Rudyard Kipling: Let’s Rumble

As obvious from my internet name, I’m a fan. A gift from my father, in fact. Since I was *yea* high, he always said of me, “She is a cat who walks by herself, and all places are alike to her.” (I had it tattooed around my ankle when I was 23, much to my mother’s disapproval and much to father’s delight.) Less poetically, “She has to run into a brick wall twice before she knows it’s there.”

But he also gave me a copy of The Jungle Books that put together all the Mowgli stories in one volume. (The two Jungle Books are groups of short stories that are mostly Mowgli stories, with some other unrelated short stories thrown in, as we shall see. Of these Riki-Tiki-Tavi is the most famous.) I would later read Dad’s copies of John Beechcroft’s Kipling collection until they were falling apart. The year before he died, Dad found (which must have taken a bit of work) intact copies, with dust covers, of Beechcroft’s collection (1956 edition) and gave them to me for my birthday.

So my life has been entwined with Kipling’s work. Speaking as a middle-aged woman who has read a fair amount, I still contend that Rudyard Kipling was one of the greatest storytellers to walk this earth. But he is not taught in schools because of the change in popular opinion that he was a racist imperialist and thus a bad person whose writing we should not read.

(Though we should make heavily sanitized saccharine films of it.)

This was the attitude reflected today in a piece on Gizmodo:

A Reminder: Rudyard Kipling was a Racist Fuck and the Jungle Book is Imperialist Garbage.

As pointed out in the comments, this is click-bait: An inflammatory title to make people to go the site.


But it’s not long so go ahead and read it.

The reason that’s not long as that after she claims that The Jungle Book is “Imperialist Garbage” she doesn’t spend much time talking about The Jungle Books. She immediately leaps to White Man’s Burden, cherry picking a quote to prove her point. Then, ignoring that the hero of the Jungle Book is an Indian boy/young man, she jumps to Kim, who was a white kid raised on the streets of Lahore, claiming he’s “The best spy and Buddhist ever.”And then…

“There’s a fun little story in The Second Jungle Book about a superstitious Indian village that worships a horrible old crocodile, only for a British man to blow it to pieces. Because they are more rational, you see.”

This was so out of whack, it actually took me a few minutes of brain wracking (and thank the Gods she said it was in The Jungle Books, or I would have spent an hour trying to identify it) to figure out she was talking about “The Undertakers.”

And of course the “apes” in The Jungle Book (actually, they were monkeys, there are no apes in India) are supposedly African people, but that’s Disney’s fault, but she mentioned it in an article about Kipling to make sure to drive the point home that it’s racist garbage.

“And, at the end of the day, we’re still left with a story where a white person exoticizes a country and its people. How does this idea pass muster in 2016?” Right, like that never happened in literature then and now. Don’t we still romanticize AmerIndians? Walk into any New Age shop and yes, we sure as hell do. How many romance novels romanticize, literally, AmerIndians. But that doesn’t stop us from letting our government treat them like crap.

So her whole argument that the “Jungle Book is imperialist garbage” is not based on Kipling’s Jungle Books. The simple reason being that would be very hard to prove because it is not. The Jungle Books are rip roaring adventure stories filled with moments of poignancy. (If you do not cry when Akela dies in “The Red Dog” or when Bagheera bids his final farewell you are a soulless automaton.)

But more importantly, there is a story in the Jungle Books called “The King’s Ankus.” Kaa (who is actually one of the good guys, he helped save Mowgli from the monkeys), takes Mowgli to investigate the treasure room of the collapsed palace the Monkeys were living in. They find a very old cobra, half senile, guarding the ancient treasure. Mowgli, not knowing what treasure is, not being useful to him in the forest, is not interested in any of it until is spies an gold and jewel decorated ankus (elephant goad). Long story short, he and Kaa take it back to the jungle while the Cobra hisses, “It is Death!” (Capital “D.”)

Having amused himself with it for a while, Mowgli chucks it because it is of no use. The next day he and Bagheera find that a man walking through the Jungle has picked it up. They end up following a trail of bodies as the ankus passes from one murderous thief to another until they find it surrounded by dead men, one of which accidentally poisoned himself while poisoning the others. Mowgli returns the ankus to the treasure room, telling the Cobra that the jewel encrusted ankus is indeed Death.

That’s a pretty straightforward parable against materialism. Not the sentiment of a staunch imperialist.

That’s as close to any social commentary Kipling gets in The Jungle Books. The rest are adventures and coming of age stories.

So let us turn to The White Man’s Burden. All of it.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go, bind 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–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No iron rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go, make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.

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!) toward the light:–
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness.
By all ye will or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your God and you.

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.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Imperialism. In the cloak of encouraging men to the hard work of “civilizing” indigenous peoples, he points out that it’s really for profit, that they are enslaving the native populations and taking from them their culture, that they deny indigenous peoples their “freedom” even if the work is overwhelming, that the indigenous people will be judging not only the colonists, but their religion and by extension their culture, by all they say and do. And all this for being considered “respectable.”

Then there is The Ballad of East and West with the refrain:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat;

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!

The Man Who Would Be King also shows ambivalence towards Imperialism. A worry that English “superiority” would one day be unmasked.

And it is in “The Undertakers.”

The only resemblance Kipling’s short story bears to what the Gizmodo article describes is that there is a crocodile and he gets shot. I talked with other people online who couldn’t figure out what story she was talking about.

You can read “The Undertakers” here.

But in short, a Hyena, an Adjunct Crane (both scavengers of the dead) and a Crocodile have gathered on a bank under a bridge to chat. The Crocodile spends most of the story talking about how he has sown fear up and down the river, mistaking the festival offerings in the river as homage to him. Recently, the crocodile has taken to eating Indian construction workers building the bridge. He says that he has become so great, he has gone beyond the river and has taken to hunting on land. But he also admits to scavenging, eating bodies that washed downstream after a battle, making him an “undertaker” as well. (And in Indian culture, undertakers, people who handle the dead, are part of the “untouchable” caste. Yet this crocodile thinks himself a king, much to the annoyance of the hyena and the crane.) He also tells the story of almost snatching an English child from a boat. But the boy escaped. Eventually, the egotistical croc goes to sleep

And the crocodile is killed by the very same child, now grown into a man. Then the villagers cut the crocodile’s head off.

Now for those looking for analogies, is this really the story of western reason triumphing over eastern superstition? No, it’s the story of the powerful and egotistical being taken down by those they oppress. That the seeds of destruction one sows will come back on them.

With an undercurrent of “those who think themselves above others are not, and will find that out the hard way.”

So Kipling was ambivalent about Imperialism. While he saw the “need” to civilize the “uncivilized,” he was aware of the real motives of the politically driven colonialism/imperialism, which was profit. He was obviously uncomfortable on some level with declaring himself and the English as “superior” (especially while members of the British Raj were parading around in splendor as if they were kings).

British Raj2

And he did not agree with subjecting people by force. He knew that would come back and bite them in the ass.

Now…is The White Man’s Burden racist? Yes. The way Kipling refers to indigenous people as “savage” and “half devil, half child,” etc.. Obviously.

Was Kipling racist?


The only biography I have read about Kipling was Harry Rickett’s Rudyard Kipling: A Life. It as dry as it sounds. But it’s also a very balanced view of the man. It’s not trying to make him a saint, and it’s not trying to make him into a member of the KKK either. It’s very clear he was racist, but not in the way made out by the woman writing the Gizmodo article and many others.

Kipling’s type of racism comes across in stories like Kim, in which “the best Buddhist” was the Old Tibetan Lama/Buddhist Monk who served as Kim‘s father figure. It’s in Gunda Din in which the speaker admires the bravery of a Indian water bearer, calling him “a braver man than I.” It comes across in The Jungle Books, where the hero is a wild Indian boy raised in the jungle by wild animals. His type of racism was the “Noble Savage” kind. The kind that thought that those the English subjugated were more pure of heart (like children) because of their connection with nature and assumed lack of sophistication. Kipling thought civilization a double edged sword, Pandora’s box, that would raise them up, and yet corrupt them as people in the western “civilized world” were corrupt. That “simple natives” had something the “civilized Europeans” had lost.

Never mind that India had a complex civilization with roots going as far back as the 3000 B.C.E..

(“Before Common Era” which is the new P.C. way to say “Before Christ.” Now I’m not a Christian, but “BC” set a hard date to calculate by. “BCE” is a nebulous term. What is the “Common Era?” How do we define that except by going back to the birth of Christ? *pedantic grumbling*)

Meanwhile, many of Kipling’s peers barely viewed the Indians as human and pretty much treated them as lesser beings, or even slaves.

British Raj

And not just in India, even after Great Britain outlawed slavery, many of Indians were shipped overseas as “indentured servants” to work the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, which is why there is such a strong Indian influence on various Caribbean cultures now.

Racism is racism. It’s a horrible thing that makes people do stupid to horrible things. In Kipling’s case, to take an objective view, his racism was the stupid kind, not the horrible one. And as for him being an imperialist, it certainly was not wholehearted. In fact, I wonder if any of the need he felt to “civilize” anyone was more the British culture of the time than his own innate feeling.

Yet his association with the racism and Imperialism of the British Raj has made him persona non grata in literary circles, his works unread and unappreciated by many. Especially in school where the literature curriculum turns so many kids off reading. His books are intelligent, well written (not written down to anyone) and fun to read. Some of them are straight up adventure and some of them are thematic commentary, but they are all amazing stories. We deprive ourselves not only of a great writer, but of a slightly more objective view of an important time in the world’s history that leads to much of what is happening in that region of the world today. All because of unjust hatred toward him rooted in an embarrassment of a period of European history. And I wonder if this feeling is especially strong in the U.S. because we are an imperialist nation now, and we’re still racist. So many Americans feel we have to reject Kipling in order to disassociate ourselves from what we ourselves are doing. “Oh we’re not as bad as he was!”

Yes we are. Some of us are even worse than he was. (Watch any Trump rally.) A class could even pull from Kipling to compare to America’s own modern Imperialist history.

And I can you right now there is no English-writing author (maybe no author period) walking this earth that is as good as he was.

So no, the author was not a perfect human being, but his works are gifts to the English literature, to our culture, which should not be allowed to languish in obscurity because we are scared of facing our past, of facing ourselves.

(Not to mention we read Shakespeare, Homer, Beowulf. War and Peace and The Great Gatsby and they are all sexist, so are Dumas’ works. Shakespeare was antisemitic. But no one is spending pages flaying those authors alive so to speak. Their work is elevated to top of the literary heap.)


3 thoughts on “Rudyard Kipling: Let’s Rumble

  1. Glory be hun, you always do this too me, wake me up with brain work for me to stew over for a couple of days.
    Couldn’t agree more with what you say, read the aforementioned piece. Hmmm, not impressed, no insights worth a light, just the same shallow kicking of a man when he’s down. Kipling is an established target, and theoretically easy meat for a lazy mind.

    • Thank you. 🙂 If I’m ratting your brain, I know I’ve elevated the conversation.

      How are you?

      It was very lazy. I think a high schooler could have written a more informed and cohesive argument. I don’t even think she’d read Kipling. The fact she bring up the “apes” but not “The King’s Ankus,” the wildly inaccurate description of “The Undertakers,” the inaccurate summation of Kim, the same snippet *every one* uses out of The White Man’s Burden, that she does not mention The Man Who Would Be King, it was like she was getting it all second or even third hand.

      Agreed, Kipling is an “established target” so the literati are totally o.k. keelhauling him, but Shakespeare’s sexism and gross antisemitism? “Well, that’s just his historical context.” *eye roll* As I said, I think it because the racism and Imperialism of Kipling’s “historical context” is still very much alive as well that makes people uncomfortable with him.

      In fact, a several years ago there was an article in History Today that compared America’s global “influence” culminating with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the British Empire at it’s height. The similarities in motivations, attitude and conduct were too similar for comfort.

  2. Like all of us, great writers are products of their time, this stuff is ill considered, lightweight kack, it seriously calls into question our ‘higher’ education systems. PC nonsense is regurgitated, and out pops a 1st class degree, intelligent debate is stifled and the bullies win yet again. I loathe the autocratic literati with its fashions and debatable sensitivities.
    Long live Kipling!

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