The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (III)

The third and even more rambling part of my ongoing review (plus an irrelevant tangent at the end). P.S. paragraphs schmaragraphs as I believe Daniel Defoe once said…

“The Man Who Would Be King” is a significant departure, both from the ‘macabre’ content of the preceding three Phantom ‘Rickshaw stories and more generally from the setting of all the earlier stories in this volume. Where they have all dealt with the System, and the ruling class that both perpetuates and is tormented by that System, “The Man Who Would Be King” deals explicitly with those from outside the system: those who are ruled, not those who rule. The narrator, a newspaper man, seems the closest we have yet come to Kipling himself; the two main (and note the use of first names!) characters, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, are explicitly outsiders, ‘Loafers’. Although the narrator’s attitude toward the pair is not exactly one of admiration, he (and Kipling) does appreciate the epistemic advantages of their situation: “We talked politics – the politics of Loaferdom, that sees things from the underside where the lath and plaster is not smoothed off”. The story sets itself out from the beginning quite clearly as a story that tells us the unvarnished truth.

It’s hard to say too much about the content, however, because it’s one of the few stories in this collection that’s all about the plot. But a few things do spring out at the reader. First, we get the first intimation here as to why exactly the British are here – not the technical, political reason, but the ideological reason. Nobody is actually talking about the child nations and duty of care and raising people up to be better… but we do get a glimpse of the difference the English perceive between themselves and the natives when, early on, Dravot explains his plan to extort the Rajah of Degumber by posing as a newspaperman and demanding money to hush up the Rajah’s treatment of his stepmother – the Rajah, you see, “filled her up with red pepper and slippered her to death as she hung from a beam”. I’m not going to get into how true a depiction of the local petty nobility that is (although I suspect that given their absolute and unaccountable rule, it’s quite a realistic thing to have happened – certainly the equivalent monarchs in Europe had done worse things before modernity set in), but what matters here is that Dravot believes it, and we suspect that the narrator, and Kipling and his audience, whether or not they believe Dravot is correct in his information this time, do believe that this is the sort of thing that Degumber Rajahs do. And it isn’t what the English do – at least not to their stepmothers. The ornate brutality of some later events reinforces that (and now we may also remember the barbaric customs of “Morrowbie Jukes”) – there is a clear sense that the English are more civilised, less mediaeval, than the local alternative at this point. In particular, it is interesting to consider the moral situation of the virtually amoral Dravot and Carnehan as observers of India: while the upper class English overseers of the earlier stories in this collection are amusing themselves with each other’s wives in Simla, it is Dravot and Carnehan, the Loafers, the conmen, who experience the brutality both of British rule and the even worse rule of the petty tyrants of the Princely States. When Carnehan complains that half of India is wasted, because “they” will not allow it to be ‘worked over’, it’s not an abstract half of India – he is attacking the laissez-faire policies of Britain as regards the Princely States, many of which have been allowed to stagnate both economically and politically by an Imperial government that views non-interference with native affairs as more important than either money or morality (a stance we may imagine was typified, for men like Dravot and Carnehan, by the end of the unpopular laws that had seen heirless native states incorporated into British India – with the fall of the ambitious, profit-driven East India Company and its replacement by the more conservative, preservative Raj, expansion, at least internally, came to an end). We may not necessarily agree with the duo’s recommendations for how to deal with the problem of the Degumber Raja, either on a political level (crush the native governments and their systems of aristocratic dignity, religious prohibitions and the caste system and bring in the free market, whether the natives want it or not), or on a personal level (blackmail the sucker), but it’s probably important to notice that it’s only Dravot and Carnehan who want to do anything to improve anything for anybody, even if it’s only themselves – the elites, whether Indian or English, are perfectly happy to turn a blind eye to people stuffing their stepmothers with red hot peppers and slippering them to death as they hang from the ceiling, if it means not having to say anything rude to a Rajah. Perhaps the fatal flaw in the system is that the people who could do something about the Rajah and his kind, whether or not they should and whether or not there is anything they could do that wouldn’t do more harm than good, in this system do not even have to think about doing anything. It is not so much that they adopt a different policy, but that they are able to avoid having any policy at all.

[We also get a glimpse here both of Kipling’s faith and his despair in the power of the free press. On the one hand, we get the impression that conmen are frequently able to make a level blackmailing Indians (and maybe even English) by pretending to be reporters, so the press clearly has a reputation for being able to break controversial stories and cause damage to individuals. It suggests however that the press also has a reputation for corruption. More importantly, though, it suggests that the press (and don’t forget that newspaper reporter was Kipling’s day job at this point) just aren’t present in the forgotten parts of India. They’re known well enough that Rajahs have heard of the names of the papers, but they’re rare enough in person that you can get away with pretending to be the representative one for long periods of time. And if Dravot and Carnehan make a living at this, how many stories are the newspapers not reporting? Even the name of the newspaper, The Backwoodsman, shows the neglect shown to these areas.]

But, stepping back a moment there, what is it to be English in India? “The Man Who Would Be King” is all about identity, and specifically it’s about transgressive identity. One sign of this comes when we see an Englishman speaking Hindustani – not just because he is speaking Hindustani, and not just because he’s doing a convincing impression of being Indian, but because the narrator doesn’t think to mention that the dialogue was in Hindustani until later, or that he (the narrator) even spoke Hindustani. There’s just an expectation that everybody speaks each other’s languages – although there’s a clear sense of difference between English and Indian, it is not an absolute difference. English can become Indian. And more importantly, vice versa, Indian can become English – maybe even was English all along. When Dravot and Carnehan reach remote Kafiristan, they are shocked to discover that the inhabitants are white – whiter than Dravot and Carnehan, in fact – and that they are all Freemasons. As they get to know the locals, and import European knowledge (and specifically guns), they start to see the locals as not merely fair-skinned but as actually “English” (said explicitly, but also shown symbolically by not only bestowing English names on the locals, but specifically giving them the names of individuals the interlopers knew back ‘home’ (home for this pair being not England but, like Kipling, India)). And Kipling doesn’t appear to be mocking them for this – the problem is not that the invaders are naïve enough to think that the locals are like them, but rather the problem is that the locals really are like them. “’We’re done for,’ he said, ‘they are Englishmen, these people”. And giving Englishmen guns is never a good idea. After all, Dravot and Carnehan are English – and they may not be as bestial as the Rajah of Degumber, but they’re still not people it would be good to trust.

[A digression here, because this review is far too short: the idea of white Kafiristan may seem like an absurd ‘Lost World’ Victorian fantasy, but it’s closer to the truth than might be assumed.  Kafiristan is, or was, a real place, and its inhabitants were famous for their pale complexion, as well as for their polytheism. Their sister-people the Kalash, who remain polytheists to this day, claim to be descended from the armies of Alexander, and while this is unlikely to be literally true (perhaps a folk memory of their incorporation into the various post-Alexandrine Greco-Indian and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms and their successors?), the theory was widely reported in Victorian times  and may well have been familiar to Kipling’s more educated readers, only needing to be mentioned in passing here. The idea that the people of Kafiristan might harbour some secret, like a form of Freemasonry, is also not farfetched – at the time of Kipling’s story, only one or two Europeans had ever visited Kafiristan and survived to tell the tale. The idea of Masonry marks hidden on the holy stone, meanwhile, is a clear reference to the Ghaznavid campaigns against the Kafirs, when, allegedly, Ghazni himself, having ‘conquered’ Kafiristan (it didn’t take…) stole their holy stone and took it back to India, only to be told that the secret marks on the bottom of it were incredibly ancient Vedic symbols. Unfortunately for Kipling, it’s possible some modern audiences might not immediately remember all the details of the Ghaznavid campaigns in Central Asia, so I thought that titbit might be worth reminding you of. In any case, the story also harbours a far more recent historical significance – indeed, a cutting-edge geopolitical one for Kipling’s readers. When this story came out, the future of Kafiristan looked grim; only a few years later, the Amir of Kabul was to crush the native armies and compel the surviving natives to convert to Islam, before eliminating ‘Kafiristan’ from maps entirely (some Kafirs were able to flee across the border into Chitral, at the time an independent country, and join the Kalash – soon after, after an extended bout of fratricide and civil war, the British arrived in Chitral to defend the only surviving legitimate prince from the invasion forces of the Amir of Kabul and the Khan of Jandul; with Chitral acknowledging the suzereinty of the Crown in exchange for defence, the area came under British influence, ensuring the continued religious liberty of those Kalash and Kafirs on the Chitral side of the border; to the west, a small minority of Afghan Kafirs stubbornly retained their traditions a few more decades, but were gradually assimilated). Kipling is not, therefore, writing about some far off lost world but about a place at the forefront of current events in his day, albeit a place little was known of – a Victorian North Korea, perhaps. In doing this, Kipling sites his prima facie implausible story in the heart of reality – indeed, the tangential references to the Amir’s armies suggest that Kipling is not merely appealing to current affairs but almost appropriating them. Are we to imagine perhaps that the Amir’s real conquest of Kafiristan was indeed only a consequence of the fictional actions of Dravot and Carnehan?

It is also I think important for modern readers to note the complexity of many of these situations. It is very easy in hindsight to fall into a simple dichotomy of “British (/European) Imperialists” and “conquered natives”. In reality, however, the degree to which the ‘natives’ were either actually conquered and/or actually native varied considerably with time and place. I’ve already parenthetically noted the complexity of the political situation within “British India”, but it’s important to note also the complexity of the situation outside India too. The Mehtar of Chitral, for instance, at this time independent but allied to the British (until recently he’d been a tributary state of China instead) and within the British zone of influence, later to become sovereign but non-suzerain (indeed, he didn’t give up sovereignty until 1969 (and it may be mentioned here that the ‘elected representative’ of Chitral is still a member of the dynasty, and almost always has been since the introduction of ‘democracy’), was not himself a ‘native’ with respect to his own population – he was the descendent of Timurid conquerers, spoke Persian and made Persian the official language of the state, while most of his populace were (relatively) ‘native’ Dardic-speaking Khowars. (Like many of the ‘native’ Indian rulers, the Mehtars had been in (what was retrospectively defined as) India only very slightly longer than the British). In total, though, there were dozens of linguistic and cultural groups in Chitral alone – Indo-Iranian (the relicts of multiple waves of conquest), Indo-Aryan (nomads migrated up from the south), Dardic, and the speakers of Burushaski, whose language has no known relatives. The only thing keeping the Mehtars from having become emperors rather than only princes was their bad habit of incessantly murdering their own family members for three hundred years in a row. As for the Amirs and Khans of Central Asia, violent conquest seems to have been second nature to them (the particular Khan of Jandul in question was nicknamed “the Napoleon of the Pathans”). I’m not seeking here of course to “excuse” the British for their crimes (both of action and of omission), but rather to re-embed the British in the complex geopolitical situation that actually obtained at the time. The British did not arrive in India in the same way they arrived in, say, Australia – much of their ‘conquest’, for instance (though of course not all) was less a matter of military imposition of a new system, and more a matter of the manipulation and appropriation, state by state and treaty by treaty, of the existing system, large parts of which were never really fully digested. What we see in “The Man Who Would Be King”, in turn, is what the Englishman finds when he ventures outside the walls of ‘civilisation’ – which is to say, exactly the same as he finds inside them. He finds Amirs building their empires over tribesmen; he finds tribe constructing kingdoms over tribe; he finds village struggling to oppress village. Perhaps we could see this as justifying British rule – after all, it’s not different, it seems, from what’s happening over the border. But on the other hand, perhaps we should see this as condemning British rule – after all, it’s no different, it seems, from what’s happening over the border.]

Ethnic identity, of course, is only one part of identity. Perhaps the title says it all, really: this isn’t the story of Englishmen and Indians (or Afghans, or Kafirs), it’s the story of rich and poor, king and subject, the story of a man who wants to change who he is, to become more than he is. Crucially, Dravot’s real ambitions are never made entirely clear – his ambition is clear, but it has no inherent focus. A king, an emperor, a god; a knight, a lord, a millionaire, it doesn’t matter what Dravot might become, all that matters, I’d suggest, is that he stop being what he is, a Loafer and a petty con man and extortionist. I think there’s something quite powerful in that, and I think that one reason this story is so famous is how little that power is hemmed in by Kipling with overt meanings. Dravot and Carnehan are not a mere analogy – they are an image, a symbol of the whole, out of which analogies and explanations can be carved. They are Empire.

Dravot and Carnehan’s expedition to Kafiristan is on one level a simple fictionalisation of the real world Kipling lived in, where men like Dravot and Carnehan were how the Empire often did expand. On the one hand, the reality of the setting is assured by the importance of central Asia in contemporary politics – as noted above, Kafiristan was in the news at the time, and neighbouring Chitral would be brought under the British wing only a few years later. More specifically, the tale is clearly inspired by the career of minor failed businessman James Brooke, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, governer and commander-in-chief of Labuan, consul-general to Borneo, and Rajah of Sarawak, who accidentally won sovereign rule of Sarawak and the hand in marriage of the daughter of the Sultan of Brunei using only a small private yacht and six small cannons while attempting to circumnavigate the globe [the story may have had some resonance to Kipling on a personal level too – Brooke, like Kipling, was born and bred in India (indeed, Brooke’s family had been on the continent for more than a century), before being exiled to England for his education, which he did not take well to, and like Kipling he returned to India as a young man to make his own fortune, though he chose the army rather than the newspapers]. This story of the White Rajah, who came to power some forty years before Kipling wrote his story, was legendary by this time, and is twice referenced explicitly by Dravot, once by name and once by use of ‘Sarawak’ as a verb. Brooke’s legend offers both hope and fear to men of Dravot’s generation: on the one hand, Brooke is a symbol of what the lowly man can do if he has the guts and the will, a sort of “British Dream” promising that however oppressed a man may be inside British society, he can still burst out and, out in the wild, rise to any height he wishes; he is, in a way, a promise that all the suffering and indignity of being ground in the gears of the rigid British hierarchical society are worth something, are repayed by giving that man the ingenuity and spirit to put him above any other person in the world, if he but dares to go out into the wild; and yet, as Dravot notes, there are fewer and fewer places where a man can ‘Sarawak’ succesfully. The world is becoming known, and the world is coming to know the British, and even as British society becomes more and more rigid (and the old entrepeneurial dream of industry has been quashed by the solidifying ranks of a new grand bourgeois ruling class) there are fewer and fewer ways to escape it. Brooke himself, after all, was only one of the last of the many adventurers in the East – a Company man who followed in the footsteps of Clive himself (a teenage delinquent and extortionist who rose from the position of an assistant shop clerk to become sovereign ruler of Bengal). In this context, being king is not about ruling over people – Brooke carried out the later portion of his rule from the comfort of a small village on Dartmoor – but simply about being recognised as a king, being allowed to go up to the front of the social queue. The subjects are an afterthought; conquest and Empire are only the extreme margin of the mechanisms of social orienteering that we see in the other stories in this collection.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that the adventurers didn’t care about their subjects – they often prided themselves on bettering the lives of others, and much of the acclaim for them was couched not in the terms of conquerors but in the terms of great philanthropists and liberators: they were not acclaimed for adding to the Empire, but on subtracting from the dark portions of the world, liberating the masses from petty oriental despots, establishing modern trade and the rule of law. Clive, of course, was later repeatedly prosecuted for his personal greed and corruption, and though his conquest may have brought many freedoms to the people of Bengal, and a greater degree perhaps of predictability in government, it also resulted in a dramatic increase in taxation (albeit less out of greed it appears than out of a complete inability to control or even adequately monitor the activities of the local tax collectors), which probably contributed in some measure to a horrendous famine and deaths of millions of people.  The man who was such an undeniable genius in winning an empire, both in war and in diplomacy, was no kind of man at all to rule (Bengal, Clive, and the ambiguity of popular sentiment toward Clive, may thus be seen through the lens of the myths of the British class system – the idea that ‘new money’, those ambitious social-climbing entrepeneurs, ultimately lack the quality of the true aristocracy, the only people really qualified to rule). The subject of much popular ill-feeling, he increasingly fell into depression, became overwhelmed by drug addiction, and killed himself at the age of 49. Brooke faired a little better, but the man so lauded for ending piracy and the slave trade in Sarawak found himself facing a serious investigation into the degree of brutality he had used in doing so, and though formally exonerated the popular clamour would never go away; having appointed and then deposed one successor, he died in Devon (Sheepstor, a farming village with a current population of 53, although a century ago it was a far more bustling place, with all of 95 souls – it’s never been large enough to even be classed as a parish) in a sort of voluntary exile from both Sarawak and from British society. The British public was not unaware of the paradoxes of ‘progress’.

[I began this review by irrelevently harking back to my early Oscar Wilde review, so perhaps that justifies a brief tangent: Wilde’s fairy-tale of the Young King is dedicated to the Ranee of Sarawak, the wife of Brooke’s nephew, apparently a remarkably intelligent and strong-willed woman. Not, perhaps, as interesting as the last Ranee, though, her daughter-in-law – the sister of DH Lawrence’s lover, and herself admired by Shaw, she had already tried to kill herself twice by the age of twelve, which will return to relevence later in this review…. As Ranee she gained a reputation for being power-mad and narcissistic, as well as for being somewhat indecorous – on one occasion she shocked the local mores rather badly by being found table-dancing with a pair of prostitutes in a local nightclub, before taking them both back to the palace, allegedly to ‘paint their portraits’ (although despite her reputation for constant ‘smut’, she also described herself as ‘frigid’, saying that she found sex ‘all right if you want kids’, but otherwise ‘ridiculous and awkward’, and she put her happy marriage down to ignoring tradition and making sure never to “like any other husband and wife have ever behaved”, which included separate beds. Her husband the Rajah appears to have seen the advantages of this also – whenever he was getting bored with a mistress, he’d simply send the Ranee to frighten her off in a pantomime of jealousy, thus avoiding the social awkwardness of ever having to break up with anyone himself). Her unconventional behaviour, and the increasingly desparate power struggle to win the succession for her daughter away from her husband’s nephew, against traditional sucession laws (not merely a problem of male-preference primogeniture – the Brookes, respectful of local customs, may have abolished slave-trading, but had never changed the old laws that insisted that women were slaves of their head-of-family, so could not possibly inherit anything (the Ranee was obliged to always walk four paces behind her husband)), contributed greatly to the end of the private Raj – Sarawak was the final conquest of the British empire, annexed in 1947. Her husband, on the other hand, appears to have been very popular, largely leaving the locals to their own devices, banning missionaries from the country, and passing laws to encourage the maintanance of local traditions. Unfortunately, he was also very against headhunting, which brought some opposition; everyone was therefore very happy when the Japanese invaded, since this allowed both Western and Sarawakan views on hunting down random members of rival groups and cutting off their heads to display in your houses to come into a degree of harmony. And I’ll give the last words of this diversion to the daughter of the last Rajah and Ranee. Like her sisters, she had a terrible reputation with men (the lord chief justice summed up local sentiment when he described them as acting, like their mother, “like tarts”, and the three princesses racked up eight marriages between them), in the end choosing to marry not a lord or a plutocrat but an international wrestling champion; in the media spotlight as the celebrity couple of the day they announced their ambition of creating a new country in the Pacific where everybody could be Rajah and Ranee. The young princess expressed a direct and sophisticated analysis of the virtues of imperialism: “I think a country without lots of uniforms and braids is no fun,” she said.]

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One thought on “The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (III)

  1. […] “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, and “My Very Own Ghost Story”) Part 3 (discussion of “The Man Who would be King”) Part 4 (more discussion of “The Man […]

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