In an attempt to justify colonialism, European colonial powers routinely portrayed the people they subjugated as “uncivilized” and, it would follow, deserving of (and even benefiting from) their colonization. A large part of this stereotype involved seeing colonized people as primitive, superstitious, and cruel. Despite Kipling’s critique of the British Empire’s moral failings, “The Man Who Would Be King”—written during the Empire’s rule of India—largely embraces this portrayal and so upholds the fundamentally flawed ideology behind colonialism.
For one thing, the story depicts the colonized as technologically backward. When Carnehan and Dravot set out for Kafiristan, they carry with them a supply of “Martinis.” These rifles, which were standard issue for British soldiers at the time, were products of British technological and industrial power. In contrast, the inhabitants of Kafiristan have bows, of which Carnehan is quite dismissive: he refers to one of their projectiles as “a footy little arrow.”
Carnehan and Dravot introduce new agricultural techniques to Kafiristan as well, further demonstrating their technological superiority. The narrator also describes the Native States—the vassal states allied with the British Empire but governed by Indian rulers—as “touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Harun-al-Raschid.” Harun-al-Raschid was a historical ruler, but he is better known as a character in One Thousand and One Nights; to Kipling’s European readers, his name would have evoked the stereotypically violent and exotic world of Arabian folktales. To the narrator, meanwhile, the railway and telegraph—both European technological innovations—are signs of civilization; the Native States, who have limited access to these technologies, are thus depicted as being on the margins of the civilized world.
Furthermore, the natives of Kafiristan are portrayed as superstitious heathens who are less religiously sophisticated than Carnehan and Dravot. Dravot notes that the people of Kafiristan have “two-and-thirty heathen idols,” and Carnehan refers to them as “a stinkin’ lot of heathens.” When Dravot and Carnehan arrive at a village in Kafiristan, Dravot establishes his position by pretending to be a friend of the local gods. His act is farcical and condescending—he refers to the deities as “these old jim-jams”—and yet it works, indicating that the religion of Kafiristan is primitive. And though the priests of Kafiristan are familiar with Masonic symbols and rituals, Carnehan and Dravot’s understanding of these rites is far greater—a fact that allows them to turn the situation to their advantage.
The story also shows that the colonized—both in India and in Kafiristan—are uncivilized by depicting them as irrationally violent. Carnehan, when the narrator first meets him, is on his way to blackmail a local king, Degumber Rajah. The king has killed his father’s widow by stuffing her full of red pepper, hanging her from a beam, and having her beaten to death with slippers, a clear demonstration of Degumber’s cruelty. The narrator then refers to the people of Afghanistan as “utter brutes,” and he says they will cut Carnehan and Dravot to pieces, further emphasizing the supposed savagery of the region’s inhabitants. Carnehan and Dravot’s plan further relies on the expectation that the people of Kafiristan are constantly fighting one another. This turns out to be the case—the first people they encounter upon arrival are in the middle of a battle.
In contrast to the inhabitants of India and Kafiristan, whose violence seems gratuitous and irrational, Carnehan and Dravot deploy violence purposefully as a tool for imposing order and spreading civilization. For example, when Dravot sets up a new legal system in the area they have conquered, he says that if anything goes wrong, the local priest “is to be shot.” This threat of violence turns out to be both effective and beneficial to the colonized: “Next week they was all turning up the land in the valley as quiet as bees and much prettier.” By attributing different motivations to each, Kipling attempts to justify the violence of the colonizer even as he condemns the violence of the colonized.
Although Kipling criticizes the behavior of the British Empire in India, “The Man Who Would Be King” also portrays the colonized as fundamentally uncivilized—a portrayal that seeks to justify colonialism as one superior group “helping” their inferiors. In the decades after Kipling’s writing, of course, such a viewpoint would be challenged and debunked as Indians threw off the yoke of British rule.
Civilization and the Colonized ThemeTracker
Civilization and the Colonized Quotes in The Man Who Would Be King
They do not understand that nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to the other. They are the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty, touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Harun-al-Raschid.
Then ten men with bows and arrows ran down that valley, chasing twenty men with bows and arrows, and the row was tremenjus. They was fair men—fairer than you or me—with yellow hair and remarkable well built. Says Dravot, unpacking the guns—“This is the beginning of the business. We’ll fight for the ten men,” and with that he fires two rifles at the twenty men, and drops one of them at two hundred yards from the rock where he was sitting. The other men began to run, but Carnehan and Dravot sits on the boxes picking them off at all ranges, up and down the valley. Then we goes up to the ten men that had run across the snow too, and they fires a footy little arrow at us. Dravot he shoots above their heads, and they all falls down flat. Then he walks over them and kicks them, and then he lifts them up and shakes hands all round to make them friendly like.
Then all the people comes down and shouts like the devil and all, and Dravot says—“Go and dig the land, and be fruitful and multiply,” which they did, though they didn't understand. Then we asks the names of things in their lingo—bread and water and fire and idols and such, and Dravot leads the priest of each village up to the idol, and says he must sit there and judge the people, and if anything goes wrong he is to be shot.
Next week they was all turning up the land in the valley as quiet as bees and much prettier, and the priests heard all the complaints and told Dravot in dumb show what it was about.
“Shake hands with him,” says Dravot, and I shook hands and nearly dropped, for Billy Fish gave me the Grip. I said nothing, but tried him with the Fellow Craft Grip. He answers all right, and I tried the Master’s Grip, but that was a slip. “A Fellow Craft he is!” I says to Dan. “Does he know the word?”—“He does,” says Dan, “and all the priests know. It’s a miracle! The Chiefs and the priests can work a Fellow Craft Lodge in a way that’s very like ours, and they’ve cut the marks on the rocks, but they don’t know the Third Degree, and they’ve come to find out. It’s Gord’s Truth. I’ve known these long years that the Afghans knew up to the Fellow Craft Degree, but this is a miracle. A God and a Grand-Master of the Craft am I, and a Lodge in the Third Degree I will open, and we’ll raise the head priests and the Chiefs of the villages.”
“It’s against all the law,” I says, “holding a Lodge without warrant from any one; and you know we never held office in any Lodge.”
“It’s a master-stroke o’ policy,” says Dravot.
Dravot talked big about powder-shops and factories, walking up and down in the pine wood when the winter was coming on.
“I won’t make a Nation,” says he; “I’ll make an Empire! These men aren’t niggers; they’re English! Look at their eyes—look at their mouths. Look at the way they stand up. They sit on chairs in their own houses. They’re the Lost Tribes, or something like it, and they’ve grown to be English. I’ll take a census in the spring if the priests don’t get frightened. There must be a fair two million of ’em in these hills. The villages are full o’ little children. Two million people—two hundred and fifty thousand fighting men—and all English! They only want the rifles and a little drilling. Two hundred and fifty thousand men ready to cut in on Russia’s right flank when she tries for India! Peachey, man,” he says, chewing his beard in great hunks, “we shall be Emperors—Emperors of the Earth!”
“My own notion is that Dan began to go mad in his head from that hour. He stared up and down like a stuck pig. Then he was all for walking back alone and killing the priests with his bare hands; which he could have done. “An Emperor am I,” says Daniel, “and next year I shall be a Knight of the Queen.”
“All right, Dan,” says I; “but come along now while there’s time.”
“It’s your fault,” says he, “for not looking after your Army better. There was mutiny in the midst, and you didn’t know—you damned engine-driving, plate-laying, missionary’s-pass-hunting hound!” He sat upon a rock and called me every foul name he could lay tongue to. I was too heart-sick to care, though it was all his foolishness that brought the smash.
“I’m sorry, Dan,” says I, “but there’s no accounting for natives. This business is our Fifty-Seven. Maybe we’ll make something out of it yet, when we’ve got to Bashkai.”
They marched him a mile across that snow to a rope-bridge over a ravine with a river at the bottom. You may have seen such. They prodded him behind like an ox. “Damn your eyes!” says the King. “D’you suppose I can’t die like a gentleman?” He turns to Peachey—Peachey that was crying like a child. “I’ve brought you to this, Peachey,” says he. “Brought you out of your happy life to be killed in Kafiristan, where you was late Commander-in-Chief of the Emperor’s forces. Say you forgive me, Peachey.”—“I do,” says Peachey. “Fully and freely do I forgive you, Dan.”—“Shake hands, Peachey,” says he. “I’m going now.” Out he goes, looking neither right nor left, and when he was plumb in the middle of those dizzy dancing ropes, “Cut, you beggars,” he shouts; and they cut, and old Dan fell, turning round and round and round, twenty thousand miles, for he took half an hour to fall till he struck the water, and I could see his body caught on a rock with the gold crown close beside.