Background to the poem
"Mandalay" is a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling that was first published in the collection Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses, the first series, published in 1892. The poem colourfully illustrates the nostalgia and longing of a soldier of the British Empire for Asia's exoticism, and generally for the countries and cultures located "East of Suez", as compared to the cold, damp and foggy climates and to the social disciplines and conventions of the UK and Northern Europe.
The Mandalay referred to in this poem was the sometime capital city of Burma, which was a British protectorate from 1885 to 1948. It mentions the old Moulmein pagoda, Moulmein being the Anglicised version of present-day Mawlamyine, in South eastern Burma, on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Martaban.
The British troops stationed in Burma were taken up (or down) the Irrawaddy River by paddle steamers run by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC). Rangoon to Mandalay was a 700 km trip each way. During the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885 9,000 British and Indian soldiers had been transported by a fleet of paddle steamers ("the old flotilla" of the poem) and other boats from Rangoon to Mandalay. Guerrilla warfare followed the occupation of Mandalay and British regiments remained in Burma for several years.
Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mandalay" was written in March or April 1890, when the British poet was 24 years old. He had arrived in England in October the previous year, after seven years in India. He had taken an eastward route home, traveling by steamship from Calcutta to Japan, then to San Francisco, then across the U.S.A., in company with his friends Alex and "Ted" (Edmonia) Hill. Rangoon had been the first port of call after Calcutta; then there was an unscheduled stop at Moulmein. It is plain that Kipling was struck by the beauty of the Burmese girls. He wrote at the time:
"I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt's best brand."
Kipling claimed, in fact, that when in Moulmein, he had paid no attention to the pagoda his poem later made famous, because he was so struck by a Burmese beauty on the steps. The attraction seems to have been common among the English: Maung Htin Aung, in his essay on George Orwell's Burmese Days (those days that produced the novel Burmese Days) notes: "Even that proud conqueror of Ava, Lord Dufferin, although he was received with dark looks by the Burmese during his state visit to Mandalay early in 1886, wrote back to a friend in England, extolling the grace, charm and freedom of Burmese women.
In popular culture
A sung rendition of the poem is performed in an episode of Rumpole of the Bailey, "Rumpole and the Show Folk".
The song is published with only first, second and last verse of the poem, with the chorus; although singers sometimes omit the second verse. The Kipling family objected to Sinatra's version of the song. When the album was initially released in the UK, the song "French Foreign Legion" replaced "Mandalay", whilst apparently the song "Chicago" (and "It Happened in Monterey" on some pressings) were used in other parts of the British Commonwealth. Sinatra sang the song in Australia, in 1959, and relayed the story of the Kipling family objection to the song. In 2008, in the Family Guy episode Tales of a Third Grade Nothing, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Seth MacFarlane spoofed the song.
There is also a song of Russian singer Vera Matveeva "On the road to Mandalay" translated by E. Polonskaya.
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