The Ship that Found Herself

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)


This story was first printed in the Idler Magazine (Great Britain) for December 1895, and (U.S.A.) for January 1896; also in McClure’s Magazine in March 1896. It was collected in The Day’s Work in 1898, and in numerous later editions of that collection. It is to be found in Volume XIII of Scribner’s Edition, Volume VI of both the Sussex Edition, and Burwash Edition.

In some editions (including the standard Macmillan) it has an eight-line verse heading beginning “We now, held in captivity,” ascribed to “Song of the Engines”, see The Birthday Book, December 24th 1896. It is collected in Poems 1929 and DV (1940) under ‘Chapter Headings’. It appears twice in the Sussex and Burwash editions.

The story

The story is of a new merchant steamer, a cargo tramp, the ocean-going equivalent of John Masefield’s later “Dirty British Coaster”, and how she “limbered up” and became inured to her calling. Some have regarded it as an allegory, but we may leave that aspect to readers, for no such construction is needed to give point to the story. A distinguished sailor has added:

“Such commentators are perhaps unaware of what all seamen believe to be the fact, and justly so believe, that every new ship must and does go through such a process as that described in this story before things work smoothly and she becomes thoroughly efficient, which process all seamen term ‘finding herself’.”

Some seamen have gone so far as to write: “It is all absolutely correct technically.” We shall see.

It is suggested that a generation more used to handling complex mechanical devices on a daily basis, namely, the family car, will understand that newly-built machinery has to be run-in before it achieves its full efficiency, and whether or not you appreciate Kipling’s anthropomorphising the subject, it is nonetheless a reality.

Ships and shipping lines

Several famous passenger liners of that time (the 1890s) are mentioned in the text, including the City of Paris, an Inman liner later taken over by the American line and renamed the Paris. Others are :

    • MajesticWhite Star Line. The White Star Line was the ‘bride’ in a ‘shotgun marriage’ with Cunard at the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, to form the Cunard White Star Line, now owned by Trafalgar House, and trading once again as Cunard. All the White Star Line ships had names ending in –ic (the Titanic was a White Star ship), while most Cunard ships ended in –ia (see examples below)
      The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were exceptions: the Queen Mary was, so it is said, supposed to have been named the Queen Victoria, but when the board of Cunard approached the Palace, the story goes that they said that they wanted to name their latest and greatest liner after Britain’s greatest Queen, to which the King replied that his wife would be delighted, so what else could they do!The ORG also added that “a later Majestic was renamed Bismarck”. That is the wrong way round. The German liner Bismarck was handed over to the Allies as part of reparations for World War I, and was renamed Majestic and operated by the White Star Line.
    • ServiaCunard Line. 7,392 tons. The first steel Cunarder and larger and faster than any other liner in commission when built.
    • ArizonaGuion Line.
    • TouraineCompagnie Transatlantique – the French equivalent of Cunard.
    • Kaiser Wilhelm IINorddeutscher Lloyd Line – the German equivalent of the White Star Line.
    • WerkendamHolland-Amerika line.
    • LucaniaCunard Line, 1893. With her sister ship Campania, the fastest ships of the day, with a service speed of 22 knots.


All these ships would have been household names when the story was written, and even when the ORG was compiled older readers would have known many of them. There will be very few readers of these notes who remember when ‘Shipping News’ featured largely in the more up-market newspapers, with details of sailings and arrivals of major liners.

In this story (see notes on the text) the different sounds made by different kinds of marine engines are compared most felicitously to a number of popular tunes of the day:

“Said the young Obadiah to the old Obadiah”
“Madam Angot”
“The Funeral March of a Marionette”

Kipling and Science Fiction

In the view of many modern writers of Science Fiction, Kipling was aq pioneer of the genre. Seed Fred :Lerner’s essay A Master of Our Art.

See also:

The Finest Story in the World
A Matter of Fact
the Army of a Dream
With the  Night Mail
Cold Iron
A Doctor of Medicine
The Knife and the Naked Chalk
As Easy as ABC
In the Same Boat
The Eye of Allah