Kipling and Conrad

Tesina – Esame di Stato II ciclo 2002

Cornelli Andrea

Two different visions about imperialism

The British Victorian colonial experience was especially reflected in the works of two writers Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling; while the former criticised the Empire since it was based on absolute exploitation, the latter exalted imperial power and believed in the “burden” of the British, who, as the elected race, had to carry civilisation all over the world and establish their government based on honour and dignity. In 1898 Kipling celebrated the American conquest of the Philippines in a poem, The White Mans burden: which made him the bard of the British 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.

Kipling wrote “epics rather than novels”; his major works Kim and The Jungle Books are a series of episodes held together by a central character: Kim and Mowgli, who both represent the “citizen of two worlds”. Kim is between India and England, and Mowgli between the village and the jungle but at the same time they bridge two different words. Kipling placed a great deal of his divided lave far India and England in these two characters, who are citizens of the Empire, just like himself.


In the passage that follows Kim and the old lama are about to stare their pilgrimage to Benares, where the sacred river flows,. they are at a railway station and the boy is reassuring the old man about the train ride.

<<They entered the fort-like railway station, black in the end of night,- the electric sizzling over the goods-yard where they handle the heavy Northern grain traffic.

‘This is the work of devils!” said the lama, recoiling from the hollow echoing darkness, the glimmer of rails between the masonry platforms, and the maze of girders above. He stood in a gigantic stone hall paved, it seemed, with the sheeted dead – third-class passengers who had taken their tickets overnight and were sleeping in the waiting-rooms. All hours of the twenty-four are alike to Orientals, and their passenger traffic is regulated accordingly.

‘This is where the fire-carriages come. One stands behind that hole” – Kim pointed to the ticket-office – ‘who will give thee a paper to take thee to Umballa. “But we go to Benares, ” he replied petulantly,- ‘All one. Benares then. Quick: she comes!”

‘Take thou the purse.’ The lama, not so well used to trains as he had pretended, started as the 3.25 a. m. south bound roared in. The sleepers sprung to lire, and the station filled with clamour and shootings, cries of water and sweetmeat vendors, shouts of native policemen, and shrill yells of women gathering up their baskets, their families, and their husbands.

‘It is the train – only the te-rain II. It will not come here. Wait!” Amazed at the lamas immense simplicity (he had handed him a small bag full of rupees), Kim asked and paid for a ticket to Umballa. A sleepy clerk grunted and fl’ung out a ticket to the next station, just six miles distant.

‘Nay, ” said Kim, scanning it with a grin. ‘This may serve for farmers, but I dive in the city of Lahore. It was cleverly done, babu. Now give the ticket to Umballa.’

The babu scowled and dealt the proper ticket. ‘Now another to Amritzar,’ said Kim, who had no notion of spending Mahbub Ali’s money on anything so crude as a paid ride to Umballa. ‘The price is so much. The small money in return is just so much. I know the ways of the te-rain. … Never did yogi need chela as thou dost, ” he went on merrily to the bewildered lama. ‘They would have fl’ung thee out at Mian Mir but for me. This way! Come. ” He returned the money, keeping only one anna in each rupee of the price of the Umballa ticket as his commission – the immemorial commission of Asia.

The lama jibbed at the open door of a crowded third-class carriage. “Were it not better to walk?’ said he weakly. >>

In this passage is evident how the old lama is considered by Kipling: he is a man who is not able to take advantage of the possibilities which progress gave him. This critic may be enlarged to all those populations of the colonies because their weakness gives to the white men t e right to use their sources and enslave their people. However, this one is not the only interpretation of the reality given by English writers, as Joseph Conrad gives an opposite consideration about the imperialism: he criticises the cruelty of English colonisers who think only to enrich themselves and make black people in terrible conditions. This idea is evident in the following passage, taken from a Conrad’s work: Heart of Darkness.

<<‘A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together,- with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent it was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea. Ali their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off, and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder with alacrity. This was simple prudence, white men being so much alike at a distance that he could not tell who I might be. He was speedily reassured, and with a large, white, rascally grin, and a glance at his charge, seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust.