The Limitations
of Pambé Serang

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in St. James’s Gazette on 7 December, 1889 and collected in Life’s Handicap, 1891.

The story

Pambé Serang is a Malay, an unforgiving people; he is a skilled seaman and a proud man. One day an African stoker, Nurkeed, comes on board drunk, puddles his fingers into Pambé’s food, stabs him, and insults him grossly. Next morning Nurkeed knows he has wronged someone, but cannot recall who it is. No-one will tell him, but Pambé has not forgotten. Two or three times Nurkeed narrowly escapes death at Pambé’s hands, and he leaves the ship to escape his enemy.

The Serang pursues his quarry from ship to ship, but does not see him again until he is lying ill in a London sick-room. From his bed Pambé hears Nurkeed’s voice, and calls to him. When the stoker bends over him, Pambé knifes him to the heart. He recovers, only to be hanged for murder. But he has had his vengeance.


Charles Carrington (p. 145) records there was a lascar from the London docks whom he thought of employing as a ‘bearer’ and who vanished after giving him the notion that became this story. See “The New Dispensation – II” (Abaft the Funnel).

Critical responses

Norman Page believes this to be a satire showing Kipling’s dislike of missionaries. (p. 101) but J M S Tompkins discusses it seriously with others in her chapter Five, “Hatred and Revenge.”

Other commentators make rather heavy weather of this subject, but Bonamy Dobrée observes that:

…many critics … have made a crime of his interest in revenge, as though this had not always been a subject for treatment by literary creators. We find it in Greek tragedy…

Angus Wilson (p, 33) calls the story ‘brilliant and terrible.’
Alan Sandison (pp.85 ff.) looks at Kipling’s treatment of death in this story and the next one, “Little Tobrah” and the misunderstandings that can arise between different races.
Philip Mason (p. 214) examines a series of Kipling’s stories of revenge. starting with “Pig” and “A Friend’s Friend” in Plain Tales from the Hills.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved