Deru Kugi
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Deru Kugi

Stieg Hedlund

May 22, 2017

12 min read

Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

The historical context of Kipling’s most troubling work (DeDisnification, Part 8)

In 1899, Rudyard Kipling seemingly unsuspectingly placed himself at the center of a firestorm of controversy when he sent his poem, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands”, to his friend Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York. He also included the admonishment:¹

The poem was actually originally penned for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, but another of his works, “Recessional”, was chosen instead. I say Kipling didn’t expect controversy as the work made a case for Eurocentric racism and imperialism that was quite a familiar one at the time. It was passed from Roosevelt to another pro-imperialist who approved of it, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. But oddly, following the poem’s publication in the February 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a politician of a different stripe, renowned white supremacist Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, who read portions of it as a central exhibit in a speech to his colleagues in the Senate in that same month.

Tillman’s speech — essentially a rant against the newly-ratified Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain and established American imperial jurisdiction over the Philippine Islands — grafts the poem onto its stance, thus:²

So instead of imperialism, Tillman is promoting isolationist white nationalism. It is necessary to note that this is before the major political parties essentially swapped places during the liberal Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the party’s subsequent embrace of the postwar Civil Rights movement. Put bluntly, those who call the GOP “the party of Lincoln” are either wilfully ignorant or simply lying.

As to the classical reference on the Senate floor — ah, the good old days — it refers to the garment (χιτών — of course it was a chiton rather than a “shirt”) poisoned with Nessus (Νέσσος) the kentouros’ (κένταυρος) blood after his slaying by Herakles (Ἡρακλῆς) with arrows which were soaked in the Lernaean Hydra’s (Λερναῖα Ὕδρα) blood for attempting to rape his wife. Said wife, Deianeira (Δηϊάνειρα), was tricked into giving the chiton to Herakles, and contact with the poisonous blood made him hurl himself into a funeral pyre.

The deplorability of Tillman’s stance in no way excuses Kipling’s nor does the tired excuse that he was “a man of his time”. Indeed as the parodies, satires, citations, and criticisms that quickly began to appear attest, the writer’s point of view was far from broadly accepted. These began with Henry Labouchère’s “The Brown Man’s Burden” in 1899, followed by “The Black Man’s Burden: A Response to Kipling” by H. T. Johnson, Take up the Black Man’s Burden by J. Dallas Bowser (both also in 1899), and “The Real White Man’s Burden” by Ernest Crosby in 1902, along with many others. A Black Man’s Burden Association was also created to link the colonial mistreatment of brown people in the Philippine Islands to the Jim Crow system in the US.

Mark Twain, who Kipling had dropped in on during an earlier trip across North America, had been pleased to spend a few hours on his Elmira veranda discussing literature with him, quipping afterwards in quintessentially Twainian fashion:

But, unsurprisingly, he was no fan of Kipling’s poem, and in a poem of his own, “The Stupendous Procession”, wrote sadly and simply:

Still, none of these critiques seem to have landed with any particular weight on Kipling, who became the first English-language recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, additionally declining several offers of the British Poet Laureateship as well as a knighthood.

Flashing forward 68 years, Walt Disney had been a bit hands off on The Sword in the Stone, dividing his attention during the diversification of the company among theme parks, television series, and live-action films. The film was a moderate financial success, but received only lukewarm critical response, so Disney was determined to be more involved in the next one, The Jungle Book.

Bill Peet had pitched the title based on the animation department’s ability to “do more interesting animal characters”, but according to Disney historian Brian Sibley, when the boss came in for a script meeting,³

In short, Peet was out — he had also been the lead on The Sword in the Stone, so this was his second strike and Walt wasn’t waiting for a third. A new team headed by Larry Clemmons was brought in, and, as Sibley relates, each was handed a copy of Kipling’s book:⁴

One of the most baffling elements of Disney’s decision to create a mediocre adaptation of Tarzan with its troubling worldview is that their catalog already contained this quite similar tale of a human who lives in the wilderness. The Jungle Book is generally acknowledged as the prototype of Tarzan, with one of the former work’s central, redeeming tenets being that nature’s laws are superior to man’s, and not in the Burroughsian/ social-Darwinism sense. It’s also a much better-written one — even though Kipling doffed his hat to Edgar Rice Burroughs thus:⁵

The animation studio seemed completely unconcerned with the swirl of problematic themes in both cases: race, man versus nature, and imperialism. And even in spite of their deliberate disregard for Kipling’s work, some troubling elements crept through.

For example, Disney, especially in the old days, nearly always makes all their humans white, or if not white, of one race as is the case in Jungle Book. Insidiously, however, some of their animals are white while others are clearly intended as POC. Such is the case with King Louie and the monkeys, whom white animators and voice actors portrayed with over-the-top mockery of black people.

Nonetheless, the movie was a tremendous success: it was the fourth-highest-grossing movie of the year, with an Oscar nomination for “Bear Necessities”, and Academy president, Gregory Peck, lobbied extensively, if unsuccessfully, for a Best Picture nod as well. Nostalgia for Walt Disney, who had died prior to the film’s release, was another of the elements that factored into the film’s excellent reception.

There is a lot of debate as to the symbolism of the original The Jungle Book. Some say that Mowgli’s behavior toward the beasts of the jungle parallels that of the British, enforcing his “imperial” education and rule upon them, and defeating those that threaten his livelihood. Another view is that the human villagers are the imperialists imposing their will on the animals, who represent the native population in rebellion. This second interpretation traps Mowgli between two worlds, which makes much more sense to me.

Indeed, in the end, the author seems to have created a somewhat autobiographical protagonist. A sense of not belonging is central to Kipling, from the otherness of his birth as an Anglo-Indian, seen by the Indians as a Britisher, to his ending up as an American, seen in his adoptive land as Indian. The cycle ends with Mowgli’s line:

George Orwell thoughtfully weighed Kipling’s work, summarizing it thus:⁶

Even still, Kipling is not always so clear in his sympathies; take the poem “A Pict Song”:

I must confess to learning of this poem from Billy Bragg’s 1996 album William Bloke. His version changed a few of the words, including “drag down the Great” to “drag down the State”, for extra subversive goodness. Bragg says he is reclaiming both nationalism and the poet from the Right. In any case, here Rome clearly stands in for the British Empire, and the Picts for the peoples being colonized, and Kipling’s sympathy with the colonized and against imperialism is apparent.

Turning back to our racist friend, Tillman, setting aside some of the derogatory language he uses to describe the Filipinos (some of whom he calls “naked savages”), he actually has some good points:⁷

To clarify, the ideology that we are subjugating people as some kind of necessary evil involved with our “real goal” of spreading the blessings of freedom and democracy to benighted peoples, which in those days bore the now-abandoned branding of “Manifest Destiny”, is, and always has been, nothing but a thin coat of justification whitewashing imperialist ambitions.

This has gained new currency with our recent endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Dick Cheney’s all-too-familiar claim:⁸

This brand of “philanthropic imperialism” has nearly always been the rule: we are conquering them for their own good, whether to bring them civilization, democracy, the Word of God, social justice — name a thing.

And indeed, empire is a curious thing: even in spite of Indian deaths totalling a (highly disputed) three million to 30 million under British occupation — either directly, in conflicts, or indirectly, by policies that caused catastrophic famines — nonetheless English is an important language in India, acting as a lingua franca (with some 125M speaking it, about 10% of the population) for speakers of their 22 different native languages. Tea, which the British brought with them to the subcontinent, is drunk everywhere. And cricket, a 17th century sport from the island nation, is now the national sport — some would say national religion — of India.

I’ll go out on what’s perhaps a benefit-of-the-doubt limb here: we should remember that Kipling was a writer and poet, not a politician. My interpretation of what he’s saying — rather badly — in “The White Man’s Burden” is simply this: go win the peace. Even Roosevelt, when he forwarded it to Cabot Lodge, remarked it was “rather poor poetry […]”. I take this from the note Kipling sent to Roosevelt:⁹

Winning the peace, something we still haven’t learned to do successfully, one notable exception being post WWII under the Marshall Plan, has exactly what Kipling says, reconstruction, at its core, with other specific elements including security, stable governance, economic and social well-being, justice, and reconciliation. Despite a great deal of lip service, lobbing missiles is a much simpler approach that remains greatly favored. Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman who was instrumental in aiding the Mujahedeen resistance during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, said of the US’ failure to deal with the aftermath:¹⁰

Even if winning the peace was not his message, “The White Man’s Burden” also contains many references to the arduousness and thanklessness of the task rather than presenting an unambivalent hymn to imperialism. And, moreover, all Kipling’s warnings went unheeded.

Rather than being a quick and tidy conquest, the “Tagalog insurrection”, as Roosevelt called it, and in 1902 claimed to have won — shades of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” declaration — didn’t end. Instead, it settled into a perpetual insurgency for roughly another decade. Indeed, the separatist splinter groups from The Moro National Liberation Front that exist even today can ultimately be thought of as only the latest incarnation of this struggle.

Though record keeping at the time was far from exact, Filipino casualties on the main island of Luzon alone are estimated at one million. There were also notorious atrocities and tortures committed by the invading troops, including “collateral damage” against innocent civilian women and children. On the US side, 4,234 never returned from the archipelago. As President William McKinley said of the growing quagmire:¹¹

One can only imagine many Filipinos would heartily agree.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Notes

  1. Rudyard Kipling, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Pinney, Ed., 1990.
  2. Benjamin Tillman, “Address to the U.S. Senate, 7 February 1899”.
  3. Craig McLean, “The Jungle Book: the making of Disney’s most troubled film”, The Telegraph, 2013.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Rudyard Kipling, “8: Working Tools”, Something of Myself, 1937.
  6. George Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling”, Horizon, 1942.
  7. Tillman, 1899.
  8. “Meet the Press”, NBC, March 2003.
  9. Kipling, 1990.
  10. Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007 — this film is the only source I could find for this quote, unfortunately, though it claims to be quoting the congressman.
  11. Quoted in H.H. Kohlsaat, From McKinley to Harding, 1923.