This story first appeared in The Story-Teller magazine for December 1931. It was collected in 1932 in Limits and Renewals with an accompanying verse “The Coiner”. It is also to be found in the Sussex Edition Volume XI. and the Burwash Edition Volume X.
An elderly tourist is relaxing on the island of Bermuda (not identified by name, but, from a reference to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, clearly intended to be taken as such), and, in a local boatyard, meets a retired Navy Warrant Officer, a Boatswain, Winter Vergil by name. The boatswain is nursing a bandaged hand, and the tourist asks him how he came by the injury.
Mr. Vergil explains that one of the storekeepers in the dockyard has asked him if he will look after some parrots for a short time, on the basis that Mrs Vergil has a parrot, and therefore he must be an expert in all matters ornithological. The birds are sailor’s pets on board the two sloops based at Bermuda, and are to be landed while the two warships go out to do practice gunnery firings.
Many of the birds can speak, and having been sailors’ pets, their language is naval. They are also extremely intelligent, or so it appears, as Mr Vergil tells the story. Two of them, in particular, are troublemakers, and Mr Vergil can see similarities between them and sailors whom he has known in past commissions. The following morning, when he goes back to the rigging loft where the parrots had been placed, he finds that some have escaped from their cages (they have unpicked the wire fastenings with their beaks), and are flying around loose. Quickly he shuts them in the loft, and eavesdrops from outside. He learns (the parrots are talking among themselves) that his two potential troublemakers have been the ringleaders of this parrots’ mutiny, so he determines on immediate and drastic action. He gets a pair of scissors and cuts off one parrot’s tail feathers, and the other bird’s crest (he is actually a cockatoo, rather than a parrot). This brings the ‘mutiny’ to an end, but there is no means of getting the right bird back into the right cage. When the owners return later in the day, and find that they do not have the right bird, there is a row.
The tale ends with Mr. Vergil recognising the tourist as a retired Admiral, with whom he served some fifty years ago. (There have been clues dropped throughout the tale that ‘Mr Heatleigh’ is not a run-of-the-mill tourist.) Later, the Admiral recounts his meeting with Mr. Vergil to the captain of one of the cruisers and describes him as “– off duty – the biggest liar in the Service.”
In early 1930, the Kiplings made a voyage to the West Indies, as much for Carrie’s health as for Rudyard’s. During the course of the voyage, Carrie was taken ill, and had to be landed and taken to hospital in Bermuda where she remained for two months, while Kipling lived in an hotel, and later a boarding house. He made contact with the Royal Navy and the Army garrison, and this story resulted from a naval meeting, and, it has been suggested, has some basis in fact.
The story is full of naval references, which must have been the result of substantial research on Kipling’s part: as will, it is hoped, appear from the notes, they are correct. They do not have any great relevance to the story, but they are a virtuoso example of Kipling’s ‘getting into the skin of the part’. It has long been a saying that naval officers have no conversation, only reminiscences, and Winter Vergil’s asides, recalling old ships, old messmates and former commissions, are, in this Editor’s experience, typical, and remain so, nearly eighty years after the tale was written. (There is a retired Royal Navy Boatswain, of this Editor’s acquaintance, who could, and does, match Mr. Vergil’s tall stories.) Bermuda was then the base of the America and West Indies station, and the C-in-C had a squadron of four light cruisers and two sloops.
The story, summarised above, is straightforward enough at first, but then becomes less credible – could birds, even intelligent talking birds like parrots, organise their own ‘mutiny’? The tale, though, as told by the old Boatswain, is so plausible, so surrounded by fact (and as told by a master craftsman – both Kipling and the old boatswain) carries the reader along, suspending belief, as all good stories do. It is only in the very last words of the whole story that we are brought back to reality.
In a talk to the Kipling Society in 1995, reprinted in the Kipling Journal for March 1996, Eileen Stamer-Smith suggested that the germ of this tale had come from her own sister-in-law, who was one of Mrs. Kipling’s nurses in the hospital in Bermuda. Bobbie Stamer-Smith’s story is reproduced in the two opening paragraphs of this tale. But there is no suggestion in Mrs Stamer-Smith’s article, nor in Kipling’s correspondence from the island, as reproduced in Thomas Pinney (Ed.) vol V. , to suggest that he actually worked on the tale while in Bermuda.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Carrie’s diary, in which she would record salient dates of his work on individual poems and stories, is blank from 2 March 1930 until 25 February 1931, but in the correspondence, Kipling gives a fairly comprehensive account of the weeks they spent in Bermuda, and the only story mentioned is one of the dog stories, identified by Pinney as ‘Toby Dog’, the last of the three parts of Thy Servant a Dog. Later, in November 1930, he wrote to Lord Stanhope (at the time Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty) asking for details of ships of the 1870s, which later appeared in the story, so it would appear that he was (still?) working on the tale then. (Stanhope, a Grenadier Guardsman, would not, of course, have known, but he would – rather like Cornelia Aggripina who “controlled a humble husband, who in turn controlled a dept.” – have been able to access the Naval Staff and the Admiralty archives who would have produced the answer.) On 14 May 1931, Carrie’s diary records: ‘Rud correcting proofs of his parrot story’. On 21 November, Carrie referred to: ‘His Bermuda verses’ (which, one assumes, included ‘The Coiner’). Finally, on 9 January 1932, she refers to: ‘Proofs of ‘Limits and Renewals’. In February 1932, Kipling wrote again to Lord Stanhope, saying ‘I have just got my new book through and if you like, I’ll send you a copy for the sake of the Naval yarn in it’. In fact, it was not until 7 April that Carrie recorded: ‘Limits and Renewals’ published’.
Finally, Kipling wrote to Admiral G.A. Ballard in January 1935 saying:
‘If you will do me the honour to read the story . . . in the little book I venture to send you, you will see to what extent I have used your details about the old “Black Fleet”.
He goes on to say:
“The original of my old retired W(arrant) O(fficer) in A Naval Mutiny gave me delightful (and I should say, perfectly possible) doings on an old “corvette” with a mad captain in the Red Sea . . . I have called her Petruchio in my story.
It may be suggested that Lord Stanhope passed Kipling’s request for information directly or indirectly to Admiral Ballard, who was working intermittently in the Admiralty archives at the time.
From all the above, the sequence would seem to have been that, while in Bermuda in March-June 1930, the germ of a story was planted by a conversation with one of Mrs. Kipling’s nurses: he also met a retired Warrant Boatswain who may, or may not, have had a brush with parrots at some time, but who provided him with the characterisation for Mr. Vergil. He settled down to write the story at Bateman’s in the Autumn of 1930, and completed it by May 1931: it appeared in magazine form seven months later, closely followed by its collection in Limits and Renewals in April 1932. It will also be seen that the story contained in ‘The Coiner’ is Kipling’s way of saying “old seamen may tell tall stories, but it takes a proper craftsman to turn them into something which can be offered to the public.”
The Biographers and Critics
The biographers and critics make little mention of “A Naval Mutiny”: the tale was written at the end of Kipling’s working life, at a time when his reputation was already in decline. Nonetheless it may be suggested that it is a well-crafted story, skilfully told, and with an effective, and slightly unexpected, conclusion.
Charles Carrington writes (p.500), about their stay in Bermuda and Kipling’s period of solitary living while Carrie was in hospital:
He had his own resources, and was witness of a scene (the sailor and the parrot that misbehaved) which he worked up into the story ‘A Naval Mutiny’; and harking back to observations made, years previously, into the background of Shakespeare’s Tempest, he made a ballad of them. Otherwise, it was a bleak period with little to do beyond watching the cruising liners put ashore their crowds of American tourists…
J M S Tompkins makes reference to Winter Vergil when describing various types of characters in Kipling’s work (pp. 237-8). She says:
Any summary description of Kipling’s characters is likely to fall far short of their variety. The Kipling man, as he is supposed to be, is not [a list of various characters] None of these even represents what Kipling from first to last so delights to contemplate, the complete fitness, natural and acquired, of a man for his work.…It is more possible to classify the characters of the first half of his writing life. First there are the ordinary people, the creatures and sometimes the sport of circumstance, who appear in large numbers in the Anglo-Indian scenes and give substance and reality to the English ones. … Secondly there are the fully developed types the triumphs of decorum …. Kim is full of them; …. These are the masters of circumstance, unless the tribe requires a sacrifice or fortune is in an ironical mood. Lastly there are the ‘humours’, the eccentrics in the English tradition, equipped with the speech and mannerisms that cry out to be acted, larger than life but based on truth. It is not always possible to draw the line between the second and the third classes, since the completely specialized man easily becomes grotesque. Mulvaney’s private sorrows keep him on the hither side of eccentricity; the fantasy of the parrots in ‘A Naval Mutiny’ propels Winter Vergil into it; Emmanuel Pyecroft with his remarkable vocabulary and his unflinching professionalism varies from tale to tale.
Angus Wilson is dismissive (pp. 210-211):
Yet he loved the peacetime Navy enough to write about it when he was on holiday in Jamaica in ‘A Naval Mutiny, as late as 1931. It is another elaborate farce that fails.
In our view, Wilson misunderstands the tale: the story as told by Mr. Vergil is, indeed, something of a farce. But much of the point of the story is in the relationship between the teller and his audience: an old sailor telling a tall story to someone whom he initially takes to be just another tourist to be bamboozled; but he gradually comes to realize that he is telling his story to another old sailor, an admiral, and one whom he knew forty years or more ago. They both of them know that the other knows that the story has been embellished (in today’s world, Mr. Vergil could have been a ‘spin doctor’), but with consummate tact this is not mentioned, and the meeting ends without the admiral having to put on a disbelieving face.
Meryl Macdonald describes the period in Bermuda, when Kipling was continuously in attendance on Carrie:
Settling down to any work was not easy under the circumstances, though as usual he had something ‘simmering’ in his head. If it wasn’t for that he would ‘go off his rocker’ from sheer boredom. (Much later, following ‘the law that all the funny ones are written out of the deeps of dejection’ [Kipling to his daughter, a year later] he would write the comical parrot tale, ‘A Naval Mutiny’, set in Barmuda – as he referred to the island. It made him laugh to read it.
©JAlastair Wilson 2009 All rights reserved