Kipling's "Mandalay" — geographical puzzle


Somewhere east of Suez

Rudyard Kipling's Mandalay is a very fine poem but there is a puzzle in the poem's last line, "An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!" For our soldier to look across the Bay (obviously the Bay of Bengal) to see the dawn come up like thunder he must be in India. But take a look at the map. What is that land 'crost the Bay? It is certainly not China, it is Indo-China! As a geographical rather than a political entity, Indo-China is that entire peninsular from the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Tonkin, thus including Burma. So, did Kipling mean Indo-China? One can be pretty sure that this is what his soldier meant because his girl lives there,

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
When the soldier speaks he drops his aitches and several other letters. The missing letters are replaced with apostrophes but they are not there merely to indicate grammatical correctness but rather to ensure that we hear the way the soldier speaks. Though the land 'crost the Bay may officially be called Indo-China and be shown on maps as such, would soldiers always refer to it so? Indo-China is a noun but one does not speak the hyphen and Indo, though part of the noun, actually sounds like an adjective. The common soldiers may well have dropped the apparent adjective Indo and in their colloquial manner spoke only of China, the seemingly more essential part. Did Kipling's soldier then simply abbreviate Indo-China to 'China? If so, does Kipling's original poem show an apostrophe preceding China?

In the song adaptation of Mandalay by Oley Speaks the first line has been changed.

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
(Correction: Adjunct Associate Professor Andrew Selth in his paper Kipling, "Mandalay" and Burma in the popular imagination points out that I have made a mistake. Kipling actually wrote the word "eastward" in his original version and it was that version Oley Speaks used for his song.)

"Eastward" is geographically incorrect. It is impossible to look eastward to the sea from Moulmein. The sea is to the west! What adds to this blunder, and makes it quite laughable, is for the soldier to imagine his girl thinking of him but looking eastward. Surely, he would imagine her looking westward, toward India, where he is.

Some years ago a radio station posed the quiz question "What country would you be in if you were on the road to Mandalay?" The person who phoned in and said "Burma" was declared the winner and won a prize. I phoned the station challenging that answer, saying that if I set out for Mandalay from any country in the world I would be on the road to Mandalay. I was also declared a winner and got a prize.

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