In Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Man Who Would Be King,” two Englishman, Carnehan and Dravot, believing themselves to be "Soldier, sailor, compositor, photographer engine-drivers, petty contractors” and more, set out to take over a small country in the East called Kafiristan. Telling this story after the fact to an English narrator (thought to essentially be Rudyard Kipling), the men relay a tale of extreme hubris and personal hardship as they attempt to ‘conquer’ a seemingly primitive people. In making this story so critical of the two figures who try to occupy another country, Kipling takes a very negative view of the British Empire and colonialism as a practice.
The actions and motivations of the settlers are very closely tied to the attitudes of British colonialism. Both Dravot and Carnahan seem to have an incredible sense of confidence in their ability to take over Kafiristan, as they believe they are more superior in weapons, firepower and intelligence than the natives. Britain, at the time, was well known for going throughout Europe and the world, exploring and declaring themselves authorities or occupiers of lands, particularly India (where the story itself is set). Dravot and Carnahan exemplify this attitude, as they take a dim view of the Kafirs’ ability to see through them, being the paragons of British arrogance: “We are not little men, and there is nothing that we are afraid of except Drink, and we have signed a Contrack on that. Therefore we are going away to be Kings” (Kipling). They have a strategy to ally themselves with a rival chief, and they also have 20 modern military rifles at their disposal, just as the British had top-notch military technology and the help of compliant natives to help them occupy other countries. They think India is too small for them, and like the British Empire, feel they must always be expanding – no matter who it might hurt.
The matter-of-fact way in which they believe they are simply going to easily become royalty in an unknown land is undercut by Carnahan’s later returning to the narrator after a long period of strife. It is shown that, at first, his ways did work – people were impressed by his military weapons and knowledge of Masonic rituals. However, it all fell apart when Dravot was revealed to be a man after shedding blood at his marriage to a young Kafir girl; the very ignorance that they chose to perpetuate to make them kings (i.e. the idea they were gods) backfired on them, as they discovered he was "Neither God nor Devil but a man!" (Kipling). This experience echoes other nations’ rejection of colonialism, which occurs when the people finally see their advanced powers for what they are – agents of oppression used by vulnerable people. Furthermore, they just end up being played in the same way by the people, as shown by their clumsy attempts to find wives (like the Bengali woman who rips Carnahan off in Mogul Serai).
The fact that Carnahan comes back to the narrator in rags, after being crucified for his crimes and left to beg his way back home is evidence of Kipling’s animosity towards British colonialism. These characters’ attempts at colonizing the Kafir people, simply so they can uplift themselves as rulers is shown to be a flawed and dangerous proposition, and the people behind it (Dravot and Carnahan) are clearly arrogant fools who did not know what they were doing. Instead of being hardships and challenges that sympathetic main characters feel, the comeuppance these two experience is somewhat cathartic for Kipling and the audience, as their selfish intentions are not rewarded.
Kipling’s use of imagery shows the destructive and doomed nature of British imperialism. Most important among these images is Dravot’s severed head, still with his crown on. This is a powerful picture that suggests the impermanent and vulnerable nature of power, especially power received through ill-gotten gains. The crown is a recurring image throughout the story, almost accentuating the flaws in Dravot’s foolish enthusiasm over his kingdom. The crown’s ostentatiousness is accentuated further by the fact that it came at great expense to the people, who were without many basic needs while they lorded over them: “though the crown was pure gold and Peachey was starving, never would Peachey sell the same” (Kipling). This irony of wearing a crown while starving is central to the flawed approach Kipling thought England took towards occupying other countries.
In conclusion, Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is a decidedly anti-colonialist work. Kipling criticized the arrogant and imperialist nature of the British Empire by showing a pair of fools who believed that similarly-skinned allies and guns would help them rule over a simple people. In the end, those simple people rebelled against them, ending in the eventual death of both of the erstwhile conquerors. In this way, Kipling showed that he felt British imperialism was unethical, flawed and dangerous to all involved.
Kipling, Rudyard. “The Man Who Would Be King.” In The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie
Tales. AH Wheeler & Co, 1888.