Kipling, race and religion


The uproar in Singapore against Pastor Rony Tan, who was questioned by the authorities and had to apologize for mocking the religious beliefs of Buddhists and Taoists, reminds me of the controversy surrounding a famous writer.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai, in the JJ School of Art, where his father was the dean. The bungalow is being restored and will be turned into a museum, but it will feature paintings by local artists instead of showcasing Kipling memorabilia. Local officials frowned on plans to include a Kipling room because he is seen as an imperialist, reported the Telegraph. Young Indian students interviewed by the BBC World Service, however, said they were proud he was born there.

I heard it on the BBC arts programme Strand on the day the Straits Times reported the pastor had been questioned by the authorities. You can still hear it here.

Kipling also glorified Christianity at the expense of other religions. He wrote the poem, The White Man’s Burden, and about “lesser breeds without the law”. Racism is blatant in that line from his poem, Recessional.

And yet it is a surprisingly poignant poem. Written in 1897, during Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it reflects on the decline and fall of empires and is a prayer to God to spare the British and forgive any sins of vainglory:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe–
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
   Or lesser breeds without the law–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

While Recessional is a prayer to God, The White Man’s Burden is a call to duty. Published in 1899 in McClure’s magazine, when US soldiers fought Filipino rebels, the poem urged America to take up the “burden” of empire.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

It sounds offensive. But empire builders saw themselves as uplifting other people, as some missionaries do. Sorry, as proselytizers of all faiths and ideologies do.

For all the offence he gave, Kipling cannot be denied his place as a writer. The young Indian students who said they were proud he was born in India are right. One has to recognize talent. Kipling wrote memorably of the Indian bazaars and mountains in Kim, celebrated the hill stations in Plain Tales from the Hills, and the jungles in the Jungle Books. 

We are creatures of our times. Kipling wrote of “the white man’s burden” and “lesser breeds without the law” at a time when popular hymns included direct assaults on other religions such as Bishop Heber’s From Greenland’s Icy Mountains. It begins:

From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.

What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.

But why single out old hymns?

Asian values

What about the praise for “Asian values”?

That’s polarizing, too, praising “Asian values” against Western decadence.

And what’s so Asian about the thrift, discipline and hard work that have come to be associated with “Asian values”?

Discipline, hard work and sacrifice are extolled in The White Man’s Burden, too.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No iron rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go, make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.

Strange as it may seem today, empire builders portrayed themselves as working for the good of others. And they did bring progress. Cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai were created by the British. That required vision and enterprise. And Kipling’s poems are eloquent testimony to the hard lives of the ordinary soldiers.

The fact is, any successful group or individual feels superior to others.

It’s no coincidence that “Asian values” have come to be praised since the Asian “economic miracle”.

Kipling’s imperialism was similarly the product of the British empire.

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