Rudyard Kipling

Indian Summer
Kipling's view of imperialism was a more complex one than his single, famous line quoted often out of context, 'Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.'

'The issue is not a mean one. It is whether ... you will be a great country - an Imperial country - a country where your sons, when they rise, rise to paramount positions, and obtain not merely the esteem of their countrymen, but command the respect of the world.'

With these words, uttered during his famous Crystal Palace speech of 1872, Benjamin Disraeli gave the term imperialism respectable political currency in England.

Three years later he made Queen Victoria Empress of India. His enthusiasm for empire was perhaps a little in advance of its time. By the 1890s, however, Rudyard Kipling was writing for an audience made familiar with the 'new imperialism' by continuing British expansion. His works, originally written only for a limited Anglo-Indian public, now found a responsive readership in Britain.

But what were Kipling's views of empire and the imperial relationship? There has been much debate on the question. An older generation of literary critics savaged him as an arch priest of jingoism, racism and authoritarianism. Edmund Wilson saw him as a racist who made Kim turn his back on the black man and identify with the white conquerors. George Orwell saw him as 'the prophet of empire in its expansionist phase'. Lionel Trilling wrote of his 'lower middle class snarl'. More recently, however, Kipling's biographers and critics have concentrated on his artistic vision and the discovery of its roots. While recognising his outspoken defence of empire, they argue that his imperialism is hard to fit into any neat stereotype. He may have been contemptuous of' certain aspects of Oriental culture, such as Hinduisrn, but he found much to admire in others, such as Buddhism. He may have assumed the legitimacy of the British Raj in India but he was a bitterly ironic critic of the Anglo-Indian establishment and of Christian missionaries (especially Protestants). He may have been condescending towards, even scornful of, the emergent Westernised Indian intelligentsia but he was to make one of them into a minor hero in Kim, his only full-length novel about India.

Alan Sandison, perhaps the best of Kipling's recent critics, goes further than mere apology. For Kipling, he argues, empire in India is only a simulac-rum - a shadowy likeness - of the human condition. The Kipling hero is a man dedicated to the toil of governing India. It is by this dedication that he seeks to give meaning to his existence. In the end, however, he finds that he has sacrificed his liberty to a work which can never be seen as complete, which perhaps can never be completed. For Sandison, Kipling's artistic vision is the bleak insight that man stands alone against the primitiveness of nature in the tropics. Kipling is thus the harbinger of Conrad, and the imperial ideal is his attempt to find some consolation in action for this lonely existence. But why choose empire as a field of action? Sandison writes of Kipling's imperialism as a formula, fatal to his artistic vision because imposed upon it. The historian Eric Stokes, on the other hand, sees no such disjunction between Kipling's artistic and imperial visions.

One way of considering this problem might be to ask whether Kipling arrived at his artistic vision, as Sandison suggests, through immersion in the European cultural background, especially the German view of history and evolution; or whether he picked it up through his experience of the problems of empire in India. Louis Cornell, in his Kipling in India , sought to identify Kipling with the outlook of the British residents there, the so-called Anglo-Indians, of whom he himself was one. But there are good reasons for thinking that Kipling did not identify with the Anglo-Indian community at large. Unlike most of them, he entertained a lively curiosity about 'native' life. His father, John Lockwood Kipling, was keeper of the Museum of Indian Arts and Crafts at Lahore and took a deep interest in Indian culture. The young Kipling had a restless, inquisitive temperament and on hot nights used to wander about the opium dens, brothels and back streets of Lahore. This brought him into close contact with the traditional culture of lower-class life, something which Anglo-Indians rarely took the trouble to explore. In turn, Kipling came to regard them as narrow-minded, prejudiced, arrogant and ignorant, ill-equipped for the work of government which they had to do. This provides perhaps a clue to the nature of Kipling's artistic and imperial visions. He distanced himself from the Anglo-Indian community and took a synoptic view of empire in India, seeing it as a lonely struggle against the land, the climate and the prejudice both of Indians and Europeans. The imperial ruler must do justice impartially, must be ruler and friend to all the people: in short, he must be the ideal 'sahib'.

Kim was published in 1901. Though an early draft dates from 1892, the novel was heavily revised during the year preceding publication. It was not, like Kipling's earlier short stories, intended for an Anglo-Indian readership, and Kipling's revisions suggest that he found this liberating to his personal feelings about India, Eastern culture and the ideals which ought to direct empire. Indeed, the novel as it stands can be read as the moral education of a true sahib. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the Arabic 'sahib' has the meaning 'friend' as well as 'master'. Kim's education consists ultimately of learning to be a master, through participation in empire and 'the Great Game', but also, and crucially, to be 'a friend of all the world' - his nickname when still a wild bazaar-boy in Lahore.

The novel opens with the hero seated upon a great gun, symbolic of British conquest. The symbolism is reinforced by the fact that virtually the only British we see are soldiers. The British are thus shown to hold India by the gun, like so many conquerors before them, and the Mutiny of 1857 is a shadow on the memories of more than one character. But it is clear throughout that government based solely on force is not enough for Kipling. By making Kim the orphan son of an Irish soldier, brought up as an Indian on the streets of Lahore and speaking Urdu rather than English as his first language, Kipling is presenting his readers with a hero who is more 'native' than British and who has many reasons to regard the Anglo-Indian world with suspicious resentment. If Kim is to be brought to identify with empire in India, it must first acquire some legitimating ideology which he can accept.

Such an ideology, however, is not provided by the Anglo-Indian community itself. Kipling is blatantly contemptuous of its culture, which he portrays as blinkered and morally worthless. Kim, as an Irish boy, is given qualities of adventurousness and high-spirits which are seen to be lacking in most of the resident British. With one or two notable exceptions - Creighton, Lurgan - the Anglo-Indian establishment is portrayed as callous, prejudiced and, above all, ignorant of Indian society. Anglo-Indian culture is capable of teaching Kim little of value beyond certain technical skills. Technology has its significance for Kipling. He celebrates railways, electric telegraphs, canals, western medicine. Such gifts are not to be despised and are built into his vision of empire. But the promise of technological improvement does not, of itself, provide adequate legitimation for the Raj. It does not overcome ignorance of and alienation from the people of India, Indeed, this ignorance and alienation frequently are seen to threaten subversion of the imperial order. British rulers, from soldiers to army chaplains, are mocked and ridiculed by a street boy because they cannot understand his language.

The crucial political point in Kim is the need for the imperial sahibs to know their subjects, to experience their way of life. The ideal sahib must be prepared to venture beyond the safe confines of Anglo-Indian identity and learn by assuming the identity of .his native subjects. He must learn their languages, understand their religions and customs and, if necessary, don their clothes and pass amongst them.

But there is an important corollary to this. Although knowing, experiencing and moving within native society, the sahib must never become absorbed into it. He must never forget that he is trained to command, the subject to obey. Kipling saw Indian culture, especially Hinduism, as threatening to the integrity of the imperial conquerors. Hinduism was particularly dangerous because its traditions seemed inimical to what Western thought regarded as rational secular action. At one extreme, there was the tolerated sensuality which undermined moral discipline; and the superstitious nature worship of the simple-minded peasantry. At the other extreme was the other-worldly asceticism of the holy man, which, when it was not a fake for imposing on the people, led to a negative and selfish withdrawal from society. Action in society is inseparable from government, and commitment to action is one of the hallmarks of the sahib.

Kim, as the ideal sahib, then, must realise his potential to be a man 'with two sides to his head'. One side of him must be a ruler, soldier, conqueror, trained to command. The other side must be friend of all the people, 'my people', the people of India. This crisis of identity finds its resolution through the education imbibed from the lama. In the course of their wanderings together, Kim assimilates the social ethic of the lama's Buddhism. He learns to respect all living things - even snakes - and to despise no creed, race or caste. He also learns that the temptations of the world offer but illusory promise of sensual happiness. The only worthy end of action is to gain merit by serving others.

Kipling's treatment of the lama is sympathetic, but his sympathies have their limitations and qualifications. They are confined to his social ethic, whose discriminating tolerance is seen as much preferable to the moral prejudice of Christianity, especially in its Protestant version. But Kim does not become a Buddhist. He exposes, with the gentle probing of a disciple, the inconsistencies surrounding the Buddhist doctrine of rejection of the world, and he ends by affirming the world as the only reality. For Kipling, the other world remains a mystery, and Hindu astrology is as likely to be as right or wrong about it as Christianity or Buddhism.

Kim's development can thus be taken to stand for the making of an ideal sahib, an ideal ruler. And it may be worth noting that, for Kipling, rule seems to have been almost entirely about rulership. There is no hint in Kim that government could or should be participatory or, in any sense, representative. The people are assumed to be incapable of making their own political decisions and even of expressing their own political needs. The ruler must discover their sentiments, by empathy and subterfuge, and design his policies in their light. But rule itself is taken naturally to be despotic, albeit of the most benign sort. However, over what does this despotism hold sway and for what purposes? Kipling appears to suggest that the ruler's, the imperial, mission requires some kind of superman - a mixture of Irish adventurism, Western technological efficacy, empathy with Indian culture and the taught cunning of the secret agent, all legitimated and disciplined by a moral code wrought out of Buddhism and a commitment to public service. But what would a government of such god-like morals be for? The great paradox is that it seems to be only for preserving and ruling benignly over a status quo which is itself deemed virtually unchangeable: to borrow from Lord Curzon, government in India appears 'a mighty and magnificent machine for doing absolutely nothing'.

The explicit political problems dealt with in Kim are those of foreign invasion from Russia and feudal disruption by hill rajahs. Implicitly, Kipling hints at age-old antagonisms between different religious communities and, perhaps, traditionally inspired uprisings of the kind which most British associated with the Mutiny of 1857. In relation to these, the function of government would seem to be only to defend the peace, to maintain 'order'. Most notably, Kipling's view of politics fails to perceive any problems which may be qualitatively new, the result of social change and development. But this is hardly surprising, for Kipling's view of Indian society fails to perceive any principles of dynamism. Indian society is portrayed as rigid and deeply traditional - a society of colourful but simple peasants, bold but arrogant warriors, wily Brahmins, superstitious ranees, and so on. Culturally, Kim's India is irremediably divided by caste and sect, with no underlying principles of unity, present or emergent. Kipling scarcely hints at the possibility of change in this situation. For him, the concepts of capitalism, nationalism and cultural re-definition have no apparent meaning. Certainly, it is no part of imperialism's purpose to generate a dynamic in Indian society. The limit of its legitimate intrusion is seen to be technological - to build canals and provide medicine. But these are not understood by Kipling to exert any sociological imperatives. The function of government is to rule humanely over this static society, protecting it from evil-doers, adjudicating its disputes, promoting material benefits within it. But government has no mandate to promote fundamental change.

One partial exception to Kipling's view of Indian society as immobile is his treatment of Hurree Babu, the 'new' Indian and member of the Western educated intelligentsia. Hurree is seen to be worthy of joining the imperial elite and participating in the imperial purpose. His example shows that Kipling was no simple-minded racist, believing in the congenital impossibility of the Indian character ever evolving and acquiring the qualities necessary to legitimate rulership. The favourable treatment of Hurree in the final draft of the novel, which contrasts so markedly with his treatment in the 1892 version, may even be taken to represent Kipling's emancipation from his previous Anglo-Indian audience who would not have appreciated the Bengali Babu as hero. But Hurree does not provide a model for change in Indian society as a whole. He is suggested as a rare case, a man with unusual talents. His situation is shown to be exceptionally difficult, and he faces many dilemmas as he is torn between the natural cowardice of his cultural background and the bravery demanded of a sahib, between the natural superstition of his religion and the rationality required of a ruler. The path of Hurree's development is winding and strewn with many boulders. Only a man of his peculiar courage and integrity could ever complete it. For Indian society in general, the process of evolution must be much longer and slower; indeed, so long and slow as to be virtually imperceptible.

To what sources should we look in order to understand Kipling's political ideas? Earlier, we suggested that Kipling did not identify with the Anglo-Indian community at large. But that community was by no means monolithic and there was one stratum within it to which Kipling was strongly attracted. This was the (covenanted) Indian Civil Service, a small elite corps of a few hundred men who held exclusively the highest posts in government, from district Collectors to departmental Secretaries and, at least in their own estimation, were the real rulers of India's millions. In the phrase of the day, they provided 'the steel frame' of empire. The ideals of character and education extolled in Kim in many ways matched those sought in the perfect I.C.S. officer. He was, of course, not likely to have been a Lahore street boy but rather the product of the British public school and, perhaps, Oxbridge. However, although academic ability was expected, in order to pass the examinations on which recruitment was based, it was not the only criterion of selection. Rather, emphasis was placed on personality, fitness, adventurousness and athleticism. One subsequently famous Indian applicant, for example, was turned down because of his poor horsemanship even though his performance in the written exams had been outstanding. The in-service education of the I.C.S. officer of this era stressed the importance of language skills, of getting out among the people by spending months of every year under canvas, of experiencing and understanding Indian life. In the scientific climate of the late Nineteenth Century, this last produced a growing interest in ethnography. It is striking that Creighton, Kim's mentor and the one true British sahib in the novel, should have been involved in the ethnographic survey of India. At the time that Kipling was writing, this survey was in the hands of some of the most senior and experienced I.C.S. officers in India, and was producing voluminous and authoritative studies of 'the castes and tribes' of most Indian regions.

Kipling's political ideas show strong affinities with those contained in what might be termed 'the official mind' of the I.C.S. during this period. First, government in India was assumed naturally to be despotic and the I.C.S. put up strong resistance to the growth of representative institutions, which were deemed to be incompatible with the ends of 'good government'. The functions of rule were conceived in terms of a guardianship or trust. Conventionally, the ideal district Collector should be 'ma-bap' (mother-father) to his people who were children to be treated sympathetically, even lovingly, but disciplined firmly. Second, this trust had to be discharged with both disinterest and impartiality. I.C.S. officers were statutorily debarred from having private business interests, or even extensive private properties, in India. Third, and a corollary to this, they were expected to maintain a social distance from the rest of the Anglo-Indian community, which consisted of businessmen, soldiers and minor officials and was meant to be treated as just another of the many peoples of India. The I.C.S. was inclined to keep to its own social circles, to have its own esprit de corps, in some places to possess even its own exclusive 'clubs'. Its members attempted to form their own caste within the ruling caste. This separation, together with the notional commitment to the guardianship of Indian society, could sometimes generate conflict with the rest of the Anglo-Indian community who might be deemed to be exploiting their racially dominant position for unworthy personal ends. There was, for example, much I.C.S. support for Lord Curzon's attempts to bring the British soldiery to heel for their licentiousness and brutality towards the Indian population, of which Kim had direct experience. There was even some support for the notorious Ilbert Bill which, by placing Anglo-Indians under the authority of Indian magistrates, would also have brought them more firmly under the rule of law. Indeed, in many ways the existence of an anomalously powerful Anglo-Indian community was a source of embarrassment to the I.C.S., which insisted on the maintenance of vagrancy laws to permit the deportation of fellow-whites whose misconduct brought 'the mystique' of the imperial race into disrepute. The I.C.S. ideal was one of perfect bureaucratic rule, strong, rational, informed and totally impartial.

But fourth, and as might be expected of a corps whose ideal was both bureaucratic and at odds with the presence of a large resident British community in India, I.C.S. officialdom tended to deprecate social change, especially that emanating from the forces of Westernisation, modernisation and capitalism. The Mutiny perhaps had finally killed government aspirations to reform Indian society by converting it to Christianity, the rationality of the market economy and the values of competitive individualism. By the late Nineteenth Century, attempts at such reform were judged to produce only dangerous disruptions, in the violent reaction of expropriated peasantries and displaced aristocracies and in the challenge posed to 'good government' by an emergent and critically-aware liberal intelligentsia. Like Kipling, I.C.S. officialdom viewed with horror the rise of modern civilization. And fifth, and a corollary to this, both looked to a romanticised conception of traditional rural society as the source of true virtue, a society which it was the duty of imperialism to protect. Many of the descriptions inKim of Punjab rural society, with its 'sturdy' Jat farmers and fighting men, resemble those to be found in the writings of what was known as 'the Punjab school' of I.C.S. administrators. This school saw the Jat peasantry as the bulwark both of the traditional social order and of what the proper imperial order should be, giving stability and cohesion to the countryside and, not coincidentally, a steady supply of loyal recruits to the British Indian army. They conceived their task as the protection of it from assaults on various sides: from the depradations of poverty and overpopulation, which they countered by promoting canal irrigation; from creeping competitive individualism, which they sought to deter by settling land rights with collective village brotherhoods and communities; from the pressures of the market economy, which they eased by preventing non-peasant groups, especially urban merchants and moneylenders, from acquiring land. Kipling's treatment of rural Punjabi society faithfully echoes the sentiments of this school. His perception of social priorities in other parts of India also can be related to strands of thought in the I.C.S. 'mind'. To the East of Punjab, in the more overtly hierarchical society of Oudh, for example, it was the landed aristocracy who caught the imagination of I.C.S. officialdom, and became the bulwark here of the imperial social order. The so-called 'Oudh policy' venerated the traditional aristocratic functions of patronage and paternalism, as plainly did Kipling in his treatment of social relations on the Kulu woman's estate. Kipling shared his understanding of colonial Indian society with the Raj's central ruling lite.

But how did this understanding come to be formed? In part, no doubt, the specific experience of. India was important. The British had inherited a mantle of despotic authority from the Mughal Empire and, by re-stitching it to fir an essentially bureaucratic and irresponsible system of colonial government, more or less guaranteed that their ruling ethos would be conservative and elitist. But the intellectual context of late Nineteenth Century Europe was important too. Kipling's 'social politics', as Noel Annan calls them, must be placed within a tradition of questioning and ultimately abandoning mid-nineteenth-century beliefs in individualism and liberalism. Annan points to affinities between Kipling's view of society and that of Durkheim Society is assumed naturally to be structured and hierarchical. It imposes rules and roles on the individual, which are to a considerable degree immutable. Society is conceived as being prior to the individual, who is merely inserted into it, and largely independent of any conditioning which he may attempt to give it. The process of change is understood to be long, slow and somewhat metaphysical in its origins. Significantly, change is not seen to be due to individual initiative, to acts of volition by individuals in history and society.

But such a set of sociological assumptions necessarily poses problems for the definition of politics and government If society is inherently structured and ordered, what purpose does government have, what can the functions of political action be? Essentially, the answer must be that government and politics are protective and conservative rather than active and interventionist, Their legitimate function is to preserve society while it slowly evolves, by means imperceptible, towards change government has no right to lead or initiate change. Equally, authority cannot legitimately be exercised by one part of society in its own interest over others. As society is a whole, so authority can only be exercised for the whole. But to exercise power on behalf of all requires knowledge of all, omniscience, which can only be the property of an elite. And to exercise it disinterestedly, requires discipline and an ethic of public service. Kipling's ideas on politics and government flow directly from his wider conception of society and history and lead, inevitably, towards a code of conservatism, elitism and separation between the ruler and the ruled, It was, of course a code which found wide representation in the education provided at the time (and subsequently) in the British public schools, an education or training for leadership, and was coming to have deep effects on Oxbridge, as the ancient universities turned their attention to the problems of government and set themselves to produce Jowett's ideal 'Balliol' man.

It is clear, then, that Kipling's imperialism represented no simple racism. Nor was it an apologia for British exploitation of India (although it can be argued that his, and the I.C.S. ideal functioned covertly to permit just that). Nor can his views be written off as a lower middle class snarl against privilege above and pretensions beneath. Rather, his ideas, like those in the I.C.S, 'mind', ought to be seen as lying in the mainstream of late nineteenth-century post liberal thought about the nature of society and politics. Their imperatives were to conserve and constrain rather than liberate and change. And Kipling was prepared to apply them as much to the domestic British as to the imperial Indian context. His battles with the Liberal Party make it clear that he was as opposed to democracy and liberalism, and as disposed to elitism and hierarchy, in English society as in the tropics. His ideas were conceived as having a universal currency, and they shared much in common with those of political thinker of his time on both sides of the ostensible Conservative and Liberal-Socialist divide. He has affinities, for example, with both Fabians and Milnerites, just as they had affinities with each other. His views represent a comment on contemporary political debate.

To examine the sources of Kipling's imperialism, however, is not to deny his artistic intention. His view of the world was bleak and his heroes, in choosing dedication to the work of empire, are seen as denying themselves many of the joys which are the consolations, if not the ends, of living. This inner loneliness is, for Sandison, the focus of Kipling's artistic vision, for which he deserves to be placed with 'the moderns'. That the work itself should be imperia) government is, to Sandison, an artificial contrivance, imposed upon the truth about the human condition which Kipling seeks, and ultimately preventing him from finding it.

But the artistic vision and the imperial ideal may not be so easily separated. There is no artistic truth in Kipling which can be divorced from his theory of 'social politics'. The sense of loneliness and unfulfilment in Kipling's heroes stems, on the one side, from his vision of man's work in the task of imposing order on his fellow human-beings, who are seen as tough, resistant clay; and, on the other, from the contradiction in his concept of 'action', which is legitimate only to preserve society but not to change it. The inner agonies which Kipling's heroes suffer derive directly from the impossible, and perhaps inhuman, conception of society and history which he possesses.

James Joyce, coming as it were from the other end of the imperial experience, could imagine the human condition differently without yielding, in any way, to an easy liberal optimism. For Joyce, the struggle was against those who wished to dedicate themselves to imposing their ideal of order, either from above or below. Joyce's politics cannot be discussed here, but mention of them serves as a valuable reminder that 'modernism' need not be accompanied either by a debilitating sense of loneliness and futility or by a childish cult of action and the glorification of the superman - be he the most benign of despots.

By Fred Reid and David Washbrook

Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling
BBC's In Our Time:
Rudyard Kipling
Further Reading
Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling 1865-1900
By Charles Allen

Asian Bureaucratic Systems Emergent from the British Imperial Tradition
By R Braibanti

Kipling in India
By Louis L. Cornell

Kipling's India
By Arley Munson

Rudyard Kipling: the Man, His Work and His World
By John Gross

Man And Mason-Rudyard Kipling
By Richard Jaffa

Rudyard Kipling
By Andrew Lycett

Rudyard Kipling: A Life
By Harry Ricketts

Kipling's Mind and Art: Selected Critical Essays
By Andrew Rutherford

Wheel of Empire
By Alan Sandison

Kipling's India
By Khushwant Singh

Punjab Tradition: Influence and Authority in Nineteenth Century India
By P.H.M. Van Den Dungen

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