What Happened


(notes edited by Roberta Baldi and John Radcliffe. We have been grateful for a number of critical comments and suggestions from Alastair Wilson)


First printed in the Pioneer, January 2nd, 1888, and the Pioneer Mail, January 4th, 1888.

Collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, 1890, and many later editions
  • Early Verse, 1900
  • Inclusive Verse, 1919
  • Definitive Verse, 1940
  • Sussex Edition, Vol. 32, p. 26
  • Burwash Edition, Vol. 25

The poem is listed in ORG (p. 5190) as no. 284.


In the original publication, this poem had a prose heading quoting a Resolution of the National Congress urging the repeal of a law prohibiting the carrying of arms. (ORG p.5190).

In a letter to Margaret Burne-Jones (28 Nov 1885-11 Jan 1886), Kipling writes:

When you write ‘native’ what do you mean? The Mahommedan who hates the Hindu; the Hindu who hates the Mahommedan; the Sikh who loathes both; or the semi-anglicized product of our Indian colleges who is hated and despised by Sikh, Hindu, and Mahommedan. Do you mean the Punjabi who will have nothing to do with the Bengali; the Mahrattha to whom the Punjabi’s tongue is … incomprehensible … the Parsee who controls the whole trade of Bombay and ranges himself on all questions as an Englishman; the Sindee who is an outsider; the Bhil or the Gond who is an aborigine; the Rajput who despises everything on God’s earth but himself; the Delhi traders … the Afghan … Which one of all the thousand conflicting tongues, races, nationalities and peoples between the Khaibar Pass and Ceylon do you mean? There is no such thing as the natives of India … You may rest assured … that if we didn’t hold the land in six moinths it would be one big cock pit of conflicting princelets.” (The Letters of Rudyard Kipling vol 1, Ed. Pinney pp. 97-98).

In a letter to Thelma Cazalet, on 5 August 1935, Kipling writes:

“in Departmental Ditties … there is a set of verses called “What Happened”, or words to that effect, forecasting the result of Indians of mixed castes dealing in arms.” (The Letters of Rudyard Kipling vol 6, Ed. Pinney p. 127)

Some critical comments

Ralph Durand, writing in 1914, expresses the conventional view of Bengalis held by Anglo-Indians in Kipling’s day:

Hurree Chunder Mookerjee in this poem typifies the Bengali ‘babu’, the semi-literate representative of a race of which Macaulay (1800-1859) wrote:

There never, perhaps, existed a people so thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke. (Macaulay, Essay on Lord Clive)

Prior to British rule in India the Bengalis were the constant prey of bolder and hardier races, and it is probable that, as this poem forecasts, their lot would be not a happy one if British occupation were withdrawn from them. Mentally the Bengalis are exceedingly acute, and they succeed admirably in any profession where mechanical intelligence is needed but bravery and initiatives are not. No sweeping condemnation of the Bengalis would, however, be just. Though they have an excessive fear of physical pain they have none of death. Either in an aeroplane or on a scaffold a Bengali will be calm and collect.

Rudyard Kipling gives the more commendable side of the Bengali character in Kim. In that book the Babu, also called Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, admits that he is ‘a very fearful man’ and turns pale at the sound of the click of a rifle-breech, yet he shows a degree of moral courage that astonishes both the Irish lad and the reckless Afghan, Mahbub Ali.

Each of the other characters in this poem represents one of the warlike races in India. Yar Mahommed Yusufzai represents the Pathans of the N.W. Frontier Province, such as are depicted in “Wee Willie Winkie”, “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, “The Head of the District” (Life’s Handicap), “The Lost Legion” (Many Inventions) , and other stories. Chimbu Singh represents the Rajpoots. The Bhils are an aboriginal tribe formerly much given to plundering. They appear in “The Tomb of his Ancestors” (The Day’s Work). The Marris are a brave and lawless tribe of Baluchistan.

The Sikhs provide some of the best soldiers in the Indian army, but, unlike the Marris, they are notable for thei loyalty to the British Empire. The tale, “A Sahib’s War” (Traffics and Dioscoveries), is told by a native officer in a Sikh regiment. The Jats of the Punjab, who are agriculturists, also make excellent soldiers. The Wahabis are a fanatical Mahommedan sect who preach the holiness of war against unbelievers. Boh Hla-oo represents the Burmese dacoits, who, when safe opportunity offers, make up in bloodthirstiness what they lack in actual courage. Their methods of warfare are described in “A Conference of the Powers” (Many Inventions), “The Taking of Lungtungpen” (Plain Tales from the Hills), “The Ballad of Boh da Thone” (Barrack-Room Ballads), and “The Grave of the Hundred Head” (Departmental Ditties).” (Durand, 1914: 5-7).

For an article by Craig Raine on Kipling’s attitudes towards racial differences and their complications, including his views on Bengalis, see KJ 303 (Sept. 2002) pp. 10-29: ‘Kipling: Controversial Questions.’

©Roberta Baldi and John Radcliffe 2012. All rights reserved