British Imperialism in the Late Nineteenth Century
When ‘‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’’ was first published as part of the second volume of Kipling’s Jungle Book in 1895, Great Britain commanded the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. The Indian subcontinent was one important part of the empire, which thousands of ‘‘Anglo-Indians,’’ like Kipling himself, called home. The form of imperialism during Kipling’s time was characterized by forceful imposition of British government and British culture upon the natives of a region. But imperialism was not just the practice of the British Empire’s acts of colonization of other lands and people; as historian Lerner writes in Western Civilizations: ‘‘To combat slave-trading, famine, filth, and illiteracy seemed to many a legitimate reason for invading the jungles of Africa and Asia.’’ British imperialism was a philosophy that assumed the superiority of British civilization and, therefore, the moral responsibility of bringing their enlightened ways to the so-called ‘‘uncivilized’’ people of the world. This attitude was taken especially towards nonwhite, non-Christian cultures in India, Asia, Australia, and Africa. This philosophy of moral responsibility served to rationalize the economic exploitations of other peoples and their lands by the British Empire, and its subsequent amassing of wealth and power. It was nevertheless, during Kipling’s time, largely embraced and unquestioned by the British population, and Kipling, being no exception, expressed ideas of cultural superiority and patriotism in much of his writing. In the early 2000s his reputation was negatively affected by his racist support of British imperialism.
British imperialist assumptions were so ingrained in the late Victorian era, that they surfaced in children’s literature as well—literature that is, by its nature, meant to impart the values and morals of the adults’ society to its young readers. ‘‘Rikki- Tikki-Tavi’’ is a prime example. The narrative specifically establishes that Rikki-tikki is very lucky to be a ‘‘house-mongoose’’ in the home of a British family, specifically noting that his mother taught him to aspire to the homes of ‘‘white men.’’ That his mother had taught him to aspire to living in a whiteman’s home implies both an idealization of British culture and a perceived inferiority of the non-white, Indian civilization that it dominated.
The late nineteenth century was marked by a dramatic shift in theories of philosophy, religion, and science following the mid-century publication of On the Origin of the Species, in which Darwin put forth the groundbreaking theory of natural selection. Natural selection is the process by which organisms who have characteristics suited to their environment have a better chance of survival and thus are able to mature, reproduce, and thus pass on their characteristics to their offspring; while those less suited to the environment do not tend to reach maturity and have offspring. The theories put forth by Darwin revolutionized the biological sciences, affected religious beliefs, and revised certain conclusions currently held in the physical and social sciences.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer, widely regarded as the first social Darwinist, wrote Social Statics, in which he applied the biological theories of evolution to the study of human society. Spencer coined the subsequently familiar phrase ‘‘survival of the fittest’’ which describes the result of competition between different social groups of human beings. Social Darwinism was typically used by individuals who believed in the superiority of one group of people over another—groups based on nationality or race, for example—to justify the practice of unfair balances of power, institutionalized practices of exploitation, and philosophies of superiority such as imperialism.
The story ‘‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,’’ written at the...
(The entire section is 1,625 words.)