How is "The Man Who Would Be King" about imperialism, and what is Kipling trying to say about it?
Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Man Who Would Be King” is about imperialism in the sense that it involves two Englishmen determined to rule over their own little part of the distant world. Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnahan want to rule over an empire of their own making, and their quest to be kings must necessarily come at the expense of non-English natives in colonized land. That land is in Afghanistan, which the British did try to colonize in an effort that proved too difficult and costly for the British Crown. As such, Kipling’s protagonists can be considered imperialists. The indigenous population, they discover, is sufficiently anglicized to make them a more attractive option than might otherwise be the case. As Dravot, the more delusional and grandiose of the two men, declares to Peachey:
I won’t make a Nation. . . I’ll make an Empire! These men aren’t niggers; they’re English! Look at their eyes — look at their mouths. Look at the way they stand up. They sit on chairs in their own houses. They’re the Lost Tribes, or something like it, and they’ve grown to be English.
The condescending approach Dravot and Carnahan take toward the victims of British colonization is consistent with the pejorative tone often taken by one nation against another. Imperialism almost always entails some sense of racial or ethnic superiority by the conquering nation over the conquered. In American history, that sense of superiority was manifested in the pursuit of Manifest Destiny. In English history, it is far more pervasive and resulted in the colonization of vast swaths of territory across the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. “The Man Who Would Be King” is about these two delusional, megalomaniacal Englishmen who serve as a microcosm of British imperialism. The resolution of their story also serves as a microcosm of the British experience in Afghanistan.
This short story is not Kipling's only work about imperialism. In fact, most of his writing was essentially imperialist propaganda for the British Empire. In "The Man Who Would Be King," the narrator meets two men, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who intend to become kings in Afghanistan. Because they go there with intentions to deceive and exploit the native people in order to gain power and wealth, they fail. Ultimately, Kipling's message is that imperialism should not be self-serving. Imposing your ways of civilization onto "heathens" is meant to help them, not you.
Kipling's message about imperialism in this story shows an enormous lack of self-awareness. In reality, British imperialism was mostly about the exploitation of labor and resources from other countries. This excerpt from Kipling's poem titled "The White Man's Burden" gives you a good taste of how lowly he thought non-white people in countries colonized by Britain were.
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 poem in its entirety is much like "The Man Who Would Be King." It ignores the fact that imperialism was fueled by a desire for greater wealth and focuses on the "moral obligation" to "civilize" the people of other countries.
Rudyard Kipling had a deep passion for India and its heritage and culture, but also held the superiority complex beliefs of Western men of his time. In his view, while Imperialist actions had many negative consequences, in the long run it was in India's best interests for England and the West to educate and influence the "inferior" native peoples.
In "The Man Who Would Be King," Kipling shows the arrogance of Western man and the necessary consequences of ambition. The two men, Carnehan and Dravot, who attempt to set themselves up as kings, find that their ambitions are only good as far as their subterfuge holds up; when they are exposed as men instead of gods, the native people turn on them. Kipling's view here is that the direct invasion of a native culture with only the purpose of ruling is not a good thing; Carnehan and Dravot were not trying to better their subjects or educate them, but to exploit them as servants and slaves. Had their intentions been more altruistic, they would not have lied and set themselves as gods, but as leaders who wished to better the people. Instead, by using their technological knowledge to attempt subjugation, they set themselves up for downfall when their lie was exposed. In the same way, the real-life British Imperialist tendencies almost always fell apart as the surface altruism fell away under the typical need to subjugate and exploit native peoples.