The British Empire in English Novels: Kim and Burmese Days

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880's

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880’s

At her zenith, the British Empire governed a quarter of the Earth’s land and brought roughly a quarter of the word’s population under her dominion. The Empire was so huge that it was hailed as the empire ‘on which the sun never sets’. Yet by 1920s, the very word ’empire’ became an object of ridicule. David Low, the satirical cartoonist, even represented the British Empire as Colonel Blimp – a middle – aged man who is pompous, aggressive, shallow and slow – witted. The unwarranted self-assurance in the late nineteenth century has descended to self – doubting and deteriorated into shattered confidence. This process has been illustrated in many English novels, among which Kim (Rudyard Kipling) and Burmese Days (George Orwell) are ones of the most representative works. 

Kipling and Orwell were both men of their times. Born in India, raised by an Indian woman and spoke only Urdu (one of the Indian languages) for his early years, Kipling was ironically a staunch imperialist, albeit one that is resourceful in and deeply sympathetic to Indian culture. With his various short stories and novel on the British India, he was described by Orwell as the ‘prophet of British imperialism’. It was no wonder that Orwell, born at a time when the British global power was waning and her legitimacy questioned, was standing at the opposing end of the spectrum. He despised colonialism and launched his vicious attacks in his first novel: Burmese Days and for that reason, V.S. Pritchett remarked that he was the ‘conscience of a generation’. The backgrounds and political standpoints of Kipling and Orwell were so different that they shared little similarity but for the fact that through acute observations and beautiful proses, they spoke for their ages.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

The protagonist in Kim was not unlike Kipling. He was an orphaned Irish boy born in India, raised by a low – cast Indian woman and who spoke fluent Urdu. The story is, in short, about how Kim or ‘Kimball O’Hara’, his English name, was engaged in the espionage activities of the British ‘Great Game’ – the strategic rivalry between the British Empire and Russia in Central Asia. Simultaneously, he befriended a lama who was on his quest to find the legendary ‘River of Arrow’. The plot proceeds with Kim’s trainings and mission with the British officers on one hand, and his friendship/discipleship with the lama on the other.

Kipling vibrantly described the Indian geography, culture and social life, particularly people from different castes and social groups. His portrayal, however, presents a false impressions in which all Indians, irrespective of their religions, social classes and economic positions, were living in harmony under the British rule. On the Grand Trunk Road, for example, Kim excitingly saw people of all different sorts, including the Sansis, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Jains, who peacefully went on their separate ways, as if suggesting that colonial rule brought tolerance and peace among the religions.

This somewhat subtle justification for British Empire can be compared with the old Indian’s account of the 1857 Great Mutiny, the first significant uprising against the British rule. Edward Said described the Mutiny that ‘For the Indians, the Mutiny was a nationalist uprising against British rule, which uncompromisingly re-asserted itself despite abuses, exploitation and seemingly unheeded native complaint’. In Niall Ferguson’s analysis, the central grievances behind the Mutiny was British desire to Christianize the Indians. Both accounts stressed the Mutiny as an uprising with real grievances against colonialism.

In Kim, Kipling brushed aside these grievances and reduced the Mutiny to nothing but ‘madness’. It was in the midst of chaos and inexplicable impulse that the mutineers ‘chose to kill the Sahib [White men]’s wives and children’. Kipling deliberately forged a picture of a group of ‘black’ Indians massacring the ‘white’ innocents. Furthermore, the fact that the story is told from the mouth of an old Indian soldier who stayed loyal to the British cause, rather than an English solider, added credibility to this simplistic explanation.

Gandhi in his barrister gown

Gandhi in his barrister gown

Kipling characterization of  Hurree Chunder Mookerjee (‘Babu’), the competent Indian spy for the British government, also reveals the nature of the British rule. As an Indian, he was more than English than an Englishman. He was pedantic enough to constantly refer to Anglicized Latin terms and to always cite Herbet Spencer and Shakespeare. His dream was to join the Royal Fellow Society. He also shockingly admitted his own inferiority as an Indian and hence his need to model himself as an English gentleman. It was this kind of totally Anglicized Indian that the British government can entrust work to.  After the Great Mutiny, reliance on Indians was substantially reduced as the ‘natives’ were no longer trustworthy. Those who can win their ways to the imperial civil service must have been Indians like Babu who completely internalized the British values and realized his racial inferiority.

Kipling’s treatment of the Grand Trunk Road, Great Munity and Babu respectively illustrate British legitimacy, self – justification and racial superiority. Together they form the core of the confidence behind the imperial rule. As John Keay, an English historian on India, has aptly described, the relationship between imperial British government and the Indian subjects is like doctor and patient; the doctor knows best what serves the patients. This relationship, according to Kim, was not problematic and even beneficial to the Indians.

The three pillars – legitimacy, self – justification and racial superiority – were each shattered by the violently anti – colonial Burmese Days. Being Orwell’s first novel and lesser known than Animal Farm and 1984Burmese Days was no less politically insightful. Not only was it based on Orwell’s experiences as a Burmese officer in the early 1920s, the details were so realistic that it was first published in North America to avoid any libel actions.

In essence, the story is about Flory, a lonely and disillusioned English timber merchant in Burma, who encountered Elizabeth Lackersteen, a charming but hopelessly superficial English girl coming to Burma to seek a respectable husband and a comfortable life. Flory quickly fell in love with her and they began an amiable relationship but for subsequent events that unfolded their fundamental differences. A sub – plot revolved around the rivalry between U Po Kyin, a high – ranking and corrupted native official, and Dr. Veraswami, a good – hearted but rather naive Indian doctor. To preempt the intrigues from U Po Kyin, Dr. Veraswami needed Flory’s support to enter the European Club.

19th century Burma

19th century Burma

The Club is crucial to the story. One reviewer commented that the Club ‘serves an index of the disintegration of imperial English manliness’. Another, focusing on imagery analysis, said that ‘the Club is another jungle, with its predators and victims, its cruelty hidden behind the veneer of civilization’. If Burmese Days is a summary of Orwell’s critiques against colonialism, the Club represents the summary of that summary. Flory witnessed that the Club members, his countrymen, were all inept and corrupted. Ellis was narrow – minded and unashamedly racist. Westfield paid little regard to law and was only too happy to shoot one or two Burmese to impose order. Mr.  Lackersteen was such a heavy drinker and was, perhaps, so representative of the Europeans in the colonial lands that Flory wryly commented that ‘booze as cement of empire’. The British Empire was sick on the inside. The colonialists did not even care to pay the fig leaf of respect to imperial justice and benevolence but indulged themselves in their own corrupted rhetoric.

Flory’s relationships with the ‘natives’ are also instructive in discerning the ambivalent attitude of the late British Empire toward her colonial subjects. Flory was torn between binding himself to the pukka sahib code that prohibited any entanglement in the natives’ disputes, and lending his support for Dr. Veraswami, his only friend and confidante. He despised Ma Hla May, his Burmese mistress, but felt deeply sorry when he drove her out. In the eyes of Ko S’la, his loyal servant, Flory was still a boy as he remained a bachelor, while Ko S’la already fathered five children. After witnessing the degeneracy of his own people, Flory knew that the racial superiority rhetoric is a heap of rubbish. As a result, he was at lost in handling the relationship with the natives. He can not treat them as slaves, as Ellis has done so with ease, but neither can he treat them as friends, since he was still racially a pukka sahib or white European.

Flory’s ambiguous relationship with the natives reflected the self – doubting British Empire in the early twentieth century. General Eyre who killed more two hundred people to suppress a rebellion in Jamaica was initially applauded and praised for his ‘spirit, energy and judgment’. The popular opinion, however, soon shifted and a Royal Commission was set up to inquire his conduct. This sort of schizoprenic attitude was similar shown in the treatment of Brigadier-General Dyer. Without any notice, he ordered firing on a group of protesters in Amritsar, India, and killed more than three hundred people. Again, his swift actions attracted applause and £26, 000 donation fund, a considerable sum at that time. Like Eyre, he was soon discredited when he was summoned to answer for his actions. He unabashedly admitted that the massacre was intended to ‘strike terror into the whole of the Punjab’. He was then kicked out of the army. Just like Flory, the people of the British Empire, influenced by liberalism and the recent abolition of slavery, no longer felt justified to see the colonial subjects as slaves. However the perceived racial distinctiveness prevented them from embracing the natives as a part of the humanity. The British Empire,like Flory, has fallen into self – doubting. The confidence of the British imperial rule – so much glorified in Kim – collapsed and crumbled to pieces.

The depiction of ‘natives’ similarly shows the Anglicisation policy of the British Empire. Like Babu in Kim, Dr. Veraswami admitted his own racial inferiority and was much thankful for all the British contributions, like ‘law and order’, ‘unswerving British Justice’ and ‘the Pax Britannica’. It was perhaps with this unreserved loyalty to the empire that Dr.Veraswami became the highest ranking official and became the deadly enemy of U Po Kyin, whose dream, by the way, was ‘to fight on the side of British’ and ‘to become a parasite upon them’. The most pungent scenes were every time that Ma Hla May came back to Flory after he fell in love with Elizabeth and drove her out. She powerdered so thickly that ‘it was like a clown’s mask’. At another night, her face ‘was coated with powder, sickly white in the moon’. All she tried to do was to bleach her yellow skin to white – the skin colour of the woman that her master loved.

While Kim represents the unquestioned optimism of British rule, Burmese Days captured the anxiety for the legitimacy of the late imperial rule.  The glorious imperialism in Kilping ‘s Kim is but corrupted colonialism in Orwell’s Burmese Days. The legitimacy and self – justification that Kipling tried so hard to construct degenerated into shameless faith in the use of coercive force and an unwavering conviction of one’s racial superiority. Despite these differences, they both serve as a mirror for the British Empire. Kim reflects the British Empire at his imperial manliness while Burmese Days impersonates the empire as ‘an aged female patient of the doctor’s’.

Kipling died in 1936; too early to witness the actual disintegration of the British Empire. Orwell was born in 1903; too late to feel the imperial greatness. One of the few men who can experience the panoramic view – the whole process of imperial greatness to uncontrollable disintegration – was Winston Churchill. Not even he, however, can stop the tide of history. The First World War crippled the British Empire and the Second World War killed it. United States of America rose up and took up the Olympic torch to continue another empire – building. History will have another Kipling and Orwell, albeit in American versions.

Extended readings: An Orphaned Manliness: The Pukka Sahib and the End of Empire in A Passage to India and Burmese DaysSymbol and Structure in Burmese Days: A Revaluation , Critical Essay on “Kim” and Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

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