At the beginning of the story, the narrator’s description of an intermediate-class train journey provides a succinct account of India’s racially stratified society under British governance. The British of Kipling’s world believe themselves to be racially superior to the people they have colonized, and they use this prejudiced ideology to justify their rule. Initially, Carnehan and Dravot’s insistence on the whiteness of the Kafirs appears to complicate this notion of the colonizer’s racial superiority. However, there are some hints that Carnehan and Dravot’s claims about the whiteness of those they have colonized may not be reliable. Their rejection of the racial distinction between colonizer and colonized ultimately leads to their downfall, and the story thus reinforces the racist underpinnings of colonialism.
Due to a budget shortfall, the narrator, despite being white, is forced to travel in the train’s intermediate class, which he describes as “very awful indeed.” The narrator divides the other passengers in intermediate class into three racial categories, which provides insight into the racial hierarchy in India under the British Crown. The first category is Eurasian—that is, people of mixed European and South Asian descent. The narrator seems to believe these are the people who naturally belong in intermediate class. The second category is “native, which for a long night journey is nasty.” The narrator does not feel any need to explain what he means by this; to him, the nastiness of native Indians is self-evident. The third category is “Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated.” These are white passengers who lack the financial means to travel in first or second class. “Loafer” is thus more or less the British colonial equivalent of “white trash.”
Carnehan and Dravot repeatedly emphasize that the colonized inhabitants of Kafiristan, in contrast to those of India, are white. When Carnehan first describes the Kafirs, he says, “They was fair men—fairer than you or me—with yellow hair and remarkable well built.” The source of the conflict between two villages in Kafiristan turns out to be a woman “that was carried off.” Carnehan again insists to the narrator that the woman was “as fair as you or me.” After Carnehan and Dravot have exploited their knowledge of Masonic rituals to cement their control of Kafiristan, Carnehan once again notes how racism shapes his attitude toward the local people: “Then the Chiefs come round to shake hands, and they were so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends.”
Carnehan and Dravot seem to conflate whiteness and morality. Dravot tells the Kafirs, “I know that you won't cheat me, because you’re white people—sons of Alexander—and not like common, black Mohammedans.” And when, in an effort to convince Dravot not to take a wife, Carnehan reminds him of a Bengali woman who cheated on Carnehan and stole his money, Dravot claims that this situation will be different, because “these women are whiter than you or me.”
There are, however, some hints that Carnehan and Dravot’s claims about the whiteness of those they have colonized are either mistaken or misleading. For example, Dravot, speaking of the women of Kafiristan, says, “Boil ’em once or twice in hot water, and they’ll come out like chicken and ham.” This (appallingly misogynist) simile suggests that the natives’ complexion may not be as pale as Dravot claims; if it were, boiling would not be required to make them “like chicken and ham” (that is, white). In addition, Dravot has a strong motive to simply believe that the Kafirs are white. In his view, this would justify both his desire to make them into a great empire and his desire to marry one of them. On account of this bias, his assertions about their whiteness may not be entirely reliable.
Dravot makes two important decisions based on the dubious claim that the natives of Kafiristan are white (and therefore, in his view, morally upright): he trusts them not to rebel, and he marries one of them. Both of these decisions backfire horribly, resulting in the loss not only of Dravot’s power but also of his life.
Kipling, like other Victorian advocates for colonialism, believed in the racial superiority of white Europeans. By insisting on the whiteness of the Kafirs, Carnehan and Dravot erase the racial distinction between colonizer and colonized, which leads to their demise. Kipling seems to be suggesting that if the British abandon their commitment to the idea of white superiority, then, the results will be equally disastrous.
Race and Racism ThemeTracker
Race and Racism 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.
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.
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!”
“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.”