The Voortrekker


(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


First published in the New York Sunday Sun on November 27th 1892, as a header to the seventh of eight articles later collected as “From Tideway to Tideway”, on Kipling’s journey across North America, on his honeymoon in 1892. It is listed in ORG as no. 529. Ir was first published without a title and attributed to The Foreloper. It has also been referred to as Kipling’s Lost Poem. (see ORG p. 1471.)

Later collected, as The Voortrekker in

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 34 p. 79
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 27
  • Wordsworth Edition Poems of Rudyard Kipling (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 735.

The poem

The poem celebrates the pioneer explorer, adventuring out into new lands, blazing his trail, while behind him new towns are a-building, and new industries springing up within the Empire. This is all of a piece with the linked article, later called “Captains Courageous”, which celebrates the tremendous pace of development that he saw in Canada in 1892, and looked for in all the British dominions.

… others, big men all and not very much afraid of responsibility, are selling horses, breaking trails, drinking sangaree, running railways beyond the timberline, swimming rivers, blowing up tree-stumps, and making cities where no cities were, in all the five quarters of the world.

It is, perhaps, surprising that Kipling chose to call the poem “The Voortrekker” when it was collected in Songs from Books (1912) and later collections. The voortrekkers were Boer farmers, on the Great Trek with their families to the north and east from Cape Colony in South Africa in the 1830s, to establish new Boer republics.

Far from pathfinding for the British Empire, their aim was to escape from the constraints of British rule, to create their own communities, expressing their own values, run by their own people. Moreover, during the South African War of 1899-1902, Kipling was contemptuous of the Boers, their farming methods, their politics in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, and what he saw as their disloyalty to the British in Cape Colony.

After the war, however, he came to recognise and respect their valour as adversaries, see the poem “Piet” (1903); and by 1910 the Union of South Africa, many of whose leaders, like Jan Smuts, were Boers who saw the voortrekkers as heroes, had been established as a Dominion of the Empire.

See also the poems “The Explorer”, and . “The Settler”


Notes on the Text

wake: in this context, the disturbed water astern of a vessel underway.

wave break in fire: phosphorescence of the sea; a phenomenon observed at night, caused by the bioluminescence of organisms when the surface layers of the sea are disturbed.

south is north: Unclear. He may be referring to the fact that in the Southern hemisphere, southwards is away from the sun, towards a colder climate, strange to a northerner.

planets change: the night sky changes wih the latitude, and unfamiliar constellations appear.

a thousand wheels: others will follow with waggons and railroads where he has led the way.

derrick and the stamp: the crane to remove the spoil from the mine, the stamp to crush the ore.

[J McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved