“The Jungle Book” as a cultural artifact

[for Hist 518: Colonialism, WNMU, Spring 2017]

The Jungle Book, a collection of short stories, was published in 1894 in America, but its author, Rudyard Kipling, was a British man who had been born in and spent much of his early childhood and young adulthood in India. Kipling was an imperialist to the core, and believed that Europeans and their descendants were fundamentally superior to the indigenous peoples in all other parts of the world. Kipling may have written The Jungle Book with his own children in mind. It was written around the time his first two were born, and it has consistently been marketed as a children’s book. The story is certainly filled with themes children love: adventure, talking animal friends, and feelings of empowerment in the main character, who’s a very relatable child himself. The book’s themes are just subtle enough that only a child could miss them, but every reader is affected by them. As such, The Jungle Book is an effective tool for communicating Kipling’s ideology of beneficent imperialism and the inherent inferiority of the colonies’ indigenous populations. For this analysis, I will focus on the chapters concerning Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves in a jungle.

As a children’s story, Mowgli’s tale reads almost as an instruction manual for how to achieve adulthood. Mowgli is first introduced to the reader as a helpless – but also fearless – infant. His vulnerability and bravery are pointedly emphasized. It’s almost as though Kipling is telling his children that while they have begun their lives as relatively defenseless beings, they should still face everything and everyone without fear, because like Mowgli, they will grow up to be people of value: victorious, leaders, and paragons of the European races. The young readers will then learn alongside Mowgli, getting the important life lessons Kipling deems most necessary. Personhood, the children will learn, is associated with certain traits, and these traits are heritable. Lawfulness, rationality, fairness in reciprocity, courage, and even physical attractiveness and inventiveness will all differentiate these young white children from inferior peoples.

Sixty years before Kipling wrote The Jungle Book, Lord Macaulay added his voice to the people who promoted the imperialistic values that book echoes. There would be no law in India without the intervention of the British, said Macaulay, and as rulers, the British governorship owed their Indian subjects the higher quality of life they associated with British legal and civil institutions.

When Macaulay said that “the path of duty is plain before us: and it is also the path of wisdom, of national prosperity, of national honour,” he drew together the corners of white supremacy in British colonialism in India. It was their duty to care for and improve the less capable; it was wiser to accept the results of that improvement than to fear them; the same improvement of the lesser races would benefit the Briton’s economic goals; and it would be dishonorable to shirk their duty, ignore wisdom, and lose profit, all for lack of courage. That the Indians represent a lesser race was never questioned by Macaulay. He emphasized India’s lawlessness immediately after he described their relatively complex legal system. “India,” Macaulay says, “stands more in need of a code than any other country in the world,” and Britain was divinely ordained to teach the Indians to govern themselves ‘properly.’

What was assumed by Macaulay was demonstrated by Kipling’s narrative and characters. Mowgli not so subtly represented mankind and personhood; tied up in his narrative were the ideas of white racial hegemony and the inheritance of skills and traits. The wolves that raised Mowgli seemed to reflect the civilization, defined by adherence to always-just laws, that raised (white) men above the other races. As civilization does not teach itself, Mowgli had two tutors in the way to achieve personhood: Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther. Where the wolves were lawfulness and civilization, the tiger Shere Khan was the opposing force: the untamed and lawless heathen, in whom Mowgli’s personhood inspired jealousy and an angry sort of fear.

For both Macaulay and Kipling, the primary tension in the story of India was that between civilization and barbarism. Both, too, implied or stated a direct link between a person’s ability to be civilized and their ethnic heritage. Yet there was an element of the tabula rasa theory of child development to Mowgli’s story as well as Macaulay’s speech. Kipling hinted that Mowgli was born in the village, having been taken in by the wolves only after Shere Khan stole the infant. This does seem like the most likely explanation for Mowgli’s appearance in the jungle in terms of the plot, but the people of the village were not treated as truly civilized in Kipling’s representation. They were prone to dishonesty, immodesty, and spitefulness – all traits of barbarism by Kipling’s and Macaulay’s estimations. So, while Mowgli inherited his human family’s appearance and his unnamed father’s skill with building, his character was raised above the villagers by the intervention of civilization – the wolves – and he achieves personhood despite his less civilized heritage. For all of Mowgli’s young life, Shere Khan and the wolves fight between themselves over his fate, but his story is one of individual victory, won with the aid of those wiser than him. Likewise, Macaulay suggests that Indians have been “debased by three thousand years of despotism and priestcraft.” The British were duty-bound to act as Baloo and Bagheera to the Mowglis of India, and that tutelage would ‘raise the Indians up to British standards’ of civilization.

While not all their contemporaries agreed with them, both Macaulay and Kipling thought Indians were inherently inferior to Britons, but also that Indians could learn to be like Britons. What neither Kipling nor Macaulay seemed to realize, is that their mutual ambiguity concerning the ability of people to exceed their presumed racial heritages points to the tension between ‘nature or nurture’ in human development. It’s Hobbes versus Locke, in nineteenth century British literature and politics, and both our authors seem to lean toward Locke.


Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. VT: Macmillan, 1894. April 30, 2011. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35997.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay. Speeches of Lord Macaulay. London: Longmans, Green, 1886.


RE/Jason Williams

However the movie, much like the quote, ends on a more uplifting note.  The quote concludes that the speaker has no fear in allowing natives to be included in high office, that the Indian people can learn self-government from the British and “the path of duty is plain before us” to allow Indians to begin down the path of governing themselves.  Similarly, the movie ends with Jamal winning the high economic prize (as opposed to the political prize in the speech); it is even promoted as being “the feel good movie of the year.”

Your comparison between the anti-Indian prejudices of two eras was interesting and enlightening. I had not realized how tenacious that stereotype was. Having not seen the movie (although I want to, now), I can’t really comment on your analysis of that. However, I wondered what you thought about the rest of Macaulay’s sentence that you quoted: “the path of duty is plain before us: and it is also the path of wisdom, of national prosperity, of national honour.” It’s easy for us to look at that first part and think it sounds positive, but when we think about why he’s calling it a “path of duty” then it becomes a less laudable. Certainly, it’s a mixed bag though. Yes, he was saying Indians should be allowed at least a degree of self-government… after they had been ‘civilized’ by the British. It was their duty to proceed not because of a moral obligation to avoid impeding another nation’s sovereignty. It was their duty as parental figures to the ‘underdeveloped’ Indians. So really, he’s still saying that Indians aren’t capable of independent success.


RE/Barry Dotson

In a very real sense, then, the language of the Bengali picture was first transmitted through English and French subtitles before being heard by native speakers.

The ambition discussed by Macualay is fixed by bureaucratic and financial limitations — this time in the form of taxation and permits. As with the characters of his film, the work itself desperately tries to hide such own difficulties under a calm and cheerful veneer.


It’s really interesting to see how these patterns set by colonialism keep repeating. Indians in Macaulay’s time were hampered by British rule and were required to go through the British to achieve any power in their own government… and later, Ray had to go through Western venues to achieve success with his film(s). Thanks for pointing this out.


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