your fields for their camping place: Troops are trained for battle on manoeuvres, but some landowners wishing to preserve game would refuse to allow their estates to be used for this purpose. Restricting officers and men to familiar territory, such as Salisbury Plain, limited what they could learn.

[l.13] Ye forced them glean … bricks they brought; cf Exodus 5,7. The Israelites were forced by their Egyptian taskmasters to make bricks without straw, an order which has become a byword for issuing demands that are all but impossible to meet.

[l.19] saved by a remnant: cf Isaiah 10,22. The reference is to a small number (of Jews) that survive persecution and in whom future hope is invested.

long-suffering Star: England’s appointed destiny, struggling to be fulfilled; it is unlikely that an individual is meant here.

[l.21] sons of the sheltered city – unmade, unhandled, unmeet: The City Imperial Volunteers, made up of London civilians, had neither military training nor experience, neither had they the bushcraft for scouting. As he had identified with the lot of the common soldier in India, Kipling was outraged by the cynical exploitation of the generosity of these unfit volunteers. By the end of the war about 110,000 volunteers from Britain – not all unfit like the above – had taken part; typically they served for twelve months.

[l. 28] ye sent them comfits and pictures the public followed the example set by Queen Victoria, who at Christmas 1899 had sent a package of chocolate to every man serving in the field. For a while the troops received a bewildering succession of gifts from home, including some trashy articles sold by unscrupulous merchants taking advantage of the market.

[l.30] the Younger Nations … men who could shoot and ride: Upwards of 30,000 volunteers came from the British colonies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Natal and the Cape itself, to fight on the side of the British. (Notices put up in the Cape and Natal specifically invited those who could ‘shoot and ride’ to join one of the new irregular corps.) As frontiersmen, these volunteers did have the skills that the city-bred of Britain lacked. The Australians were particularly admired for their riding, though they were impossible to discipline.

[l.32] flannelled fools … muddied oafs at the goals: sportsmen playing cricket or football, see Background note above.

[l.67] gelt: castrated.

schools: university faculties

[l.76] Proud little brazen Baals and talking fetishes: ‘Baal’ is a term from the Old Testament, associated with false gods and their worship. Fetishes works like a pun, referring both to African religious practice and the notion of the over-valued, rigid form of behaviour among Europeans. ‘To make a fetish of something is to persist in setting too high a value on it, according it too much importance.

[l.77] Teraphs of sept and party:  ‘Teraph’ is a Hebrew word meaning idol; sept refers to a division of a clan, hence the petty gods worshipped by those with a common ancestor, the values of an inward-looking group.

wise wood-pavement gods: In 1896 the Vestry of Paddington ‘appointed a special committee to consider the subject of wood paving for (the streets of) that important parish.’ (Quoted in The Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, the Royal Gardens, Kew) Correspondence in The Times debating the merits of wood paving is found from time to time over many years from the mid-century on. These are the only references I have found which might throw light on Kipling’s odd phrase. Is he mocking the sense of priorities displayed?


©Mary Hamer 2008 All rights reserved