The historical context of Kipling’s most troubling work (DeDisnification, Part 8)
In 1899, Rudyard Kipling seemingly unsuspectingly placed himself at the center of a firestorm of controversy when he sent his poem, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands”, to his friend Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York. He also included the admonishment:¹
Now, go in and put all the weight of your influence into hanging on, permanently, to the whole Philippines.
The poem was actually originally penned for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, but another of his works, “Recessional”, was chosen instead. I say Kipling didn’t expect controversy as the work made a case for Eurocentric racism and imperialism that was quite a familiar one at the time. It was passed from Roosevelt passed it to another pro-imperialist who approved of it, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. But oddly, following the poem’s publication in the February 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a politician of a different stripe, renowned white supremacist Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, who read portions of it as a central exhibit in a speech to his colleagues in the Senate in that same month.
The speech—essentially a rant against the newly ratified Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain, and established American imperial jurisdiction over the Philippine Islands—grafts the poem onto its stance, thus:²
[W]ith five exceptions every man in this Chamber who has had to do with the colored race in this country voted against the ratification of the treaty. It was not because we are Democrats, but because we understand and realize what it is to have two races side by side that can not mix or mingle without deterioration and injury to both and the ultimate destruction of the civilization of the higher. We of the South have borne this white man’s burden of a colored race in our midst since their emancipation and before.
It was a burden upon our manhood and our ideas of liberty before they were emancipated. It is still a burden, although they have been granted the franchise. It clings to us like the shirt of Nessus, and we are not responsible, because we inherited it, and your fathers as well as ours are responsible for the presence amongst us of that people. Why do we as a people want to incorporate into our citizenship ten millions more of different or of differing races, three or four of them?
So instead of imperialism, Tillman is promoting isolationist white nationalism. It is necessary to note that this is before the major political parties essentially swapped places during the liberal Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the party’s subsequent embrace of the postwar Civil Rights movement. Put bluntly, those who call the GOP “the party of Lincoln” are either wilfully ignorant or simply lying.
As to the classical reference on the Senate floor—ah, the good old days—it refers to the garment (χιτών— of course it was a chiton rather than a “shirt”) poisoned with Nessus (Νέσσος) the kentouros’ (κένταυρος) blood after his slaying by Herakles (Ἡρακλῆς) with arrows which were soaked in the Lernaean Hydra’s (Λερναῖα Ὕδρα) blood for attempting to rape his wife. Said wife, Deianeira (Δηϊάνειρα), was tricked into giving the chiton to Herakles, and the unbearable pain of contact with the poisonous blood made him hurl himself into a funeral pyre.
The deplorability of Tillman’s stance in no way excuses Kipling’s nor does the tired excuse that he was “a man of his time”. Indeed as the parodies, satires, citations, and criticisms that quickly began to appear attest, the writer’s point of view was far from broadly accepted. These began with Henry Labouchère’s “The Brown Man’s Burden” in 1899, followed by “The Black Man’s Burden: A Response to Kipling” by H. T. Johnson, Take up the Black Man’s Burden by J. Dallas Bowser (both also in 1899), and “The Real White Man’s Burden” by Ernest Crosby in 1902, along with many others. A Black Man’s Burden Association was also created to link the colonial mistreatment of brown people in the Philippine Islands to the Jim Crow system in the US.
Mark Twain, who Kipling had dropped in on during an earlier trip across North America, had been pleased to spend a few hours on his Elmira veranda discussing literature with him, quipping in quintessentially Twainian fashion:
Between us, we cover all knowledge; he covers all that can be known and I cover the rest.
But, unsurprisingly, he was no fan of Kipling’s poem, and in a poem of his own, “The Stupendous Procession”, wrote sadly and simply:
The White Man’s Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man’s?
Still, none of these critiques seem to have landed with any particular weight on Kipling, who became the first English-language recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, additionally declining several offers of the British Poet Laureateship as well as a knighthood.
Flashing forward 68 years, Walt Disney had been a bit hands off on The Sword in the Stone, dividing his attention during the diversification of the company among theme parks, television series, and live-action films. The film was a moderate financial success, but received only lukewarm critical response, so Disney was determined to be more involved in the next one, The Jungle Book.
Bill Peet had pitched the title based on the animation department’s ability to “do more interesting animal characters”, but according to Disney historian Brian Sibley, when the boss came in for a script meeting,³
[W]hat he found was that the team […] had come up with quite a sombre, dark, serious story—much more serious than any films they’d done in animation since the days of Pinocchio.
In short, Peet was out—he had also been the lead on The Sword in the Stone, so this was his second strike and Walt wasn’t waiting for a third. A new team headed by Larry Clemmons was brought in, and, as Sibley relates, each was handed a copy of Kipling’s book:⁴
Disney said, “the first thing I want you to do is not to read it!” And they started working with the characters that Peet had created in his original treatment, but creating a much more upbeat, lively, freer, light-in-mood film.
One of the most baffling elements of Disney’s decision to create a mediocre adaptation of Tarzan with its troubling worldview is that their catalog already contained this quite similar tale of a human who lives in the wilderness. The Jungle Book is generally acknowledged as the prototype of Tarzan, with one of the former work’s central, redeeming tenets being that nature’s laws are superior to man’s, and not in the Burroughsian/ social-Darwinism sense. It’s also a much better-written one—even though Kipling doffed his hat to Edgar Rice Burroughs thus:⁵
[Burroughs] had ‘jazzed’ the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and ‘get away with’, which is a legitimate ambition.
The animation studio seemed completely unconcerned with the swirl of problematic themes in both cases: race, man versus nature, and imperialism. And even in spite of their deliberate disregard of Kipling’s work, some troubling elements crept through.
For example, Disney, especially in the old days, nearly always makes all their humans white, or if not white, of one race as is the case in Jungle Book. Insidiously, however, some of their animals are white while others are clearly intended as POC. Such is the case with King Louie and the monkeys, whom white animators and voice actors portrayed with over-the-top mockery of black people.
Nonetheless, the movie was a tremendous success: it was the fourth-highest grossing movie of the year, with an Oscar nomination for “Bear Necessities”, and Academy president, Gregory Peck, lobbied extensively, if unsuccessfully, for a Best Picture nod as well. Nostalgia for Walt Disney, who had died prior to the film’s release was another of the elements that factored into the film’s excellent reception.
There is a lot of debate as to the symbolism of the original The Jungle Book. Some say that Mowgli’s behavior toward the beasts of the jungle parallels that of the British, enforcing his “imperial” education and rule upon them, and defeating those that threaten his livelihood. Another view is that the human villagers are the imperialists imposing their will on the animals, who represent the native population in rebellion. This second interpretation traps Mowgli between two worlds, which makes much more sense to me.
Indeed, in the end, the author seems to have created a somewhat autobiographical protagonist. A sense of not belonging is central to Kipling, from the otherness of his birth as an Anglo-Indian, seen by the Indians as a Britisher, to his ending up as an American, seen in his adoptive land as an Indian. The cycle ends with Mowgli’s line:
The jungle shut to me and the village gates shut… my heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.
George Orwell thoughtfully weighed Kipling’s work, summarizing it thus:⁶
Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.
Even still, Kipling is not always so clear in his sympathies; take the poem “A Pict Song”:
Rome never looks where she treads
Always her heavy hooves fall,
On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
Her sentries pass on—that is all,
And we gather behind them in hordes,
And plot to reconquer the Wall,
With only our tongues for our swords.
We are the Little Folk—we!
Too little to love or to hate.
Leave us alone and you’ll see
How we can drag down the Great!
We are the worm in the wood!
We are the rot in the root!
We are the germ in the blood!
We are the thorn in the foot!
Mistletoe killing an oak—
Rats gnawing cables in two—
Moths making holes in a cloak—
How they must love what they do!
Yes—and we Little Folk too,
We are as busy as they—
Working our works out of view—
Watch, and you’ll see it some day!
No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we’ll guide them along,
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves,
But you—you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!
I must confess to learning of this poem from Billy Bragg’s 1996 album William Bloke. His version changed a few of the words, including “drag down the Great” to “drag down the State”, for extra subversive goodness. Bragg says he is reclaiming both nationalism and the poet from the Right. In any case, here Rome clearly stands in for the British Empire, and the Picts for the peoples being colonized, and Kipling’s sympathy with the colonized and against imperialism is apparent.
Turning back to our racist friend Tillman, setting aside some of the derogatory language he uses to describe the Filipinos (some of whom he calls “naked savages”), he actually has some good points:⁷
Those peoples are not suited to our institutions. They are not ready for liberty as we understand it. They do not want it. Why are we bent on forcing upon them a civilization not suited to them and which only means in their view degradation and a loss of self-respect, which is worse than the loss of life itself?
To clarify, the ideology that we are subjugating people as some kind of necessary evil involved with our “real goal” of spreading the blessings of freedom and democracy to benighted peoples, which in those days bore the now-abandoned branding of “Manifest Destiny”, is, and always has been, nothing but a thin coat of justification whitewashing imperialist ambitions.
This has gained new currency with our recent endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Dick Cheney’s all-too-familiar claim:⁸
[M]y belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.
This brand of “philanthropic imperialism” has nearly always been the rule: we are conquering them for their own good, whether to bring them civilization, democracy, the Word of God, social justice—name a thing.
And indeed, empire is a curious thing: even in spite of Indian deaths totalling a (highly disputed) three million to 30 million under British occupation—either directly, in conflicts, or indirectly, by policies that caused catastrophic famines—nonetheless English is an important language in India, acting as a lingua franca (with some 125M speaking it, about 10% of the population) for speakers of their 22 different native languages. Tea, which the British brought with them to the subcontinent is drunk everywhere. And cricket, a 17th century sport from the island nation is now the national sport—some would say national religion—of India.
I’ll go out on what’s perhaps a benefit-of-the-doubt limb here: we should remember that Kipling was a writer and poet, not a politician. My interpretation of what he’s saying—rather badly—in “The White Man’s Burden” is simply this: go win the peace. Even Roosevelt, when he forwarded it to Cabot Lodge, remarked it was “rather poor poetry […]”. I take this from the note Kipling sent to Roosevelt:⁹
America has gone and stuck a pick-axe into the foundations of a rotten house, and she is morally bound to build the house over, again, from the foundations.
Winning the peace, something we still haven’t learned to do successfully, one notable exception being post WWII under the Marshall Plan, has exactly what Kipling says, reconstruction, at its core, with specific elements including security, stable governance, economic and social well-being, justice and reconciliation. Despite a great deal of lip service, lobbing missiles is a much simpler approach that remains greatly favored. Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman who was instrumental in aiding the Mujahedeen resistance during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, said of the US’ failure to deal with the aftermath:¹⁰
These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame.
Even if winning the peace were not his message, “The White Man’s Burden” also contains many references to the arduousness and thanklessness of the task rather than presenting an unambivalent hymn to imperialism. And, moreover, all his warnings went unheeded.
Rather than being a quick and tidy conquest, the “Tagalog insurrection”, as Roosevelt called it, and in 1902 claimed to have won—shades of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” declaration—the warfare didn’t end. Instead it settled into a perpetual insurgency for roughly another decade. Indeed, the separatist splinter groups from The Moro National Liberation Front that exist even today can ultimately be thought of as only the latest incarnation of this struggle.
Though record keeping at the time was far from exact Filipino casualties on the main island of Luzon alone are estimated at a million. There were also notorious atrocities and tortures committed by the invading troops, including “collateral damage” against innocent civilian women and children. On the US side, 4,234 never returned from the archipelago. As President William McKinley said of the growing quagmire:¹¹
If old [Admiral George] Dewey had just sailed away when he smashed that Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us.
One can only imagine many Filipinos would heartily agree.
Read Subsequent Articles in this Series
Read Previous Articles in this Series
- Rudyard Kipling, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Pinney, Ed., 1990.
- Benjamin Tillman, “Address to the U.S. Senate, 7 February 1899”.
- Craig McLean, “The Jungle Book: the making of Disney’s most troubled film”, The Telegraph, 2013.
- Rudyard Kipling, “8: Working Tools”, Something of Myself, 1937.
- George Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling”, Horizon, 1942.
- Tillman, 1899.
- “Meet the Press”, NBC, 2003.
- Kipling, 1990.
- Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007— this film is the only source I could find for this quote, unfortunately, though it claims to be quoting the congressman.
- H.H. Kohlsaat, From McKinley to Harding, 1923.