This is one of the poems which convinced Peter Bellamy that Rudyard Kipling wrote with traditional songs in mind; it’s a perfect fit for the tune of Spanish Ladies, which is what you can hear in Bellamy’s arrangement.
The song itself is a lot of fun; it’s a vivid depiction of the hard life of a Georgian tobacco smuggler, liable to get shot by both sides in the Napoleonic Wars as well as by the authorities in both Britain and the United States. Kipling pushes the tag-line in the title further and further as the poem goes on. To begin with we can just about accept that people running American tobacco across the Atlantic might be trying to make an “honest” living buying and selling, even if their activities aren’t necessarily welcomed by the authorities. By the end of the story, though, our poor honest men seem to be guilty of a hatful of offences, up to and including murder. Which is when Kipling pulls the rug with the wonderful last verse:
To be drowned or be shot
Is our natural lot,
Why should we, moreover, be hanged in the end –
After all our great pains
For to dangle in chains
As though we were smugglers, not poor honest men?
This turns the entire poem on its head – suddenly the speaker isn’t complaining about all the hardships encountered in crossing the Atlantic (relative to which he could genuinely claim to be “honest”, or at least innocent), but about the sheer effrontery of being treated as, as… a smuggler! The irony’s black as night and ultimately rather nasty – having set the speaker up as a smuggler from the first line, the poem is implicitly stating that dangling in chains is about what he deserves. I think this song lies behind the similar but more sympathetic trick Bellamy worked in “Us poor fellows“: there we begin with “poor fellows” looking for work and end with a “poor fellow” going out on the rob, but without losing our imaginative identification with him.
Arrangement: almost identical to Bellamy’s on Oak, Ash and Thorn, where he was accompanied by Barry Dransfield on fiddle. The accompaniment here is drums and English concertina.