The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

What was the nature of Kipling’s Imperialism?

Was he a racist?

Kipling is one of Britain's greatest literary figures. He virtually invented the short story genre and in Kim he wrote one of the masterpieces of the English language. He won the Nobel prize for literature, was offered a knighthood and was acknowledged for many years as the spokesperson of Empire and indeed an Imperial prophet. Yet as WW1 is commemorated we will hear very little of Kipling and his contribution towards WW1, yet he was a member of the War Propaganda Bureau, he wrote numerous pieces of prose and poetry that were well received and he was on the Imperial War Graves Commission. Why is his contribution given scant attention? I would suggest one of the reasons is his association with Empire and the way we judge people in the past using today's values, and in particular the way some of his work is regarded as racist. In this essay I will be examining Kipling's views on empire and whether he was a racist, and using his work and private letters to come to a conclusion. His attitude to empire changed as he became more worldly and more travelled.


His early years  and some of his best work are written whilst he was living in India or are based on his experiences in India. He arrived in India in 1882 at the age of 16 to begin work on the Civil and Military Gazette (CMG). As a sub-editor on the CMG  his responsibilities included proof reading, writing reports, reading through newspapers from all over the Empire and writing reports of their content, writing notes about forthcoming events like polo games, garden parties, official dinners and dances. He oversaw all but the first two pages of the CMG and supervised the Indian workforce.


In 1887 he moved to Allahabad to begin work on the Pioneer. He was now given roving commissions and travelled the country visiting country fairs, the opening of bridges, army parades, talking with people on the way and producing reports of the events he visited as well as fictional tales of Indian and Anglo-Indian life. As a result of these years of travel and writing, Kipling  got to know not only the people of the Raj but the people of India and his writing reflected his travels. His best selling book Plain Tales from the Hills began as stories produced for the CMG.


Kipling's heroes were the men of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and the rank and file soldiers of the army. The men of the ICS were to him an impressive and hard working body who devoted their lives to the native population and epitomised what the Empire was all about - the development of colonies and providing them with justice, sanitation and good communications, but above all doing their duty to their country and to themselves.  Much of Kipling's work on the Europeans in India emphasised this sense of duty.


The men of the ICS numbered around 1000 and were generally from public schools, the breeding ground of the ICS. They had gone through a competitive examination system and then undertaken a two year course at Balliol College, Oxford, where they studied Indian languages and culture. The men were well educated and were masters at producing reports. They were an essential ingredient of the mystique of the Raj and its recreation of an English lifestyle in India considered essential if he British were to continue to maintain control of a country of over 200 million . This lifestyle existed to maintain the mystique of the British and was a manifestation of their perceived superiority which had developed as a result of the technological superiority the British enjoyed.


He got to know many ordinary soldiers. Whilst in Lahore and Allahabad, KP met many soldiers and although he got along well with both officers and ranks he preferred the ordinary soldiers and came to regard them as the real heroes of the Empire. He listened to their stories about their campaigns and incorporated them in his poetry and prose. He spoke fondly of the East Lancs Regiment based in Lahore and  the East Surreys based in Allahabad.


In his travels around India Kipling came to believe that India needed to change but would not do so whilst the disease and  squalor in cities was the responsibility of local Indian authorities which were lazy, inefficient and incompetent. He believed  that it needed the British to provide the men to bring about improvement.  He often wrote articles in the Pioneer about the dreadful conditions, particularly after an outbreak of cholera or a famine.


Kipling  liked Indians as individuals and got on well with them. He worked and met a huge variety of Indian people including servants, print workers, the men from the bazaars, people he met along the road and even the women from the brothels. He came to have a particular sympathy with the women of India and regarded the treatment of women as a major obstacle to better relations with Indian people. Amongst the things he criticised was  enforced marriage, particularly amongst young women in their low teens who were often forced to marry men much older than themselves. In late 1887 he wrote a series of articles for the Pioneer about a young woman called Rukhmabai who refused to live with her husband who she had married at 11, and was given a prison sentence. He  also wrote to support Lady Dufferin's Fund to provide medical aid to women. He later wrote 'Song of the Women' as a tribute to the work of Lady Dufferin.


Kipling was a product of the Raj having been born in India and brought up with servants. 300 million Indian people were ruled by no more than 1000 elite civil servants. Altogether  there were no more than 100,000 Europeans so that most Indians rarely saw a European. The army consisted of 75,000 white soldiers and 150,000 Indians and there were no more than 200,000 local policemen. The Raj could not just be maintained by force. It was done  by the British being able to convince  the native population that they were there for their benefit. The British by their character portrayed themselves as being superior and being there as a progressive force for good - as protectors of the poor and there to provide peace, security and good orderly government. The British considered this state of affairs as being natural and self evident.


To maintain this idea of the British being a superior race it was important that there was not any fraternisation and inter-racial contact and marriage and liaisons were taboo. The whole system depended on the British upholding their cultural codes. If you fraternised with local people you could be ostracised so criticism of the system was unusual.


There is some evidence in his work though that Kipling did not whole heartedly agree with the Raj for he often wrote about liaisons between people of different castes and class. In these stories there is sympathy expressed for those who dared to cross boundaries and there is irony used to indicate his criticism. The crossing of these cultural boundaries had been much more common in the early part of the century but after the Indian Mutiny distrust between European and Indian grew. For us these cultural codes seem totally wrong but at the end of the 19th ideas on race were constantly changing. Darwin's 'Descent of Man' had left unresolved the question as to whether races were sub-species of homo sapiens or whether the similarity indicated a common origin. By the 1880s the accepted orthodoxy accepted racial differences and placed the Caucasian race at the top of the tree. Until well in to the Edwardian period discussion of race was vague and inconclusive.


In Beyond the Pale, a story from Plain Tales from the Hills Kipling shows enormous sympathy for Bisesa,  a beautiful young Indian woman, and there is implied criticism of a system that can lead to so much tragedy. Bisesa has been widowed very young, and longs for a lover. An Englishman, Trejago, who is knowledgeable about things Indian, wanders into the gully where she sits behind a barred window, and has a flirtatious exchange with her. One thing leads to another, and they secretly become passionate lovers. After an idyllic month he is attentive to an Englishwoman, with no serious intent, but Bisesa hears of it and tells him to go. He is desperate to see her, but the next time she answers his knock at the window, it is only to thrust out the stumps of her amputated hands in the moonlight. From behind her a knife stabs into Trejago's groin, and the grating is slammed shut. There has been tragedy, and he has lost her. He has paid heavily for stepping beyond the limits of his own people.


In His Chance in Life , also from Plain Tales from the Hills, Kipling gives a fairly sympathetic glance at the very sensitive question of mixed race and uses irony to point out that these cultural codes are relative and not absolute as they were for most British people. Michele D'Cruze is  a lowly railway clerk, of seven eighths Indian and one eighth English blood. His community are very conscious of their European descent, however remote it may be. He wishes to marry, but the lady's mother insists that first he must achieve a much higher salary. Then he has his chance. There is a riot in the small town he has been posted to as a Telegraph Signaller, and - aware of his European blood - he takes command of the situation, and keeps order until the European Assistant Collector arrives. Michele is promoted as a result, and is able to get married.


In his writings about India life Kipling often seems to contradict himself but if we turn to his letters, particularly to his cousin Margaret Burne Jones, we get a truer picture of his views. The themes of duty and the British doing good appear throughout the letters and demonstrate that Kipling had a great affection for Indian people and wanted the British to help them to better themselves. In a world without the UN or worldwide charities, he believed it was the duty of the British Empire to make this improvement happen.


In February 1889 Kipling left India on a journey home that would take him to Burma, China, Japan and the USA. It was on this trip that he began to think about the role of the Empire and could think from a distance about the role that India played within it. This trip was the first of many such trips in which he was to discover the Empire. In 1891 he travelled to the southern white territories. In 1892 on his honeymoon he travelled to the USA, eventually settling down there and visiting Canada and in 1898 he and Carrie visited South Africa, the first of his annual visits there until he visited for the last time in 1908.


Read part 2





The British Raj

Copies of the Pioneer now in Allahabad library

Some of Rudyard Kipling’s books

soldiers of the Indian army c1890

British soldiers of the Raj

A British doctor travelling in rural India

Allahabad, site of the Pioneer Press

Carrie Kipling

Margaret Burne-Jones