A Book of Words – XV

Selections from speeches and addresses delivered between 1906 and 1927

“The First Sailor”

To Junior Naval Officers of an East Coast Patrol, 1918

These notes are largely based upon those by Admiral P.W. Brock, C.B., D.S.O. written in 1972 for the ORG, and edited for this Guide by Leonee Ormond


Collected in A Book of Words, Macmillan, London, 1928.


The place names mentioned in the speech, which are all genuine, suggest that the Patrol whose officers Kipling was addressing was based in the vicinity of the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary.

The speech has many of the qualities of the short story and it appeared in a volume of Humorous Tales from Rudyard Kipling, published by Macmillan. London, in 1931. As in several other speeches, Kipling looks back to prehistoric times, and traces the process by which Nobby Clarke discovers how to make a vessel which will remain steady in the water. Finding a tree which does not turn over at sea, he turns it into a boat. Subsequently he devises a sail and a rudder. When another boat with a sail appears, Clarke goes after it and kills his enemy.

As will be seen from our database on “Themes in Kipling’s works” he wrote some forty tales about ships and the sea.

Notes on the Text

(the page and line numbers below refer to the Uniform Edition of A Book of Words Macmillan, London 1928)

[Page 157, lines 5-6] Act of God an operation of an uncontrollable natural force, always unfavourable.

[Page 157, lines 26-17] between fifteen and sixteen thousand years ago these dates are speculative, but not improbable for early ventures in fairly crude craft. An existing model of an Egyptian canoe with some claim to style is dated 5,000 B.C.

After the last Ice-age there were hunter-gathering people in north-east Ireland some 9,000 years ago, who had come over the Irish Sea from Scotland in boats which were probably made of skins stretched over a wooden frame, like those of the Inuit in the Arctic. [Laurence Flanagan Ancient Ireland Gill & Macmillan 1998, p. 19]. Kipling must have been talking to someone who was knowledgeable about prehistory. See also “Quiquern” in The Second Jungle Book p. 186, line 6.

[Page 158, lines 5-6] Sheer Necessity many young naval officers whose duties took them to Sheerness called it ‘Sheernasty’. Their more cultured seniors were willing to settle for ‘Sheerness’ since it was evident that no one would ever go there except from sheer necessity. Situated on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, where the River Medway joins the Thames, it was the headquarters of the Nore Command until early in the twentieth century and the site of a naval dockyard until 1960. The Nore is a sandbank at the mouth of the River Thames.

[Page 158, line 16] Nobby the use of nickname ‘Nobby’ for someone with the name Clarke is traditional. Every ship, every battalion and almost any other congregation of men has had a Nobby Clark[e]. ‘Nobby’ (from ‘snob’) was a colloquialism meaning smart, elegant or upper class, and clerks were apparently thought to be snobbish. An alternative meaning, perhaps a more likely one, is be from the colloquial use of the word ‘snob’ to mean a cobbler or shoemaker.

[Page 159, line 2] Margate Sands shallows which for about ten miles run nearly parallel with, and three to five miles off, the most easterly stretch of the North Kent coast. Margate is a popular seaside resort.

[Page 159, line 3] the stick marries the basket Kipling explains this expression on Page 160, lines 12-25.

[Page 159, line 28] When the Pigs begin to fly Never.

[Page 160, line 1] the Hun one of a nomadic Asiatic people who ravaged Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries. Its disparaging application to the Germans dates from 1900, when the Emperor Wilhelm II urged his troops departing for China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion to make their name as dreaded as that of the Huns.

During the Great War ‘Hun’ was a general term used as both noun and adjective to refer to anything German. It had slightly more opprobrious overtones that ‘Fritz’. It dropped out of use between the wars (except that ‘Bulldog Drummond’ in the stories by ‘Sapper’ would always refer to’ Huns’ and ‘Hunnish’ – as perhaps did Kipling – always in a pejorative sense) and during WW 2, was replaced by ‘Jerry’.

Kipling uses the term in the final line of his poem “The Rowers” of 1902, the stimulus having been a German proposal that Britain should help her to collect debts from Venezuela. In the poem ‘the Goth and the shameless Hun’ refers to a contemporary German. The term also occurs at various points in Kipling’s commentaries on the First World War.

[Page 160, lines 2-3] the vote is being given to the ladies a bill giving the franchise to some women over 30 was passed in the House of Commons in June 1917. It was accepted by the House of Lords and received the Royal assent (thus passing into law) early in 1918. In November 1918, an Act made women eligible to be elected to Parliament. See also the note to Page 325, lines 14-15.

[Page 160, line 5] Gun-room officer in 1918 gunroom officers included naval cadets, midshipmen and sub-lieutenants, and their equivalent ranks in the accountant and engineering branches.

[Page 160, lines 11-12] the Doctrine of Evolution Kipling is presumably thinking of Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1809-82), published in 1859.

[Page 160, lines 14-15] dug-out makee-paddloes Kipling’s own expression for the hollowed trunk of a tree, propelled by men with paddles, which was one of the earliest forms of craft.

[Page 160, line 16] praus or proas swift Malayan craft with sharp stem and stern, and with a very large triangular, usually lateen, sail (a narrow, triangular sail set on a very long yard) and an outrigger. See “The Devil and the Deep Sea” p. 179, lines 10-11:

.. there shot along across the purple sea a swift dark proa, hawk-like and curious…

[Page 160, line 16] catamarans craft made of logs or separate hulls tied side by side.

[Page 160, line 16] outriggers boats with outriggers, spars projecting over the side to give greater stability or more leverage for the oars.

[Page 160, line 19] kayak the hunting canoe of Arctic America, made of sealskins stretched over a pointed frame, leaving a hole amidships where the navigator sits, excluding the water by lacing the skirt of his waterproof dress.

[Page 160, line 19] junk the ocean going sailing vessel of the Far East, particularly associated with China.

[Page 160, line 20] dhow a trading vessel, operating in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. See Kipling’s poem “The Junk and the Dhow”, and the tale “A Reinforcement”.

[Page 160, line 20] dromond or dromon, a large vessel of Byzantine origin, operating in the Mediterranean between the 9th and 15th centuries.

[Page 160, line 20] bus presumably buss, a two-masted sailing vessel, usually of 50-70 tons, used chiefly in the English and Dutch herring fisheries.

[Page 160, line 20] caravel a small fast ship with lateen sails, mostly Spanish and Portuguese, of the 14th-17th centuries.

[Page 160, line 20] carrack a large Portuguese or Spanish merchantman of the 14th to 16th centuries, with some square sails, and often armed with guns.

[Page 160, lines 20-21] Seventy-Four a battleship, a ‘Ship of the Line’ in the days of sail, with 74 guns, carried on two decks; one of the Third Rates (ships with 70 to 84 guns, later 80 to 90). ‘Seventy-Fours’ formed the most numerous class in the British line of battle until the age of steam.

[Page 160, lines 21-22] modern transatlantic liner, now on convoy duty a number of liners were taken up by the Admiralty in 1914, and, when armed, were known as Auxiliary Merchant Cruisers or A.M.Cs. When convoys—groups of merchant vessels sailing together guarded by warships—were introduced, A.M.Cs were often employed as ocean escorts, to keep off surface raiders of similar type.

[Page 160, lines 22-23] the overworked and under-gunned sloop in 1918 the bulk of these were of the “Flower” class, displacing about 1,250 tons. They were capable of both minesweeping and anti-submarine duties.

[Page 160, line 24] sea-sick omnes all sea-sick, dog Latin. From the Latin tag, ‘O si sic omnes’, – ‘if everyone was like this/that’.

[Page 161, line 8] sheer the upward slope of a ship’s lines towards the bow and the stern.

[Page 161. line 21] Joss ‘which is luck, fortune, destiny, the irony of Fate or Nemesis, is the greatest of all the Battle-gods that move on the waters’. (Sea Warfare (1916) page 191)

[Page 162, line 32] poop the aftermost (nearest to the stern) and usually the highest deck of a ship.

[Page 163, line 16] Watch Officer usually called the Officer of the Watch, or O.O.W for short. The twenty four hours of the seaman’s day are divided into ‘watches’ or periods of duty.

[Page 163, line 17] Post Captain this was the rank in the Royal Navy which corresponds to a Captain today.

[Page 163, line 18] Court of Enquiry held after some naval mishap, usually to determine whether there is a case for a Court Martial, to determine whether anyone involved in the incident is culpable.

[Page 163, line 28] Columbine a shoal off the eastern entrance to The Swale, which separates the Isle of Sheppey from the rest of Kent.

[Page 163, line 28] Nayland Rock lies about a quarter of a mile off Margate.1º 22.5´E.

[Page 163, lines 28-29] Longnose Ridge a shoal extending north from Foreness Point, the most northerly part of the Kentish coast between Margate and the North Foreland.

[Page 163, line 31] freeboard the ship’s side, or its height, between waterline and upper deck.

[Page 164, line 2] North Foreland the most easterly point in Kent, bluntly projecting a mile north of Broadstairs.

[Page 164, line 21] Garrison Point the north-west corner of the Isle of Sheppey, where the River Medway joins the Thames.

[Page 165, line 16] slickers ‘slicker’ is an American word for a waterproof coat.

[Page 165, lines 30 and 31] a reversal of every law Nobby had ever worked under it would be hard to prove that this accidental discovery of the fore-and-aft sail in about 14,900 B.C. had much practical effect until many years later, but there must have been a beginning somewhere.

[Page 166, lines 9-11] the natural opening between the first and second fingers of a man’s hand is eleven and one-quarter degrees for once Kipling has put this badly, but his audience would know that what he meant was not that the angle between the line of these fingers is 11¼º (one point of the compass) but that when held out at arm’s length by an average man the tips of these fingers subtend an angle of roughly that amount. Thumb and little finger likewise extended subtend about two compass points, twice that angle.

[Page 167, lines 28-30] The God of the Tide on his lee-bow would make the old log look up almost within six finger points of the wind unlikely to be strictly true but the tide would help a bit.

[Page 167, line 31] the rate of knots at high speed.

[Page 168, lines 14-16] Two greatest mysteries … the Way of a Ship on the Sea See Proverbs 30,18-19: ‘There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not … The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.’

[Page 168, line 22] Pigtail Corner about 3¾ miles east south-east of Sheerness, between Minster and Eastchurch.

[Page 168, lines 23-24] Mouse Shoal now marked by buoys, in approximate position 51º 32´ North 1º 04´ East, and about 10 Miles North East of Pigtail Corner.

[Page 168, line 33 and Page 169, line 1] Knob Channel leads from Oaze Deep into Black Deep Channel, in approximately 51º 30´5 N, between 1º 05´ and 1º 07´ E.

[Page 169, line 19] South Shingles one of a group of shoals between the Edinburgh and Prince’s Channels, five miles north of Margate Sands.

[Page 172, line 14] Westgate-on-Sea about two miles west of Margate.

[Page 174, lines 21-22] a safeguard … lawful occasions an excerpt from the Naval Prayer, for use in ships of H. M. Navy, which refers to those who ‘pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions’. The prayer is found in the Book of Common Prayer under ‘Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea’. It has the ring of an earlier age:

Eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, and rulest the raging of the sea; who hast compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end: Be pleased to receive into thy Almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us thy servants, and the Fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy; that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, and her Dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the inhabitants of our Island may in peace and quietness serve thee our God; and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labours, and with a thankful remembrance of thy mercies to praise and glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

See also Kipling’s irreverent tale: “Their Lawful Occasions” in Traffics and Discoveries.


©Leonee Ormond 2011 All rights reserved