DESCRIPTION: "By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea, There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks of me." The soldier, in London, seeing the dirt and the squalor, thinks with longing of the green land and the girl on the road to Mandalay
AUTHOR: Rudyard Kipling
EARLIEST DATE: 1890 ("The Scots Observer")
KEYWORDS: love separation soldier
FOUND IN: Britain
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Fuld-WFM, p. 415, "On the Road to Mandalay"
NOTES: I had to think long and hard about whether to put this song in the Index. It is, of course, composed. It has not been found in oral tradition. But it has been extremely popular, and has been set to music at least twice (once by Oley Speaks, in 1907, and again by Peter Bellamy, to an adaption of "Ten Thousand Miles Away"; the latter version will probably be more familiar to folk fans).
I finally decided to include the piece because it is so familiar, and used in so many contexts, and is one of the "folkiest" of the works of Kipling, who was probably closer to the average lower-class Englishman than any other poet.
It originally appeared in the Scots Observer in 1890, and was published as one of the Barrack-Room Ballads (1892).
The girl's name is given as Supyalat, Thibaw's queen. This is a correct but highly unlikely name. According to The Snake Prince and Other Stories: Burmese Folk Tales collected and retold by Edna Ledgard, Interlink Books, 2000, pp. 6-7, Thibaw was a son of King Mindon, and as Mindon approached his death, there was a struggle for the succession. Thibaw's mother (one of Mindon's lesser wives) and Supyalat decided to take the matter into their own hands. They managed to lure all the other princes to a reception, drugged them, bound them in bags colored dark red (to hide any blood), and then turned war elephants loose in the room containing them. The princes died, but technically no human had killed them; Thibaw succeeded, and Supyalat was his queen -- and the British eventually stepped in to stop such atrocities. Would a Burmese girl have been given such a name? It strikes me as unlikely. But it strikes me as likely that an ignorant British soldier would have called her by the only Burmese woman's name he knew. Kipling, I think, has caught the sense of the occupation well.
I am going to opine, also, that this reveals the nuances in Kipling's beliefs, which few realize. Kipling was an imperialist; he believed in the White Man's Burden. But he did NOT think white men were superior to other "races"; in this song, the white man falls in love -- but does the girl? Or does she simply do what she must to survive? (Compare Gunga Din -- "a better man than I am.") In this sensitivity, Kipling was far ahead of the imperialists of his time (though hardly modern).
The geography here is rather confused, as in various stanzas it appears to be looking from Mandalay, Rangoon, Moulmein, and the road to Mandalay (from Rangoon).
Mandalay was one of the key cities of British Burma (modern Myanmar), on the Irrawaddy (now the Ayeyarwady) where the Myitnge flows into the river. The main road from Rangoon also passes through the town. It was (and is), therefore, the main city of inner Burma. The "old flotilla" sailed the Irrawaddy from Rangoon to Mandalay.
The chorus seems to be set in or near Rangoon, where the "sun comes up like thunder" from across the bay (though the far side of the bay is not China but part of Burma -- Moulmein, in fact. From Moulmein, the apparent setting of the song, the sun *sets* over the bay). - RBW
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