Empire and Imperialism: Rudyard Kipling’s Stiff Upper Lip

Rudyard Kipling was an English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist, best known as the author of The Jungle Book.

He was also the embodiment of British Imperialism at a time when the British Empire was at or near its peak.

Victorian stoicism taught that emotions resulted in errors of judgment which were destructive.

It was important at all times to maintain a stiff upper lip.

When family tragedy dealt Kipling not one, but two severe blows, his stiff upper lip would be put to the test.

Kipling’s early years

Kipling grew up in India surrounded by the trappings of empire.

 Girgaum Road, Bombay, India c.1895
Girgaum Road, Bombay, India c.1895

Bombay was an eclectic mix of three Empires: Mughal, Portuguese, and British.

Afternoons were too hot to do anything but take a nap.

Kipling’s nanny would tell old Indian and Portuguese stories to him and his sister in the local language before they slept.

They dreamed in the vernacular but spoke English to Papa and Mamma at the dinner table.

Pydownee Street, Bombay, India c1895
Pydownee Street, Bombay, India c1895
Mother of Cities to me,
For I was born in her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.Rudyard Kipling.
Harbour with arriving mail, Bombay, India, c. 1895
Harbour with arriving mail, Bombay, India, c. 1895

Being ferried around by palanquin was a pleasant experience and owning one complete with four carriers was a luxury affordable even to low-paid clerks.

Palanquin human-powered transport
Palanquin human-powered transport

Queen Victoria and her successors ruled over a vast British Indian Empire, stretching from the frontiers of Persia and Afghanistan in the west, to Tibet and China in the north, and French Indo-China and Siam in the east.

Statue of Queen Victoria (Empress of India, 1 May 1876 – 22 January 1901) in front of Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata (calcutta). Credit Karthiknanda
Statue of Queen Victoria (Empress of India, 1 May 1876 – 22 January 1901) in front of Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata (calcutta). Credit Karthiknanda
1909 Map of the British Indian Empire, showing British India in two shades of pink and the princely states in yellow
1909 Map of the British Indian Empire, showing British India in two shades of pink and the princely states in yellow

Needless to say, being stationed in India was somewhat of a charmed life.

Kipling’s first taste of the “stiff upper lip” would not be in this idyllic backwater but in England.

At the age of five, he and his three-year-old sister Alice were sent to Portsmouth to live with a couple who boarded children of British nationals posted in India.

For six years he suffered cruelty and neglect at the hands of the evil Mrs Holloway of Lorne Lodge.

Relief came for one month every year when he and his sister visited their maternal Aunt in London.

A paradise which I verily believe saved me.Rudyard Kipling.

When at last his mother returned from India to remove the children from Lorne Lodge, he was able to tell the story.

Badly-treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of a prison-house before they are clear of it.Rudyard Kipling.

This was Kipling’s first lesson in the importance of the British stiff upper lip.

Around the World in 80 Days

After school, Kipling wasn’t quite gifted enough to get into Oxford University on a scholarship, so he went back to India to begin a career as a journalist for local newspapers.

By 1889, at the age of 24, he’d already had several short stories published.

Deciding to head back to London, he sold the rights to his stories and traveled around the world.
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Kipling was an extraordinary traveler and might as well have been Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s classic novel Around the World in 80 days.

Steamship c. 1887
Steamship c. 1887

We may think we’re intrepid travelers today, but imagine what it must have been like for Rudyard Kipling at a time when crossing the Atlantic still took around 6 days.

Kipling left India in March 1889, traveling to San Francisco via Rangoon (a region of Myanmar), Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.

After falling in love with a Geisha in Tokyo, he continued his journey through the United States, arriving first in San Francisco and traveling on to Portland OR, Seattle, Vancouver, Alberta, Yellowstone National Park, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Chicago, Beaver PA, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Washington D. C., New York, and Boston.

Feeling exhausted yet?

He stopped along the way to visit Mark Twain, arriving unannounced, but being fortunate enough to find Mr Twain at home and happy to put the world to rights over a few whiskeys.

'Drop by any time'. Mark Twain pondering the world
‘Drop by any time’. Mark Twain pondering the world

Next stop Liverpool, then London.

After 2 years in London, he traveled once again, visiting South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and India, before returning back to London.

And it was the following year that he got married.

The couple’s honeymoon was in typical Kipling style—over to the US, stopping over in Vermont before continuing on to Japan.

By now you will know that Kipling’s life was not without drama, and so it was in Tokyo when the couple discovered their bank had failed.

Undeterred by the loss, the couple headed back to the US and rented a small cottage on a farm in Vermont.

Kipling’s wife, Carrie was pregnant and it was here that their first child, Josephine was born.

It was four days after Christmas, there was three feet of fresh snow outside, and as fate would have it, they had consecutive birth dates—Josephine’s on the 29th, her mother’s on the 30th and Kipling’s on the 31st.

It couldn’t be more perfect.

They were blissfully happy in the little home they called “Bliss Cottage”.

And it was also here that the seed of an idea came to Kipling—one that would grow into the Jungle Books.

Poster for the Jungle Book by writer Rudyard Kipling
Poster for the Jungle Book by writer Rudyard Kipling

Poet of the Empire

More joy would visit the Kiplings after they built their own house in Vermont that Kipling called his “ship”.

Elsie Kipling, the couple’s second daughter arrived.

And Kipling was in his element.

Healthy living and seclusion brought with it boundless imagination and Kipling churned out not only the Jungle Books but a collection of short stories.

Then the Kipling’s tranquility was shattered when a major political crisis erupted over a border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana.

Strained Anglo-American relations raised the prospect of war.

Anti-British sentiment in the press and a falling out with Alice’s brother made life uncomfortable for the Kiplings.

They returned to England, settling first in Devon, where Kipling’s first son, John, was born in August 1897.

Perhaps the incident in America strengthened Kipling’s own Imperialist sentiments, for he became known as “Poet of the Empire”.

“The White Man’s Burden (1899)” in particular was regarded as capturing the mood of Victorian Britain as duty-bound to empire-build.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

The Boer War (1899 – 1902)

From 1898, the Kiplings made a habit of taking a winter holiday in South Africa.

War broke out the following year and Kipling wrote poetry in support of the British cause in the Boer War.

He became good friends with the influential leaders of the Cape Colony including Cecil Rhodes, Sir Alfred Milner and Leander Starr Jameson.

Growing to admire the men and their politics, he would later write his best-known poem “If—” about the exploits and character of Leander Jameson.

The Dream and the Nightmare

After Devon, the Kipling family moved to East Sussex, where in 1902 Kipling bought a 17th-century mansion called “Bateman’s”.

It was love at first sight. A dream home.

Today the rooms are left as they were when the Kipling family lived there. Kipling and his wife created interiors that complemented the 17th-century house.

Behold us, lawful owners of a grey stone lichened house—A.D. 1634 over the door—beamed, panelled, with old oak staircase, and all untouched and unfaked. It is a good and peaceable place. We have loved it ever since our first sight of it.Rudyard Kipling.
Bateman's. Credit Tony Grist
Bateman’s. Credit Tony Grist

Kipling was at the peak of his career while at Bateman’s.

But tragedy strikes at the times we least expect. Its timing leaves a lot to be desired.

On a visit to New York in 1899, his little blue-eyed, six-year-old daughter, Josephine, died of pneumonia.

Desperately ill with the same malady, Kipling himself had stared down the Grim Reaper as he lay clinging to life alongside his daughter.


Josephine Kipling, c. 1895
Josephine Kipling, c. 1895
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
W. H. Auden

Recover physically he did, but he would never escape the agony of losing her.

Talk of it, he could not, choosing instead to suffer in silence.

His old friend, the British stiff upper lip visited him again.

Hello, darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.

Seeking solace in his work, his second great novel was published in 1901—”Kim”.

Kim is a story of “The Great Game”—the political conflict between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia.

The first decade of the 20th century saw Kipling at the height of his popularity.

In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “In consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author.”

The First World War (1914 – 18)

When the British government asked Kipling to write propaganda in support of the war effort, he jumped at the chance.

His pamphlets and stories painted the British military as the place to become a hero, fighting for the cause of good against evil, civilization against barbarism.

In a 1915 speech, Kipling declared:

There was no crime, no cruelty, no abomination that the mind of men can conceive of which the German has not perpetrated, is not perpetrating, and will not perpetrate if he is allowed to go on…Today, there are only two divisions in the world…human beings and Germans.Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling held a particularly strong contempt for any man who reneged on his duty to serve his country, calling them outcasts and a disgrace to their family’s name:

What of his family, and, above all, what of his descendants, when the books have been closed and the last balance struck of sacrifice and sorrow in every hamlet, village, parish, suburb, city, shire, district, province, and Dominion throughout the Empire?Rudyard Kipling.

Meanwhile, Kipling’s own son, John, now 17, was having problems enlisting.

Rejected from the Royal Navy and the Army due to his poor eyesight, Kipling pulled some strings and had him accepted into the Irish Guards.

Upon completion of his training, John was promoted to lieutenant and shipped off to France in June of 1915.

This was no ordinary war. It was like nothing the world had ever seen.

Neither side was prepared for the devastation, depravity, and death that 20th-century weapons and orchestrated hatred would unleash.

Leading from the front, the casualty rate amongst junior officers was extremely high.

Troops 'going over the top' at the start of the Battle
Troops ‘going over the top’ at the start of the Battle

Average life expectancy was six weeks. John Kipling lasted four months.

Reported missing in action, he was last seen blindly stumbling through the mud and body parts with half his face ripped off.

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

—My Boy Jack by Rudyard Kipling.

John Kipling, 1915
John Kipling, 1915

The British stiff upper lip would be called upon to perform its duty once more.

This time in the form of a poem that would become Britain’s favorite.

It had originally been written as advice to his son and was a tribute to the character of Leander Starr Jameson who had led a daring raid that failed just before the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa.

Kipling believed Jameson showed dignity and courage in the face of adversity.

He believed in the British stiff upper lip … but if only he could have his son back.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
and treat those two impostors just the same
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Rudyard Kipling

English professor Tracy Bilsing contends that this line is referring to Kipling’s disgust that British leaders failed to learn the lessons of the Boer War, and were not prepared for the struggle with Germany in 1914, with the “lie” of the “fathers” being that the British Army was prepared for any war when it was not.

Written on the wall of the players’ entrance to the Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, where the Wimbledon Championships are held are the third and fourth lines of the second stanza of the poem “If—”.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
Rudyard Kipling.
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