This story, without the poem “Poseidon’s Law”, first appeared: in the U.S.A., in Collier’s Magazine, August 15th 1903. and in England, in the Windsor Magazine, August 1903, with six black and white illustrations by Victor Prout. In 1904, it was collected in Traffics and Discoveries, accompanied by “Poseidon’s Law”.
It is included in:
Commander Merriman, R.I.N., also mentioned there, believed that the story was suggested by an actual incident, which received little publicity at the time and was not recorded for posterity. Rather surprisingly, Commander Merriman liked the story best “for the subtle way in which Kipling manages to convey the atmosphere of a waterside pub at one of our principal naval ports”, dismissing the main theme as “quite impossible but an exuberant piece of writing”. It may be that, like Pyecroft with the reduced charges (see p. 73), he felt that discipline and order were hardly suitable topics for humour. (Forty years on, one might suggest that Commander Merriman suffered a ‘sense of humour failure’; A.W.) Others, like the fictional Captain of the Archimandrite, have felt that good order could survive such treatment, within limits, and have enjoyed the extravaganza.
A point which would seem to have escaped previous notice is that Pyecroft’s reference to “Elphinstone an’ Bruce in the Portsmouth election when I was a boy” gives a guide to his age. We believe this could only have been the General Election of 1874, remembered by Kipling during his unhappy period as a boarder in Southsea. Kipling was barely eight years old at that time; it seems unlikely that even Pyecroft was much more politically precocious. (This would make Pyecroft about 34 years old if we take the story as being set in about 1899/1900; which is precisely right for his Petty Officer’s rating (in those days, a sailor was unlikely to attain the rating of Petty Officer much before the age of 30) and his air of authority; A.W.)
The names of all the ships mentioned in this story are fictitious (as indeed they are, in all Kipling’s naval stories). The main clues to the identity of Archimandrite’s “original” are the following:
There is no ship in the Navy List of the period which satisfies all these requirements. We need not be unduly surprised, since Kipling often made exact identification of an “original” impossible by taking characteristics from more than one source. The nearest approximation to “our well-known Acolyte type of cruiser" is either the Astraea or the Apollo class. By and large, the former is more likely, although these ships were flush-decked and therefore lacked a poop. (As an aside, the Apollos were the last cruisers to be built for the RN with the ancient feature of a poop – and were probably the last of any type. But, as Admiral Brock says, other features suggest that the nearest match was the Astraea ; A.W.)
The Astraea, launched in 1893, is shown in the Navy List as a Twin Screw Cruiser, 2nd Class. In 1901, her First Lieutenant was the Executive Officer, but at least two of her sisters had Commanders. Her displacement was 4,360 tons, her speed 19 knots, and her armament included two 6-inch guns and eight 4.7-inch guns. An idea pf her appearance, complete with four staysails and trysails, can be obtained from Plate 2 of Brassey’s Naval Annual for one of the years in the middle `nineties.
For what it is worth, Archimandrite not only begins with an ‘A’ like the real Astraea and Apollo and the mythical Acolyte, but its meaning, a dignitary in the Orthodox Church, has a strong Greek, though not a classical, flavour. (It may also be added that Kipling had encountered two of the Astraea class during his trips in the Pelorus in 1897 and 1898 - Hermione and Charybdis of that class were units of the Channel Squadron of which Pelorus was also a part; A.W.)
A Summary of the Tale
The story is told by the narrator, who, it may be inferred, is Kipling himself. He picks up a book by a French naval officer, which describes some apparently unlikely – highly unlikely – events which, the Frenchman alleges, recently took place on board one of HM’s ships of war. His curiosity piqued, he goes to Plymouth to see if he can find out the truth.
His researches lead him to a pub, where he encounters Petty Officer Pyecroft, who served in the Archimandrite at the relevant time, and over a drink or three, he elicits the truth. It appears that the Frenchman stowed away in the Archimandrite at Madeira, to discover confidential details of her performance. But he is discovered, and his cover ‘blown’. The Archimandrite’s captain decides to bamboozle the Frenchman by putting on a show of total incompetence, and, loyally backed up by the crew, proceeds to put the plan into action, for 24 hours.
At the end of that time, the Frenchman is passed on to a providential collier, where he will have to work his passage. But he later reproduces all the misleading actions to which he has been exposed as fact, and publishes them: and this is the book which Kipling picked up at the start of the story.
In some ways, the tale may be considered almost as one of Kipling’s tales of revenge. Nationally, our relations with France, at the time the tale was started (1899), were strained, to say the least (the incident at Fashoda, in the Sudan, had occurred only the previous year). So, at one level, the tale is of Britannia pulling the wool over the eyes of the "Frogs". (No disrespect is intended to our French friends – merely an expression of an attitude held by many British people at that time (cf Nancy Mitford’s Uncle Matthew “Abroad is unutterably bloody and all foreigners are fiends” (Love in a Cold Climate)
However, this editor considers it more as an exercise in writing a humorous tale about the Navy, to show Kipling’s virtuosity and mastery of naval life and language: all at a time when the Royal Navy was approaching the apogee of its power and influence, and when it, and the sea, were woven into the fabric of our life in a way which is, regrettably, not the case today.
©Alastair Wilson and P W Brock 2006 All rights reserved