Posts Tagged ‘Empire’

Rudyard Kipling and the reputation of empire

October 21, 2021

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.

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