What is the historical context of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling?
Rudyard Kipling was born in India and spent six years of his adulthood there in addition to having spent the first six years of life in the Indian subcontinent. His travels throughout that vast region, as well as his time in Southeast Asia, strongly influenced his perceptions of native cultures. Those perceptions, however, were, in turn, viewed through the prism of British imperialism that, by nature, subjugated less-developed nations while imposing alien customs and practices. The Jungle Books, unlike much of Kipling’s other works, were inspired by and written for children. Specifically, Kipling is believed to have had in mind his young daughter, Josephine, who died at the age of six.
The Jungle Books, of course, humanize animals and frequently depict those animals interacting with human beings, most notably, Mowgli, the child raised by wolves in the jungle. In addition to writing tales for children, however, Kipling notably injected into his fables political messages or lessons that reflected his own observations regarding the great power politics that dominated South Asia during his life. Early in “Mowgli’s Brothers,” for example, he has the humanistic animals discussing some unwelcome developments involving the more formidable of the beasts infringing on the territories of the weaker animals:
‘Shere Khan, the Big One, has shifted his hunting grounds. He will hunt among these hills for the next moon, so he has told me.’
Shere Khan was the tiger who lived near the Waingunga River, twenty miles away.
‘He has no right!’ Father Wolf began angrily—‘By the Law of the Jungle he has no right to change his quarters without due warning. He will frighten every head of game within ten miles, and I—I have to kill for two, these days.’
Kipling’s fables were clearly intended to educate adult readers as well as to entertain children, and the historical context in which they were written provides lessons, and occasionally cautionary tales, about human interactions in the colonial world.