Pharaoh and the Sergeant

(notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

The Graphic, July 1897; New York Tribune, 19 August 1897; McClure’s Magazine, September 1897, where it appeared with a full-page illustration by E.L. Blumensehen. The illustration can be found here (pp. 925-7).

Reprinted in Santiago de Chile as part of the unauthorised collection With Number Three, Surgical and Medical, 1900.

Collected in The Five Nations, I.V., 1919, D.V., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol.33 and the Burwash Edition, vol.26.


In a letter to Moberly Bell, then editor of The Times and formerly its Egyptian correspondent, written c. 12 September 1898, Kipling explains the inspiration for this poem:: ‘I shot my bolt about Egypt after Firket in some verse called ‘Pharaoh and the Sergeant’. I’m sorry now I didn’t hold it in reserve. It would just have fitted Omdurman.’ Letters, Vol 2, Ed. Pinney.

Firket and Omdurman are both scenes of military engagements in the Sudan, where Egypt laid claim to territory. By 1898 Britain, which supported these claims, had been appointing a series of governors-general to Sudan for at least twenty years. The Egyptian army itself, however, had remained weak, in spite of British attempts after 1883 to enlist 6,000 peasants and train them into a working force; in 1885 a British expedition led by General Gordon (see note to stanza 4 below) had to be sent to rescue the Egyptian garrisons in Sudan. Instead, Gordon was killed by the forces of Mohammed Ahmed bin Abdullah, a man hailed by his countrymen as the ‘Mahdi’; that is he presented himself as ‘the Guided One’, a legendary figure whom uneducated Muslims expected, one who would come to restore justice and equity. (In the Iraq of 2007, where ‘the Mahdi Army’ has been one of the principal challenges to the American occupation, the name continues to exert its force.)

In 1892 the British General Kitchener was put in command of the Egyptian army and charged with preparing it for the conquest of Sudan. In June 1896 Firket was the scene of a raid on the Mahdists which was the long-delayed first act of successful retaliation for Gordon’s death. By December 1896 the objective was to recover for Egypt as much of her Sudan territory as could be done by Egyptian troops alone. The battle of Omdurman, took place on 2 September 1898, ten days before Kipling wrote his letter. This finally put an end to the Mahdist state in Sudan, resulting in the reoccupation of Khartoum.

It is the work of British sergeant-instructors brought in by Kitchener and their success in improving the performance of Egyptian troops that the poem celebrates. Yet the voice, close to that of a speaker from Barrack-Room Ballads, is markedly different from that of the epigraph, with its bland and impersonal tone. Instead, the poem speaks, as it were, as an insider and from below; though it celebrates the work of the sergeants it manages to do so while maintaining a stance that is generally disrespectful if not alienated.

This attitude may be to some extent explained by reference to Kipling’s own experience as a young man working in Lahore, when his powerful identification with common soldiers was formed. In the course of his work as a journalist he also translated a report of Gordon’s death from the Russian press. This spoke of the insult to British vanity and of the fear in London of Indian revolt. See Kipling and Afghanistan, Neil K. Moran, 2005. This poem seems to work as Kipling’s personal levelling of the score after that old insult.

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer, drawing on various sources, in particular
Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

[Epigraph] This extract from a purported letter is probably an invention on Kipling’s part.

HH the Khedive: title of the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, still the nominal ruler of Egypt in 1898, although for ten years Britain had been occupying Egypt under the terms of a protectorate. The term ‘khedive’ was to be taken as ‘king’, hence the honorific ‘His Highness’.

[Stanza 1] Said England unto Pharaoh: the first of the mischievous echoes of the Book of Exodus, which will be kept going throughout the poem. Here the phrase recalls the exchanges between Moses, leader of the Israelites, and Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. In making the term ‘Pharaoh’, title of the ancient rulers of Egypt, stand for the discredited Egyptian soldiery of today, the poem’s joke against the Egyptians has a schoolboy roughness.

Maxim his oppressor as a Christian ought to do: kill by strafing with the fire from a Maxim gun. This was a recoil-operated machine-gun, its single barrel cooled by the water in an outer casing. The language plays on the irony of teaching non-Christians to kill in the name of Christian duty.

Whatisname: an offhand form of reference, used to indicate England’s indifference concerning the sergeant and his work.

Viscount: a member of the British peerage ranking between an earl and a baron. The spelling deliberately emphasises metre and stress, in the manner of a music-hall song or recitation.

[Stanza 2] Singing small: keeping quiet out of a wholly appropriate modesty.

Crystal Palace: the wrought iron and glass building, designed by Joseph Paxton and a marvel of its age (right), which was originally erected in Hyde Park, London, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was 1,850 feet (564 m) long and 110 feet (34 m) tall, with an interior height of 408 feet (124 m).

After the exhibition, the building was moved to a new park in Sydenham in south London where it was still standing at the time this poem was written. In 1936, it was destroyed by fire.

common fame: known by many.

[Stanza 3] You’ve had miracles before . . .. blood: a reference to the ten plagues sent by God to Egypt, according to the Book of Exodus. The first was the turning of the Nile into blood, when Aaron, the brother of Moses, struck it with his staff.

a charm for making rifle-men from mud: In a single move, the poem insults Egypt’s soldiers and recalls Exodus, where Pharaoh calls in the magicians of Egypt.  Daniel Hadas notes:’this is also a reference to God making Adam from the clay of the earth (Genesis 2.7). [D.H.]

Hindustani: originally the language of the Muslim conquerors of Hindustan, that is north India, a form of Hindi with a large admixture of Arabic and Persian and a vocabulary which varied greatly according to the district in which it was spoken. ‘Hindustani’ is now an old-fashioned term and people who speak it would say they were speaking Urdu. It is written using Arabic script.

Coptics: Coptic was the final stage of the Egyptian language. It developed out of the ancient language which had been written in hieroglyphs. Coptic was written using the Greek alphabet with the addition of six to seven signs to represent Egyptian phonemes absent from Greek. By the time Kipling was writing it had been a dead language for two centuries, though some attempts to revive it were made during the nineteenth century.

translated by a stick: made clear by beatings. The note of approval here which might well jar with some, if not all, readers is one of the features, which makes this an unsettling and faintly unpleasant poem.

[Stanza 4] gave the Cautions: trained the men in obeying orders smartly. Before the words of command, which are reduced to monosyllables, officers utter a prompt, which is known as a caution, as in Quick-march’ where ‘quick’ is the caution.

combed old Pharaoh out: sorted out the Egyptian army.

She would serve her God or Gordon just the same: See Background, above It was generally felt that Gordon died because insufficient attention had been paid in Whitehall to the situation in Khartoum. Five months of siege had passed before the decision to send troops was taken; they arrived two days after the city had fallen and Gordon had been killed. It is not clear why the speaker should speak of God in this context, except for the convenient alliteration, unless it is a general indifference to urgent reality among the English that is being castigated.

The Strand and Holborn Hill: names of streets in central London.

[Stanza 5] let my people go: in Exodus it is the voice of God which repeatedly instructs Moses to ask Pharaoh ‘to let my people go’, meaning allow them to depart. Here the phrase means rather ‘loose them on the enemy’.

the Sergeant he had hardened Pharaoh’s heart: in Exodus it is God, who repeatedly ‘hardens Pharaoh’s heart’.

all the plagues of Egypt: See note to Stanza 3 above.

he mended it again in a little more than ten: it was eleven years after the debacle at Khartoum that the Egyptian army made its successful raid at Firket in 1896.

[Stanza 6] cheap and nasty: this phrase, repeated from the previous stanza, seems to refer as much to Sudan itself, as a worthless piece of territory, as it does to the underfunded struggles of the army. Accounts of Sudan had always emphasised its miseries; it was generally agreed that it was not worth taking as a colony because its economic yields would not support the costs of garrisoning it. Egypt alone had a different perspective, owing to its long historical involvement with Sudan.

coolie-work: Chinese labourers or coolies were imported to carry out the most arduous and repetitive physical tasks; they were brought in to work the mines in South Africa after the Boer War and they dug the trenches in the First World War.

Like Israelites from bondage . . .. .’Tween the clouds o’ dust and fire . . .land of his desire/And his Moses, it was Sergeant Whatisname: there is a multiple and slightly profane resonance with the Book of Exodus here. Cf ‘I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage.’ Exodus 20,2. Moses led the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land ‘and the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light. Exodus 13,21.

[Stanza 7] eating dirt: making a public demonstration of humility by admitting to error.

for to save our daily bread . . .hate us most: the world harvest of wheat was exceptionally light in 1897 but Russia, which had experienced abundant harvests in the years immediately preceding, was in a position to export supplies. For Kipling’s hatred and mistrust of Russia, see “The Truce of the Bear”, also collected in The Five Nations.

Private, Corporal, Colour-Sergeant and Instructor: ascending ranks among non-commissioned men. Colour-Sergeants had special responsibility for guarding the regimental flag or colours.

everlasting miracle: a play, perhaps, on the colloquial use of ‘everlasting’ as an intensifier.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved