Written during Britain’s imperial rule of India, Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is essentially a parable about the moral authority of the British Empire. Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, two British men living in India, have signed a contract stating that they will abide by a strict moral code: they will not touch women or alcohol until they have become kings of the land of Kafiristan. Yet soon after becoming a king, Dravot decides that the terms of the contract have been met and commands his subjects to bring him a wife. As a direct result of abandoning his moral code, Dravot loses all of his power and meets a violent end. A framing narrative, in which the narrator describes his experiences as a newspaper correspondent in India, brackets the story of Carnehan and Dravot’s adventures in Kafiristan and situates the story firmly within the context of British colonial rule. Like Daniel and Peachey, Kipling suggests, the empire cannot maintain control of its colonies if it loses its moral authority.
Near the beginning of the story, Carnehan shows the narrator the “Contrack” he has signed with Dravot as evidence that their desire to become kings of Kafiristan is serious. The contract describes a morality in keeping with Victorian ideals: neither man will “look at any Liquor, nor any Woman black, white, or brown” until they have become kings. The narrator thinks Carnehan and Dravot are fools, but Carnehan uses the contract to establish his credibility, asking the narrator rhetorically, “Would two lunatics make a Contrack like that?” As far as Carnehan and Dravot are concerned, this contract demonstrates that their ambition to rule is valid. In this scene, Kipling directly ties Carnehan and Dravot’s moral code to the perceived legitimacy of their colonial aspirations.
Once Carnehan and Dravot have conquered Kafiristan, they further seek to justify their colonization by claiming to have improved the lives of its people. Dravot tells the Kafirs to “dig the land, and be fruitful and multiply,” and he installs the village priest as the judge in a rudimentary legal system. Carnehan notes that he has provided military training and has “shown the people how to stack their oats better,” demonstrating that he believes he has improved the lives of the people he has subjugated. Carnehan also states that the people don’t understand Dravot’s commands but benefit from them anyway.
Dravot and Carnehan obviously would like to think of their paternalism as benevolent; they believe they are helping the people of Kafiristan become “civilized.” Carnehan even suggests that governing is an obligation that weighs more heavily on the colonizer than the colonized, noting that “Kings always feel oppressed that way.” Kipling does not challenge Carnehan and Dravot’s perception that they have brought “civilization” to Kafiristan, which suggests that the author is not opposed to colonialism in principle, however ambivalent he may be about some elements of its implementation.
Dravot’s moral failure is what eventually causes his political (and literal) downfall. Dravot explicitly states that personal power is more important to him than improving Kafiristan. He pretends to be a god, has a crown made for him, and says that his goal is “to make Kafiristan a country where every man should eat in peace and drink in quiet, and specially obey us.” Just before the story’s climax, Dravot abandons the moral code of his contract with Carnehan by deciding to get married. He abuses his power by commanding the community to give him a wife against their—and her—will. Dravot’s unwilling bride bites him, and when the people see his blood, they conclude that he is not a god after all but an imposter. They rebel, and Dravot falls to his death when his former subjects cut away a rope bridge on which he is standing. Dravot’s death is therefore a direct consequence of his corrupt motivations and the abandonment of his moral code.
By embedding the main story within an account of the narrator’s experiences in colonial India, Kipling emphasizes a historical precedent for the events of “The Man Who Would Be King.” Carnehan tells the narrator, “The country isn’t half worked out because they that governs it won’t let you touch it. They spend all their blessed time in governing it, and you can’t lift a spade, nor chip a rock, nor look for oil, nor anything like that without all the Government saying—‘Leave it alone, and let us govern.’” Kipling’s original audience would have understood that Carnehan was complaining about the fact that the British Crown now ruled India directly, whereas previously it had ruled indirectly through the East India Company. As a result of this change in government, Indians had gained at least some nominal legal rights, so Carnehan essentially is complaining that he no longer can exploit Indians and steal their natural resources to the extent that he would like. Furthermore, this change in government was a consequence of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (also known as the Sepoy Mutiny or India’s First War of Independence), in which Indians staged a violent uprising against the oppressive rule of the East India Company. The fictional rebellion of the natives in Kafiristan thus parallels the real Rebellion of 1857.
As a matter of principle, Kipling appears to accept the imperialist idea that colonialism can have a positive impact on the colonized. However, he does criticize the motives of the colonizers and suggests that a loss of moral credibility has been—and could continue to be—disastrous for the British Empire.
Morality and Colonialism ThemeTracker
Morality and Colonialism Quotes in The Man Who Would Be King
There had been a Deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty, or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated.
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.
“Would two lunatics make a Contrack like that?” said Carnehan, with subdued pride, showing me a greasy half-sheet of notepaper on which was written the following. I copied it, then and there, as a curiosity—
This Contract between me and you persuing witnesseth in the name of God—Amen and so forth.
(One) That me and you will settle this matter together; i.e., to be Kings of Kafiristan.
(Two) That you and me will not, while this matter is being settled, look at any Liquor, nor any Woman black, white, or brown, so as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful.
(Three) That we conduct ourselves with Dignity and Discretion, and, if one of us gets into trouble the other will stay by him.
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.
One morning I heard the devil’s own noise of drums and horns, and Dan Dravot marches down the hill with his Army and a tail of hundreds of men, and, which was the most amazing, a great gold crown on his head. “My Gord, Carnehan,” says Daniel, “this is a tremenjus business, and we’ve got the whole country as far as it’s worth having. I am the son of Alexander by Queen Semiramis, and you’re my younger brother and a God too! It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever seen. I’ve been marching and fighting for six weeks with the Army, and every footy little village for fifty miles has come in rejoiceful; and more than that, I’ve got the key of the whole show, as you’ll see, and I’ve got a crown for you! I told ’em to make two of ’em at a place called Shu, where the gold lies in the rock like suet in mutton. Gold I’ve seen, and turquoise I’ve kicked out of the cliffs, and there’s garnets in the sands of the river, and here’s a chunk of amber that a man brought me. Call up all the priests and, here, take your crown.”
“There’s another thing too,” says Dravot, walking up and down. “The winter’s coming, and these people won’t be giving much trouble, and if they do we can’t move about. I want a wife.”
“For Gord’s sake leave the women alone!” I says. “We’ve both got all the work we can, though I am a fool. Remember the Contrack, and keep clear o’ women.”
“The Contrack only lasted till such time as we was Kings; and Kings we have been these months past,” says Dravot, weighing his crown in his hand. “You go get a wife too, Peachey—a nice, strappin’, plump girl that’ll keep you warm in the winter. They’re prettier than English girls, and we can take the pick of ’em. Boil ’em once or twice in hot water, and they’ll come out like chicken and ham.”
Up comes the girl, and a strapping wench she was, covered with silver and turquoises, but white as death, and looking back every minute at the priests. “She’ll do,” said Dan, looking her over. “What’s to be afraid of, lass? Come and kiss me.” He puts his arm round her. She shuts her eyes, gives a bit of a squeak, and down goes her face in the side of Dan’s flaming red beard. “The slut’s bitten me!” says he, clapping his hand to his neck, and, sure enough, his hand was red with blood. Billy Fish and two of his matchlock-men catches hold of Dan by the shoulders and drags him into the Bashkai lot, while the priests howls in their lingo, —“Neither God nor Devil, but a man!” I was all taken aback, for a priest cut at me in front, and the Army behind began firing into the Bashkai men.
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.
He fumbled in the mass of rags round his bent waist; brought out a black horsehair bag embroidered with silver thread; and shook therefrom on to my table—the dried, withered head of Daniel Dravot! The morning sun that had long been paling the lamps struck the red beard and blind, sunken eyes; struck, too, a heavy circlet of gold studded with raw turquoises, that Carnehan placed tenderly on the battered temples. “You be’old now,” said Carnehan, “the Emperor in his ’abit as he lived—the King of Kafiristan with his crown upon his head. Poor old Daniel that was a monarch once!”