Tu regere imperio populos Romane memento
Hae tibi erunt artes pacisque imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos . . .

("Roman! let this be your care, this your art;
to rule over the nations and impose the ways
of peace, to spare the underdog, and pull down
the proud.") — Aneid VI. 851; quoted in Kipling's "Regulus."

In Kipling's work, as in his life, the British Empire assumed a complex mythical or legendary function, which he passed on to his readers. It was a positive force in the sense that it ordered and unified his creativity, and a negative one to the extent that it limited his perspective. In life he seems to have thought of it very much as one might have thought of the earlier Roman Empire: its purpose was to maintain stability, order, and peace amongst the heathen, to relieve famine, provide medical assistance, to abolish slavery, to construct the physical and the psychological groundwork for "civilization," and to protect the mother country. It was an island of security in a chaotic world. (And in fact, when the Empire did eventually dissolve, many of the worst nightmares of the Imperialists came to pass--in the slaughter which marked the partition of India, for example).

The White Man's Burden was, so far as (culturally patronising) Imperialists of Kipling's stripe were concerned, a genuine burden — Kipling viewed his Imperialism, predicated on deeply-held political, racial, moral, and religious beliefs which sustained a feeling of innate British superiority, as being primarily a moral responsibility: it might also be profitable (an aspect of things emphasized in Evangelical circles), but it had itself to be maintained, defended, and protected — from rival world powers and from the rebellious governed, although ideally these last would recognize their inferiority and freely obey their superiors &mdsh; by a specially trained and devoted elite. "We are called upon to rule," as Trollope had written in Disraeli's Britain in 1872, "not for our glory, but for their happiness." The Army and the Navy were sustained by an officer class of Gentlemen, but that class, their mission, and their sacrifices &mdsh; real and imaginary &mdsh; on behalf of the masses at home were largely ignored. Their code, the code of the English public schools, was one of duty and endurance and fortitude in the face of overwhelming difficulties.

Jingoism was rampant in Britain in the 1880s and '90s, as it was, indeed, up until 1915; but Kipling, though he was frequently parodied as such, was by no means the most rabid of the jingos. In spite — or perhaps because of — the fact that he was himself, all his life, something of an outsider, however, he made himself the interpreter, propagandist, and chief apologist of the Imperialist elite, and was therefore profoundly suspicious both of Democracy and of the members of the British Liberal intellegentsia who opposed Imperialism as a philosophy and who might coerce the masses into employing the vote to betray their heritage and their resonsibilities. He saw World War I as a threat not only to Britain itself but to her civilizing mission, and one of the many ironies which permeate "Mary Postgate," and indicate the real complexity of Kipling's art, is the notion that Mary must dispense with the moral code of the Victorian elite in order to preserve the society which sustained it.


Victorian England History Rudyard Kipling

Last modified 1988