What is the exile Kipling is talking about in his poem "The Exiles' Line"?
The exile that Rudyard Kipling is talking about in his poem “The Exiles’ Line,” is the “exile” of British people to India to serve there as colonial administrators, soldiers, or the like. In this and other poems (notably, in “The White Man’s Burden”) Kipling talks about how difficult and how thankless the work of building an empire is. Therefore, in this poem, he likens it to being exiled from one’s country.
Kipling liked to say that the British were going out to serve the people whose lands they conquered. In “The White Man’s Burden,” he says that the white people must
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ needs.
In “The Exiles’ Line,” he is using this same idea. To him, the British have to work hard to help the people of their empire. They have to give up their own desires and, as he emphasizes here, their own homes. They have to live out most of their lives in foreign countries, helping people who do not appreciate them and who actually are more likely to hate them. As he says in “The Exiles’ Line,” the British are
Bound in the wheel of Empire, one by one,
The chain-gangs of the East from sire to son,
This shows how he thinks of the empire. He likens it to being punished on a chain gang, working hard for little or no reward.
In this poem, Kipling is talking about how the British in India feel homeless and exiled. They have had to leave their own land to help others. They have lost the feeling of belonging anywhere. That is why Kipling says that these people
Come nearer home beneath the Quartered Flag
Than ever home shall come to such as we.
He is saying that they feel more at home aboard the P&O ships (the “Quartered Flag” was the flag of that shipping line) than they ever get to feel anywhere else. They are no longer truly of England and they are certainly not Indians. Instead, they are a group of exiles who have been taken out of their own country and sent to another to serve the Empire and its subjects.