The Predicament of the White Colonizer in Burmese Days and Kim
December 14, 2009
A belief of absolute difference between the colonized and the colonizer was the key justification for British imperialism and colonial rule in India beginning in the mid-18th century. The British deemed the unfamiliar lifestyles and religions of the Eastern populations as inferior and felt it was their right and duty to colonize those peoples for the purpose of civilizing them. To maintain the absolute difference and superiority of the white race, the colonizers were forced to adopt a strictly masculine identity that denied the totality of their true selves. Adapting to the mold of the white colonizer by rejecting any qualities bestowed on natives was damaging and painful because people are emotionally complex. As a result, the colonizers became victims of their own racial demands and lived with the anxiety of racial difference being revealed as false and even unimportant, which would undermine the justification for British colonialism.1
This predicament of the white colonizer is revealed by Rudyard Kipling in Kim and by George Orwell in Burmese Days through the characters of Kim and Flory. Each novel captures the painful struggle of its central characters to conform to the role of the white colonizer. Although Kipling and Orwell are in agreement on the predicament of the colonial white man, they differ in their ideas of the model colonial man, whiteness, and their solutions for dealing with the predicament. This paper explores Kipling and Orwell’s perceived colonial rules used to maintain the power and prestige of the white race and the rules’ effects on the colonizers.
The rules to preserve white dominance in the colony consisted of maintaining the social distance between the British and the Indians by concealing the Europeans’ supposedly native-like behaviors in the presence of Indians. These sometimes unspoken rules defined the white colonizers’ prohibited actions.2 At St. Xavier’s, Kim learns that behaving like a true native is condemned because it could lead a sahib and those around him to forget who he is, which would make his command over the natives ineffective. Kim has also been taught not to admit to a native when he has done something wrong because sahibs should be seen as faultless. Listed more explicitly in Burmese Days are the pukka sahib’s five sacred declarations:
Keeping up our prestige,
The firm hand (without the velvet glove),
We white men must hang together,
Give them and inch and they’ll take an ell, and
Esprit de corps.3
These rules create a divide between the whites and the natives and heighten tensions when the exclusively white European Club is asked to admit a native member. Ellis has the strongest opinions against an Oriental member claiming it becomes more difficult to rule people you treat as equal and that the Club is the only place to be free of the watchful eyes of the natives.
Control over the natives was essential to what it meant to be white in the colony. For Orwell, white colonizers attempted to exert control through separation and superior weaponry. The Club’s whites-only policy made it the most prestigious institution in Kyauktada and Ellis, Orwell’s model colonizer due to his hatred for the natives, fought to maintain its exclusivity. However, when the Club came under attack by a Burmese mob that was angry at Ellis for deliberately injuring a young boy, it was the soldiers’ guns that scared the mob away. According to Kipling, the crude racist colonizer resembled by Ellis does not know enough about the natives to govern them since a colonizer’s knowledge of what he governs demonstrates his ability to maintain control. Even the British went to the Brahmins to obtain knowledge of Indian society and began classifying Hindus according to a fixed caste status. 4 Therefore, Colonel Creighton represents Kipling’s ideal colonial man because he is an ethnographer that studies Indian customs and languages and is courteous to Indians, but is never unsure of his superiority.
The responsibility of maintaining superiority over the natives undertaken by Ellis and Creighton is difficult for both Flory and Kim as evidenced by their friendships with and attitudes toward Orientals. Flory has a close relationship with Dr. Veraswami and even treats Veraswami as an equal in the sense that he socializes with the babu in a manner reserved for other white men. Flory loves Burma and “was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English.”5 Kim readily becomes the lama’s disciple engaged in the tasks of begging for food and seeing to the lama’s comforts, which are unbefitting jobs for a sahib. Before his transformation, Kim treated his native friends equally and even ate from the same dishes as religious beggars when no one was watching.
Flory and Kim’s difficulty in conforming to the role of the white colonizer subjects them to bullying by their peers. Colonialism encourages an extreme conformism where any white man that is unable to fulfill their proper racial role gets picked on viciously because the colonizers are made to hate any part of themselves that has been deemed characteristic of the natives.6 Flory is constantly criticized by Ellis for his friendship with “Dr. Very-slimy”7 and the bullying gets worse after Flory proposes Dr. Veraswami’s admittance to the Club, which infuriates its other members. Kim is abused by the drummer-boy who “resented his silence and lack of interest by beating him, as was only natural.”8 Kim’s acceptance into a better school leads to more abuse even though the drummer-boy admits he would run away from school if he knew where to go.
The bullying endured by Flory and Kim as attacks on their whiteness is not enough to deter them from practices unfit for whites because crossing racial boundaries could be enjoyable and could enable whites to express their total selves.9 Flory is fascinated by the local bazaar and thrilled by a Burmese pwe-dance, which he believes is hard for anyone to resist. He is also relieved to escape the obligation of the white colonizer to uphold British prestige in the company of Dr. Veraswami with whom Flory can express his critical opinions of the British Empire. Kim embarked on daily adventures on which he indulged in Indian customs and the layout of the land dressed in native garb. He also avoided “white men of serious aspect who asked who he was, and what he did”10 since he accomplished nothing by their standards. Although Kim is born of white parents, his racial fluidity is similar to Miriam’s in A Flight of Pigeons. Being part-Indian makes Miriam knowledgeable of Indian customs and allows her to assimilate into Indian society when she is in danger of being killed.11 Both Miriam and Kim find comfort in their access to an alternative identity, which poses a threat to the idea of absolute difference and the colonial order.
Flory and Kim openly resent the strict boundaries of whiteness and their lack of conformity is symbolized in their physical appearances. Flory believes that the other members of the Club are a bunch of morons belonging to a “godless civilisation founded on whisky, Blackwood’s and the ‘Bonzo’ pictures”12 though he would never dare to express these opinions to his compatriots. His dissatisfaction with the white race is coupled by a sense of shame over the part of his self that does not live up to white masculinity. Although he tries to hide these feelings, his predicament is visible for all to see in the birthmark on his face. The birthmark signifies that Flory was born with a personality encompassing more than just the mold of the white colonizer. In the regiment, Kim finds the discipline and obedience demanded of him quite overbearing and despises his unintelligent racist companions. His brown skin accompanied by his knowledge of Indian languages and customs allows Kim to escape the expectations of whiteness.
Although whiteness confers dominance and prestige on the colonizers, it limits their freedom to be complete human beings and engulfs them in painful loneliness.13 Flory’s “ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere of imperialism…in which every word and every thought is censored”14 and each year becomes lonelier than the next induced his desire for a partner that can share his love of Burma. He pursues Elizabeth out of the expectation of having a white wife, but her intense dislike of anything native creates a strained, superficial relationship between them. After she completely shuns him, Flory fears going back “to the old, secret life…[that] was not endurable any longer”15 and commits suicide. The other whites’ indifference to his death further demonstrates the loneliness and emotional constraints of the colonizer. During Kim’s transformation into a sahib, he becomes disturbed by a strong loneliness that develops as he is forced to relinquish his emotional freedom. He remarks that the “solitary passage [in a second-class train car among whites] was very different from that joyful down-journey in the third-class with the lama.”16 Kim realizes that whiteness restricts his pleasures and his social relationships.
Although Orwell and Kipling agree that whiteness oppresses the colonizer, their opinions about the true meaning of whiteness differ. Orwell believes that whiteness is basically a struggle for the colonizer to prove his dominance. The simple rule is to avoid looking like a fool in front of your comrades and the natives.17 Flory, for example, lost his racial prestige after he fell off a horse in an attempt to impress Elizabeth, but regains it after quelling a local rebellion. Kipling, however, believes that whiteness is something powerful in itself that must be used to increase the well-being of the world’s less fortunate people. The inherent superiority of the white colonizer makes it his duty to uplift the natives without a choice in the matter.18 Kim tells the lama that at St. Xavier’s the students “were taught that to abstain from action was unbefitting a Sahib. And I am a Sahib.”19 When Kim fully recognizes his white identity and its burden, he begins to cry.
Kipling and Orwell also express different solutions to the predicament of the white colonizer. Kipling believes that whites are superior, but he is also aware that race is not a biological concept because it could be masked by language and dress. The fact that Kim is trained to be white and can easily transition into different racial identities demonstrates that racial lines get blurred under certain circumstances. Therefore, Kipling’s solution to the predicament is for the white colonizer to become a surveyor or ethnographer who studies and explores the natives and their land. Acquiring knowledge of the natives makes it acceptable for Kim to step outside his racial identity. When the pressure of racial conformity becomes overwhelming and the colonizer is publicly disgraced, Orwell’s only solution is for the colonizer to commit suicide. Although it was well-known that Flory had a Burmese mistress, only until she publicly accused him of ruining and mistreating her did he become disgraced. Public acknowledgement made his weakness difficult to deny or forget, and without Elizabeth’s forgiveness and willingness to stand by him, Flory shoots himself.
Kipling in Kim and Orwell in Burmese Days are in agreement on the predicament of the white man in the colony who struggles to conform to the role of the white colonizer as defined by his race, but finds it impossible to reject the totality of his self. The changes and personalities that colonialism forces onto the colonizer are painful and cause the colonizer to have anxieties about being revealed as no different from the native.20 This anxiety leads to Creighton’s transformation of Kim into a white colonial spy and Flory’s suicide after his affair with a Burmese woman is publicly acknowledged. Both novels demonstrate that the white colonizer secretly identifies with the native who becomes a fantasy figure. However, whiteness is a trap into which people fall and cannot truly escape. The colonizer’s self-victimization increased the possibility of absolute difference between the colonizer and the colonized being deemed as false and unimportant. If the belief in absolute difference faltered, the British would not have had any defensible justification for colonialism21 and the racial hierarchy might have been lost.
1. Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), 35-73.
2. Kenneth Ballhatchet, Race, Class, and Sex Under the Raj (Macmillan, 1988), 124-125, 131.
3. George Orwell, Burmese Days (New York: A Harvest Book, 1934), 191.
4. Nicholas Dirks, Castes of Mind (Princeton University Press, 2000), 5.
5. Orwell, Burmese Days, 118.
6. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 41, 66-68.
7. Orwell, Burmese Days, 23.
8. Rudyard Kipling, Kim (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 154.
9. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 39-42.
10. Kipling, Kim, 50-51.
11. Ruskin Bond, A Flight of Pigeons (Penguin Books India, 2003), 75-78.
12. Orwell, Burmese Days, 33.
13. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 40.
14. Orwell, Burmese Days, 68-69.
15. Orwell, Burmese Days, 279.
16. Kipling, Kim, 165-166.
17. George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant,” in New Writing, no. 2 (1936).
18. Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden,” in Reading About the World, vol. 2 (1899).
19. Kipling, Kim, 261.
20. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 35-48.
21. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 63.
Ballhatchet, Kenneth. Race, Class, and Sex Under the Raj. Macmillan, 1988.
Bond, Ruskin. A Flight of Pigeons. Penguin Books India, 2003.
Dirks, Nicholas. Castes of Mind. Princeton University Press, 2000.
Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
−−− “The White Man’s Burden.” Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 1899.
Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Orwell, George. Burmese Days. New York: A Harvest Book, 1934.
−−− “Shooting an Elephant.” New Writing. No. 2, 1936.