Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ was first published on 15 March 1890. It appeared in W.E. Heaney’s weekly Scots Observer. The term “Fuzzy Wuzzy” originated from the unique hairstyle of the Hadendoa people. They are one of the Beja tribes. Their distinctive, shaggy, and frizzed-out hairstyles caused British soldiers to give the name of “Fuzzy Wuzzy” or “Fuzzy Wuz”. It is a derogatory term that was also used to describe a negro. Kipling used the term in a humorous tone but critics deem it to be a racist slur.
This poem is told from the perspective of British infantry who was in face-to-face combat with the Mahdist forces. Throughout this piece, the speaker goes on to describe their cunningness and strategies that led them to break the square. It is not that they defeated the British forces. But, the damage they caused to the reputation of the English military was paramount. For this reason, in each stanza, the poetic voice praises them. Whatsoever, their sudden success did not lead them to victory. According to the speaker, they had won the battle but the way “fuzzy-wuzzy” fought is worth mentioning.
There are a total of four twelve-line stanzas in this poem. Each stanza can be divided into two sections. The first section consists of eight lines and those lines rhyme alternatively. While the second section contains two rhyming couplets. Therefore the overall rhyme scheme of the text is ABABCDCD EEFF.
The last four lines of each section are in the form of a toast to the bravery and success of the Hadendoa people. Apart from that, the first two stanzas praise their fest solely from the perspective of the British side. Whereas the last two stanzas describe their military tactics and courage.
This poem showcases a variety of literary devices that make the speaker’s ideas more engaging. For example, there is a repetition of the conjunction “and” in the third line. It is called polysyndeton. Some lines begin with the same word. Readers can find this scheme in the sixth and seventh lines. It is an anaphora.
In the tenth line, Kipling uses contrasting ideas. It is an antithesis. Several lines like this bring in the comic effect. Apart from that, there are some allusions to the battles fought between the British forces and the forces of some Asian countries.
Readers can find a metaphor in “Irriwaddy chills.” It is a reference to the Irrawaddy River (a river of Myanmar) near which the British forces came down with malaria. Another important thing to mention regarding the word, “Fuzzy-Wuzzy.” It contains a repetition of a similar sound. So, it’s an example of alliteration.
We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ’em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.
Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ contains a reference to two main tribal groups who actively opposed the Egyptian and British forces. They are the Baggara and the Beja. Not all of them were hostile to the English soldiers but the main opponents were the Hadendowa, a tribe of the Beja. It was their distinctive hairstyle for which they were named “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” by the British soldiers.
In the subtitle of the poem, Kipling writes, “Soudan Expeditionary Force. Early Campaigns.” Through this subtitle, he differentiated between the first Expeditionary Force against the Mahdist Jihad (1882-85) and the later second Expeditionary Force employed in the Reconquest of Sudan (1886-89). “Soudan” was the 19th-century English spelling of Sudan.
In the first few lines of this piece, the poetic voice (seems to be that of an infantry) makes it clear that the British forces fought several battles with different countries. The reference to the “seas” unveils another concept that deals with colonialism. According to the speaker, some of their opponents were brave and some were not. This line showcases the confidence of the soldier and the superiority of their military power.
In the third line, he names three opponents with whom the British army fought in three different wars shortly before or during the early Sudan campaigns. Firstly, they fought with the “Paythan” or Pathan in the Second Afghan War in 1878-80. In the Zulu war (1878-79), they fought against the Zulu nation under Cetawayo in southern Africa. Thirdly, the Third Burmese War (1885-86) was fought between the English and Burmese forces.
However, they were not as courageous as the “Fuzzy”. According to the speaker, they were the finest of them all, from every aspect.
We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im:
‘E squatted in the scrub an’ ‘ocked our ‘orses,
‘E cut our sentries up at Suakim,
An’ ‘e played the cat an’ banjo with our forces.
In the fifth line, the tone becomes a bit humorous. It presents the attitude of the Hadendoa people while trading. The speaker says they never hot a halfpenny-worth change from them. It means they had to pay full price for everything. This is not a reference to how they traded things with others. But it is about their perseverance and dedication in everything they did. It seems the speaker is talking about the battle in which they were at straws to hold their ground.
In the sixth line, Kipling describes the tactic adopted by the Mahdist forces when charged by cavalry. In the scrub-covered desert of Eastern Sudan, they would take cover or pretend to be dead in the scrub as the cavalry charged through. As they returned on horses, they would reappear and hamstring the horses to bring them down before attacking the riders. The “hock” is the joint below the knee.
Not only that, they cut the British sentries near Suakim. Suakim or Suakin was the principal port in Eastern Sudan on the Red Sea coast and the port of entry between 1883 and 1885 for troops from different regions. Besides, they played the “cat and banjo” with the British forces. It is military slang and possibly a reference to the punishment of flogging. Through this line, the speaker says how the Mahdist forces played havoc with them.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
We gives you your certificate, an’ if you want it signed
We’ll come an’ ‘ave a romp with you whenever you’re inclined.
In the last four lines of the first stanza, the speaker makes a toast to the bravery of the Hadendoa people. According to him, they were the “poor benighted heathen” (a term coined by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, best-known preacher of the mid-Victorian age).
Though they were least equipped with modern weaponry, they were “first-class” fighting men. The British soldiers were split into two levels and they were awarded certificates at each level. A qualified first-class fighting man should have a certificate. Therefore, being “first-class” in military skills, those tribesmen must get a certificate. If they want that certificate to be signed by proper authorities, the speaker can arrange it too.
In this line, readers can sense that the speaker is teasing them. In the back of his mind, he knows that the British forces are better than them. There is no comparison between them. To heighten the irony, in the last line, the speaker talks about having a romp with them. Romp is a childish physical play. This jocular approach while describing the warfare of the Hadendoa people portrays how self-conceited the British forces were.
We took our chanst among the Khyber ‘ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
In this section of the poem, ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy,’ Kipling elaborates how the British forces were tangled in the wars fought with the Pathan, Zulu, and Burmese. The first four lines of this stanza deal specifically with references to those wars.
In the first line, the speaker talks about the Second Afghan War (1878-80). In this war, the mountainous theatre of operations was among the Khyber hills. The next line contains a reference to the First South African War in which the Boer farmers inflicted a signal of defeat on a British force on Majuba Hill in February 1881. Why does the poet use the term “silly” in this line? It is because the Boers were equipped with inferior weapons than the British forces were using. Still, they won the battle due to their fieldcraft, movement, and marksmanship.
In the next line, the speaker talks about the campaign that led to the annexation of Burma on 1 January 1886. In the battle, the Burmese side avoided battles so the casualties were low. However, the British forces lost several of the soldiers due to disease. The metaphor, “Irriwaddy chills” is a reference to malaria. It can also refer to diseases such as dysentery and cholera. Many English soldiers died of those diseases near the Irrawaddy river.
Readers can understand that in the next line, the speaker is referencing the Zulu War. Here, the word “impi” stands for a group of Zulu warriors. Alongside that, the Zulus fought in well-disciplined and controlled units known as impis, each consisting of several hundred men. In the Zulu War, a group of Zulus attacked the unaware English camp and the incident resulted in heavy casualties on the English side. Kipling’s speaker thinks that the “style” they used while attacking the English side was worth mentioning.
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We ‘eld our bloomin’ own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us ‘oller.
In this section, the speaker highlights how the Mahdist forces were one step ahead in comparison to others mentioned in the previous lines. The speaker says all they had faced in previous battles were nothing in comparison to the tactics of the tribe.
In the next line, he refers to a fizzy lemonade or non-alcoholic ginger beer known as “Pop”. According to him, they forced them to swallow something strong. But, they were used to digest light indignation, metaphorically compared to “Pop”. So, the tribals caused damage to the reputation of the British side.
For this reason, he says that the official papers might say something else regarding the event. Those papers recorded that the British soldiers were blooming on the battlefield. In reality, the Fuzzy beat them thoroughly. They knocked them out though they had a few military resources. In this way, the speaker, probably a representative of an infantry, makes it clear how the actual event went on.
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.
This section is similar to the last four lines of the previous stanza. But, here Kipling uses a few variations but the overall form of this section does not change. It sounds like a toast to the bravery of the Mahdist forces. An important thing to note, here the comic voice appears again and adds the phrase, “the missis and the kid.” It is a reference to the Mahdist people who might have fought collectively against the British forces.
The order was sent to beat them up thoroughly. So, the speaker emphasizes that they obeyed the order wholeheartedly. In the next line, he makes it clear how they fought with them. He says they beat them with “Martinis,” the Martini-Henry rifles. But, the deal was not “hardly fair.” Why does he say so? It is said so as the tribesmen were without firearms. Therefore the fight was fought between two uneven sides. On one side, the British soldiers were heavily equipped with forearms. The Hadendoa warriors fought only with their tribal weapons.
The odds were against them. Still, they broke the great English square! This is probably the greatest admission of success that a British infantry could make. In an age when the invincibility of the British infantry square in the Napoleonic Wars and its success against the French cavalry at Waterloo, was enshrined in the public’s view, it was a remark that reveals the British force’s utmost respect to an opponent.
‘E ‘asn’t got no papers of ‘is own,
‘E ‘asn’t got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill ‘e’s shown
In usin’ of ‘is long two-‘anded swords:
In the third stanza, the speaker again praises the military prowess of the Hadendoa warriors in the battle. An English soldier who fought bravely on the battlefield and highlighted his nation’s power was always rewarded by medals and rewards. He was given a certificate showing his exceptional military skills. In comparison to that, the tribesmen got no such papers, medals, or rewards. For this reason, he certifies their skill shown against them. As, in the previous section, he has said they had achieved a great feat by breaking the square, in this section, he has to say so. But, there is a jocularity in his tone too.
Whatsoever, the next line depicts the weapons and tactics of the Mahdist forces. The “long two-handed swords” resemble the long-handled, straight-bladed sword used by the medieval Crusaders. It was a universal weapon used by all the tribes.
When ‘e’s ‘oppin’ in an’ out among the bush
With ‘is coffin-‘eaded shield an’ shovel-spear,
An ‘appy day with Fuzzy on the rush
Will last an ‘ealthy Tommy for a year.
In the next lines, Kipling talks about the tactics of the Hadendoa warriors. They hopped in and out among the bush and attacked the English soldiers. So, they had mastery on using natural resources available to them. They ambushed and when the moment came sprang onto the British forces.
Concealment in the scrub and the broken ground was made use of and the close-quarter rush into the opponents was launched directly from concealment. They used special shields that were “coffin-headed” and also made use of “shovel-spear”. The shapes of shields varied widely. The Hadendoa used small round hide-and-wood shields.
In the last two lines, the comic voice reappears. According to him, when the Fuzzy was in a rush with the British soldiers, the battle might last for a year. The use of hyperbole exemplifies the fact that fighting with the tribals was difficult. It was not easy for the British soldiers to defeat them within a short period. Here, “Tommy” stands for a British soldier.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ your friends which are no more,
If we ‘adn’t lost some messmates we would ‘elp you to deplore;
But give an’ take’s the gospel, an’ we’ll call the bargain fair,
For if you ‘ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square!
The first line of this section begins similarly. But, the speaker ironically comments on how several of the Hadendoa people died in the battle. However, he cannot deplore them. If they had not lost some of their “messmates,” a reference to the soldiers fighting against the natives, he can deplore them.
Whatsoever, they call the “bargain fair.” Why is it said so? In the battle, several of the tribesmen were killed. But, they had managed to break the square. Others could not do that. Though the British forces defeated them, they could not stop them from breaking the infantry square. For this reason, the speaker says that the bargain is fair. But, the comparison between breaking the square and the lives of several tribesmen reveals how the English soldiers viewed their opponents. Only numbers mattered to them in the case of others. While in their case, reputation mattered the most.
From historical records, it becomes clear that the Mahdist casualty was anything from ten to twenty times the number of deaths compared with British troops. The numbers of the wounded are harder to calculate. It was a win-or-die battle for the British. Therefore, it contributed to the high number of Mahdists killed.
‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
The fourth stanza begins with a reference to one of their military tactics. According to the speaker, when the British cavalry drove through the battlefield, they appeared from the smoke and attacked them. They would attack staying in the smoke. So, when the soldiers could notice them, they had already taken their lives.
They used another tactic during the battle. While the soldiers approached their territory, they laid down as if they were dead. When the soldiers were going to return, they would attack them from behind. The speaker uses the metaphor “sand and ginger” to throw light on the nature of the Beja people. Besides, the lines of this section create a rhyming effect as well.
‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!
In these lines, Kipling returns to the comic voice. These lines lessen the serious implications of the subject matter. The infantry-speaker at one hand makes jokes about the “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”. But, the reality is that he is trying to hide his true feelings of indignation. By making a joke of the matter he tries to treat the grave incident lightly. The soldiers are always trained to think that they are superior to all other forces. Kipling justifies this fact by including this human behavior in the poem. It is a reflection of a soldier’s firsthand account.
In the first line, the speaker refers to the tribesmen as a “daisy”. This tone of endearment shows the speaker’s admiration of their military prowess. He goes on describing them as “ducky” and “lamb”. The last two ideas heighten the jocular effect.
In the next line, he compares them to the “injia-rubber” or India-rubber. The reference possibly stands for their agility. Besides, a Hadendoa warrior is an “idiot on the spree.” It means he is on a drunken binge or bout. Readers can understand how the speaker satirizes them as they were unsuccessful despite breaking the square.
While in the next two lines, the speaker admits that though the British side sees them as a mere failure, they caused great damage to the reputation of the infantry-square. According to him, they don’t give a damn for a regiment of British infantry. They fearlessly defeated the English square that was invincible and publicly praised.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ‘ere’s ~to~ you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air —
You big black boundin’ beggar — for you broke a British square!
The first two lines of the last stanza begin similarly to the last section of the first stanza. So, there’s nothing to add here regarding their meaning. Readers have to focus specifically on the last two lines of the section. In the third line, the speaker refers to their “hayrick head of hair.” Kipling’s speaker highlights this physical characteristic of the tribe to a mark of distinction. This is a final toast to their foes who gallantly fought against them.
Thereafter the voice relapses into jocularity by remarking, “You big black boundin’ beggar.” In the quoted phrase, readers can find a repetition of the “b” sound. It is an example of alliteration. In the last line, the speaker admits finally that the tribal fighters “broke a British square.” It is the first instance (interestingly in the last section) where Kipling uses “British square.” He does so by emphasizing the fact the infantry-square was the pride of the British army. By breaking it, the Hadendoa warriors maligned the army’s image.
Kipling’s ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ was first published in W.E. Henley’s weekly Scots Observer on 15 March 1890. The subject matter of the poem doesn’t relate to anything later than 1886. It could have been one of the twelve “soldier’s songs” with the title “Barrack-Room Ballads,” published in 1892. In its initial reception, Richard Le Gallienne wrote:
…the news went round that Mr. Kipling was contributing some quite fascinating ballads to the Scots Observer….and, long before the volume entitled Barrack-Room Ballads appeared, “Danny Deever”, “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” and “Mandalay” had become household words. There was a go and a catchiness about them that no English ballads had possessed since Macauley. When the volume appeared it was more widely read than any poetry published for some years. It was that rare thing in poetry, a genuinely popular success; and the success was significant of the achievement. [Rudyard Kipling, A Criticism, John Lane: The Bodley Head, London & New York, 1900].
In this poem, there are references to two historical battles between the British and Mahdist forces where the tribesmen broke the British infantry square. The first was the Battle of Tamai (13 March 1884), and the second one was the Battle of Abu Klea (17 January 1885). In both of these battles, the Hadendoa warriors showed bravery and through this poem, Kipling describes the respect of British infantry for them.
The following poems contain similar themes present in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’.
- Requiem for the Croppies by Seamus Heaney – It’s one of the best-known poems of Seamus Heaney. This sonnet describes the tragedy of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 from the perspective of a soldier. Explore more Seamus Heaney poetry.
- The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson – It’s one of the best poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson. This poem is a historically important poem that tells of the incredible bravery of the British cavalry during the Battle of Balaclava. Read more Alfred Lord Tennyson poems.
- Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling – This poem is one of the popular poems of Kipling and it features the reminiscences of a soldier looking back on his time in Burma alongside a woman he loved. Explore more poetry from Rudyard Kipling.
- Insensibility by Wilfred Owen – This poem accurately describes the trauma of warfare and the anger of those condemned to fight on behalf of glory and nationalism. Read more Wilfred Owen poems.