Rudyard Kipling and the reputation of empire

Rudyard  Kipling was a great writer, but his reputation under a cloud because he was an imperialist.  Empires are out of favor.

Most people in most periods of history would not have understood this.  Most people through the ages admired the great empire builders.  They thought that conquering and ruling other people was heroic.

The great conquerors—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon—were regarded as inspirations and role models.

Britons were proud that they ruled a quarter of humankind.  US Americans were proud of our frontiersmen and Indian fighters.

The same attitude prevails in non-Western cultures toward their own empires, past and present, but that’s a topic for another time.

The sun never set on the British Empire…

Rudyard Kipling began his writing career in his 20s, when the British Empire was at the height of its power.

He believed the British Empire was a force for good and that it would endure.  He also believed the British Empire was different from, and better than, other empires.

At the same time, he felt the need to justify empire.  His stories about India are full of devoted civil servants and military officers who selflessly do their duties for the greater good, without reward or appreciation.

This is because of the rise of liberalism—I mean liberalism in the broad sense, liberalism as belief that human beings have unalienable rights, or that society should be organized on the basis of liberty, equality and brotherhood.  You can’t consistently believe in these things, and also believe in the right to rule over other nations.

Kipling’s stories did include Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who were the equals of the British in terms of both ability and character.  But he was not a liberal.  He did not believe they had an equal right to self-determination.

His core values were duty, honor and country, not respect for human rights.  He thought rebellion should be put down by any means necessary.

In stories about the Boer War, he ridiculed the idea of a Sahibs’ War, in which both sides observed civilized rules of war because  neither side was fighting for survival.

But his ideal of the self-sacrificing colonial administrator, being the white man’s burden, no doubt was reflected to some extent in real life.  Kipling probably influenced the British ruling class to try to live up to that ideal.

The least you can say for Kipling is that he preached an ethic of responsibility, which is very different from US American attitudes toward our non-empire empire.

……nor does the sun set on U.S. military bases.

When I began my own writing career, in my 20s, I believed that American world power was a force for good and that it would endure.  I thought the USA was different from and better than other would-be world powers.

There has always been an anti-imperialist strain in US American thought.  Slavery existed in the British North American colonies, as it did almost everywhere in European colonies in the Western Hemisphere, but an anti-slavery movement sprang up almost as soon as the United States gained independence.

At the same time, white Americans who scorned living off the labor of black people also believed it was their manifest destiny to conquer and settle the area between the Appalachians and the Pacific Ocean, and ethnically cleanse that huge territory of its indigenous inhabitants.

To their credit, they did not intend to live off the labor of the native peoples.  They were willing to do their own work.  But they were not willing to live in peace with the native peoples.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the USA created its own overseas empire in the Philippines, Puerto Rico and islands of the Pacific.  But this was not the main thrust of American policy.

The main thrust of American policy was the proposed Open Door policy toward China.  US American diplomats objected to the European powers’ plan to carve up China into spheres of influence.  What they instead wanted was an open door to do business in all of China, and, by extension, all over the world.

The Open Door policy prevails today.  Through the dominance of the U.S. dollar, the U.S. government exercises financial sway over more than half the globe and half the human race.

Through its covert intelligence agencies and worldwide network of military bases, it is able to strike at any regime that threatens U.S. power.  But it doesn’t undertake the burden and responsibility of direct rule of its non-empire empire.

We the American public still believe in democracy and human rights.  We still have a Bill of Rights, and sometimes invoke it.

Our hypocrisy is a mitigating factor that holds us back from the worst.  We are not like Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, nor like Pol Pot or King Leopold.  That is not saying much, but it is something.

Kipling lived long enough to see that the British Empire’s days were numbered.  I have lived long enough to see that the days of American world domination are numbered.

The British ruling class of the late 20th century faced reality and didn’t try to hang on to their empire at all costs.  That’s why there is a certain amount of goodwill toward Great Britain and its former colonies.

For that matter, I understand there is a certain amount of goodwill toward the USA in the Philippines—but not in Afghanistan, Iraq or other countries that the USA’s legacy is death, destruction and corruption.

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3 Responses to “Rudyard Kipling and the reputation of empire”

  1. Stephen Badrich Says:

    Wonderful, insightful writing. Very touching–and true.


  2. Vincent Says:

    I can only say that British imperialism (“jingoism”) became deeply unfashionable after World War I, and has stayed that way. In my schooldays there was naturally much nostalgia among those who had served in India and the colonies. Many ex-soldiers from World War 2 became our teachers.

    Kipling has been correspondingly unfashionable ever since. I’ve read quite a few of his books with understanding of how his views were shaped, without any need to share those views.

    I’ll be interested to read your related posts on Kipling.


  3. Rudyard Kipling and the reputation of empire — Phil Ebersole’s Blog | Vermont Folk Troth Says:

    […] Rudyard Kipling and the reputation of empire — Phil Ebersole’s Blog […]


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