From Tideway to Tideway IV

Our Overseas Men


(notes by Alastair Wilson, drawing on the work of the ORG Editors)


This, the fourth of the “Tideway” articles, was published in:

  • The Times (London), on 13th July 1892, some six weeks after the previous letter
  • The CMG (Lahore), 8th and 15th August 1892
  • The New York Sun, 31st July and 7th August 1892

The Letter

This letter was probably written as a result of the experience of Rudyard’s first ten days or so in Japan on this visit. Charles Carrington’s extracts from Carrie Kipling’s diary have two quotes:

“20 April. Yokohama. He met Sir Edwin Arnold” (English orientalist and poet, 1832-1904).

“27 April R finishes a P&O ballad. Sociable in Tokio and Yokohama.”

The letter is ostensibly about those expatriates who frequent “the Overseas Club”; Europeans and Americans, but it develops into a diatribe about the shallowness of the culture change which has been generated in Japan in the forty years 1852-92, after it opened its doors to foreign traders and travellers.

The letter also touches, almost as an aside, on the vexed question which Kipling had encountered some ten years ago in Lahore, on the matter of jurisdiction over Europeans by local courts (the implication being that the local courts might be biased, or susceptible to bribery, or apply different standards of justice).

[As an aside of our own, lest anyone should think that such suspicions never applied to British courts, we would suggest that a reading of Somerville and Ross’s “Irish R.M”. tales will reveal that at the same time as Kipling was writing these letters, a Resident Magistrate in Ireland, which was then governed by the British, was likely to be offered far more subtle inducements to influence the course of justice; Ed.]

Only in the New York Sun was this letter headed by two verses, attributed to ‘King Euric’, which touch on the issue of jurisdiction over foreign nationals by local courts, and run as follows:

For hope of gain, or sake of peace,
Or greed of golden fee,
You must not sell your galley slaves
That row you over the sea.


For they come of your own blood, of your own blood,
By your own gods they swear,
So you must not sell them overseas,
Because they rowed you there.

Kipling’s poem “The Galley-Slave” pays lively tribute to the labours of the ‘overseas men’ who served the Empire.

Notes on the Text

[Page 47, lines 2/3] those that stay at home and those that do not Kipling liked to look at matters in black and white (literally, in the case of that section of Soldiers Three which bears that sub-title). However, he also refers to the two separate (and sometimes contradictory) sides of his head, and to the ‘Sons of Martha’ (the do-ers and makers) and the ‘Sons of Mary’ (the others) as being at opposite poles of humanity.

Here he is referring to men and their work, Sons of Martha all. For some their life’s work will be ‘at home’, whether they be running an estate or a business, or in a profession or politics. For others it will lie overseas, running a tea plantation or a rubber estate, administering a province half the size of England, or governing one of the burgeoning colonies. One wonders what Kipling would have made of present-day ‘globalisation’, where a man—or woman—may move from home to overseas every five years or so, as part of a normal planned career.

[Page 47, line 7] Aden Aden, now a part of the Yemen Arab Republic, lies at the south-east corner of the Arabian peninsula. British influence commenced in 1839, when it was occupied as part of a campaign to stop piracy in the approaches to the Red Sea. (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, one might observe.)

Until 1937 Aden was administered as part of the Indian Empire: British rule ended in 1967. Although described as a colony, and administered as such, it was scarcely a profitable one. Its prime importance was as a coaling station for ships going to and coming from the East.

The ORG noted that one of its Editors had arrived at Aden in 1914, and found that, at the United Service Club at Steamer Point, there were still members who could tell stories of Kipling’s visit there for a few hours when he was making his way home in December 1891. The date was probably December 31st or January 1st 1892 when he was making his remarkably rapid journey home after the death of Wolcott Balestier, Carrie’s brother.

[Page 47, line 11] a large and careless hospitality there is an example in the note above. The Club at Aden was called the United Services Club, and as such would have been set up for Naval and Army Officers on ships on the East Indies station or in the garrison. But the officers of ships coaling at Aden on their way to Australia or the China station, would automatically have received a card from the Club Secretary on their arrival, inviting their mess to consider itself honorary members during their stay: so too would the Army officers on board the trooper on their way to or from India. So too would the other sahibs in the liners passing through, like Kipling himself.

[Page 47, line 14] dark-skinned servants many of the servants would have been Indians, but the locals of Adeni or Somali origin were naturally particularly dark in skin colour.

[Page 47, lines 16/17] raiment that would fatally scandalise a London committee a London Club was—and still is—run by its Committee, who set the club bye-laws, which all the members agree to observe. Dress in the public rooms of the club always features somewhere in the bye-laws of the club, and most clubs were absolute sticklers for correct attire. In Aden and other far-flung stations, the climate was such that much less formal dress was accepted.

[Page 47, line 20] as much air as may be stirring in tropical climates Europeans found the lack of a breeze particularly trying in the mid-day heat; hence, especially, the punkah-wallah in India, who produced a breeze of sorts by giving motion to the cloth which waved back and forth like a fan through the night in the hot season.

[Page 47, line 22] Vanderhum a tangerine-flavoured liqueur.

[Page 47, line 23] hansom cabs the ordinary London hansom cab was a two-wheeled cabriolet, seating two people abreast with panelled doors which closed over the passengers’ legs. The driver sat up on a dickey-seat behind the cab, with the reins to the single horse going over the roof. This is a privately owned cab, driven by a groom in livery. A regular ‘cabby’ would not have looked so smart.

The name derives from an architect, James Aloysius Hansom (1803-82) who patented this form of cab in 1834. The design was exported to major cities all over the British Empire and elsewhere.

[Page 47, line 24] Adderley Street one of Cape Town’s main streets.

[Page 48, line 7] tanned skippers ‘skipper’ is a slang word, used more outside the family of seamen than in it, meaning ‘captain’. It was extensively used in the fishing community to refer to the captain of a fishing craft, but the men to whom Kipling is referring here would have considered it rather disrepectful to be referred to as a ‘skipper’. Master, with a capital ‘M’, was more correct.

In the days of open bridges (from where the senior officers sailed the vessel) they would indeed have been tanned; not so today, when even small coasters have enclosed bridges. (The change was occurring at about the date the ORG was compiled in the 1980s.)

[Page 48, lines 7/8] Union and Castle lines the two main shipping lines running to South Africa. They merged to form the Union Castle Line in 1900, and ran mail steamers to and from the Cape either direct or via East Africa and the Suez Canal until 1977.

[Page 48, line 9] Simons Town see our notes on “Mrs. Bathurst” in Traffics and Discoveries, (p. 339 lines 2 and 4.)

[Page 48, line 10] Cecil Rhodes Cecil John Rhodes, (1853-1902) entrepreneur and politician, and a Man with a Mission to spread the benefits of British rule over the whole of southern Africa and beyond. Kipling knew and admired him, and regarded his early death as a tragedy. Rhodes is today best remembered for the scholarships at Oxford he endowed for the benefit of students from the English-speaking world.

[Page 48, line 10] the insolence of Natal Natal was a separate colony, the most English of those which made up the later Union of South Africa (as it was to become eighteen years later)

[Page 48, lines 11 – 15] the solid Boer vote . . . The argot is Dutch . . . can hum the national anthem The interesting suggestion from this whole half-page is that the members of the Overseas Club in Cape Town were largely of Dutch and German origin, or, if locals, of Boer stock. English expatriates or settlers would not have spoken of the sins of Rhodes, nor regarded the political stance of Natal Colony as insolence, nor have seen anything beautiful in the solid block vote of the Boers, whose attitude they regarded as anything but progressive.

They might have been able to hum the tune of “Vat jou goed en trek, Ferreira”, which has a particularly catchy tune, but that would have been about the extent of their sympathies.

Kipling had (we assume) visited the club about a year earlier, when passing through the Cape on the way to New Zealand, though we know he also used the Naval Club in Simons Town as a ‘watering hole’: so presumably he knew something about the membership from experience rather than just hearsay.

[Page 48, line 12] argot a French word meaning ‘slang’.

[Page 48, line 13] Kaffir a word used in South Africa to refer disrespectfully to any native African, or their language. In the 19th century the word did not have quite the pejorative sense which the 20th century gave to it. Until its use was effectively banned because of political sensibilities, it was used as a generic term on the London Stock Exchange for South African mining shares.

[Page 48, line 20] shortings the ORG speculates that this might be a term to do with the tea-trade, or a misprint for ‘shirtings’. We are, despite the best efforts of ‘Google’ and an array of dictionaries, unable to elucidate much further.

So far as we are aware, the grades of tea, other than ‘first chop’, are ‘broken’, ‘fannings’ and ‘dust’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two meanings to the word – one refers to the act of making anything short (and the examples cited are archaic); the other as an abbreviation for the word ‘short-circuit’.

In the singular form, it also has a meaning on the stock-market: and Hong Kong has had a Stock Exchange since 1891, though Kipling never visited it (neither the island, nor its stock exchange.) If pushed, we would suggest that the stock exchange meaning is a distinct possibility – the construction of the whole phrase suggests four separate subjects for conversation, not that one might have been a sub-set of one of the others.

[Page 48, line 20] Shanghai ponies horses brought in from Mongolia, and sold in Shanghai for racing or riding to hounds. The ORG notes (in 1965) that there was still horse racing in Hong Kong, in Happy Valley.

But riding to hounds would have been problematical at the date this letter was written. Fox-hunting on horse-back would not have been possible on Hong Kong Island – Happy Valley is one of the only flat areas on the island. And although there is little doubt that after the lease of the New Territories in 1898, sport-mad Britons would have hunted fox on the mainland, to do so without the agreement of the Chinese authorities would have been seen as being provocative. Therefore we venture to suggest that our predecessors jumped the gun in suggesting that the ponies discussed would have been used for hunting.

As an editorial aside, though, British officers in the Gibraltar garrison had a regular hunt, based in Spain, the Calpe Hunt, formed in 1814, and disbanded in the mid 20th century.

Up to then, and perhaps beyond, fox-hunting has had a near-sacred status for the British. Since 2004 it has been illegal, though there are still those who would like to see it return.

Kipling’s story “Little Foxes” in Actions and Reactions turns on the introduction of fox-hunting by British administrators in the Sudan.

[Page 48, line 22] pidgin-English pidgin-English was (and to some extent still is) a bastard form of English spoken between English and Chinese traders – ‘pidgin’ is a corruption of the word ‘business’.

It came to be a lingua franca spoken up and down the China coast, and the phrase has come to refer to other mixtures of English and the local native tongue. An example from Hong Kong is
“Hammy-Eggy-Cheesy-Topside” for what in politer society would be known as a ‘croque monsieur’.
Modern communications and the general spread of English as a nearly-universal language have reduced its use.

[Page 48, line 25] laughing jackasses an Australian bird, the Kookaburra (Dacelo Novaeguineae) which is mostly found in south-east Australia, though its taxonomic name suggests that it was first identified in New Guinea. It has a call like hysterical laughter, and is regarded as an Australian symbol.

[Page 48, line 27] horses New South Wales bred horses for India, and all the Far East: they were known as Walers. (See ‘Municipal’ from Departmental Ditties:

It was an August evening, and in snowy garments clad,
I paid a round of visits in the lines of Hezabad;
When presently my Waler saw, and did not like at all,
A Commissariat elephant careering down the Mall”)

[Page 48, line 26] Eureka Stockade the Eureka Stockade was the site of a battle in 1854 between the gold miners in the Ballarat area of the then Australian colony of Victoria, and the Government forces (army and police), in which 28 people were killed.

It is generally considered to have marked a turning point in Australian history, since a result was the introduction of full male suffrage to the lower house of the Victorian parliament.

The name Eureka was taken from the Eureka diggings, near Ballarat: the diggings took their name from the Eureka lead (or vein) of gold, then being worked – and that in turn almost certainly took its name from the Greek word heureka ‘I have it’ which some educated miner exclaimed when he first sunk his pick into the productive lode.

It was also said to have been exclaimed by the Greek mathematician Archimedes (287-212 BC) when he stepped into a bath and suddenly grasped the principle of the displacement of water.

[Page 48, line 27] shearing wars in the late 1800s, Australia’s prime export was wool: to shear it a large number of itinerant shearers were employed. They were not well-treated, and the result was sporadic outbreaks of violence between the ‘squatters’ (the land owners) and the shearers. One such, although occurring two years after this letter was written, is considered to have been the origin of Australia’s national song, “Waltzing Matilda”.

[Page 49, line 2] the rabbits although most Europeans may think that the antipodean rabbit plague is confined to Australia, the rabbit was introduced to New Zealand even earlier than Australia, and at various times the population has reached plague proportions, with similarly devastating effects.

[Page 49, line 3] Sir Julius Vogel Sir Julius Vogel (1835-99) was twice Prime Minister of New Zealand. He worked particularly to reconcile the European settlers with the Maoris, and to integrate the latter into all aspects of New Zealand life.

Kipling’s reference here to his ‘heresies’ probably refers to his introduction of a Bill for women’s suffrage.

[Page 49, line 4] Maori the native people of New Zealand. They are Polynesian in origin, and had been present in New Zealand for more than 500 years when European settlers arrived in the 1820s.

[Page 49, line 33] two mails at the start of the 21st Century it is hard to realise that in the 1890s virtually all communication, whether personal or business, was still done by letter: the telephone was still only for short distance communication, and the cablegram or telegram, though word-wide, was relatively expensive and so used only in cases of real urgency.

Yokohama would have had one mail which sent eastward across the Pacific, and another which went south to Hong Kong, whence it was sent to Europe, or India, or Australasia.

[Page 50, line 4] feast of the Pentecost the reference here is to the Christian Feast of Pentecost, or Whitsunday, when as described in Acts 2,3-4):

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

In other words, in the Overseas Club in Yokohama the men round the “big telescope” were of all nations, speaking different languages. (The big telescope was to identify the approaching ships, e.g.‘that’s the Canton, up from Hong Kong – she’s early’.)

[Page 50, lines 12 & 13] interest in the sealing brigs one of the manifold duties of warships was to protect and regulate the fisheries and other legitimate trading and hunting ventures. (See “The Devil and the Deep Sea” in The Day’s Work.

[Page 50, line 23] to commit suicide not to be taken literally: Kipling is being ironic.

[Page 50, line 25] the sound of smashing ice the barman is preparing drinks.

[Page 51, line 15] Governments and Gunboats may open a land the whole of this page describes the situation in Japan at that time. Japan had remained a feudal society, refusing to have contact with the outside world until, in July 1853, Commodore Perry, of the United States Navy, led a squadron of warships into Tokyo Bay to present a letter from President Fillmore, which led to the signing in 1854 of the Treaty of Kanagawa, under which foreigners were allowed to trade and reside in Japan.

[Page 51, lines 16/17] the men of the Overseas Club that keep it open These were the consular officials and merchants, the despised ‘box-wallahs’ as they were called in India, particularly the latter.

Kipling was seeing life from the opposite side, as it were. In India (in football terms), he was on the home side. Here he was ‘playing away’, and he was beginning to realise that there was more to helping a country to develop than going in, as it were, mob-handed and saying “Do it our way, because we know best”. In India, the ‘box-wallahs’ were treated “with bland patronage” or “scarcely veiled contempt” by the British administrators of the Government of India.

[Page 51, lines 21 and 22] ‘ohayoed’… and ‘sayonaraed’ ohayo and sayonara are traditional Japanese words of welcome and farewell.

[Page 52, line 18] the seventies just a reminder of which century we’re in – the 1870s!

[Page 52, line 19] Diet an archaic word for Parliament: those of us who can remember distant schooldays will recall the suppressed giggles which always greeted any mention of the ‘Diet of Worms’
(1521) when Martin Luther defended the reformed faith before the Holy Roman Emperor.

[Page 52, line 20] Code Napoléon Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) Emperor of the French, codified the laws of the country, and caused them to be applied in the countries he conquered, so that the Code Napoléon forms the basis of much European Law today.

[Page 52, line 31] chrysanthemum the chrysanthemum is the Japanese national flower.

[Page 53, line 1] and some bank-note it may be doubted that there was ever an election when the losers did not suggest that the winners had in some way coerced or suborned the electorate, even in what are sometimes described as ‘advanced democracies’.

[Page 53, line 8] The Mikado the Emperor of Japan.

[Page 53, line 13] ‘Skittles!’ ‘Nonsense!’ or ‘Rubbish!’ The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the use of the word in this sense was first reported in 1863: it also cites Kipling’s verse “Pagett, M.P.” (which first appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette in 1886) as one of the examples of the use of the word in this sense.

It may be that there is a connection between this use of the word and the noted courtesan Catherine Walters (1839-1920) who was known universally as ‘Skittles’, because, it was said, she had once worked in a skittle alley near Park Lane in London. In the 1860s, a London publisher produced three fictionalised versions of her life; being fiction, they were ‘nonsense’ – hence the connection.

[Page 53, line 22] magic-lantern shows and performing fleas Kipling is implyingm rather patronisingly, that the Japanese Emperor’s diversions are childish and uncultivated.

[Page 53, line 28] the Crystal Palace when Kipling made this reference to it, the Crystal Palace, the original glass and iron building erected in Hyde Park, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, had been moved to Sydenham in South London, and was used for all manner of popular entertainments.

[It was burnt to the ground in a catastrophic fire in November 1936 – this Editor has vague memories at the age of 2½ being woken in his grandmother’s house at Beckenham, some two miles away, to see the red glow in the sky.]

[Page 53, line 33 and page 54, line 1] bureaucracy, French in its fretful insistence on detail true then and generally accepted as true today, though Kipling is a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’, since the clerks of the Indian Civil Service could be equally pettifogging.

[Page 54, lines 3/4] military caste accustomed for ages past to despise alike farmer and trader As a feudal state Japan had been under the control of the samurai (Warrior) class.

At the top were the shoguns, the equivalent of the great feudal barons in England in the Middle Ages. Then there were the daimyo (lesser barons) and samurai (knights or men-a-arms). The next tier in the social hierarchy were the farmers and peasants (the productive class); and then artisans. Merchants were at the bottom.

[Page 54 and 55] In these two pages Kipling expresses a distinctly cynical, though probably not incorrect, picture of Japan, forty years after westernisation had begun.

However, the view must be largely that of “Our Overseas Men”: it cannot be based on experience. Rudyard and Carrie spent some two-and-a-half months in Japan, but, on the basis of Carrie’s diary, do not seem to have gone very far afield like the ‘globe-trotting’ tourists. His view must be largely based on what he heard in the Overseas Club.

[Page 54, line 16] fungoid like a fungus, some forms of which grow with great swiftness, springing up, literally, overnight.

[Page 55, line 8] bower-bird’s run the bower-bird is an Australian bird which, as part of its courtship ritual, builds a ‘run’, an avenue of sticks decorated with a variety of brightly-coloured objects.

[Page 55, line 13] Pasteur Louis Pasteur (1822-95): French biologist, one of the founders of the science of micro-biology, and creator of many vaccines.

Many Japanese medical students, as part of the westernisation of Japan, went to Europe to study under Pasteur.

[Page 55, line 13] St. Cyr in a similar manner Japanese military cadets were sent to the French military academy at St. Cyr (France’s equivalent of Sandhurst in England, and West Point in the USA).

[Page 56, line 11] intrusive American a reference to Commodore Perry; see the note above.

[Page 56, line 13] samisen a Japanese three-stringed guitar: the word is here used figuratively.

[Page 56, line 27] Piccadilly one of London’s great thoroughfares.

[Page 57, line 6] muffin bell a muffin was a tea-time delicacy of the period – totally unlike the American muffin as sold by pastry-cooks and supermarkets today. Kipling’s muffin was a bread dough, made into rounds. It was served hot, with butter.

In London and provincial cities the muffin man would bring his wares round the residential streets, on a large tray balanced on his head, and announce his presence with a hand bell.

[Page 57, line 16] the Bund the wharf, or quay. A term particularly used in the east, especially in China and in the absence of any other qualifier, usually referring to Shanghai.

[Page 58, line 11, et seq.] Kipling did not foresee the rising industrial power of Japan, which prevented any thought of the country being over-run by Chinese: indeed, only two years later, in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5, fought (in broad terms) over Korea, Japan comprehensively defeated China, and in so doing, became the major regional power.

[Page 58, lines 20/21] shelling of Tokio Bay by a joyous and bounding Democracy the reference is to the USA. Such an event did not occur until 1945, towards the end of the Second World War, before the dropping of the first atomic bomb. In March 1945, the US Air Force attacked Tokyo with incendiary bombs and an estimated 16 square miles of the city were destroyed and 100,000 largely civilian deaths resulted.

[Concluding lines]

The original article concludes with the words:

…The statistics of Japan, for instance, are as beautiful and fit as neatly as the woodwork of the houses. By these it would be possible to prove anything, yet remember that the poet says.”

In the Civil and Military Gazette version, it concludes with ‘remember that the singer says’. There follow eighteen lines of verse (see below) which point out the difference Oriental and Occidental minds and the errors into which we fall when we try to judge Eastern affairs by Western standards.

The stumbling block of Western lore
Is faith in old arithmetics—
That two and two are always four
And three and three make ever six
Whereas ‘neath less exacting skies,
These numbers total otherwise,


Equality of A to B
Is interesting—Greenwich way;
But does not for a moment pred-
-icate the like ‘twixt B and A.
For East of Suez, be it said
B is the sum of XYZ.

It may be heat or damp or dew
That warps the numbers, one to ten, so
And twists the alphabet askew
Disproving Euclid and Colenso;
Or else there must be people who
Don’t think as other people do.

In the collected version of the letters the last six words and the eighteen lines of verse are omitted, the letter ending: ‘By these it would be possible to prove anything.’

©Alastair Wilson 2011 All rights reserved