The Lost Legion

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in the New York Times, May 8 1893, and the National Obsever May 13th. ORG No. 563.

Collected in

  • Barrack Room Ballads (1893)
  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 75
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 26
  • Wordsworth Edition (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 177

The poem

This poem should not be confused with the story of the same name in Many Inventions.

It celebrates adventurers – mainly younger sons who have not inherited the family estates who are obliged to travel to far-flung parts of the world in search of adventure and fortune after the fashion of those in “Judson and the Empire” (Many Inventions) and “The Man Who Would be King” in Wee Willie Winkie. .

See also the notes by Lisa Lewis and George Kieffer on “A Madonna of the Trenches”.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

listed enlisted, joined the Navy or Army.

crammed educated by a tutor instead of school in an attempt to prepare for the entrance examination for the Army. See Note to Verse 1 of “Gentleman-Rankers” by Philip Holberton.

[Verse 2]

slaver a vessel engaged in shipping slaves to the plantations of America.

Oil Coast Probably the Oil Rivers Protetorate established by the British in 1884, along the coast of what is now Nigeria. It was later called the Niger Coast Protectorate.

Wallaby track tramping in Australia and surviving by taking odd jobs. A wallaby is similar to a kangaroo, but smaller.

Sarawak The Kingdom of Sarawak was a state in Borneo established in 1841 by James Brooke as an independent kingdom as a reward for
helping to fight piracy and insurgency. It became a British protectorate in 1888 and obtained independence in 1968

The Fly an immense river in New Guinea first discovered by Europeans in 1845 when Francis Blackwood, Captain of H.M.S. Fly surveyed the western coast of the Gulf of Papua. Gold was discovered there in 1852 which probably explains the reference. H.M.S. Fly (see the head of this entry) was launched in 1831 and was mainly engaged in surveying until she became a coal-hulk in 1885 and was broken up in 1903.

tucker food

giddy normally a sensation of dizziness but here perhaps a euphemism for an impolite word to express surprise – “My giddy aunt !” In Stalky & Co. it is frequently used for emphasis; it is not often heard in this sense today.

gentle Masai probably the cattle-herding people of Kenya and Tanzania with a fearsome reputation as warriors and hunters. The poet is sarcastic, they were far from gentle. There is also a town of this name in Indonesia.

Take tea in this context perhaps indicating ‘fighting’ another expression not much used today.

[Verse 3]

The Islands could be anywhere in the Pacific Ocean.

pearled…. in the Bay there was illicit fishing for pearls wherever the oysters were found. See the opening passage of “The Devil and the Deep Sea” (The Day’s Work).

shouted in this context bought drinks for everybody.

Seven-ounce nuggets 198.4 grammes, a magnificent find.

Seedeeboy Muslim seamen and stokers from Zanzibar. (see Hobson-Jobson ‘Seedy’). Also mentioned in “The City of Dreadful Night” (From Sea to Sea, vol.2, chap IV, p.231) and (Life’s Handicap).

Sayyid Burgash Sultan of Zanzibar from 1870 to 1888 who leased territory to Sir William Mackinnon which became Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (now Tanzania).

Loben Lobengula (1833 – 1894. King of the Matabele people in what became Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe

[Verse 4]

Manila Capital of the Philippines in the South China Sea.

I. D. B. Illicit Diamond Broking, the illegal trade in diamonds stolen from the mines in Southern Africa.

the Pan in this context Du Toit’s Pan, the farm at Kimberley where diamonds were found in South Africa.

Mounted Police probably the British South Africa Police formed by Cecil Rhodes in 1889, superseded by the Zimbabwe Republic Police in 1980. Legend has it that Rhodes recruited younger sons of good families so their fathers could raise questions at home in Eng;and if there were any trouble

gunboat a small ship of the Royal Navy, traditionally sent to wherever there was trouble within reach of the sea. They were of shallow draft, so as to operate up rivers, and were armed with a large gun. See “Judson and the Empire”:

… His type of craft looked exactly like a flat-iron with a match stuck up in the middle; it drew five feet of water or less; carried a four-inch gun forward, which was trained by the ship; and, on account of its persistent rolling, was, to live in, three degrees worse than a torpedo-boat…

scuppered nautical jargon for ‘in trouble’ ‘finished’

[Verse 6]

foreloopers probably voorlopers, men scouting ahead of the main body (Dutch / Afrikaans).

under canvas in this context living,in tents – in camp.

swag … billy a bundle of clothes etc. and a tin of characteristic shape with a lid that doubles as a cup.

steamer in this context a steamship – “Oh where are you going to, all you big steamers ?”.

Here’s how ! Salue ! toasts before drinking – Cheers ! Skol ! Good Health ! Santé !

trek a journey with wagons by the Boers in 19th Centiry South Africa

laager in South Africa, a circle of wagons arranged for defence. The Great Trek was an emigration from British control in Cape Colony in the 1830s and 40s by descendants of European farmers who founded several Boer (Afrikaans for ‘farmer’) republics.

[J McG]

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