Kipling, Imperialism, and Nature

17 Sep

In many ways, the height of European imperialism was also one of the high points in the story of natural history. The spread of colonialism also brought brand new cultures and ecosystems under the eye of Western science and documentation, spurring the growth of the modern field of ecology. It was during this time, after all, that Darwin and Wallace discovered natural selection. But often it wasn’t scientific discoveries that cemented distant lands in the mind of the public. Instead, that job fell to literature.

One of the most well known writers about both imperialism and nature was Rudyard Kipling. Kipling, best known for his saga The Jungle Book, was something of an outsider to the British Empire. He was born in Bombay, India, not Britain. He developed a deep fondness for his bungalow home and recalled attending a boarding school back in England with horror. But even though his mind seemed to always inhabit the colonies, rather than Britain proper, Kipling seemed strongly subscribed to the idea of the Pax Brittania. Like the era of uncomfortable peace that Roman domination brought to it’s outlying countries, Britain’s colonialism was a stabilizing and progressive force in the world to Kipling. And although his works ranged from reification to satire (his poem The White Man’s Burden, draws a particularly large amount of debate as to where his ideas fall), most everyone agrees he was generally pro-imperialism. His reputation in India is, understandably, complicated.

However, whatever his reputation, Kipling’s works allow us to better understand how Victorians viewed the natural world. His stories reveal a belief in mankind’s right to rule the natural world, but slightly tempered with worries about both human rights and conservation. The animals are anthropomorphized and live in shifting alliances with humans. Sometimes we are benefactors and masters, sometimes we are hunters and demons. A deeper look into his works would require an essay of it’s own, but would be quite interesting, as I believe that many of the attitudes of imperialism come out directly through his nature writing.

Unfortunately, I am not well versed enough in Kipling’s works and history to provide this essay. However, all of Kipling’s works have passed into public domain and can be found, read, and downloaded at Project Gutenberg. Adaptations, such Disney movies, are harder to come by, but I am happy to say that the entirety of Chuck Jones’ animated adaptation of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (narrated by none other than Orson Welles) can be found on YouTube. I plan to attend to this task myself and I believe that at least a few of my readers would find this as interesting as I do.

Sources: BBC, Wikipedia, VictorianWeb.

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Posted by on September 17, 2011 in Biography


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