The Empire’s Poet Comes To Ottawa

19 October 1907

Most people only know Rudyard Kipling as the author of The Jungle Book, the beloved tale of Mowgli, the “man-cub,” who was raised by wolves in nineteenth-century India and battled Shere Khan, the evil tiger, with help from Baloo, the bear, and the elephants. The story has been made into many movies and television shows, most notably by Walt Disney Pictures whose 2016 production went on to gross almost US$1 billion. The film was itself a remake of a 1967 animated film by the same company.

But Kipling is the author of far more—hundreds of poems, sonnets, short stories, and books. He was called the Poet of the British Empire, and won the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature. Kipling was vastly popular in his day, as much, or more so, than Shakespeare. One contemporary American author remarked that “the literateurs of the world are divided into two classes—‘Rudyard Kipling’ and the other fellows.” Kipling’s novel Kim, the story of an Irish solider on northern Indian frontier set amidst the political intrigues of the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia, is ranked among the top English-language novels of the twentieth century. His classic children’s stories, including such tales as The Elephant Child, How the Leopard got his Spots, and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the adventures of a mongoose, continue to be enjoyed around the world. As a youngster, I was entranced by these stories as were my children a generation later. I also remember having to memorize in school his poem A Smuggler’s Song. Fifty years later, I can still recall it—“If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet, Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street, Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie. Watch the wall my darling as the gentlemen go by.”

Rudyard Kipling by John Palmer 1895

Rudyard Kipling by John Palmer, 1895

However, Kipling’s reputation and legacy are ambiguous and controversial. While many of his stories have stood the test of time, and expressions he coined have entered the English language, he held views that are today either outdated, or unacceptable, or both. An imperialist, he was an ardent supporter of the British Empire. He was most likely a racist, a failing rampant at the time. He was the author of the expression “the white man’s burden,” the title of a poem in which Kipling urged the United States in 1899 to take over the Philippines in order to bring civilization to “Your newly caught sullen peoples, Half devil, half child.” On the other hand, he could admire other peoples. In his Ballad of East and West he wrote: “…there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” Just six years after his death, George Orwell called Kipling “a jingo imperialist” who was “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Today, a veritable cottage industry has developed parsing the racism explicit and implicit in The Jungle Book. There is also an ongoing debate over the degree to which Kipling was sexist. He was author of the expression “the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

Kipling was born in Bombay in British India in 1865. His father, Lockwood Kipling was professor of architectural sculpture at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeboy School of Art. His mother was Alice McDonald. Home was a house on the school grounds. “Kipling House” still stands on the campus grounds of Sir J.J. School of Art, now affiliated with the University of Mumbai. As a young child, Kipling was sent to England to live with a foster family. He was terribly unhappy there. Taken out of the home, he later attended the United Services College at Westwood Ho!, a quirkily named village in Devon. As a teenager, he returned to India, where he worked as a journalist in Lahore. It was here that he began to write stories about soldiers’ lives in British India, and attracted attention as an author. He returned to England in 1889, via the Pacific and North America, with several stops in Canada, including Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Medicine Hat and Toronto. Three years later, he returned to Canada with his new wife Carrie (née Balestier) after a honeymoon trip to Japan. Kipling purchased property in Vancouver, attracted by its harbour, its laid-back lifestyle and its economic prospects. Kipling also found the city to be comfortably familiar.  The British flag flew over its buildings, and, in his estimation, the locals spoke proper English. However, they never lived there. Instead, the Kiplings settled down for several years in Vermont in the community where his American-born wife was raised. It was in Vermont that Kipling wrote The Jungle Book stories.

Rudyard Kipling and family returned to England for good in 1896 owing to discord with his brother-in-law who was also Kipling’s neighbour, and political tensions between the United States and Britain over British Guiana. After living for a time on the southwestern coast of England in Dorset, they bought an old manor house in Sussex in 1902.

Kipling was an inveterate traveller, with multiple voyages throughout Asia, Australia, South Africa, Europe, and North America. He had a great affection for Canada which he viewed as the eldest sister of Mother England’s Dominions that could one day provide leadership to the Empire. He described Canada as a country that has “a hard, tough, bracing climate that puts iron and grit into men’s bones, and that if things don’t move so fast as in the States they are safer.” However, he apparently also thought that Canada was “constipating,” and that when he spoke to Canadians, he needed to speak in short sentences since Canadians couldn’t “carry anything more than three and a half lines in their busy heads.” In turn, many Canadians resented his characterization of Canada as “Our Lady of Snows” as it might put off potential immigrants.

In the autumn of 1907, Kipling, now at the height of his popularity, made a cross-country tour of Canada, in part to see how the west had changed, especially Calgary and Medicine Hat, since his visit eighteen years earlier. He made the trip in luxury, on a private train carriage provided to him by Sir William Horne, the President of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  In cities along his route, he stopped to visit the sights. He was invariably invited to speak. He later commented that in Canada “there is a crafty network of business men called Canadian Clubs. They catch people who look interesting, assemble their members during the mid-day lunch hour, and, tying their victim to a steak, bid him discourse on anything that he thinks he knows.”

He briefly passed through Ottawa at the end of September on his way west before returning to the capital for a weekend stay on Saturday, 19 October as the guest of Lord and Lady Grey at Rideau Hall. The Governor General’s Secretary, Colonel (later Major-General Sir) John Hanbury-Williams, was an old friend of Kipling. He was greeted at the train station early in the morning by the Governor General’s staff. That afternoon, Kipling met the press at Rideau Hall. The interview was a love-in. One journalist reported that Kipling was “in every way interesting and interested,” and was a “fresh and vigorous personality.” Kipling focused his remarks on immigration and trade, the hot topics of the time—not so different from today! These were subjects to which he returned in his Monday’s address to the Ottawa Canadian Club after taking the Sunday off to relax with Lord and Lady Grey and their friends. Also on that Saturday afternoon, Kipling met with representatives of the South African Veterans’ Association.

Rudyard Kiping 9 may 1908 toj

Advertisement for Kipling’s Book, Letters to the Family, on his reflections about Canada, The Ottawa Journal, 9 May 1908.

Kipling’s Monday luncheon speech to the Canadian Club was held in the railway committee room of the House of Commons owing to the large number of people eager to hear the Poet of the Empire speak. More than three hundred men were in attendance, including Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. At the lunch, Laurier commented that not all Canadians took offence at Kipling’s characterization of Canada as “our Lady of Snows.” Laurier opined, that “the Canadian winter is one of the best of the blessings with which nature has dowered the Dominion.”

In his speech, Kipling despaired of Britain: “Sometimes one can only look out the window and pray, and say nothing.” His fears reflected the Mother Country’s blasé attitude towards its overseas dominions, including its unwillingness to support imperial trade preference as a means of helping to cement the Empire together. Britain had pursued a free trading policy since the mid nineteenth century. Consequently, it treated all trading partners alike regardless of whether they were part of the Empire or not. In contrast, Kipling praised Canada, which maintained tariffs to protect its industries, for instituting an imperial preference for British and subsequently Empire-made goods that had led to steamships trading regularly between New Zealand and South Africa and Canada. In parenthesis, a few years later Kipling waded into the 1911 Canadian political debate on the merits of reciprocity [a.k.a. free trade] with the United States, sending a letter that was widely printed in Canadian newspapers that Canada risked “its soul” should reciprocity be introduced. “Once that soul is pawned for any consideration Canada must inevitably conform to the commercial, legal, financial, social, and ethical standards which will be imposed upon her by the sheer admitted weight of the United States.” The reciprocity supporting Liberal Party lost the general election. Decades later, the very same sentiments were expressed during the 1980s when the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney.

Immigration was the other hot topic that Kipling addressed. In British Columbia, there had been an influx of migrants from China, Japan and India that had led to an anti-immigrant riot. The Oriental Exclusion League based in British Columbia circulated a petition urging the Canadian government to prohibit all “Oriental immigration.” The petition said that British Columbia “has been in the past, and will continue to be, the dumping ground of Oriental laborers, notably Hindoos, Japanese and Chinese; that at present there are 30,000 Orientals of the foregoing races in British Columbia; that the Orientals enter into competition with white men, whom they have largely displaced in fishing and lumbering industries and have usurped the places amongst unskilled laborers that would otherwise be filled by white men; that the Orientals are not capable of assimilation with the white races of Canada…” The Oriental Exclusion League threatened “measures to prevent the debarkation of Orientals in Vancouver” if its demands were not met. The League was not some crank organization expressing racist views. Robert Borden (later Sir), leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said in Vancouver that British Columbia “must remain a British and Canadian province, inhabited and dominated by men in whose veins runs the blood of those great pioneering races which built up and developed not only Western, but Eastern Canada.”

Rudyard Kipling by Elliott & Fry

Rudyard Kipling by Elliot & Fry, circa 1935

Kipling responded to these events by saying British Columbia’s underlying problem was a shortage of labour rather than too much Asian immigration. And, “…if you won’t have yellow labor, you must have white.” He argued that Canada should fill up with white immigrants from Britain, with government assistance if necessary, so that “you will not notice the Orientals.” He added that “If you wait for your country to be settled with your own stock or carefully chosen immigrants it would be all right, but it is only a question of time until the ring breaks in the old lands and the flood seeps to Canada. There are many hungry people wandering around the world, and Canada must prepare to receive them.”

Kipling left Ottawa following his Canadian Club speech for Montreal where he was given an honorary degree by McGill University. The next year he published Letters to the Family about his trip across Canada. In it he expressed a number of fascinating opinions about Canada and Ottawa. On Canada’s bilingual nature, he thought that “There are strong objections to any non-fusible, bi-lingual community within a nation.” However, French Canada’s “unconcerned cathedrals, schools and convents,” and “the spirit that breathes from them, make for good.” English and French together make “a good blend in a new land.” He was also impressed with Canadian cities’ “austere Northern dignity.” He thought that “Montreal, of the black-frocked priests and the French notices had it” as did “Ottawa, of the grey stone palaces and the St. Petersburg-like shining water frontages” and Toronto that was “consummately commercial.”

Rudyard Kipling died in January 1936 at the age of 71.

 

Sources:

Experimental Wifery, 2017. “The Female of the Species Is More Deadly Than The Male,” https://experimentalwifery.com/tag/rudyard-kipling/.

History of Metropolitan Vancouver (The), 2017. Rudyard Kipling in Vancouver, http://www.vancouverhistory.ca/archives_kipling.htm.

Kipling, Rudyard, 1908. Letters to the Family, Macmillan Company of Canada: Toronto.

———————, 1930s. “Sound recording of Kipling speaking on Canadian writers and poets,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDcdKA4_KBM.

Kipling Society (The), 2017, http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/index.htm.

Lycett, Andrew, 1999. Rudyard Kipling, Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London.

Orwell, George, 1942. Rudyard Kipling, http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/kipling/english/e_rkip.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1907. “Mr. Borden And Asiatic Immigration,” 1 October.

————————-, 1907. “Kipling Arrives,” 19 October.

————————-, 1907. “Famous Author Is In Ottawa,” 19 October.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1899. “Personal And Pertinent,” 25 April.

————————–, 1907. “Petitioning The Premier,” 30 September.

————————–, 1907. “Kipling Off To The West,” 1 October.

————————-, 1907. “Kipling Will Be Here Saturday,” 17 October.

————————-, 1907. “Unrestricted Immigration,” 17 October.

————————-, 1907. “Rudyard Kipling; the Man and his Work,” 17 October.

————————-, 1907. “Kipling Will Speak Monday,” 18 October.

————————-, 1907. “Fill Canada With Whites, Asiatics Will Disappear,” 21 October.

————————-, 1907. “Great Reception To Mr. Kipling,” 21 October.

————————-, 1907. “Mr. Kipling and Veteran Officers,” 21 October.

————————-, 1907. “Kipling’s Message,” 21 October.

————————-, 1936. “Nation’s Bard, Kipling, Loses Gallant Fight Against Death,” 18 January.

Price, John, 2007. “Orienting the Empire: Mackenzie King and the Aftermath of the 1907 Race Riots,” BC Studies, no. 156, Winter 2007/08.

Ricketts, Harry, 1999. Rudyard Kipling, A Life,” Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.: New York.

Sikov, Ed, 2016. “Are ‘The Jungle Books’ Racist or Not? And Why You Should Read Them Either Way,” Lit Reactor, https://litreactor.com/columns/are-the-jungle-books-racist-or-not-andwhy-you-should-read-them-either-way.

Trendacosta, Katharine, 2016. “Reminder: Rudyard Kipling Was a Racist Fuck and the Jungle Book is Imperialist Garbage,” io9.Gizmondo, http://io9.gizmodo.com/reminder-rudyard-kipling-was-a-racist-fuck-and-the-jun-1771044121.

 

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