Boris, Racism, Imperialism, and “The Road to Mandalay”

Boris, Racism, Imperialism, and “The Road to Mandalay”

Prime Min­is­ters are always pop­u­lar tar­gets. Boris John­son, Britain’s new PM, wears the bulls­eye over there now. For every­thing from domes­tic squab­bling to “insen­si­tiv­i­ty” in recit­ing “The Road to Man­dalay” on a vis­it to Myan­mar (for­mer­ly known as Bur­ma). In the immor­tal words of Richard Nixon, let us say this about that.

* * * * *

“I appoint­ed [Lord Roberts‘s] Com­man­der-in-Chief in India when I was Sec­re­tary of State. That was the year I annexed Bur­ma. The place was in utter anar­chy. They were just butcher­ing one anoth­er. We had to step in, and very soon there was an ordered, civ­i­lized Gov­ern­ment under the vig­i­lant con­trol of the House of Com­mons.” There was a sort of glare in his eyes as he said “House of Commons.” 
—Lord Ran­dolph Churchill to Win­ston Churchill in The Dream, 1947

Mandalay as Dog Whistle

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing nowa­days, we deem paeans to the British Empire to be impe­ri­al­ist, racist twad­dle. Here’s a bela­bored exam­ple, which defines Rud­yard Kipling‘s The Road to Man­dalay as a dog whis­tle for misog­y­nist racism. (Read the poem first if you’re not famil­iar with it.)
The girl has no real iden­ti­ty oth­er than as a source of fas­ci­na­tion for the young man. [The poem] ide­al­izes the impe­ri­al­ist expe­ri­ence. In real­i­ty, the British who were in Bur­ma were not there as trav­el­ers or adven­ture-seek­ers; they were there to pil­fer and oppress… Racism was ram­pant, and even though in this poem the girl is admired and lust­ed after, she is still only an exot­ic object and some­one to be “civ­i­lized” by the British.
Speak­ing of twad­dle, the girl has a name. We learn she plays the ban­jo, is devout, smokes che­roots, has no racial ani­mos­i­ty and, appar­ent­ly, con­tem­plates nature. The British did more than “pil­fer and oppress” in Bur­ma. They broke up a reli­gious civ­il war. *(The ghost of Lord Ran­dolph Churchill, in his son’s short sto­ry, says, “they were just butcher­ing each oth­er.” Reli­gion, then as now, has much to answer for.) Brits built schools, roads, hos­pi­tals, and brought an ordered peace. True, it was far from the 21st cen­tu­ry ide­al. As in India, an upper class of locals and some Eng­lish ran every­thing. But civ­i­lized peo­ple, includ­ing the Burmese, pre­fer liv­ing to dying.
All too often we take offense at the incon­se­quen­tial. I will how­ev­er indulge in it over The Road to Man­dalay. There is noth­ing impe­ri­al­ist or racist in the poem, except for the most strained denizens of the fever swamps. The writer makes that claim because of a pri­or mind­set, but offers noth­ing to sup­port it. Where’s the evidence?

Mandalay as Progressive Poetry?

A friend who nev­er read the poem before sent me his impres­sion: “It seems to recall the allure and beau­ty of a coun­try where a sol­dier was asked to do a dan­ger­ous job, and a peo­ple he lat­er longed to be with again.”

Let’s go even fur­ther. If we want to be fair, isn’t Man­dalay a remark­ably pro­gres­sive 1890 endorse­ment of inter­ra­cial har­mo­ny? Inter­pret­ing it as mere lust after “an exot­ic object and some­one to be ‘civ­i­lized'” only dis­plays igno­rance. Clear­ly the writer didn’t read it well. It con­tains no expres­sions of lust, only lone­li­ness. That is what Kipling’s sol­dier is say­ing. He wants to go back to a land and a girl he loves, and both are Asian.

Man­dalay even indulges mod­ern read­ers with a ges­ture of Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness. The sol­dier says, “We useter watch the steam­ers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.” Then he has­tens to explain: “Ele­phints a-pilin’ teak.” (The Hin­di word for “ele­phant” is “haathee.”) That is no less a bow to P.C. than our mod­ern haste to call Bur­ma by its new name Myanmar—proclaimed in 1989 by the rul­ing mil­i­tary junta.*

About the only offen­sive thing in Man­dalay is the soldier’s ref­er­ence to the Bud­dha as “the Great Gawd Budd.” Wow, a tom­my in 1890 should have under­stood Bud­dhism. Cut the man some slack. Pray con­sid­er what he says about his own Chris­t­ian white girls. Beefy faced an’ grubby—Law! wot do they under­stand? I’ve a neater, sweet­er maid­en in a clean­er, green­er land!”

Okay, so Boris was a klutz…

In 2017, on a vis­it to Myanmar’s mag­nif­i­cent Shwedagon Pago­da, Boris John­son was over­come by nos­tal­gia. Sud­den­ly he began recit­ing, “At the old Moul­mein pago­da….” Psst., whis­pered the wimpy British Ambas­sador, “that’s prob­a­bly not a good idea.” (Did he think Myanmar’s lead­ers study Kipling?)

Cov­er­ing this at the time was The Guardian‘s thought­ful Ian Jack. The Guardian is no right-wing mouth­piece, and Mr. Jack exco­ri­at­ed Boris for being undiplo­mat­ic. Fair enough, though John­son was prob­a­bly just giv­ing in to school­boy roman­ti­cism. But what Mr. Jack writes about Kipling is wor­thy of consideration:

Post­colo­nial stud­ies can have few rich­er spec­i­mens to tease apart in the space of 51 lines: race, class, pow­er, gen­der, the erot­ic, the exot­ic and what anthro­pol­o­gists and his­to­ri­ans call ‘colo­nial desire’…. Kipling wrote poet­ry and prose that cer­tain­ly deserves the epi­thet, notably The White Man’s Bur­den. He was a child of empire, and became the empire’s lau­re­ate. But Man­dalay isn’t so much an argu­ment for colo­nial­ism as an evo­ca­tion of its per­son­al effects….

There is always, even­tu­al­ly, an awk­ward­ness with Kipling: the race and empire issue. [His­to­ri­an Geoff] Hutchin­son got round it by hav­ing his Kipling say some­thing to the effect that he knew his views grew out of dif­fer­ent time—though even in that dif­fer­ent time, Kipling was unusu­al­ly com­mit­ted to mys­ti­cal ideas of nation­al char­ac­ter and des­tiny. [Empha­sis mine.]**

“A dif­fer­ent time” is how unread peo­ple try to excuse what oth­ers call the racist impe­ri­al­ism of Churchill. But like Kipling, Churchill had more admirable and deep­er moti­va­tions. Ideas about lib­er­ty, and yes, human rights. Among them were “the mys­ti­cal ideas of nation­al char­ac­ter and destiny.”

Appreciating The Road to Mandalay 

What­ev­er the British did in Bur­ma 135 years ago, to look upon Man­dalay as Vic­to­ri­an impe­ri­al­ism is unjust to Kipling. That is not why Man­dalay was recit­ed so beau­ti­ful­ly by Charles Dance before 14th Army vets on VJ Day +70 in 2015. That is not why I choke up lis­ten­ing to that broad­cast on Youtube, min­gled with footage of the Indi­an Army (whites, blacks and browns) fight­ing Japan.
Impe­r­i­al Japan had few­er benev­o­lent things in mind for Bur­ma than Impe­r­i­al Britain. And that is why the poem is linked in Pro­fes­sor Ray­mond Callahan’s account, “Bill Slim and his Hero­ic Indi­an Army,” for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.
In the end, even Mr. Johnson’s crit­ic Mr. Jack had a kind thing to say about the man now at 10 Down­ing Street:

You could hear a tame, ironized echo of these ideas in Boris Johnson’s speech to the Tory con­fer­ence: “We are not the lion. We do not claim to be the lion…. But it is up to us now—in the tra­di­tion­al non-threat­en­ing and genial, self-dep­re­cat­ing way of the British—to let that lion roar.”


* Win­ston Churchill was par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­mis­sive of, even refused to fall in with, nations that change names. In Tri­umph and Tragedy (1953) he cites a memo he wrote on 23 April 1945:

I do not con­sid­er that names that have been famil­iar for gen­er­a­tions in Eng­land should be altered to study the whims of for­eign­ers liv­ing in those parts. Where the name has no par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance the local cus­tom should be fol­lowed. How­ev­er, Con­stan­tino­ple should nev­er be aban­doned, though for stu­pid peo­ple Istan­bul may be writ­ten in brack­ets after it. As for Ango­ra, long famil­iar with us through the Ango­ra cats, I will resist to the utmost of my pow­er its degra­da­tion to Ankara.…

Bad luck…always pur­sues peo­ple who change the names of their cities. For­tune is right­ly malig­nant to those who break with the tra­di­tions and cus­toms of the past. As long as I have a word to say in the mat­ter Ankara is banned, unless in brack­ets after­wards. If we do not make a stand we shall in a few weeks be asked to call Leghorn Livorno, and the BBC will be pro­nounc­ing Paris “Paree.” For­eign names were made for Eng­lish­men, not Eng­lish­men for for­eign names. I date this minute from St. George’s Day.

** Iron­i­cal­ly, Ian Jack added, the prob­lem with Man­dalay back in 1890 was geog­ra­phy, not racism:  “A cen­tu­ry ago what gave Kipling most trou­ble from his read­ers were his lib­er­ties with geog­ra­phy. The dawn couldn’t come up like thun­der “out­er Chi­na ‘crost the Bay,” because the Bay (of Ben­gal) lies to the west of Bur­ma, not the east. Accord­ing to the mem­oir the author wrote at the end of his life, the com­plaints came main­ly from pedan­tic Amer­i­cans on cruise ships….”

Further reading

Ian Jack in The Guardian: “Boris John­son was unwise to quote Kipling, but he wasn’t prais­ing empire.”

Grad-Saver: The Poems of Kipling: An Analy­sis of Man­dalay.

Wikipedia car­ries a bal­anced set of pro and con argu­ments on this subject.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.