The Red Lamp

Notes on the text

Notes by David Page. The page and line numbers below refer to the Authorised Edition of Abaft the Funnel published by Doubleday and Page, New York, in 1909.


[Page 31, title & line 5] The Red Lamp This was a famous melodrama (frequently revived). First produced on 20 April, 1887 at the Comedy Theatre, London. The play was by William Outram Tristram (1859-?), now remembered for his book Coaching Days and Coaching Ways, 1888, illustrated by Hugh Thomson). It was Beerbohm Tree’s first venture as an Actor-Manager, and his part was that of Demetrius, head of the Secret Police. It was so successful that Tree revived it at the Haymarket Theatre on 15 September of the same year, and again in 1890 and 1894. He had four revivals at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the first opening on 12 June, 1897. [ORG]

[Page 31, line 15] fo’cs’le the forecastle, which is in the bows of a ship.

[Page 31, line 16] hawseholes holes in the forecastle deck through which the anchor-chains pass.

[Page 31, line 17] slushpots containers for ‘slush’. Slush was originally the grease that collected on the surface of the pan when meat was boiled. It was skimmed off by the ship’s cook and could be sold off for candlemaking. However, it had a use in maintaining parts of a ship to prevent corrosion and as a lubricant. Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882) in Two Years before the Mast (1840), which is a record of his voyage round the Horn starting in 1834, writes that he was ordered to:

…slush the main-mast, from the royal-mast-head, down. . . So I took my bucket of grease and climbed up to the royal-mast-head. Here the rocking of the vessel, which increases the higher you go from the foot of the mast, which is the fulcrum of the lever, and the smell of the grease, which offended my fastidious senses, upset my stomach again, and I was not a little rejoiced when I got upon the comparative terra firma of the deck…

[Page 31, line 17] lascars was a generic term for South Asian seamen and particularly those from Bengal, India. The term was also used for native soldiers. Kipling uses the word in both senses in various stories and reports. In the military sense, From Sea to Sea Chap IX reads:

She has two batteries of garrison artillery, a regiment, and a lot of gun lascars—about enough to prevent the guns from rusting on their carriages. There are three forts on an island—Stonecutter’s Island—between Hong-Kong and the mainland, three on Hong-Kong itself, and three or four scattered about elsewhere. Naturally the full complement of guns has not arrived.

In the maritime sense there are two stories where one of the main protagonists is a lascar; “The Bridge-Builders” (The Day’s Work):

He was a Lascar, a Kharva from Bulsar, familiar with every port between Rockhampton and London, who had risen to the rank of serang on the British India boats, but wearying of routine musters and clean clothes, had thrown up the service and gone inland, where men of his calibre were sure of employment. For his knowledge of tackle and the handling of heavy weights, Peroo was worth almost any price he might have chosen to put upon his services;

and “The Limitations of Pambé Serang” (Life’s Handicap):

A serang is a person of importance, far above a stoker, though the stoker draws better pay. He sets the chorus of ‘Hya! Hulla! Hee-ah! Heh!’ when the captain’s gig is pulled up to the davits; he heaves the lead too; and sometimes, when all the ship is lazy, he puts on his whitest muslin and a big red sash, and plays with the passengers’ children on the quarter-deck. Then the passengers give him money, and he saves it all up for an orgie at Bombay or Calcutta, or Pulu Penang.

[Page 31, line 20] the ship’s cow Before the days of cold storage, cows for milk, animals and poultry for fresh meat, were carried alive on ships likely to be at sea for any length of time. [ORG]

[Page 32, line 9] awning a canvas canopy spread over the deck for protection from the sun. (The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea, ed. Peter Kemp.)

[Page 32, line 11] pitching the movement of a ship when the bow rises to a wave and then falls as the vessel passes over it and the stern rises. A rolling motion is that when the ship oscillates from side to side with the port and starboard sides rising and falling alternatively. The least comfortable motion is corkscrewing where pitching and rolling occur at the same time.

[Page 32, line 12] uneasy hydraulic lift water-operated hydraulic lifts were being installed in private houses from about 1880, whilst electric machines were providing convenience in the new skyscrapers in America. An excellent article on the mechanics and development of the lift (or elevator) can be found on the Internet.

[Page 33, line 1] Clark Russell William Clark Russell (1844-1911), prolific writer of sea-stories, and popular Naval historian. His best known novels of the sea were A Sailor’s Sweetheart (1880) and A Sea Queen (1883). [ORG]

[Page 33, lines 6 to 8]

“A topsail royal flying free
A bit of canvas was to me,
And it was nothing more.”

These three lines of verse are a parody of lines in Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell”, 1819, Part 1, lines 248-50 [ORG].:

“A primrose by a river’s brim,
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.”

For a discussion of an earlier Wordsworth parody, “Jane Smith”, Echoes (1884), see “Kipling: Lost Parodist” by Harry Ricketts, KJ305, March 2003 p.43.

[Page 33, line 6] A topsail royal – this phrase is meaningless since the two words were used for two different sails on a square-rigged vessel in the 19th century. In ascending order the sails are: the course, topsail(s), topgallant(s), royal, and perhaps a skysail at the very top of the mast. The phrase emphasises that the narrator knew nothing about sails, other than that they were just bits of canvas, and nothing more i.e. he was a complete landlubber.

[Page 33, line 18] bowports Ports are openings in the ship’s bulwarks with hinged covers which swing outwards with the roll of the ship and allow large quantities of water to flow rapidly off the deck and back into the sea. Naturally, the ‘bowports’ are those nearest the bow.

[Page 33, line 19] cutwater the forward curve of the stem or bow.

[Page 34, lines 2, 13 & 17] red lamp there is a contradiction in that only the red light of the other vessel is seen, but the other ship, directly ahead, was heading down on them (line 20), in which case both red and green navigation lights should have been visible to the observer. [ORG]

[Page 34, line 18] zenith the glare of the red light went up to a point vertically above the observer’s head.

[Page 34, line 19] steamer a vessel powered by steam.

[Page 35, line 1] Altered her course this suggests what the other ship should have done but that is controlled by the Rule of the Road at Sea.

  1. both lights, red and green, visible to both ships: If both lights you see ahead, Starboard wheel and show your red. i.e., both ships must alter course to starboard, or turn their bows to the right.
  2. red light seen on port hand: Green to green or red to red, Perfect safety – go ahead.
  3. red light seen on starboard hand: If to your starboard red appear, it is your duty to keep clear.

The incident as described was a landsman’s dream, but a seaman’s nightmare.
The rhymed couplets are a versified form (easy to remember) of certain provisions of the International Rules for the Prevention of Collision at Sea. They are said to be “after” Thomas Gray, C.B. (1835-1890) in the Nautical Magazine, April 1890. (a Secretary of the Marine Dept., Board of Trade, not his namesake the poet of 1716-1771). [ORG]

[Page 35, line 11] forefoot the point on a ship where the stem (or bow) is joined to the keel (or backbone).

[Page 35, line 13] cat-head to bridge a cat-head is a projecting baulk of timber in the bows of a ship from which the anchor was suspended ready for letting go (i.e. anchoring). It was so-called because, in warships anyway, it was traditionally carved with a lion’s mask on the outer face. The bridge is the navigating position, usually amidships (in the middle of the vessel) at that time on a steamer. The narrator could therefore see the front half of the approaching steamer, with the merrymakers in the after section. This again suggests that the approaching vessel was coming at an angle rather than being dead ahead, otherwise the afterdeck would have been obscured by the bridge. (See also note to page 34, lines 2, 13 & 17 above.)

[Page 35, line 15] P. & O. The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, the great shipping company which dominated the transport between Britain and the East for a century more or less. [ORG]

[Page 36, line 12] forehatch the foremost opening in a ship’s deck, principally to allow for loading and unloading of cargo. At sea, this will be closed with a hatch-cover.

[Page 36, line 13] querns stone mills used for grinding cereals to make flour.

[Page 36, line 14] rivets mushroom-headed metal studs used to join the overlapping edges of the metal plates from which a ship has been built.

[Page 36, line 18] a ship’s petty officer whose duties included helping to stow the freight.

[Page 37, line 6] old squeaker a pig that in this case, had just been slaughtered by the ship’s butcher.


©David Page 2006 All rights reserved