the Three Captains"
(notes by John McGivering
and John Radcliffe)
notes on the text
Attend all ye who list to hear our noble England’s praiseKipling's poem describes a British trading brig, which has encountered an American pirate vessel which stripped her of her cargo and of anything moveable. Much of the poem is taken up with lurid descriptions of the painful torments her skipper would like to inflict on the pirate if he had him at his mercy. He turns to the great captains of the Royal Navy for aid, and is furious to be turned away. They are trading with the pirate and will not help him.
I tell of the thrice-famous deeds she wrought in ancient days...
India has given us an abundance of soldiers and administrators, but she has seldom given us a writer. There is no question, however, that she has done this in the person of the author of the numerous short stories and verses of which we give the titles below. Mr. Rudyard Kipling has the merit of having tapped a new vein, and of having worked it out with real ingenuity ... He soon showed that his faculties of keen observation and incisive writing were already developed to an extent far beyond his years...There was clearly serious money to be made here. Within Britain and the Empire there were copyright laws which protected an author's rights in his work. However, in the nineteenth century the position was much less well defined in the United States, which was as big a market. In the 1890s, as Kipling's work became highly popular, many unscrupulous American publishers simply issued editions without permission (thus styled 'pirate editions'), and without paying royalties to the author.
... he was furious when Harper and Brothers, the company which had snubbed him in New York less than a year earlier, informed him casually that, without his prior permission, it intended publishing a cheap edition of six of his stories. [called The Courting of Dinah Shadd and Other Stories, incidentally the first book to be published with Kipling's portrait: Richards p. 50] It had bought serial rights for five of these [for the magazine] (which made its action questionable, but strictly legitimate), but for the sixth, "The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney", it did not even have this basic cover. To make matters worse, it offered a £10 `honorarium' which Rudyard described to Henley as `the wages of one New York road scavenger for one month'.Kipling wrote to The Athenaeum:
Am I or am I not right in re-affirming that Messrs. Harper and Brothers appropriated my tales without asking permission, had not the courtesy to allow me to revise proofs before jamming them into a job-work volume, and sent me a ten-pound note as a notification of outrage perpetuated....Kipling’s letter appeared in The Athenaeum on 8 November, 1890, and is collected in The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, edited by Thomas Pinney (Vol. 2 p. 25.)
The real trouble, of course, is not with this or that picaroon across the water. The high seas of literature are unprotected, and those who traffic in them must run their chance of being plundered. If Messrs. Harper & Brothers had not taken my stories, some other long or short firm would have done so. Only, a pretentiously moral pirate is rather more irritating than a genuine Paul Jones. The latter, at least, does not waste your time and ink.
‘Beetle! You’re oppressed and insulted and bullied by King. Don’t you feel it?’However, Amis (p. 59) records Kipling’s problems with American copyrights soon after he arrived in London, which he describes as:
‘Let me alone! I can write some more poetry about him if I am, I suppose.’
[Stalky & Co. p. 46 line 16]
…especially bothersome to a young man short of money. Some of this put itself self right over the following few months … He was writing and being printed at top speed, by the end of 1890 he was famous in England and America. His Barrack-Room Ballads and a number of stories had come out in periodicals. The Times had pronounced favourably and at length on Plain Tales from the Hills. He had finished and published (in the U.S.) The Light that Failed, and his Indian Railway Library tales had appeared in collections as Soldiers Three and Wee Willie Winkie.
... but no agent could protect an author from barefaced pirating in the United States where works were reprinted with no payment of copyright fees. Kipling’s public fury with the American Harper’s was not soothed by a letter in The Athenænum from the novelists Walter Besant, Thomas Hardy and Walter Black, defending Harper’s. Kipling exploded in “The Rhyme of the Three Captains”, a swashbuckling diatribe of a poem, also published in The Athenænum, in which the offending authors identified by pun— ‘the bezant is hard, ay, and black’ (line 87)—were sending whimpering flags of surrender to the pirate fleet, with Kipling as the fearless skipper of a lone, brave privateer.Besant and Hardy had, with others, supported Kipling's membership of the Savile Club, and all three were leading literary figures of the day. All were at least twice Kipling's age. See Charles Carrington (p. 139).
Rudyard Kipling wrote to The Athenænum in November 1890 to accuse Harper & Brothers of sharp practice. Hardy, prompted by Osgood (one of his publishers, Ed.), felt obliged to join with Walter Besant and William Black, in sending to The Athenæumi a letter testifying to their personal experience of unfailing fairness and liberality on Harper’s part. The letter was not intended as an attack upon Kipling himself, nor did Kipling regard it as such, but his poem “The Rhyme of the Three Captains”, first published in The Athenæum on 6 December, nevertheless made lively fun of Hardy and his co-signatories by demonstrating:
How a man may be robbed in a Christian port while Three Great Captains there
Shall dip their flag to a pirate rag to show that his trade is fair.
Harpers withdrew "The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney" from the Dinah Shadd volume, and substituted "The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot" which had earlier appeared in Harper’s Weekly. At the same time they complained (see Richards p. 50) that Kipling's attack was ungracious and self-defeating, since it would not prevent other publishers, who had paid him nothing, from reprinting his work in the US. RK later agreed with them. In a note dated 6 May 1898 [contained in a copy of the Harper's second edition, now in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library] he wrote:Thanks to the assistance of Wolcott Balestier, and later of Frank Doubleday, Kipling's difficulties with pirate American publishers were greatly diminished from the later 1890s, although—for instance—he and Doubleday found it necessary to publish Abaft the Funnel in 1909 at a rock bottom price of 19 cents in order to head off an attempt by another American publishing house to exploit some previously uncollected tales.
As regards the Harper discussion there is no sense in starting a newspaper argument with anyone under any circumstances. I should have taken their money and held my tongue but in those days I thought I did well to be angry. Never again.