The Rhyme of the Three Captains

Notes on the text

(by John McGivering)


[Title] This may derive from a monument In the north transept of Westminster Abbey in London known as The Three Captains Memorial, commemorating Captains William Bayne, William Blair and Lord Robert Manners of the Royal Navy, who were killed in engagements under the command of Admiral Rodney in April 1782. [Other suggestions will be welcomed. Ed.]

[Kipling’s Headnote] ‘This ballad appears to refer to one of the exploits of the notorious
Paul Jones, the American pirate. It is founded on fact.’

This note was not in the original publication, but added when the poem was collected; readers of The Athenænum would have been familiar with the letter in question and probably realised the significance of the reference to a lime-‘washed Yankee brig’ and to ‘the bezant is hard, ay, and black’. It may be that after the heat of these events had died down, Kipling wanted to divert readers’ attention from the publishing issues that the poem was really about. See the headnote.

The reference does little justice to John Paul Jones (1747-1792) despite Kipling’s statement that the poem is ‘founded on fact’. Jones was a celebrated American naval officer of Scottish descent, who—after service in British naval and merchant vessels, including a slaver—went to America and joined the Continental Navy to fight Great Britain. He was commonly referred to by the British as a pirate because of his raids on the coast of England during the revolutionary war, but on the other side of the Atlantic he was, and is, seen as a hero. Kipling’s poem smacks more of the savage brutality of sea rovers on the Spanish Main, than of naval battles.

[line 3] Solway Firth: an inlet of the Irish Sea between England and Scotland;

Admiral of the North:  William Black was born in Glasgow.

Skye: the largest island of the Inner Hebrides, off the north-west coast of Scotland

[line 4] Lord of the Wessex coast: the former Kingdom of the West Saxons in the 5th century A.D., which extended into Hampshire, Dorset, and Wiltshire in southwest England. The scene of eight of Hardy’s novels including The Return of the Native and Under the Greenwood Tree. Kipling’s use of the name would have pointed unmistakably the Hardy. He actually had much admiration for Hardy, who figures in “A Conference of the Powers” published in May of that year, as a much respected older novelist.

[line 5] the Thames from Limehouse to Blackwall: The Thames is the river on which London stands. Limehouse and Blackwall are riverside districts with docks. Sir Walter Besant was the author of Chaplain of the Fleet.

[line 7] sheer: the upward curve of the deck of a ship towards the bows and stern; also the angle made by a ship to her cable when at anchor, caused by wind and tide; its use here is not clear unless the sheer strake (the top line of planking or plating below the upper deck) is meant, in which case a freeboard (the height from waterline to upper deck) of thirty feet (nine metres) may be intended.

[line 8] brig: usually a two-masted sailing-vessel, square-rigged on both main and mizzen masts. There are, however, variations.

privateer:  a privately-owned armed vessel licenced under ‘Letters of Marque’ in time of war to operate against enemy traders. Sometimes it may have been difficult to distinguish one from a pirate – see Line 64. (But John Paul Jones was a naval officer serving in ships of the United States Navy).

[line 11] Light she rode: she was not loaded, so was high in the water.

[line 12] scuttle-butt: a cask containing water for daily use—so called because it is scuttled —having a piece sawn out so it can only be half-filled.,, a somewhat unlikely place for the captain to sit but idlers with nothing better to do would assemble there for a yarn. (It also implies rumour or gossip in the USN, ‘galley-wireless’ in the Royal Navy.)

[line 13] Port dues: charges levied on cargo to pay for the upkeep of the port,

[line 15] smoked the hives: the analogy is blowing smoke over bees to calm them before opening the hive. See “The Mother-Hive” in Actions and Reactions p. 94, lines 6-7.

Laccadives: an archipeligo in the Indian Ocean now known as Lakshadweep. (The Sarah Sands was lost on Kilpeny Island, one of the group, in 1869.) See “The Burning of the Sarah Sands” in Land and Sea Tales.

lice: the plural of louse, a parasitic insect (Order Anoplura) living on mammals, including humans.

[line 16] Gallang:  an island 350 miles (560 km) southeast of Batam, belonging to a group of three islands called Barelang, in what is now Indonesia.

prow: an unseamanlike word for the bow of a vessel; but proa—Malayan prau —is probably intended. The word can mean almost any type of vessel, but is usually used for canoe-like craft used by pirates in the Eastern seas. See “The Devil and the Deep Sea” in The Day’s Work, p. 179, line 11.

Pei-ho: a river in northeast China defended by the Taku Forts, the scene of several actions over the years, including the Boxer Rising of 1900.

junk:  in this context, the famous sailing-vessel of the Eastern seas – see “An Unqualified Pilot” in Land and Sea Tales p. 64 line 25 onwards.

[line 18] Yankee: in Britain, usually used for anyone from of the United States. To Americans someone from the northern states,

Finisterre:  a cape on the northwest coast of Spain and an important sea-mark. The word means ‘land’s end’.

[line 20] Sandy Hook: a peninsula of the state of New Jersey and an important landfall off New York harbour.

the Nore: a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames estuary once marked by a light-vessel which has been replaced by ‘Sea Reach No. 1 Buoy’.

[line 21] the Rovers’ flag: the pirates of fiction often flew a black or red flag.

[line 22] the Gridiron:  probably the American flag, when first adopted by Congress on 14th June 1777, which contained 13 stripes and 13 stars, representing the 13 States of the Union. It now has 13 stripes and 50 stars.

the Jack: the Union Flag. See “The English Flag”.

[line 23] crimped:  in this context, impressed (took) the seamen to serve aboard his own ship.

[line 25] parrakeets:  usually spelt ‘parakeets’ – any of numerous small to medium-sized, long-tailed and predominantly green parrots belonging to Psittacula, Aratinga, Pyrrhura, and other genera.

the Line:  the Equator

[line 26] shaddock-frails: ‘Shaddocks’ are the fruit of Citrus decumana (also called ‘pamplemousse’), resembling an orange, but very much larger; strictly applied to the larger varieties of the species, the smaller are known as grape-fruit.

frails: in this context, sacks or light baskets made of grass or straw..

pine: in this context, the pineapple – Ananas comosus.

[line 27] dammer:  (also ‘dammar’) a resin for making varnish obtained from various conifers.

[line 29] boom: in this context, a spar (length of wood) used to extend the foot of a sail.

[line 30] Yahoo:  unpleasant beasts in the shape of men in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift. Now a synonym for uncouth and badly-behaved people.

shoe-peg oats:  small wooden pegs used to fasten parts of a shoe together, before improved machinery was available in the United States. Richardson Lought writing in Early America by Hawker and Walker, tells of salesmen who were accused of purveying ‘wooden nutmegs and cucumber seeds, oak-leaf cigars, shoe-peg oats, polyglot Bibles (all in English) and realistically painted bass-wood hams.’

[line 31] beam sea: the vessel is side-on to the sea and rolling in the troughs between the waves.

[line 32] hulled him: a word of several meanings, here implying the penetration of the hull by a shot from a gun. However, the narrator’s vessel is unarmed.

[line 34] run him up: hanged him at his own yard-arm.

[line 35] capstan: usually on the forecastle, the capstan is a cylindrical timber mounted vertically and free to rotate. Levers (capstan bars) are inserted into square holes at the top of the capstan which revolves as men walk around pushing the bars. This provides power for weighing ( hoisting) anchors and other heavy lifting.See The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, page 138.

[line 39] coco-husk:  The coconut is the fruit of a large palm((Cocos nucifera) family Arecaceae, the shell of which is surrounded by a flammable husk, which, with the shell and the oil, can be used for fuel.

[line 41] hammock: a hanging bed used by seamen for centuries. It consists of a sheet of stout canvas with eyelet-holes at the ends through which are rove small lines called “nettles” which converge on two rings suspended from the deck-beams. With a mattress and blanket, a very comfortable bed.

[line 42] bamboo:  a group of perennial evergreens in the grass family Poaceae, subfamily Bambusoideae. An ancient torture was to secure the victim over the shoots which grew through his body.

gangrened: decay and death of body-tissue due to the action of bacteria.

[line 43] hove him down: turn (a ship) over on one side by means of purchases (blocks and tackle) attached to the masts, for cleaning, repairing, etc. The part thus raised above is said to be ‘hove out’. (Oxford English Dictionary).

mangroves: trees with long spidery branches, adapted to salty water, and able to grow in muddy tropical swamps.

[line 44] land-crabs:  large crabs, (family Gecarcinidae) at home on the land, which will eat anything they can catch.

[line 45] lazar: one suffering from leprosy or similar disease, – see “An Unsavoury Interlude” Stalky & Co. p. 97.

lime: perhaps limewash – an echo of Matthew 23,27: ‘ whited sepulchres, which, indeed, appear beautiful, outward, but within are full of dead men’s bones.’

enow: enough.

[line 46] slaver’s dhow: Arab sailing-vessels that carried slaves in most unsanitary and inhumane conditions. See “A Reinforcement”.

[line 47] bulwarks:  the continuation of the planking or plating of a vessel’s side above the upper deck – perhaps here implying a high freeboard, see Line 7.


[line 48] Captains Three: See the headnote.

[line 49] scuttle-butt: See the note on line 12 above.

[line 50] or ever your teeth were cut: almost before you were born!

[line 52] He comes of a race…: there was no proper legal regulation of authors’ copyright n the United States at the time.

[line 54] Finisterre: See the note on line 18 above.

[line 57 ] taffrail:  the rail at the stern of a vessel.

[line 58] a Seventy-three: an unlikely number of guns. (There were ‘Seventy-fours’ in the Royal Navy in the days of sail). Kipling wanted a rhyme for ‘me’. Robert Dawson points out that William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) had earlier done the same in his poem “Little Billee”:

So when they got aboard of the Admiral’s,
He hanged fat Jack and flogged Jimmee,
But as for little Bill, he made him
The captain of a Seventy-three.

[line 59] quarter-deck: the deck abaft the mainmast where the Captain or officer-of-the-watch controls the vessel.

a ship o’ the Line: in sailing days, a First Rate battleship, carrying 100-110 guns

[line 61] Cocos Keys: There are several groups of islands of this name in various parts of the world; this reference is probably to the Caribbean.

[line 62] nigger: an unpleasant term for black people, which is not now used.

[line 63] a quid to chaw:  in this context, a mouthful of chewing tobacco.

[line 64] buccaneers: buccaneers were seamen of various nationalities who cruised the Pacific and Atlantic capturing other ships by force. They differed from pirates only in that they did not take ships of their own nations. See The Oxford Companion for Ships and the Sea ( p. 114 line 8).

[line 66] signalled to the Fleet: Kipling’s letter to The Athenaeum. See the headnote.

[line 69] by the Great Horn Spoon: believed to be at one time a fairly common American method of emphasising a statement .without swearing. The first recorded example is in a song in the American National Songbook of 1842 under the title “French Claim, As sung by Mr Andrews at the Tremont Theatre”:

The more he thought on’t it the madder he grew,
Until he vowed by the great horn spoon,
Unless they did the thing that was right,
He’d give them a licking, and that pretty soon.

Robert Dawson notes that the ‘great horn spoon’ was the ‘Big Dipper’, part of Ursa Major. It is not only one of the most identifiable constellations in the northern hemisphere, but the one traditionally used, by extending the line through two of its stars, to find the North Star (cf. the slave era song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” North being the direction of the ‘Underground Railroad’, a network of secret routes for runaway slaves from the South) It’s, therefore, a natural (secular) symbol for steadiness and reliability.

[line 70] Chaplain of the Fleet: Sir Walter Besant, See the headnote.

picaroon:  one who lives by his wits, a confidence-trickster, cheat or pirate.

[line 74] a Joseph’s jury-coat: a mixture of Joseph and his coat of many colours (Genesis 37,3) and a ‘jury-rig’, which is improvised and temporary gear of some sort, like the suit of sails described in “The Bonds of Discipline” in Traffics and Discoveries, p. 59 onwards.

[line 75] halliards: lines or ropes used for hoisting flags or sails; some make a characteristic rattle against the mast when moved by the wind.

bunting: the coloured canvas from which flags are made.

[line 76] a wasted cord:  It is not clear what is intended, except a rhyme for broad – a cord is a measure of cut wood for fuel – 128 cubic feet (3•63 cubic metres) while to the seaman it is a line less than an inch in circumference, (2•54 cm). usually known as ‘codline’.

[line 78] Lascar: (the spelling varies) in this context, a sailor from India or Malaysia, like Peroo in “The Bridge-Builders” (The Day’s Work). The word has several meanings; it comes from the Persian for soldier, and came—via Portuguese and English—to mean ‘sailor’ as well. See Hobson-Jobson, p. 507.

[line 79] mainsail haul: an order in the process of tacking a square-sailed ship See The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, p. 513.

[line 81] foresheet free: the sheets (lines) in this context control the head-sails,.and are let go when tacking.

[line 83] sheer:  See the note to line 7 above.

[line 84] the outer main: in this context, the ‘Spanish Main’. ‘Main’ here is short for ‘main sea’ or ‘main land’, and usually refers to the areas in the South Pacific or the mainland of South America once claimed by Spain. (Oxford English Dictionary).

[line 85] pluck: in this context, entrails,

mizzen-truck:  the cap at the top of the mizzen-topmast where there are sheaves for the halliards – see the note to line 75). In a three-masted sailing vessel, looking from bow to stern, there is a foremast, a main-mast, and a mizzen-mast.

weft: the horizontal threads in a loom – hence a piece of cloth and so a flag.

Admiralty: also a word of many meanings, from the administration of the naval forces of a country, to the application and enforcement of maritime law. and command of the sea. See Kipling’s “The Song of the Dead”:

If blood be the price of admiralty
Lord God, we ha’ paid in full !

This line signifies that the speaker is flying the entrails of his enemy at the mast-head to signify he has command of the sea. This might have been suggested by the legend that the Dutch Admiral Tromp (1597-1653) sported a broom at his masthead to show that he has swept the English from the sea in the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-1654.[This seems rather unlikely, since a broom at the masthead used to signify that the vessel was for sale, but facts should not be permitted to get in the way of a good story; Eds. ]

See “The Dutch in the Medway”.

[line 86] Heaving his head: a pun on ‘heaving the lead’. He is decapitated and his head is used as a
‘dipsy-lead’—the deep-sea lead. This is usually a 14 lb. weight (6·4 Kg.) on a line of 100 fathoms (182·9 metres) It assists the navigator to find his position at sea by informing him of the depth of water and gives him, if required, a sample of the bottom.

See “The Dog Hervey” (A Diversity of Creatures p. 151 line 9), and “Their Lawful Occasions” (Traffics and Discoveries, p. 135, line 31, and p. 136 line 14.)

[line 87] fore-sheet home: the lines controlling the fore-sails are hauled in as the vessel settles on the new tack.

outward tack: presumably means standing away from the land and heading for the open sea.

[line 88] bezant is hard, ay and black:  a pun on the names of Besant, Hardy and Black;
see the headnote.

A ‘bezant’ is a gold coin, the name of which is derived from Byzantium, the ancient name for the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul).

[line 89] frigate-bird: a seabird (family Fregatidae) sometimes called Man of War birds or Pirate birds.

Kling: a term used in the Malay Peninsula for people of Indian origin.

Orang-Laut: Orange-Lord; the Jakun, a Malay tribe, are divided into:
, ‘men of the seas’, and Orang Bukit, ‘men of the hills’. Challong, in “The Disturber of Traffic” in Many Inventions is an Orang-Laut.

[line 92] dip their flag to a slaver’s rag: It is the custom for merchant-vessels to dip (lower and raise) their national ensigns to vessels of their own and other navies. The flag is hauled down to half-mast and remains at the dip until the naval vessel has dipped her ensign in return and hauled it close up again. The merchant-vessel does likewise and the salute is complete. See The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, p. 747.

(Once when I was a sailor, a P&O vessel in the convoy dipped her ensign as we steamed past. I was on the quarterdeck, and nobody seemed to be doing anything, so I went to the halliards to haul down the ensign. The hoist was secured at the head of the staff, so I climbed on the rail to cast it loose, without going over the side. I was so engrossed that I never saw her hoist her red ensign close up, but they will have seen me struggling with the thing and probably took that as the return of their salute!  Ed.)

A ‘rag’: in this context, a contemptuous word for whatever flag the slaver is flying (see line 46).


[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved