A Historical Analysis of Rudyard Kipling's "Kim"

Updated on April 10, 2018

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is a confident and self-satisfied novel about Britain’s role in India and the durability of its colonial practices.British India is not invulnerable, rather in his vision any existing threats are easily held at bay by an extremely competent administration backed up by locals who have extensive buy in and loyalty to the system. In effect, Kim exemplifies the height of the Raj in the British view, with all of its splendor, comfortable hierarchy, and charming racism - a powerful, benevolent, and technologically - although not socially - modernizing Raj, with theinterests of India at heart. God forbid that the natives would consider doing things on their own, as bravely and valiantly Britain leads the sub-continent into a future via seemingly infinite railroads, and devoid of hunger or other social struggles.

British India, around the time when Kim might have existed.
British India, around the time when Kim might have existed.

At the heart of the British system and an element of which Kipling was well aware, was how static and conservative caste relationships were built into the British system of rule in India. In Kim, whenever we meet new people, their caste is always defined and carefully mentioned. This caste view is integral for the British management of Indian society, as elaborated on in in the book Ornamentalism (although arguably Ornamentalism takes it to a further extreme than it actually was in practice), providing a hierarchical society both to maintain order and to suit comfortable metropolitan affinities. Various groups are even defined by their caste into certain identity roles, the best being the “Martial races”. We can easily see the “martial nature” of the Sikhs during a discussion in a train station, when discussing with a Sikh soldier.““That may be well. We of the Ludhiana Sikhs,” he rolled it out sonorously, “do not trouble our heads with doctrine. We fight”.” Later on the same page, even the lowly girl of Amritsar recognizes similar notions. “Nay, but all who serve the Sirkar with weapons in their hands are, as it were, one brotherhood. There is one brotherhood of the caste, but beyond that again”-- she looked around timidly-- -”the bond of the Pulton-- -the Regiment-- -eh ”? Caste loyalties thus serve to unite Indians into rigid smaller groupings, well suited to British conceptions of order.

Rapjuts here or other groups like the Sikhs were fierce and privileged warrior castes under the British.
Rapjuts here or other groups like the Sikhs were fierce and privileged warrior castes under the British.

Racial profiling is a matter that influences not only Indians and the way the British rule them, but is exhibited with colonized Ireland as well. Various references are made in regards to Kim’s Irish blood, which is viewed as informing of his personality. As discussed in class, during the penultimate battle between Kim and the Franco-Russians, it is Kim’s “Irish blood” that drives him to action and fury, not a protective instinct towards the Lama. “The blow had waked every unknown Irish devil in the boy’s blood, and the sudden fall of his enemy did the rest”. Western attitude towards the Orientals had (and to an extent still today) classified them as mysterious and mystical. Consider the ceremony performed upon Kim by Huneefa;

“Hurree Babu returned to his note-book, balanced on the window-sill, but his hand shook. Nunfeefa, in some sort of drugged ecstasy, wrenched herself to and fro as she sat cross-legged by Kim’s still head, and called upon devil after devil, in the ancient order of the ritual, binding them to avoid the boy’s every action.”

With him are the keys of the Secret Things! none knoweth them besides himself. He knoweth that which is in the dry land and in the sea!” Again broke out the unearthly whistling responses… Haneefa's crisis passed, as these things must, in a paroxysm of howling, with a touch of froth at the lips. She lay spent and motionless besides Kim, and the crazy voices ceased.”

The Orient is thus cast in Kim as a mystical place heavily imbued with ritual, superstition, and myth. The British by contrast, are rational and progressive. Who would you trust to modernize India and bring it technologically into the modern age? A certain view of the Orient is thus encoded in Kim, providing a mismatch of ideologies and ways of life, the British way of which would self-evidently be superior to the Western reader.

While there are growing racial barriers, the same cannot be said about religion, at least in regards to the Christianity. British attitudes towards identity religious sphere have changed dramatically as British rule in India has solidified. During the times of Faire and Well Formed (an article about British views on Catholic Portuguese in India) and the then-British role in India - the 1600s and 1700s - British identity was formed principally in opposition to Catholic identity, with less stock placed in race. During the period the British even encouraged interracial marriage between Englishmen and native women with the Despatch of the Court of Directors to the President of Madras, to seek to counter the threat posed by Catholics. They would also expel even their own Catholic allies - the Portuguese - from their fortifications due to security concerns. By the time of Kim this has been reversed; the British priests Father Victor (Catholic) and Mr. Bennett (Protestant) are friends and work alongside each amiably, if with distinctions between them. Racial matters are instead much more attended to; Kim, despite being Irish in legacy, is still uplifted among the British, purely due to his European ancestry. In India, surrounded by a native population that outnumbers them by an inconceivably large amount, there is no room for metropolitan religious squabbles; Britons must stand in solidarity.

After all, the Britons have the necessity of ensuring that they can continue to provide good governance and prevent collapse. Collapse, after all, would mean that most dreadful and horrible of possibilities - - Indians ruling themselves. The necessity of British rule is alluded to both subtly, and directly by Kipling. Naturally, the benefits of British rule are extolled, and this is easy to see and referenced later on. But there must be a reason why the British alone are capable of efficiently administering India. The best example of this is the Lama after Kim returns from his school and converses with the Lama; “Then they talked of matters secular; but it was noticeable that the lama never demanded any details of life at St. Xavier’s, nor showed the faintest curiosity to the manners and customs of Sahibs” . This is mirrored further by A British Understanding of Hindus; in Indian Customs and Manners in 1840 8 where it had been stated (as a belief of the British if not necessarily reality) that they were of extraordinarily little imagination outside of their own social sphere. Without the British the whole apparatus of technological progress would fall apart.

Thus India must be carefully protected against enemies - - and while the British may feel quite secure, they nevertheless acknowledge that they do have enemies. As referenced later, the enemies who threaten British India are disparaged as being ignorant, vindictive, petty, while the British by contrast are mostly liked by the Indian people and take a genuine curiosity in the sub-continent. Of course, in reality this may have been different, but we do know that there was substantial buy-in from the Indian population. There had to be when there were only some 1,500 British administrators and “army” to govern a country of many hundreds of millions of peoples. (It is hard to keep draconian military rule over a country when your army is as diminutive as the metropolitan British tended to be). Key to this, was the support of the Indian upper class and indirect rulers.

In Kim, the only indirect ruler introduced is the elderly Kulu woman (never directly
named) who is encountered in a passing caravan. But while specific mention of indirect leaders may be limited, the elderly woman makes up for it with great loyalty and assistance to Kim and through him the British in general. She helps the Lama, provides a resting place when Kim and the Lama travel into the mountains, and take care of them and nurse them upon her return. She forges extraordinarily strong ties to them, much like the strong ties that existed between the British and their indirect leaders, or at least that the British attempted to cultivate. In the narrative this is not always demonstrated as a success. The states of Hilás and Bunár 9 were mentioned where the succession will be altered by the British due to treasonous contact with the Russians. But at the same time these are analytical and distant, and the British have quite public and obvious displays of affection from their indirect leadership. That the woman is unnamed further can reinforce her universalism and demonstrate that any powerful and prestigious local person can rightly allow themselves with the British and receive profligate numbers of largely meaningless medals.

Rule through local intermediaries was vital to almost every colonial power.
Rule through local intermediaries was vital to almost every colonial power.

While the sahiba may be the only person who is directly shown as one of the indirect rulers that the British took advantage of, we are still reinforced with a strong feeling of hierarchy throughout the book. There is appropriate deference to those in higher positions of superiority; consider the coolie’s complains after the Russian struck the Lama. “He struck the Holy One-- -we saw it! Our cattle will be barren-- -our wives will cease to bear! The snows will side upon us as we go home. . . . On top of all other oppression too”. To strike a person of a position of authority leads not only to a vehement response from the man who was struck, but shock and horror at the natural way of things from others.

With such a wonderful system already in place for controlling India, there is little the
British necessarily need to change. British interpretations of their role in the Indian social order are not so much defined by its presence, but conversely by the lack thereof - - at least after 1857 and the sudden realization that Indian society wasn’t reactionary, feudal, and despotic, and instead natural and needing to be preserved. This stands in contrast to the changes the British are wreaking elsewhere, in medicine and infrastructure. It is rare for us to encounter a European outside of the Army or certain administrative tasks (although more common than during the era probably). We know that change has been affected in the past - most famously the suppression of Suttee (widow burning). However, there is no mention of British social campaigns, even though near the same time the British altered the age of consent from 10 to 12, a move that provoked intense protest and debate. In Kim, no mention is made of this. Kim is devoted not to the cultural role the British play in India - - the closest they get is missionaries, which are only mentioned intermittently - - but instead to the British progressive/scientific developments, intelligence, and military role.

Of course, while all of this is said one must always have the great literary problem during the time of British rule of reconciling the power of the Raj with the always potentially shaky foundations that always underpinned it. Kipling seems to have surpassed such a debate and instead realized the omnipotent and all powerful nature of the British in India who brook no rival or enemy. British intelligence is extremely widespread throughout the entirety of the novel, with seemingly almost everyone being a British intelligence agent of some sort - - all very competent
and skillful. The average British reader could most assuredly rest comfortably after being informed of how vigorously India was policed and kept in check by the Empire, against all enemies - both internal, and external.

The Great Game between Russia and Britain : Britain was extremely paranoid (excessively so), about Russian forays towards India.
The Great Game between Russia and Britain : Britain was extremely paranoid (excessively so), about Russian forays towards India.

Not only are the British quite capable, but their opponents are by contrast miserably
incompetent. The Russians and the French believe Hurree Babu’s tale of oppression visited upon him almost without reservations.

“They gave him a glass of whitish fluid like to gin, and then more; and in a little time his gravity departed from him. He became thickly treasonous, and spoke in terms of
sweeping indecency of government which had forced upon him a white man’s education and neglected to supply him with a white man’s salary. He babbled tales of oppression and wrong till the tears ran down his cheeks for the miseries of his land… Never was so unfortunate a product of English rule in India more unhappily thrust upon aliens… “Yes, to fight a fellow-Continental in our game is something. There is a risk attached, but these people-- -bah! it is too easy.”... “He has lost his own country and has not acquired any other. But he has a most complete hatred of his conquerors. listen. He confides to me last night.”

In addition, the Russian is quite cruel and ignorant. “It was too late. Before Kim could ward him off, the Russian struck the old man full on the face.” No Briton in the book (O’Hara the drummer boy doesn’t count since he is lower class and therefore not a True Briton™) would do the same. The British are juxtaposed as being wiser and less vainly proud than the Russians and the French, fitting well into a racial and social hierarchy which leaves the Europeans as better than the natives and the British as the premier Europeans. Their enemies are portrayed as incompetent and underwhelming, and any British force used against them is validated.
In contrast to their Russian/French counterparts, the British serving to defend India are not only very competent, but furthermore scientifically curious, at ease with the local people, and intellectually advanced. Consider the case of Colonel Creighton, the British officer eager to one day be a member of the Royal Society. Like many others in British India’s military he has a direct and genuine interest in India, which certainly can be compared positively to the brutish and ignorant nature of both the Russian and French officer. Of course, it must be understood that one certainly cannot go too far in sympathizing with the Indians, as related by the boys of St. Xaviers. “One must never forget that one is a sahib, and that some day, when examinations are passed, one will command natives”. But the British within this position of command like to think of themselves as comfortable. “True; but thou art a Sahib and the son of a Sahib. Therefor, do not at any time be led to contemn the black men. I have known boys newly entered into the service of the Government who feigned not to understand the talk or the customs of black men. Their pay was cut for ignorance. There is no sin so great as ignorance. Remember this”.

Indian railroad map : the British loved railroads.
Indian railroad map : the British loved railroads.

Naturally, being written at the high point of the British Raj, Kim represents the Victorian view of progress, using railroads as a manifestation thereof. There is no mention at all of the negative aspects of railroads - -the vast death toll in their construction, their financial exploitation of India, nor their creation of an exploitative colonial economy. Instead, the railroad’s positive benefits are extolled, bringing faster transport and movement, and even the natives seem genuinely overjoyed at the progress brought. For example, the Lama says, “The government has brought on us many taxes, but it gives us one good thing - the te-rain [train] which joines friends and unites the anxious. A wonderful matter is the te-rain”. This is very much a British reflection of their view of technological progress; beneficial to everybody and popular with all parties.

Although not as central to the British as the railroad, there is referral to the progressive medical knowledge of the British. Kim may learn medicine from Lurgan Sahib(who seems an interesting English-native hybrid to an extent), but Kim alone is the one who actively brings it to help the local people, for which they are ever grateful. “In the night the fever broke and the sweat came,” he cried. “Feel here-- -his skin is fresh and new!”...[kim]”Thank the god of the Jains brother,”he said, not knowing how these gods were named. “The fever is indeed broken”. The British are thus demonstrating that what they are doing in India is directly assisting the local people, for which they are have gratitude.

Kim of course, is unique in that he bridges the world between native and Briton. Initially in his native guise he resists heavily the idea of being civilized and educated.

“Trust a Brahim before a snake, and a snake before an harlot, and an harlot before an Afghan, Mahbub Ali”. “That is all one”. The great red beard wagged solemnly. “Children should not see a carpet on the loom till the pattern is made plain. Believe me, Friend of all the World, I do thee great service. They will not make a soldier of thee”.

Ultimately, however, he comes to appreciate the benefits adapting offers, notably after changes were made and he was inserted into his proper milieu as an elite European in training. This is perhaps symbolic to the initial hostility the Indians enjoined to the British, before the British rule in India was so heavily modified after the Sepoy Mutiny - - whereupon of course, all problems whatsoever vanished. (Entirely unlike the French in Algeria or any other colonial powers who did not live up to the unimpeachable standards that the British set, in the British view) “I was senseless, for I was newly caught, and I wished to kill that low-caste drummer boy. I saw now, Hajji, that it was well done, and that I see my road all clear me for me to a good service. I will stay in the madressah till I am ripe”. This depicts the resistance of a child who then realizes of the benefits that Western civilization has to offer him and gratefully accepts them.

A scene from one of the famines in British India : tens of millions at the least died throughout British rule of hunger.
A scene from one of the famines in British India : tens of millions at the least died throughout British rule of hunger.

So too, the British rarely, if ever, mention the explicitly negative sides of their rule. In
Kim, there is no mention of hunger. Even beggars seem to find plentiful food. This plentiful bounty of food, furthermore directly connected to the government. “Behind them, walking wide and stiffly across the strong shadows, the memory of his leg-irons still on him, strode one newly released from the jail; his full stomach and shiny skin to prove that the Government fed its prisoners better than most honest men could feed themselves.” This would be at or near the same time period of the Indian famine of 1896-1897, however no mention of this is made whatsoever. India is a happy place of overflowing bowls of curry and efficient railroads where everybody is overjoyed with the British presence.

All of these factors that Kipling employed in Kim’s narrative, lead the reader to adopt a rosy picture of India which is progressing handily under British guidance - a guidance India most certainly needs - and importantly only achieved under British guidance. Their rivals are too ignorant and incompetent to ever hope to fulfill their place, and the Indian social system has evolved to the extent to make their hierarchical system self-sustaining and with genuine popular loyalty. India, in the 1890s, has little to fear from any any enemy, and can rest securely as the
jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Kim is not only the highest stage of Imperialism, Kim is the highest stage of Empire.

Bibliography

Bannerji, Himani , Age of Consent and Hegemonic Social Reform, HSU 2015. Carton, Adrian, Faire and Well Formed, Portuguese Women and Symbolic Whiteness in Early Colonial India, Humboldt State University, 2015.

Douglas, Peers M., “Colonial Knowledge and the Military in India 1780-1860”, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 33, no. 2 (may 2005) Academic Search Premier. 20

Internet History Sourcebooks Project, Indian Customs and Manners, Fordham University 1840, Web, 2015 <https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/india/1840elphinstone.asp>
Kipling, Rudyard, Kim, Mineola, Dover Publication inc., 1901, print.

Laxman, Satya D, “British Imperial Railways in Nineteenth Century South Asia”, Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 47 (november 22-28 2008), J-Stor.

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