The Rhyme of the Three Sealers


(notes edited by John McGivering)


The first thirteen lines of this poem appeared in the New York Sunday Sun, 27th November 1892, together with the seventh of Kipling’s “From Tideway to Tideway” travel articles. The first third of that letter relates to their passage across the North Pacific from Yokohama to Vancouver. The whole poem was first published in The National Review for August 1893, and as a heading in the Christmas 1893 edition of the Pall Mall Budget. It is listed as No. 525 in ORG.

It is collected in:

  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 33 p. 47
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 26
  • Wordsworth Edition Poems of Rudyard Kipling (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 635

The poem

This is an epic narrative ballad that tells a rollicking story of seal poachers in the Bering Sea where the Russians patrol and confiscate ship and catch. It should be read with “The White Seal” from The Jungle Book which concerns a white northern fur seal who finds a new and safe home for his people, where they will not be hunted by men. See also “Quiquern” in The Second Jungle Book (1895). The poem is replete with the sort of technical seagoing language which Kipling loved to deploy. Most of the time he got it right.

Many names in the story are Russian, as the Pribilof Islands and Alaska were bought by the United States in 1867. The European Union now has an import ban on seal products; Inuits and others, however, are exempt as a ban would be detrimental to their way of life and livelihood. Captain C Knox claims to be one of the originals in this story and maintains that the ‘gun’ was ashore and not aboard his vessel according to the San Francisco “Call” Volume 110, No.163 of 10 November 1911. Like Disco Troop in Captain’s Courageous (p. 101 line 16) who disliked Whittier’s verses because he got the facts wrong, Captain Knox is not greatly impressed by Kipling’s account.

See also Taking Japan Seriously by Ronald Phillips Dore, and Kipling’s Japan by Hugh Cortazzi and George Webb.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Yokohama: one of the first Japanese ports to be opened to trade in 1859

Baltic: The Baltic Sea is in Northern Europe and bordered by Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, northeastern Germany, and eastern Denmark. Here it is used as the name of a vessel.

Northern Light: Aurora borealis. Again, the name of a vessel.

Stralsund:  the rival vessel.

[Verse 2]

Muscovite: a Russian

Smoky Sea: Bering Sea.

little blue fox: Blue arctic foxes are a common mutation of the arctic fox. They were created by crossing Norwegian blue foxes, known for the superior quality of their fur, with the larger Alaskan blue foxes.

matkas:  mother seals. see The Jungle Book, page 129, l. 25.

Northern Lights: electrical phenomena that produce brilliant and beautiful displays of colour

kit-fox: Vulpes macrotis, a fox species of North America.

Brown Bear: a Russian bear (Ursus arctos arctos); see the verse “The Truce of the Bear”.

Yank: short for ‘Yankee’, used by foreigners for any American well before the Civil War (1861-65)

[Verse 3]

starboard: the right-hand side of a vessel, looking forward.

fore: the foremast.

birds of a feather: old proverb: Birds of a feather flock together.

drive and club and skin: There is an unpleasant account of how seals are killed in “The White Seal” in The Jungle Book, p. 140.

cool pelt: The seal must not become too hot as the skin is spoiled and unsuitable for making into garments.

bight: in this context a bay or indentation in the coast.

weighed: raised his anchor.

Vladivostok:  headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet, near the borders of China and Korea.

sloop-of-war: in the days of sail, a warship with up to ten guns on one deck, including miscellaneous craft like bomb-vessels that did not fall into any other category. By the time of the 1914-1918 War, sloops were steam-propelled convoy escorts who also carried out a multitude of other duties. One of the last of them afloat is HMS President, launched in 1918 as Saxifrage – her name changed to President in 1922 when she was secured alongside at Blackfriars, as the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve drill-ship. A similar vessel – Chrysanthemum was secured astern of her. They appear on street maps and are part of the landscape. They were used by the Royal Naval Reserve on the Amalgamation of the Reserves in 1958, but have been replaced by a new building ashore, by Tower Bridge.

[Verse 4]

man the brakes: Some hand-powered windlasses of the era were operated by men heaving away on levers, assisted by a pawl and ratchet to prevent the load from running away.

shackle: a device for joining two lengths of chain – it looks as though Kipling was confusing it with a ‘slip’ which secures the chain until a locking ring is knocked off with a hammer. In this case, however, the captain has, for a quick get-away, parted the cable and let it go to be recovered later if he survived, but he does not.

goose-winged: a vessel running before the wind with the mainsail out on one side and the jib on the other.

Mercury: Exposure to mercury, or its vapour, can have fatal effects on the human body.

threw her up in the wind: put the helm over so the vessel comes up facing into the wind.

Bluffed: in this context pretending to have a better hand as in the game of poker

Oregon: a State to the North of California on the West coast of America, renowned for its excellent timber, much in demand in the days of wooden ships.

Butt: in this context is a joint used in ship-building.

Maine: on the East coast of America, another State celebrated for its timber.

Baltimore: the largest city and port in the U. S. state of Maryland.

Boston: important port and capital city of Massachusetts.

[Verse 5]

Ring and blow: ring the bell and blow the foghorn. Presumably an agreed signal between the vessels.

double deck: here probably meaning two packs of cards. I think Tom Hall is also punning on “deck” as in “deck of a ship”, since the Northern Lights is returning with the Baltic. [D.H.]

boom: In this context the spar to which the mainsail is laced. Incidentally, it would not be the boom that creaked but the fitting that secured it to the mast (the gooseneck.)

bitt: normally the post-like device in the chain-locker that secures the end of the cable. (Usually ‘bitts’)

[Verse 6]

flensing-knife: a large and sharp knife used for skinning seals, whales etc..

Yeddo: the former name of Tokyo, the capital of Japan.

there’s never a law of God or man runs north of Fifty-Three: 53° North Latitude; a suggestion that the Rule of Law does not apply North of the Latitude of Stoke-on-Trent in England and Bremen in Germany.  Daniel Hadas suggests that this is reminiscent of the lines in ‘Mandalay’ about, “East of Suez …. where there aren’t no Ten Commandments”.

[Verse 7]

sealing-rifles:  from the context perhaps firing explosive shells

sparrow-dust: very small shot.

joss: an Eastern God.

Virgin: the Virgin Mary.

schooling bullet: Kipling’s poem “The Instructor” teaches men to keep their heads down

acock: cocked, as a firearm ready for firing. Alert, like an animal with its ears pricked.

[Verse 8]

Fundy Race: the Bay of Fundy, on the Atlantic coast of North America has the largest rise and fall of tide in the world, so the rivers that drain into the Bay have bores, where the rising tide forces a large wave for some distance upstream. A race, in this context, is a meeting of tidal streams at sea which causes rough and confused water and is a hazard to navigation.

hogs: pigs on the beach scavenging for food would make a dash inland as the tide rose, but it seems to be low water.

Bass Rock: There are two headlands of this name on the coast of Massachusetts.

swing: in this context execute by hanging

[Verse 9]

North of Fifty-Three: latitude 53° North see above.

[Verse 10]

warlock Finn: A warlock is a male witch. People from Finland were thought to have magical powers over the weather and could create or stop storms at will.

holluschickie: young adult seals. See “The White Seal”.

sea-pull: The differences in pressure between the hulls of two adjacent vessels can cause suction so they are forced together and collide.

sheer-strakes: the topmost strake or plank on each side of a wooden vessel.

[Verse 11]

sundogs: known as sun dogs, mock suns or parhelion – glowing spots around the sun created by sunlight refracting off ice crystals in the cirrus clouds- some of the most frequently observed optical phenomena.

[Verse 12]

spent shell:  strictly speaking, the shell cases or cartridges, depending on the weapons used.

[Verse 14]

Tolstoi Mees: the most easterly point of St.George Island in the Pribilof Islands (formerly the Northern Fur Seal Islands) in the Bering Sea, about 200 miles (320 km) north of Unalaska. (St. Paul, St. George, Walrus, and Otter Islands.).

now he’s sick of watch and trick:  Sailors had to spend time on watch, and take their turn (‘trick‘) at the wheel.

Yoshiwara: The red-light district was established in about 1617 near the start of the Tokaido highway which ran from Edo to Kyoto, when all the brothels in the capital were moved on the orders of the second Tokugawa shogun Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), After the Meireki Fire of 1657, Yoshiwara was moved to its present location, north of Asakusa and renamed Shin-Yoshiwara (New Yoshiwara), though the “Shin” part did not last long and the area was known as “Yoshiwara.” The original lakes and marshland were drained to create the new quarter. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern and surrounded by walls and a moat to stop the women from escaping before their indentures were paid off

burn a stick: light a stick of incense as a memorial to the dead, as other religions light a candle.

Bering: Generally speaking the Bering Sea is the Northern end of the Pacific Ocean, between Alaska and Russia. The terrible weather makes it one of the most difficult seas in the world to navigate. It is named after Vitus Bering (baptised 1681 and died 1741.) a Dane in the Russian Navy.

[Verse 15]

by guess and lead: a variation of the more usual “By guess and by God”, the lead – usually of seven pounds weight on a calibrated line – shows the depth of water. A recess on the base takes tallow to bring up a sample of the bottom, important information for the navigator – see “Their Lawful Occasions” Part II, Traffics and Discoveries page 136, line 14.

Zapne Crest: identified by Cortazzi and Webb as the North-West point of Bering Island.

marks: in this context landmarks; prominent objects ashore, which when lined up, give the course for entering a harbour, etc.

Seacatchie: a male seal

Seraglios: the women’s quarters in a Muslim household, here standing for the females with whom he mated.

boorga: hurricane (Russian).

keels: vessels (archaic and poetical).

[J McG]

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