A Matter of Fact

Notes on the text

These notes, by Peter Havholm, are partly new, and partly based on the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of Many Inventions, as published and frequently reprinted between 1899 and 1950.


[Page 163, line 7] Bilbao a port on the north coast of Spain, in the Bay of Biscay.

[Page 164, line 1] coolie-trade This refers to the system of indentured labour whereby, after the abolition of slavery in 1834, the needs of the British sugar-producing colonies gave the first impetus to the emigration of workers from India (and also China) to Mauritius and (a few) to British Guiana, which was temporarily stopped pending enquiry into abuses. In 1842, indentured emigration was re-opened to Mauritius under proper safeguards; in 1844 was extended to Jamaica, Trinidad and British Guiana; in 1860 to Natal and in 1885 to Fiji.

The word ‘coolie’ is the anglicized form of Koli, the name of a caste in India. The shipping lines engaged in this traffic were referred to as in the ‘coolie-trade’. It is possible that the Cape Town coolie-trade mentioned here provided indentured labour for the Johannesburg mines. Once again, it should be registered in 2007 that some believe this system was simply a method of exploiting the labour of poor people.

[Page 164, line 12] imprint and a stereo advertisement A technical distinction having to do with kinds of printing plates. Strictly speaking, a journalist would not need to understand anything about printing or advertising, but a sub-editor like Kipling who supervised the printing and financing of his own work in Quartette and Departmental Ditties would be another matter. See “The Last Term” in Stalky & Co. for his interest in the technical details of printing when he was editing the United Services College Chronicle at the age of sixteen.

[Page 164, line 17] immorality of expanding telegrams News reports were sent in by telegram, charged for by the word, in highly compressed language, rather like the code-like language used nowadays in text messages. The reporters relied on the sub-editors back in the newsroom to turn these terse communications into English, using various established conventions. They also depended on the capacity of the ‘subs’ to exercise restraint in reading between the lines of a telegram; some subs were too prone to let their imagination run away with them, and expand reports beyond the facts reported.

[Page 165, line 16] mule-rule in the Transvaal this is a reference to the Convention of Pretoria, signed on 3 August 1881, to regulate the relations between the Boer Republic of the Transvaal and the British Government. The Boers were granted internal self-government but British suzerainty was explicitly maintained. The government was handed over to three representative Boers until Kruger was elected President in May 1885. He continued in that office until the Transvaal again lost its independence on its annexation by Lord Roberts after the South African War. The phrase ‘mule-rule’ may refer either to the tri-partite rule or to the stubbornness attributed by the British to the Transvaal government.

[Page 165, line 23] That reminds me of a man The preceding description of ‘the tales of the world’ not only evokes the short stories — many of them classifiable as ‘yarns’ — with which Kipling made his name, but suggests that detailed criticism of this casual yarn’s details ought to be taken lightly.

[Page 165, line 30] Frithiof the Dane the hero of an Icelandic saga of the 14th century, a fairly obvious nickname for a Scandinavian seaman.

Swedish boatswain as one of his critics has observed, Kipling is in error here, since a boatswain, in normal ship’s routine, would not take the wheel, his duties being to superintend the daily work of the crew. The wheel would be taken by a quartermaster, or an able seaman, who while taking his ‘trick’ at the wheel would be referred to and addressed as ‘Quartermaster’. On the other hand, a merchant ship as informal as the Rathmines might not have adhered too closely to these maritime conventions.

[Page 166, line 1] steerage-way a vessel cannot be steered by the movement of the rudder until it is moving through the water, since it is turned by the pressure of the water against the surface of the rudder when the rudder is not in the fore-and-aft line of the ship.

[Page 166, line 8] ocean is atilt … a long unseen slope It sometimes happens that from one cause or another, the horizon on one side of the ship looks higher than on the other. The cause is usually simply explained.

Thus ORG, but this does not actually provide an example of such an explanation, so one who enjoys yarns might well prefer to believe that ‘nobody seems to know the laws that govern the pulse of the big waters.’ See the narrator’s desire to see where the sea is following from in line 20.)

[Page 166, line 12] sagging downhill a chief engineer has been heard to say, at the end of an unaccountably good day’s run, ‘We’ve been going downhill’.

[Page 166, line 25] log-line this towed a small screw-like rotator whose revolutions, recorded by an instrument on the ship’s stern, showed the distance steamed through the water.

[Page 166, lines 30–31] log-line coming home this statement also has been the subject of much argument, but the naval officer before-mentioned is satisfied that, whether due to a current building up or tidal wave effect or a combination of both, it is conceivable that the log and its line might begin to come home (as described on page 167) without the ship losing steerage-way.

[Page 167, line 9] Call him up ‘Frithiof’ appears to have been a person of authority on this crew (not unheard of with boatswains), as the officer of the watch responds so readily to his order. Particularly in times of danger, experience carries its own authority.

[Page 167, line 20] held the wheel down in an effort to bring the ship head to sea.

[Page 167, line 24] half steam ahead a vulgar error, as is its often-heard companion phrase ashore, ‘full steam ahead’. In fact, steam pressure is not what is used to change speed. The dials on the ship’s telegraph from bridge to engine room bear the following steaming orders:

Kipling should have written ‘half speed ahead’. He makes the same error in “The Rhyme of the Three Sealers”.

[Page 168, line 13] jammed me against the wheel-house door If the water came aboard between, say, the port bow and the port beam, he could have been carried against the wheel-house door—there would have been no door on the forward side—and held there for a moment or two by being pressed against a handle or other projection. The door may have been hooked partly open, a common practice.

[Page 168, line 23] Board of Trade pump the pump worked by manual power, approved by the Board of Trade as part of the essential equipment of British merchant ships. ‘The stokehold’s flooded’ must be read to mean that some of the sea which came aboard got down the ventilators or the skylight into the spaces below, as a result of which a foot or two of water would be splashing about on the stokehold floor-plates, and could be dealt with by a hand-pump without recourse to steam. But see the remark below regarding page 169, line 17.

[Page 169, line 8] 44° and 68° these readings are Fahrenheit; the Centigrade numbers would be 7° and 20°.

[Page 169, line 11] attend to the fog-horn by the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea Rules of the Road:

a steam vessel having weigh upon her in fog shall sound, at intervals of not more than two minutes, a prolonged blast on the whistle.
[See rules 35 and 33]

The fog-horn appears to be limited now to fixed signals because the present Rules of the Road make no distinction between sailing and powered vessels with respect to sound devices, and ‘fog-horns’ are not mentioned.

Alastair Wilson writes:The expression ‘fog-horn’ as a use for the ‘steam-whistle’ is a relic of sailing ship days, when a horn – originally powered by the look-out’s lungs – was sounded. Having no steam, of course, this was the only possibility. But a non-steam-powered fog-horn was carried in sailing ships without power, in the RN (and probably the USN), and in the better steam-powered merchant ship lines as a spare in case of failure of the steam whistle. The fog-horn usually consisted of a circular brass casing, about two-three feet high, with a plunger: at the bottom, was a reed, and a horn like an old-fashioned phonogram. Depressing the plunger produced a satisfying sonorous belch! And many steam-ships carried what is better described as a hooter – a deeper-toned noise than the screech of a whistle. [A.W.]

[Page 169, line 17] stokehold was full of water an overstatement.If the stokehold were literally full of water, the furnace would be extinguished and the ship deprived of power.

[Page 170, line 1] a side-wheel steamer the screw propeller did not come in until the 1850s, and the Peninsular and Oriental Line Steam Navigation Company, to take an example, did not abandon paddlers for many years after that. The Admiralty is known to have built them for surveying duties in the ’80s. So it would have been by no means impossible to meet a paddle-vessel in mid-Atlantic in 1890 or thereabouts.

[Page 170, line 11] Castle liner the Castle Mail Packet Co. Ltd. was formed in 1876 and merged with the Union Line in 1899 (both sailing between the United Kingdom and South Africa). The last finished with engines by a Union-Castle vessel was rung aboard Southampton Castle on October 24, 1977. There does not seem to have been a Pembroke Castle, but the Garth Castle was built in 1880.

[Page 170, line 11] colours of a Castle liner Castle ships had lavender-grey hulls, a trademark adopted by the joint Union Castle Line.

[Page 170, line 24] musk the name originally given to a perfume obtained from the strong-smelling substance secreted in a gland by the musk-deer, and hence applied to the musk-ox, musk-rat, and so on. A grain of good musk, i.e., from the musk-deer, will distinctly scent millions of cubic feet of air without appreciable loss of weight, and its scent is more penetrating and more persistent than that of any other known substance.

[Page 170, line 33] fathomless depths to the modern ocean surveyor no sea is fathomless. The greatest recorded depth in any ocean is 36,198 feet, or nearly 7 miles (11 km). Depths at sea are measured in fathoms of 6 feet (just under two metres).

[Page 171, line 13] “Whistle, oh whistle” see note to Page 169, line 11, above. Keller gets it right this time.

[Page 171, line 23] City of Paris a famous liner, the second ship of that name built for the Inman and International Steamship Company. Launched in 1888, she was the first to cross the Atlantic in less than six days. She served the U.S. Navy during both the Spanish American War and the First World War, and was broken up a few years after the end of the latter.

[Page 172, line 6] pot of ointment that the Bible speaks of See Job 41,31: ‘He maketh the deep to boil like a pot. He maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.’

[Page 172, line 14] blindworm any of the amphibians of the order Gymnophiona, an order of limbless, worm-like amphibians known as caecilians (si-sil-yens). Caecilians typically are blind or nearly so and possess sensory tentacles between the eyes and nostrils. A few are aquatic or semi-aquatic. Along with deep sea fishes, they are some of the least studied and least understood vertebrates on the planet. In this simile, therefore, Kipling gets it right.

[Page 172, line 17] air-bladder the name of a structure present in all bony fishes, analogous with the lungs of land vertebrates. In most fishes it has a hydrostatic function of secreting or absorbing gas so as to counteract the changes of pressure at different depths. If a deep-sea creature were thrown up to the surface, this would have forced the air bladder out of its mouth.

[Page 172, line 22] the giant gooseberry and the raining frogs These are the sort of stories journalists run in the ‘silly season’ in the summer, when there is no ‘hard news’, and anything in the way of a story is useful to fill a column. The sea-serpent periodically obliged as a subject for one of these stories, and the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore published at least two such during 1883, Kipling’s first year as Assistant Editor.

[Page 173, line 15] Hur illa ‘how bad’ or ‘isn’t that terrible?’ in Swedish.

[Page 174, line 19] monstrous and indecent A characteristically counter-intuitive Kipling touch, to present the ‘monster’ as a pitiful victim. Here also is a reason for not sensationalizing the event.

[Page 175, line 30] Dayton, Ohio Ohio became one of the United States in 1803 and is located between Pennsylvania and Indiana. Dayton is west of the state’s center.

[Page 176, line 7] bourgeois the narrator may have intended a double meaning here. (1) the French term for the decent middle class and (2) the name for a size of type in printing, otherwise known as 9-point.

[Page 177, line 5] the Needles Light at the west end of the Isle of Wight, which lies off the Hampshire coast in southern England.

[Page 177, line 17] Newmarket Heath this is the headquarters of race-horse training in England, and has been celebrated since the time of James I. Charles I instituted the first cup race there. The racecourse has a full extent of 4 miles but is divided into different lengths to suit various races, hence the terrifying effect referred to.

[Page 178, line 3] double-eagle a gold coin of the U.S.A., in the 19th century, bearing the figure of an eagle, worth 20 dollars (then £4 Sterling). Another gold coin, worth 10 dollars, was known as an Eagle.

[Page 179, line 6] “Look at that first page” In English newspapers at that time the front page was devoted to advertisements rather than headlines suitable for Keller’s scoop.

[Page 181, line 1] Buckeye State Ohio was once almost entirely covered by forest, and many of the trees were American horse chestnuts, whose fruits were nicknamed ‘buckeyes’.

[Page 181, line 3] Princeton Princeton University, in New Jersey. It was strictly The College of New Jersey until 1896, which makes this 1892 attribution interesting. Probably “Princeton” had become its informal name because the College had been in that town since 1756.

[Page 181, line 13] the fault of your country See

[P. H.]

©Peter Havholm 2006 All rights reserved