But as the empty lands of America and Canada came to be more and more peopled and cultivated, and when the introduction of steamships brought down the cost and shortened the time needed to bring corn across the Atlantic, it began to pay them less and less.It is this dependence on imported food and raw materials that provides Fletcher and Kipling with the opportunity to stress yet again one of the recurrent themes of the book – the necessity for Britain to to maintain a strong navy at whatever cost. “Big Steamers” was written to reinforce this view and Fletcher gives it the following introduction:
(A School History, pp. 234-5).
If England should ever be defeated in a great war at sea, it would be imposible for us to get our food at all, and our population would simply starve. Therefore, at whatever cost to ourselves, it is our duty to keep our navy so strong that it must be for ever impossible for us to be defeated at sea.The tone of those lines, and of the poem itself, make it perfectly clear they are being addressed to a young child. And, appropriately, it is a young child who takes up the challenge in a poem that is full of innocent charm, even though openly didactic. As the poem moves to its close Kipling is careful to engage his adult as well as his child readers. The first two lines of each four-line stanza are in the form of a question put by a child to the big steamers, with the third and fourth lines comprising the steamers’ reply. The child’s answers are simple variations on a theme, and the replies equally simple responses pitched in a tone and language that the child will have no difficulty understanding.
(A School History, p. 235).