(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

The Times, December 8, 1898; the New York Sun, December 8, 1898:Literature December 10, 1898. Reprinted in Santiago de Chile as part of the unauthorised collection With Number Three Surgical and Medical The Five Nations, I.V., 1919, D.V., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol. 33 and the Burwash Edition, vol. 26.


On November 30, 1898, less than three months after his victory over the Sudanese at Khartoum, Lord Kitchener issued a formal appeal for funds to found and maintain a place of education for them in Khartoum, to be called the Gordon Memorial College. There was a good response from the English public, in spite of all that Gordon and his party had suffered at the hands of the Mahdists. (See notes to “Pharaoh and the Sergeant”.) The Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratory was set up at this time when Sir Henry Wellcome offered the Sudan Government fully equipped research laboratories to be housed in the Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum. These opened in 1902 and transformed the health of the city.

Notes on the Text

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

[Epigraph] The epigraph is invented using densely particularised detail, in order to locate the voice of an Islam which though remaining unfamiliar, is less alien to British readers than the dervishes who fought on behalf of the Mahdi. Whilst in India Kipling himself had found the Muslim cast of mind congenial.

The speaker he evokes is a schoolmaster, an educated man, from outside the region and one moreover attached to the very troops from British India who fought against the Mahdi at Suakim, a port on the Red Sea. He is not concerned to lament the defeat of the supposed Islamic saviour, but rather to urge the Sudanese to take up the chance of being educated by the British. He understands Kitchener’s project in the language of India as a madrissa, or Islamic school, for the despised class of Hubshees, or Negroes.

Sirdar: the title of the commander of the Egyptian Army.

The original epigraph did not include the date, which was added for the purpose of locating the argument of the poem for readers of The Five Nations.

[Stanza 1] Hubshee: a derogatory term, a corruption of Arabic habashi meaning ‘Abyssinian’, used in India of Africans; also used of woolly-haired horses.

carry your shoes in your hand: to remove the shoes before entering was a mark of respect in India but to carry them in the hand – rather than leaving them outside the door – could suggest an act of public abasement.

Emirs: commanders or governors of provinces in the Sudan; they revolted against the Khedive of Egypt and followed the Mahdi in 1883. They were defeated by Kitchener in September 1898 (see background note to “Pharaoh and the Sergeant”).

[Stanza 2] He stamped . . .the tomb ye knew was dust: a play for the English reader on the Biblical story of the collapse of the walls of Jericho, as told in the Book of Joshua. The Tomb was that of the Mahdi; his followers believed that while it stood they were safe. In an act of psychological warfare the tomb was shelled by Kitchener’s troops at a range of 2,300 yards on September 1, 1898, once they had got within reach of Omdurman. The following day the dervishes were defeated.

Go work the water-wheels: used for irrigation purposes, to draw water from the Nile, they had fallen into disuse in the time of the Mahdi, and agriculture had accordingly collapsed.

[Stanza 4] from Kaf to Kaf: replaces original ‘and many letters’. The amendment allows a pun because ’Kaf to Kaf’ as a phrase means ‘from world’s end to world’s end’, derived from Kaf, the mythical girdle of mountains that surrounds the world. At the same time Kaf as a letter of the Arabic alphabet corresponds to the English K. By December 1898 Kitchener had been made a peer and taken the style Kitchener of Khartoum and was beginning to be known as K of K.

Hakims: these may be judges, rulers, authority figures, teachers of medicine or philosophy. A reference to the Welcome Tropical Research Laboratory may be understood. (see note on Background, above)

[Stanza 6] Ariseth: originally ‘becometh’

[Stanza 7] casting a ball at three straight sticks: cricket

[Stanza 8] till these make laws of their own choice … good: cf “The White Man’s Burden”, written around the same time.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved