Letters to the Family I

The Road to Quebec


(notes edited by Alastair Wilson, drawing on the work of Admiral Brock)




First published in London in the Morning Post, 12th March, 1908, and in
the USA in Collier’s Weekly, 14th March, 1908, and in Canada in Vancouver World on 14th March, 1908, under the title “The Eldest Sister”. Collected in Letters of Travel (1892-1913) in 1920, in Letters to the Family

Notes on the Text

[Page 119, line 2] canker and blight that has settled on England an unkind reference to the Liberal Government under Campbell Bannerman (1836-1908) that came to power as a result of the General Election of January 1906, fought mainly on the issue of Imperial preference versus Free Trade.

Widespread dislike for duties on food, plus the swing of the political pendulum, gave the Liberals with their Irish and Labour allies a huge majority. Welcomed by many as an agent for overdue reforms, to Kipling this government represented many of the people and ideas he most disliked – Little Englanders, Irishmen of the type he attacked in “Cleared”, trade union ‘agitators’ (“A Walking Delegate”), and such.

In a letter to Lord Milner quoted on page 399 of Carrington’s biography (see Pinney, vol 2. for the complete text) Kipling says he wrote his Canadian Letters: “with a single loving wish to annoy the Radicals in England”. The quality of mercy is not particularly noticeable in his treatment of them.

[Page 119, line 5] at headquarters in Britain.

[Page 119, line 6] iodoform a compound of iodine, then used as an antiseptic, particularly in surgical dressings.

[Page 119, line 8] in the present fog Kipling, like most Conservatives, could not understand how the Liberal landslide had come about. They were groping about like a man in a fog seeking the reasons.

[Page 119, line 11] one big trust – a majority of all the minorities in fact, the number of seats held by Liberals gave them a clear majority of 84 over all others, and on most issues they could count on 356, the figures being:

[Page 119, line 14] nine-tenths of the English … are crying as the Liberals were again returned in two General Elections held in 1910 (albeit with a reduced majority), Kipling’s estimate must have been wishful thinking or a thumping exaggeration in 1907.

[Page 119, line 21] no possible advantage to the Empire outweighed the cruelty and injustice of charging the British working man twopence halfpenny a week on some of his provisions Under the influence of Joseph Chamberlain, the Conservatives had proposed to introduce a tariff that favoured other members of the Empire—’Imperial Preference’. The duties that would have to be imposed on other people’s produce to implement this were represented by the Liberals as an attack on the working man’s standard of living, with results very satisfactory to them.

These might have been tariffs on South American beef, and American wheat—thus increasing the price of the working man’s staple, bread and beef. The broad acres of the Canadian Prairie Provinces, which might have benefited from Imperial Preference, had not then developed their full potential as wheat producers. A similar miscalculation by the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin gave Labour its first experience of office in 1924.

[Page 120, line 5] the Army was wicked; much of the Navy unnecessary To finance their reforms, the government aimed at saving on defence. The Liberals were still smarting from their defeat by the Admiralty in 1893, when Gladstone’s last ministry was effectively brought down by the Board of Admiralty’s threat of mass resignation unless increased Naval Estimates were passed. The threat of Germany was still not perceived by many on both sides of the political classes. Within four years that had changed, and the perceived need to prepare for war was understood by a high percentage of the population of all classes.

[Page 120, lines 6-7] half the population of one of the Colonies practised slavery probably a reference to the introduction of Chinese labour into South Africa, on contracts for a period of years, to get the Transvaal mines going again and restore the economy of the country after the war. The alleged harshness of conditions of service lost nothing in the telling when it became a political weapon.

[Page 120, lines 8-9] the mere name of Empire wearied and sickened them the Liberal party had long been, let us say, uneasy about the acquisition of Empire, not so much the colonies which were settled by English people, but areas of, for example, Africa, where trade had led to annexation with a view to stability.

[Page 120, lines 13-15] The present mellow state of Ireland, Egypt, India and South Africa Kipling is being ironic here and in the rest of this paragraph. And although Egypt was never part of the Empire in the strictest terms, when Kipling wrote in 1907, it was a de facto British Protectorate (it became one officially in 1914). (See our introduction to Egypt of the Magicians) And in 1907/08, it was not “in a mellow state” – the Denshawai incident (in which British officers out shooting accidentally killed a woman, inciting a riot, the consequences of which were heavily handled by the British-influenced authorities) had led to an upsurge of nationalism.

[Page 120, line 17] all along our lines Kipling means, I think, along the lines of communication and responsibility by which the Empire was governed: from the Colonial Secretary, through the Permanent Under-Secretary to the Governor-General and down to the District Officer. His contention seems to be that if you have a cabinet minister, responsible for the dominions and colonies, who cannot accept the principles under which those dominions and colonies were established, his disbelief will work its way down to the District Officer and “unrest and slackness” will ensue.

[Page 120, line 27] slackness a word much in use in the Edwardian era. To call a man ‘a slacker’ was a pejorative term, and implied that he didn’t pull his weight, make an effort.

[Page 120, line 30] Babu a polite Hindu form of address, equivalent to “sir” or “Mr.”, but in this context a patronising reference to a half-anglicised Hindu who over-estimated his command of English. It also came to mean any Indian clerk.

[Page 120, line 30] naked cui bono In Kipling’s day the use of Latin tags was common, since some knowledge of Latin and Greek was part of an educated person’s upbringing—not so today. In this Letter, the literal meaning of the Latin (“to whom is the benefit”), which may be equally translated as “Who profited by it?” seems close to Kipling’s point, since he is implying that politicians are bribing the electorate with benefits.

[Page 121, line 7] bubonic bubonic plague; a virulent and often fatal plague affecting the glandular parts of the body. ‘The Black Death’ which devastated the population of England in the 14th century, was bubonic plague.

[Page 121, line 8] I went across to Canada the other day in the autumn of 1907 Kipling crossed the Atlantic to receive an honorary degree from McGill University in Montreal and to re-visit Canada, which he had last traversed on his wedding trip in 1892.

[Page 121, line 10] eldest sister Canada. Canada was the first of the British colonies to achieve Dominion status, by the British North America Act of 1867, which provided for the unification of the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick “into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom”.

[Page 121, line 14] Double-Language, Double-Law, Double Politics The ORG wrote in 1963: The right of the French-Canadians to retain their religion, their language and, in the Province of Quebec where they predominate, their laws, has always been recognised. This has been a factor working against absorption by the United States, but in other directions the political disadvantages have often been acute.

When the above was written, the movement for Québec Libre (Free Quebec) was reaching a peak. It culminated notoriously when General de Gaulle uttered the phrase “Vive le Québec Libre” while on an official visit to Canada in July 1967. Since then, there have been two referendums in the Province of Quebec which have rejected independence—the last time, in 1995, by a narrow margin.

[Page 121, line 17] outside their religion virtually all French-Canadians were Roman Catholic at this time.

[Page 121, line 18] take their orders from Italy meaning, the Vatican. When Kipling wrote, religious observance among French Canadians was very strong.

[Page 121, line 19] Pretoria the capital of the Transvaal from 1860 and in 1910 the administrative capital of the Union of South Africa, since 1962 the Republic of South Africa. Negotiations for the Union of South Africa nearly broke down over the question of choice of capital and the following remarkable compromise was adopted: Pretoria houses the main government offices, Parliament meets at Cape Town, and Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, is the judicial centre.

[Page 121, line 19] Stellenbosch about thirty miles east of Cape Town, is not really a capital but as the seat of a university and a theological college turning out many ardent leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church, it has played its part in the political history of South Africa.

In the South African War of 1899-1902, Stellenbosch was the main British military base and gave its name to a verb; commanders who had failed to give satisfaction in active employment in the field and were transferred to unimportant duties at the base were said to be “stellenbosched”. In his poem “Stellenbosh” Kipling describes the effect of the fear of such a fate (or of the power centred in Stellenbosch) on various military characters and affairs.

[Page 121, line 20] Australia’s labour fuss arising out of the ‘White Australia’ policy.

[Page 121.line 23] entrenched, with arms and high explosives, on neighbouring soil from 1840 onwards, very many French Canadians emigrated to New England, and formed dissident groups. In 1907, one of the foci of dissidence was the part played by Canada in the Boer War.

[Page 121, line 30] calamity more serious than floods, frost, drought and fire in this category might come the succession of wars with France, two with the United States, political rebellions in both Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1837, and Riel’s two rebellions of 1869 and 1885 in the West.

[Page 121, line 33] the broken hearts of two generations it is not clear which generations Kipling had in mind.

[Page 122, line 5] Australia and New Zealand (the Maori War not counted) got everything for nothing Despite the American Revolutionary War, it was not until after the rebellions of 1837 and investigations and reports that Canada (meaning Upper and Lower Canada, what are now (roughly) the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario) was accorded full self-government, c. 1846-49.

Australia and New Zealand received it not much later (New South Wales, 1855) without having to agitate or fight. For South Africa delay arose over the native question and the Afrikaners’ different outlook.

In New Zealand, difficulties mainly over land tenure led to two periods of hostility with the Maoris , sometimes known as the First and Second Maori Wars, from about 1845-47 and 1861-71 respectively, though most of the fighting in the Second was over by 1864.

[Page 122, line 7] South Africa gave everything and got less than nothing as already mentioned, local difficulties delayed the grant of self-government to British South Africa. Kipling seems to have felt that some of the concessions made to the Boers after the South African War by the Liberal Government were premature and made at the expense of the English-speaking South Africans. (Pinney, Volume 3, has a letter from Kipling to Lord Milner (January 1908, p. 300) which sets out Kipling’s view of the political situation in South Africa.) See also our notes on “A Burgher of the Free State”.

[Page 122, line 8] Canada has given and taken all along the line for nigh on three hundred years the French pioneer, Champlain, founded the first settlements at Port Royal (now Annapolis) in Nova Scotia in 1604 and at Quebec in 1608. Quebec was taken for the first time by a British expedition in 1629, but restored to France three years later. The history of Canada since then has been, as Kipling says, very much a matter of give and take, in more than one sense.

[Page 122, lines 17-24] Canada takes the lead …. block the forward rush Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a French-Canadian, and Liberal Prime Minister of Canada from 1896 to 1911, was essentially a middle of-the-road man, but even his marked ability did not enable him to satisfy both his English- and French-speaking supporters all the time, nor to steer a trouble-free course that kept up hearty co-operation with the Empire, good relations with the United States and maintenance of Canada’s political autonomy.

On his first visit to England in 1897 he had raised great hopes by supporting preferential trade within the Empire, but his pro-British attitude during the South African War had not found favour with all French-Canadians, and English voters in Britain had made clear their views on further Imperial preference in tariffs. Laurier therefore had reason for caution in 1907.

Kipling was a little previous in referring to the Imperial Conference of 1907, since this was in fact still termed a Colonial Conference. During its sessions it passed a resolution that the next conference to be held in four years’ time (and thereafter at four-yearly intervals) should be an Imperial Conference of Premiers of Great Britain and the Self-Governing Dominions. This meant that the Prime Minister of Great Britain would preside instead of the Colonial Secretary – a concession to the self-esteem of the Dominions.

[Page 122, line 23] General Botha General Botha (1862-1919) was a South African statesman of stature, and had been one of the ablest Boer generals in 1899-1902. When self-government was granted to the separate South African republics in 1907, he was the first Premier of the Transvaal, and when the Union of South Africa was created in 1910 he was its first Premier also. With war so recently behind him, his position was even more delicate than Laurier’s, but he worked faithfully for conciliation at home and co-operation within the Empire.

[Page 122, lines 18, 19, 24] the goal … working the ball toward it … blocking the forward rush These are all part of a rugby football metaphor.

[Page 122, line 26] We saw that England wasn’t taking anything. As indicated above, the new Liberal government did not take the same interest in the Empire as the Conservatives had done, and so were not in a mood to work hard at any improvements in Imperial co-ordination.

[Page 123, lines 1-2] under the lee of a wet deck-house The male passengers have foregathered on the sheltered side of the Promenade Deck – although sheltered, it would still be wet with spray in any kind of a sea.

[Page 123, line 5] Maritime Provinces in 1907 these included New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. With their coastal location and Quebec interposed between them and the next predominantly English-speaking province, Ontario, they have tended to preserve an outlook of their own. Newfoundland joined the Dominion in 1949.

[Page 123, line 12] Cape liner the Union Castle Line was most prominent by 1907.

[Page 123, line 13] sub-Continent central and southern Africa, in this context: an interesting usage, since the phrase ‘sub-continent’ is today usually associated with India.

[Page 123, line 14] Orient boat the Orient Line, one of the Inchcape group, maintained a service to Australia with ships whose name usually began with “Or”, e.g., Orcades. The Orient Line was merged with P&O in 1960, and has now disappeared. (The present Orient Lines are nothing to do with the previous Orient Steam navigation Company which operated the Orient Line of passenger and passenger-cargo ships.)

[Page 123, line 15] C.P.R. steamer the Canadian Pacific Railway, a powerful factor in the development of Canada, in addition to its interests in continental transportation, land, hotels, etc., in 1907 owned liners in both the Atlantic and Pacific. It has since gone in for aviation also.

[Page 123, line 23] other boats … South end of this ocean as indicated above, Kipling felt very strongly that the white English-speaking settlers in South Africa had had a raw deal in the aftermath of the Peace of Vereeniging which ended the war in 1902.

[Page 123, line 25] a young man kindly explained to me his views can probably be attributed at least in part to national growing pains.

[Page 123, line 32] plaid a woollen outer garment of Highland costume, usually of a tartan pattern. Many Canadians were of Scottish descent.

[Page 124, line 5] It was an experience to move in the midst of a new contempt in reading this and the lines that follow, allowance must be made for Kipling’s own contempt for the Liberal Government, and its Little England element.

[Page 124, line 12] that late unfashionable war was very real to Canada: She sent several men to it for political reasons, Canada’s contribution to the South African War was modest. According to the Encyclopaedia Canadiana, 7,300 Canadians were sent to South Africa—and a battalion was sent to Halifax, N.S., to release the British garrison there—but less than half were paid for by Canada.

Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, a power in the C.P.R. and Hudson’s Bay Companies and Canadian High Commissioner in London, like a laird of 150 years earlier, raised, equipped and maintained a regiment of 600 irregular horsemen, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, which was well-regarded. Others were paid by the imperial Government. The numbers amounted to little more than a third of the Australian and New Zealand contingent from a population approximately equal. This mortified many English-speaking Canadians, but the fact that any contribution was made cost Laurier a lot of French votes.

[Page 124, line 27] cut the painter a nautical metaphor; a painter is the rope which secures a boat to the mother-ship. Yet, seven years later, Canada and all the other constituents of the ‘Family’ contributed unstintingly to the war against Germany.

[Page 125, line 4] abuse against South Africa presumably mostly from Liberal sources, on such matters as Chinese labour and native affairs.

[Page 125, line 6] Our Tobacco Parliament the group of smokers who were busy setting the world to rights on the Promenade Deck

[Page 125, line 20] ulstered an ulster is a long, loose overcoat, originally of ‘Ulster frieze’, a coarse woolen fabric from Northern Ireland.

[Page 125, line 31] quartered ranged over, like a hunting dog over a field.

[Page 126, line 25] Wolfe’s men General James Wolfe (1727-59) defeated the French garrison of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham, but was killed in the moment of victory.

[Page 125, line 33] Pitt William Pitt the Elder (1708-78), first Earl of Chatham, a great statesman, Prime Minister, and war minister.

[Page 125, line 33] those other people the American colonists. Pitt opposed Lord North’s policy which led to their rebellion. Some historians have suggested that had the French still controlled Quebec in the 1770s, they would have swallowed up any rebellious colony or colonies, and that the fact that they weren’t, encouraged the rebels in the American colonies.

[Page 126, lines 4-5] the maples along its bank had turned—blood red and splendid The Fall in Lower Canada is spectacular.

[Page 127, line 2] Montcalm General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis de Montcalm (1712-59), commanded the French troops in Canada from 1756. He was mortally wounded trying to rally his men who were giving way before Wolfe’s on the Plains of Abraham.

[Page 127, line 5] James Cook, master of H.M.S. Mercury …. St. Lawrence River James Cook (1728-79) joined the Navy in 1755 from the merchant service, probably to avoid being pressed. Sheer ability raised him successively to Master, Lieutenant and Captain. In 1759 he was serving in H.M.S. Pembroke as master, the forerunner of the navigating officer, then a warrant officer. (See our note on the Royal Navy in 1905.)

Navigational difficulties were not the least of the hazards of the expedition and the masters of Admiral Saunders’ ships were fully employed in surveying the river. Cook is best remembered for his three outstanding exploring and surveying expeditions in the Pacific and South Seas. He died in a dispute with natives of the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii, at the age of 50. In appointing him to H.M.S. Mercury, Kipling fell into a common, and at one time almost universal, error. It is now realised that the Mercury was not at Quebec and that her master, though named James Cook, was not the Circumnavigator or “The prince of naval explorers” as one of our more fancy historians has it.

[Page 127, line 8] the Plains of Abraham are crowned … most beautiful The Quebec separatists were unimpressed by the beauty of the park, and in 1963 tore down Wolfe’s statue.

[Page 127, line 18] the thin black wreck of the Quebec Railway Bridge in 1907, in the course of erecting this cantilever bridge crossing the river just above Quebec, the central span took charge and fell into the St. Lawrence with considerable loss of life. A second attempt in 1916 also failed. It was not until the bridge had been redesigned that it was finally completed, in 1917, and opened in 1919.

[Page 127, line 25] the Sultan Harun-al-Raschid (763-809) Caliph of Baghdad and hero of stories in The Arabian Nights.

[Page 128, line 2] Port Levis properly, Point Levis or, even more correctly, Pointe Levis. Formerly Pointe Levi (or Levy) and now often plain Levis, it is a town across the river from and a little below Quebec.

[Page 128, line 4] Inner Circle part of London’s underground railway, a loop line serving the heart of the Cities of London and Westminster.

[Page 128, line 5] Zion a hill in ancient Jerusalem, which has come to stand for Jerusalem itself, the Heavenly City.

[Page 128, line 8] our own threshold …. after the Christmas rains Southampton Water in southern England, Sydney in Australia, and Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town, represent famous ports of entry to other parts of the Empire (later Commonwealth).

[Page 128, line 16] the South-easter there is evidence elsewhere that the south-east wind blowing into Simon’s Bay and over Cape Town was an enduring memory for Kipling.

[Page 128, line 20] Personally and politically he said he loathed the city Quebec has always been the centre of French Canada. Sir Wilfrid Laurier held the constituency of Quebec with huge majorities, whatever his political standing might be elsewhere.

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