Saturday, 1 September 2012

Rudyard Kipling, Racist?

When I was young, living in Whitehorse, our family had a friend named John. "Uncle" John had a reputation as someone who worked to advance the rights and living conditions of natives. He possessed a collection of folk music recordings that sang of coal miners', fishers', and women's lives. He had wonderful parties where he would pick up his banjo and we would sing these songs. I've looked for similar get-togethers all my life.

It was a blow to me, years later, when John was charged with the sexual abuse of minors. I could not connect that fact with other facts, equally true. Nevertheless, I have to accept it.

This anecdote is to explain a similar incomprehension that I feel when someone calls Rudyard Kipling an imperialist and a racist. Since childhood, his stories put me into the minds of common soldiers and civil servants, animals and outcasts, Indians, English, and Inuit. Put those stories on the one hand; on the other, put the accusations against his character that appear again and again.

To some extent, I blame George Orwell, who wrote a long essay on Kipling. Here is part of the first paragraph:
It is no use pretending that Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a "nigger" with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling's work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct — on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.
Orwell defends Kipling from the charge of being a fascist, but then ties himself in knots about what else to say. Although Kipling provides "the only literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India" it is a "tawdry and shallow" picture. Kipling "patronizes" the common soldier and makes him "comic" by imitating his accent, but, on the other hand "it remains true that he has far more interest in the common soldier, far more anxiety that he shall get a fair deal, than most of the 'liberals' of his day or our own." He admits, "Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language," but "they are all of them phrases which one utters semi-derisively." Kipling's thoughts "are both vulgar and permanent." Apparently, Kipling's verse is "horribly vulgar" but "truly lyrical" and
...there is much of it that is capable of giving pleasure to people who know what poetry means. At his worst, and also his most vital, in poems like "Gunga Din" or "Danny Deever," Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life. But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced.
When it is bad, it is vital; when it is a pleasure, it is shameful; when it is seductive, it is just, somehow, wrong. Orwell is split right down the middle on what to think, feel, or say about Kipling. He spends the essay arguing with himself. However, the impression he leaves in the reader's mind is that a reader shouldn't like Kipling, even where and when he does. For what reason?

A poem, "The Ballad of East and West," is often quoted to show Kipling's prejudice against Asians. The poem says plainly, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." That implies that the two sides can never comprehend each other, so why should they try? "Recessional" has the line "Lesser breeds without the Law." Another poem, "The White Man's Burden" is quoted even more often to taint or damn Kipling as a racist and imperialist. It certainly has phrases such as "new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half devil and half child" that would gladden a racist's heart.

For every quotation the critics can supply, though, I can supply another to answer them. For example, take the "Indian Proverb" that begins Kipling's story "The Mark of the Beast": Your Gods and my Gods--do you or I know which are the stronger? Answer that question honestly, and you are half-way to accepting cultural relativism in a most non-imperial manner. In his story "Without Benefit of Clergy," a young Englishman secretly takes an even younger Indian girl as his common-law wife, falls deeply in love with her, has a child with her, and is devastated when they die. No racist could write this love story. In The Jungle Book, the hero who is raised to wisdom, virtue, and power by the jungle's animals began as no Englishman and no lord but an ordinary Indian villager. The lessons Mowgli learns are meant to be lessons to his English readers.

Even the works used to criticize Kipling most harshly are, I think, misinterpreted. Take "The Ballad of East and West. Kipling admits that Eastern and Western cultures are different, nor will they reach an understanding of each other "Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat." However, ultimately, their differences do not matter:
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth!
There is racism in "Recessional" if the "lesser breeds without the Law" are meant to be Africans and Asians, but they were more likely meant to be Germans and others who shamed Europe by misruling their empires. At least in potential, the "lesser breeds" include the British if they do not live up to the standard of morality and service that is praised by this poem.

Even "The White Man's Burden" may not be what it seems. Here it is:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child

Take up the White Man’s burden
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain

Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly) to the light:
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden-
Have done with childish days-
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers! 
In this poem, Kipling clearly defends the idea of imposing a government on a people who are too weak and disunited to resist. Once that happens, the imperial nation has assumed responsibility for the colonized people. It cannot do less than its best for them; it cannot exploit them; it cannot abandon them. "The judgement of your peers" on your "manhood" will last through many "thankless years," until some conclusion to the imperial duty will come along. At this point, clearly, the court of your peers will include new members. Their identity lies in these lines:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly) to the light...
The imperialists will face "blame" and "hate" from those they rule until "the light" is achieved; then the ruled will face their former rulers as equals, and sit in judgement of their rule. (Thanks to Ibn Warraq for this interpretation). Kipling, I think, could imagine the time that India would be as rich and powerful as Britain, if not more so, and would look back critically on the days of empire. In other words, Kipling imagined the present day.

Now here's a pretty problem in definition. Kipling believes that empires might do good, but might not. If they do, he is for them. If they do not, he is against them. Is he an imperialist? If he is, then he is not an imperialist in the sense that the word is usually given.

Whether they did good or evil in the world, Kipling knew that the European empires would not last. He reminded his readers in the poem "Recessional" that all such powers rise then fall, and said the same in "The Palace," one of my favorite poems. His awareness that the glory of the world passes away, and his knowledge of the price that soldiers pay for that glory, save him from any accusation of being a jingoist, too.

However, I don't want to leave the impression that Kipling is some moralizing monster; he was a writer of irony and wit.  His poem "Evarra and his Gods" is an example. Other examples are in his children's stories such as The Just So Stories (for the very young) and Puck of Pook's Hill (for older children and teens).

For some reason, Kipling seems to be especially popular among science-fiction writers. A small part of the reason may be that he wrote stories in the genre. These are collected in Kipling's Science Fiction, edited by John Brunner. However, his influence was much stronger than just a handful of science fiction stories could explain. For example, Robert A. Heinlein, "the dean of modern science fiction," was strongly influenced by Kipling. Poul Anderson was an admirer. Leslie Fish, the most popular writer of science-fiction themed folk-songs ("filksongs") produced two CD's of Kipling poems set to music, Our Fathers of Old and Cold Steel. (You can download mp3's of some of her songs from her website). Two books of modern science fiction stories and essays pay tribute to Kipling: A Separate Star: A Tribute to Rudyard Kipling, edited by David Drake and Sandra Miesel (Baen Books, 1989, ISBN 0-671-69832-X) and Heads to the Storm: A Tribute to Rudyard Kipling, edited by David Drake and Sandra Miesel (Baen Books, 1989; ISBN 0-671-69847-8).

In conclusion, to make up your own mind on Kipling, read his works.

Here are some other points that I couldn't fit in smoothly. Edward Said apparently continues the tradition of misconstruing Kipling. A good reply to him is here: "Rudyard Kipling, India, and Edward Said" by Ibn Warraq (March 2010).

I really like Leslie Fish's music for "Recessional." The MP3 is available on her website.

Kipling created the ritual that inducts Canadian engineers. Because of him, Canadian engineers wear an iron ring to remind them of their responsibility.

He also had a hand in the naming of the city of Medicine Hat: "This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat. And don’t you ever think of changing the name of your town. It’s all your own and the only hat of its kind on earth."

Update: The activities urged in "The White Man's Burden," whether one agrees with their legitimacy or not, are identified as "State Building" these days. As the Wikipedia article defines it: 
state-building is seen by some theorists as an activity undertaken by external actors (foreign countries) attempting to build, or re-build, the institutions of a weaker, post-conflict or failing state. This `exogenous' school views state-building as the activity of one country in relation to another, usually following some form of intervention (such as a UN peacekeeping operation). A view that has featured in media debates on Iraq and Afghanistan and has influenced documents such as the UN report:“A more secure world: Our shared responsibility” Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change A/59/565, or the Rand Corporations's Beginners Guide to Nation Building (see a discussion of nation building vs state-building).
If imperialism is conceived as placing a foreign country and people in a condition of perpetual inferiority, state building is conceived as a temporary inferiority imposed on a country and people for humanitarian reasons. When I see several African nations invading and administering parts of Somalia, a failed nation, for the benefit of Somalia and her people, I see what Kipling suggests in his poem. He was terribly naif, however, to expect that the United States' occupation of the Philipines was motivated by humanitarianism or was intended to result in an independent state.

Update (12 March 2013): It just occurred to me that a good comparison of the conclusion to Kipling's poem "The Ballad of East and West"
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth!
is Robert Burns' "A Man's a Man for A' That." Burns asserts that the honest poor are as good or better than the rich just as Kipling asserts that a brave and honorable Indian is as good or better than his English counterpart.

Update 6 July 2013. "The Ballad of East and West" also reminds me of something written by Kipling's friend, Rider Haggard. In Chapter 3 of "King Solomon's Mines," a big, dignified Zulu man desires to travel, without pay, with the three white men who are travelling to the north.
Sir Henry told me to ask him to stand up. Umbopa did so, at the same time slipping off the long military great coat which he wore, and revealing himself naked except for the moocha round his centre and a necklace of lions' claws. Certainly he was a magnificent-looking man; I never saw a finer native. Standing about six foot three high he was broad in proportion, and very shapely. In that light, too, his skin looked scarcely more than dark, except here and there where deep black scars marked old assegai wounds. Sir Henry walked up to him and looked into his proud, handsome face.
"They make a good pair, don't they?" said Good; "one as big as the other."
"I like your looks, Mr. Umbopa, and I will take you as my servant," said Sir Henry in English.
Umbopa evidently understood him, for he answered in Zulu, "It is well"; and then added, with a glance at the white man's great stature and breadth, "We are men, thou and I."
This scene is, exactly, "two strong men come face to face" and certainly "they come from the ends of the earth."
Update (5 July 2013). Two very good articles on Kipling are by Mathew Lyons. The first is "The Jungle Book, Kipling and Me" and the second, "Kipling's Shadow: Orwell, Rushdie and the Critics." In the first article, he takes a stab at explaining Kipling's love of settled order, which made him appreciate the virtues of Empire even while seeing its flaws.
Yet while there was a reactionary Kipling who believed in such, Kipling the writer is not the same man. Almost as soon as the Laws have been introduced into The Jungle Book, with the assertion that Mowgli’s acceptance by the pack must be avowed by two of its members – aside from his adoptive mother and father – they are subverted. Mowgli’s sponsors are allowed to be Baloo – an honourary member, being a bear – and Bagheera, the black panther, who is no member at all and who buys Mowgli’s life with the offer of a fresh kill. The law may be the law, and as such it is absolute; but in practice it is a flexible and pragmatic thing after all.

There is throughout Kipling’s work this kind of duality: an acceptance of the need for duty and obedience and and profound, human understanding of the insufficiencies of such an idea. For all that Kipling revered order and accuracy – there has perhaps never been a writer so obsessed to understand the detailed workings of every thing he writes about, and the delightedly precise nomenclature for each part and process – he was also drawn to its inverse.
It also makes a connection that I never suspected.

Kipling wrote under the direction of what he called his "Daemon." When it appeared, it would create the story while his conscious mind would only "Drift, wait, and obey." In this, he may have seen himself as similar to the "teller of tales" in The Jungle Book: Tabaqui, the jackal.
The story has hardly begun before we learn of Tabaqui, the jackal, who “is apt to go mad, and then he forgets that he was ever afraid of anyone… Even the tiger runs and hides when little Tabaqui goes mad, for madness is the most disgraceful thing that can overtake a wild creature”. But Tabaqui is a tale-teller, too, and it is he that introduces the tiger Shere Khan to the book and Shere Khan’s hunt among the men that leads him, and us, to Mowgli.
The second article is less about Kipling than the reaction to Kipling. Like myself, Lyons doesn't think much of Orwell's essay. He says "But Orwell’s arguments are weak on their own terms, even fatuous, too" and "When Orwell actually considers Kipling’s work directly, he sees immediately that the image of the man as an uncivilised, unthinking, unfeeling reactionary buffoon – which Orwell affects to argue with but nevertheless works to reinforce – falls apart as soon as it comes into contact with the human empathies that are everywhere in the work. But, for some reason, Orwell cannot or will not fully recant from the his preconceptions about Kipling’s art."

Lyons finds the same problem, the inability to lay aside preconceptions and deal with Kipling's work as it is, in other critics. Take "Salmon Rushdie's 1990 essay on Kipling, collected in Imaginary Homelands." I won't recapitulate all of Lyons' discussion of how Rushdie misinterprets the story "On the City Wall," except for one thing. Apparently Rushdie overlooks the importance of the story's main character to focus on another one. The main character is a prostitute who is, in her way, wise and self-directing.
Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as every one knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.
I suppose people could read that last sentence without the clear, amused irony that, to me, is obvious. Lyons could be right, though, that to miss the irony would probably require a preconception of Kipling as a racist prig. Such a person could surely not truly see an Indian prostitute as a person of standing, an inheritor of an ancient tradition. He could not be aware of Kipling, once again, poking a finger into Western morality to make it question its own ethnocentric convictions. And if Lyons is right, that Lalun symbolizes India itself, what is Kipling the blind imperialist saying about the relation between India and the West?
It is Lalun, the embodiment of the Eastern, who ultimately controls her destiny under British rule – and implicitly the destiny of the British in India. British command is apparently suffered; but it is, or will prove to be in time, all an illusion.


  1. Interesting read. Unfortunately I'm not in a position to comment because I've not read much of Kipling. At best I've found his writing okay, with small flashes of good. But it has never resonated with me very strongly, even when I wanted it too, such as when I read Mowgli.

  2. Some of his best stories and poems are in his books Puck of Pook's Hill and its sequel Rewards and Fairies. The stories cover thousands of years of English history and prehistory. If I had to recommend just one of those stories, it would be "A Doctor of Medicine" in which the doctor faces up against the Black Death armed only with medieval medical theory and his own powers of observation. It feels almost like science fiction because it plants us into an alien way of thinking.

  3. Unfortunately your thesis is on really flimsy grounds here.

    "Kipling, I think, could imagine the time that India would be as rich and powerful as Britain, if not more so, and would look back critically on the days of empire. "

    This (quoted above) presupposes India was inferior to Britain in terms of wealth or culture. It wasn't. Since the times of Alexander, India has been a target and destination for those who lusted after her riches and India's fame was carried wide and far by Greek, Chinese and Arabic travelers (and subsequently Europeans).

    India's impoverished conditions are a direct result of British imperialism. Most people don't get that. An interesting yet somewhat depressing fact is that India had never encountered famines or starvation of any significant proportions before the British ruled. And has not done so, since the British left.

    The two major famines that wiped out millions of innocent Indians was a creation of the British Raj,when they systematically wiped out traditional agriculture by destroying irrigational network of canals to implement their railroads and traditional food crops for cash crops to be milled in their factories in England.

    1. Thank you for your response. You raise an interesting point, but I should mention that my thesis is how Kipling might have seen the Raj and the Empire in general, rather than how I do or historical economists (economic historians?) do.

      If you want to talk about whether Britain was richer than India in Victorian times, we can. (I won't touch the issue of culture). According to The Victorian Web

      "Britain was perhaps never the "workshop of the world," but her industrial dominance was such in the middle of the nineteenth century that the phrase is legitimate. She produced perhaps two thirds of the world's coal, perhaps half its iron, five sevenths of its small supply of steel, about half of such cotton cloth as was produced on a commercial scale, and forty per cent (in value) of its hardware. On the other hand even in 1840 Britain possessed only about one third of the world's steam power and produced probably something less than one third of the world's total manufactures. The chief rival state, even then, was the USA — or rather the northern states of the USA — with France, the German Confederation and Belgium."

      You say that "India's impoverished conditions are a direct result of British imperialism." Whether or not that is true doesn't have much to do with Kipling. As I said, "Kipling believes that empires might do good, but might not. If they do, he is for them. If they do not, he is against them."

      Have a look at "Recessional" again. It predicts the fading of the British Empire if it did not live up to high moral standards. He would not have been surprised that he was right but would, perhaps, be surprised by how quickly he became right.

  4. You're reaching mate. "The White Man's Burden" is what it seems. Kipling was a eurocentric racist who knew what cultural relativsm was, but didn't agree with it.
    Your arguments could be used to pick apart Mein Kampf and try to say Hitler was just laying down some tough love.

    1. Ah, but how are you using "racist" here? Strictly speaking, racism is prejudice in favour of one's own race and against other races. The evidence of Kipling's other works ("Without Benefit of Clergy," "The Jungle Book," "The Ballad of East and West," "Kim," etc. etc. etc.) show that he just did not have racism in this sense, no?

      I think the problem people have letting go of the "racist" tag for Kipling is that they think that racism is the opposite of cultural relativism, instead of the opposite of humanism. Kipling was a humanist, clearly. Mowgli's value as a human being was not diminished by being an Indian villager by birth. However, Kipling thought that an empire had a shot at making the world better for everyone, just as he'd been taught that the pax romana and Roman law had provided good value for Europe as a whole. So, he thought, although empire after empire had fallen short and disappeared, the concept of empire, of "dominion over palm and pine," had not been discredited. Feel free to disagree with the dude, but it's unfair to tar him with the racism brush when the imperialism brush is much more appropriate to use.

      BTW, I couldn't make ANY of these arguments about Hitler. :-P


    2. u are not wrong in my opinion- i feel kipling was not racist by the standards of his time. i feel he was generous for his climate. he loved ppl of other races- its quite obvious in his novel 'kim'- one of my fav novels. u dont get that involved w ppl u think are subhuman or inferior. he disapproved of some of the moral choices made by certain characters in the book- but to my mind it wasnt bc they were from india- he just saw those choices as wrong morally. not nationalistic or racist- but on moral grounds. there was a lot of lyin cheatin stealin in the novel- no? but pls correct me if im wrong about it bc im no scholar- just a reader.

    3. Thanks for the support, Todd. I'm no scholar myself. However, I can read well enough ;-)

  5. Thank you so much for this well articulated explaination of Kipling - who I never thought needed defending, and yet I lacked the understanding of where people were coming from or how to articulate my opinions satisfactorily on this to people who where determined to find ways to paint him a certain way. In so many ways ,in so many of his works, a major message that is sent so warmly to my heart is his love of all people, and the deep transcending love that any two humans can have for each other. So thank you. I see this attack Kipling not unsimilar from attacks on other people, unfairly and driven by something not good, when the other people do not say things in the proper way, with in the proper sequence, and without acknowledging some wrong that the community they are associated with may have done- when they are just trying to have an honest dialog. - Mitch S.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Mitch. It feels good to have other people respond to the humanism in Kipling's writing rather than just criticize it for superficial reasons.