A Reinforcement

(notes edited by John McGivering)



ORG Volume 5, page 2587, records the first publication of this tale (Uncollected No. 248) in The Near East Magazine of 10 May 1912, with later collection in the Sussex Edition Volume 30 –  and the Burwash Edition, Volume 23.

It is also to be found in a scrapbook in the Kipling Archive at the University of Sussex: “Stories, Poems and Articles 1910-1930 [and 1892]”. Ref. 28/7.

The story

A dhow is on passage from Jask at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, round the coast of the Arabian peninsula to the top of the Red Sea, a voyage of some 3,000 nautical miles (4,800 km).

The dhow is carrying cargo and passengers, including some twenty tribesmen, who are heading for Tripoli to get rifles and help the Turks in their war with Italy. Life aboard the vessel is described and the tribesmen are landed on the shore of the Red Sea, with the prospect of a sixteen hundred mile (2,500 km) desert journey to Tripoli ahead of them. They are not afraid of the desert, which is their home.


This is an echo from the long-forgotten Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912. Italy had lagged behind Britain and France in the scramble for colonies in Africa in the late nineteenth century, and had been foiled in her attempt on Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) by defeat at Adowa in 1896. She declared war on Turkey in September 1911 in an attempt to acquire Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, across the Mediterranean in North Africa, which were then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Turkey was obliged to make peace in 1912, and cede the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica to Italy. These together formed what became known as Libya.

Andrew Lycett, page 424 writes:

Kipling’s spring visit to Venice had brought him closer to the action in the Balkans. Out of the blue, in May 1912, he wrote a story “A Reinforcement”, based on the Italian experience in North Africa, for the first anniversary of the officially sponsored Near East Magazine.

Dhows do not figure very much in Kipling’s works. There are references to these vessels in “Instructions to the Nakoda” in the Preface to the Outward Bound Edition, a brief mention in “A Return to the East” (Letters of Travel), and a reference in Kim (p. 239, l. 22) to a possible journey across the Indian Ocean in a dhow. There is also the verse “The Junk and the Dhow”. But we have not traced any specific inspiration for this story, with its wealth of sea-going detail.

One assumes that Kipling encountered someone who told him of the long sea journeys made in 1911/12 by Arab tribesmen to assist the Turks against the infidel Italians, and that this captured his imagination. He had greatly respected Islam since his time in the Punjab in the 1880s.

Some further reading

  • The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, ed. Peter Kemp, (Oxford University Press, 1976).
  • Alan Villiers, Sons of Sinbad: The Great Tradition of Arab Seamanship (Hodder & Stoughton, 1940)Captain Alan John Villiers (1903-1982) Master Mariner, went to sea at 15 and served in full-rigged ships and vessels including the Joseph Conrad. His classic Sons of Sinbad, illustrated with his own photographs, tells of his nine-month voyage in a dhow, “The Triumph of Righteouness”, from the Persian Gulf to Zanzibar and back.

Notes on the Text

dhow strictly speaking, an Arab trading-vessel of 150 to 200 tons, lateen-rigged (with a triangular sail) on a single mast.

The dhow, the Chinese junk, and their variants go back to time immemorial, as explained in a light-hearted way in Kipling’s verse “The Junk and the Dhow”. See also “An Unqualified Pilot” (Land and Sea Tales). Villiers (Sons of Sinbad, Hodder & Stoughton, 1940) notes ten types of dhow (p. 337).

snout a somewhat inelegant expression for the bow of a usually quite graceful craft.

Allah the Arabic word for God.

double skin This Editor has not seen a dhow since he was in Kilindini in Kenya in about 1946. His recollection is of ‘clinker-built’ vessels, single-skinned, with overlapping planks like those on a garden shed. “The Triumph of Righteousness” which took Alan Villiers to East Africa and back, appears to have been clinker-built.
Alastair Wilson writes: ‘I rather think that I have seen dhows which are double-skinned – double-diagonal built, in fact – in the Persian Gulf in the mid-50s, but I wouldn’t die in a ditch over it, I rather think that RK wouldn’t have made such an error. I think that, almost certainly, dhows were built of both forms of construction.’ [A.W.]

Jask now an Iranian naval base near the eastern end of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which is now bordered by Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Muscat a port on the Gulf of the same name where it opens to the Indian Ocean.

The Red Sea An extension of the Indian Ocean between Africa and Asia. It is connected to the ocean in the south through the Bab el Mandeb strait and the Gulf of Aden. Its northern extremities are the Gulf of Aqaba, bordering Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf of Suez leading to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

empty land The largely desert central parts of the Arabian peninsula, known as the Rub’ al Khali which translates as ‘Empty Quarter’.

Indian Ocean the third largest of the world’s oceans, bounded on the North by South Asia; on the West by Africa; on the East by Indochina, the Sunda Islands, and Australia; and on the south by Antarctica.

Navigation as her skipper understood it Alan Villiers’ dhow, “The Triumph of Righteousness” carried very few charts and a cheap watch that did not work. The Nakoda (the skipper) said he did not really need it, because he was only going to Zanzibar and knew the way. See Villiers (Sons of Sinbad, Hodder & Stoughton, 1940) p. 17.

Aden port and at that time an important British coaling-station at the entrance to the Red Sea. It is now the capital of thr People’s Republic of South Yemen.

poop the aftermost and highest deck.

raw bast plant fibre collected from the inner bark or skin surrounding the stem of certain plants. Most of the important bast fibres are obtained from cultivated herbs like flax, hemp, etc.

a nest of life They were searching their garments for fleas and lice. The dhow in which Alan Villiers shipped (Sons of Sinbad page 7) was infested with cockroaches and all kinds of insects, and there were rats. She stank. and there was never much to eat.

rudely battered hold perhaps a misprint for batterned normally used for the long iron rods which, with wedges, secure the cover on a hatch; (‘batterning down’). Here, however, the hold seems to be uncovered, so the reference is unclear.

foc’sle the forecastle or raised deck at the bow, usually forming accommodation for the crew.

bales of dates the fruit was purchased ashore and usually packed by the crew.

bright-eyed men Dr. Gillian Sheehan writes:

They could have been taking opium, cocaine, or khat (see below). Opium binds to specific receptors in the brain: the substantia gelatinosa and the thalamusL that deal with the perception of pain, and the limbic region which is involved in the control of emotional behaviour.

The feeling of well-being associated with such drugs may well cause bright eyes. but this is not mentioned in any of the authorities I consulted. See Murder, Magic and Medicine by John Mann, and “Opium in India – a Medical Interview with Rudyard Kipling”, in Harold Orel, Kipling, Interviews and Recollections, Volume I, page 108. [G.S.]

In “The Bridge-Builders” (The Day’s Work, page 22). Peroo, the foreman on the Kashi Bridge, has bright eyes after taking opium, which he keeps in a tin box at his waist belt.

mignonette Reseda, a genus of fragrant herbaceous plants native to the Mediterranean region and southwest Asia.

roses the rose is a perennial flower, shrub, or vine of the genus Rosa, family Rosaceae, with over 100 species, which flowers in many different colours.

pumice a light volcanic rock, here used for sharpening weapons.

dry leaves probably khat – see below

lateen sail a narrow triangular sail set on a very long yard oblique to the mast, then common in the eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea and Indian Ocean. (See The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, page 466.)

taut ropes amended from ‘tautened ropes’ in the magazine publication.

every cloth a sail is usually made of lengths of canvas – known as ‘cloths’ – sewn together and reinforced with rope; this one sounds somewhat the worse for wear.

spliced … yard the yard is made of several spars, lashed together.

wooden blocks in this context wooden shells containing three or four pulley-wheels through which the halyard (rope) for hoisting the yard is reeved (wound), providing gearing to make it easier to raise heavy loads.

gunnels the pronunciation of ‘gunwales’ – the top strakes or planks of a vessel that project above the upper deck.

grab-bow ORG describes a ‘grab’ as a type of dhow with a particularly long overhanging type of bow. The Oxford Companion notes that this was a coaster, used along the coasts of India during the 18th and 19th centuries.

changed tack turned the ship across the wind, a tricky manoeuvre.

reef in this context a spur of rock or coral on which a vessel might be wrecked.

put the helm hard up and wore round the entry in ORG (probably written by Admiral Brock) has:

The helm is the tiller; putting it hard up is pushing it as far to windward as it will go. This turns the ship’s head away from the wind which draws aft until it is right astern, and then forward on the other side of the ship, This process of coming about with stern to windward is called ‘wearing’—or ‘gibing’ if it is done hurriedly or inadvertently.

The other method of coming about is by putting the helm down, thus bringing the ship’s head up into the wind, and, one hopes, past it and so on to the other tack; this is called tacking or staying. The ship loses headway, but, if successful, makes no ground to leeward. Wearing is more certain but means some loss of ground when a ship is trying to work to windward. Large dhows always wear because the wind assists them to get the lateen sail and its long spar forward of the mast and around it on the right side for the new tack.

Villiers, page 24, observes:

We always wore round when going on the tack, instead of tacking … for the lateen sail is dangerous if taken aback … It was a complicated and difficult process.

sheet in this context a ‘purchase’ or single line used to trim (adjust) a sail

clew the after lower corner of a sail. In wearing a dhow, both the sheet and the tack, the latter controlling the forward corner of the sail, are eased right off. The yard, with some assistance from the wind billowing into the sail, is then brought vertically up and down the mast.

Kipling’s picture of a seaman catching the sheet again is misleading as it should be kept in hand, taken forward round the mast and then hauled aft to coax the yard and sail round the mast and into the right position as the dhow comes to the wind on the other tack.

quarter either side of the ship at the stern.

stood away for the night the prudent navigator will ‘stand away’ from the land at night, particularly when he is on an unlighted coast.

a double-awninged steam-launch The British policed these waters from their base at Aden. A ‘double-awning’ gave extra protection to the British officer from the blazing sun in those parts, with two awnings, like a tent and its fly-sheet, the air-space between them keeping the deck below as cool as possible.

lie to take the way (forward motion) off the vessel by turning head to wind.

taken her foot in her hand Gathered herself together, with an effort, to make haste, as in The Songstresses of Scotland, by Sarah Tyler and J.L. Watson, 1871:

‘but Jean Adam would not be there to see. She had ere this “taken her foot in her hand/’ according to the old half-piteous, half-scornful proverb, and gone trudging in sun and wind, in rain and snow, from clachan to village, from farm-town to laird’s place, wherever she could hope to “fend ” by such work as she was still able to do.’

Thus, in this context, to shorten in the sheet so as to go faster and get away.

Jeddah The principal Red Sea port and the gateway to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, which the able-bodied Muslim must visit at least once in his life.

No guns, no slaves dhows were used extensively to run illegal cargoes, and had a habit of resisting arrest by letting the main halyard go with a run and dropping the yard and sail on top of the Naval boarding-party

Hadramaut The southern coastal strip of the Arabian peninsula between Oman and the Yemen. Now the Hadhramaut Governorate of the Republic of Yemen.

Kishin, Sihut, Mukalla These are coastal villages given in order from East to West.

frankincense the resin of the tree Boswellia burnt as incense.

attar of roses fragrant essential oil obtained from roses and used in making perfume.

Angleesch English.

khat leaves (Catha edulis) known by several names; a flowering plant native to tropical East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula which contains the alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant which causes loss of appetite and euphoria.

a fable of Tasm a fabulous tribe in Arab mythology.

Add probably Adam – in the Bible the first man created by God, a long time ago; see Genesis, chapters I and II.

twenty-two rupees Equivalent to about £11.00 today. The rupee was the currency of Britain’s East African colonies between 1906 and 1920. See “A Deal in Cotton” (Actions and Reactions, page 181, line 28). The Indian rupee was also current in Arabia and other countries adjoining the Red Sea.

Hajji (Persian) a title given to a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

a place called Tripoli port and capital of Libya, which Italy had claimed for many years on the grounds that it fell within its ‘zone of influence’, and that Italy had the right to preserve order there. Under the pretext of protecting its citizens from the Turkish Government, she declared war against the Turks in September 1911, and announced her intention of annexing Tripoli.

In October 1911, a naval battle was fought at Prevesa, Greece, and three Turkish vessels sunk. By the First Treaty of Lausanne in October 1912, Italian sovereignty over Tripoli was acknowledged by Turkey, although the Caliph was permitted to exercise religious authority.

Tripoli was nominally controlled by Italy until 1943, when it was taken by British forces during World War II. It was held by Britain until Libya became an independent state in 1951. The city is some 1600 miles (2,500 km) from the northern end of the Red Sea.


[J. H. McG.]

©John McGivering 2009 All rights reserved