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Kipling in South AfricaDan Jacobson
Vol. 29 No. 11 · 7 June 2007

Kipling in South Africa

Dan Jacobson

4836 words

The first piece of verse by Rudyard Kipling I committed to memory – without even knowing I was doing so – was incised in large Roman capitals on a wall of the Honoured Dead Memorial in Kimberley, South Africa. During the Anglo-Boer War, Kimberley was besieged for some months by forces from the two Boer republics, the Transvaal (De Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) and the Orange Free State. Among those trapped in the city during the siege was Cecil Rhodes, former prime minister of the Cape Colony and the most prominent among the mining magnates drawn to South Africa by the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and subsequently of gold in Johannesburg. Rhodes had deliberately moved from Cape Town to Kimberley once it became clear to him that war between Britain and the two ‘Dutch’ republics was imminent: this he did out of a sense of noblesse oblige to the city in which he had made his first and greatest fortune, and which he felt to be peculiarly ‘his’ thereafter. (Many other people, the Boer leaders among them, felt the same way about it, which was why they had made Kimberley one of their prime targets.) Once the siege was lifted, Rhodes returned to his house and estate outside Cape Town, and immediately commissioned his favourite architect, Herbert Baker, to find a prominent site in Kimberley and to design for it a memorial to the imperial troops and local militiamen who had died defending the city.

Built out of ruddy-yellow granite brought down from Rhodesia, and complete with a massive cannon manufactured locally during the siege, the Honoured Dead Memorial is an imposing, flat-topped affair, half fortress and half Doric temple. It stands in the middle of a grassed-over traffic circle just outside the grounds of Kimberley Boys’ High School, which I attended for a full ten years, so I had ample opportunity to study the memorial and its inscription as I trudged back and forth between school and home. Much later I learned that the words had been composed by Kipling at Rhodes’s request. The names of both men had been familiar to me almost as far back as I could remember. In Kimberley – then still a ‘company town’ dominated by De Beers Consolidated Mines – Rhodes continued to be regarded as a kind of demi-god; Kipling I knew chiefly as the author of ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, a story about a mongoose battling cobras in an Indian garden, which, like an addict, I felt compelled to reread at frequent intervals over many years. But I knew nothing of the close friendship that had sprung up between the writer and the empire-builder; nothing of the three short visits Kipling had made to Kimberley (during one of which he had enjoyed watching the city hall burn down); nothing of the fact that Rhodes had formally passed to Kipling a house (also built by Baker) in the exquisite grounds of the estate he had laid out under Table Mountain. It was in this house – dubbed The Woolsack, to which Rhodes had granted Kipling a ‘life tenancy’ – that Kipling resided with his family during all but two of the lengthy annual visits he made to South Africa between 1898 and 1908.

The alliance between the two men was to be of brief duration, however: Rhodes died (of heart failure, at the age of 49) some months before the surrender of the Boer republics in November 1902. Thus he never had the opportunity to see in its completed state the memorial he had commissioned for Kimberley, though he would almost certainly have read the inscription Kipling composed for it:

This for a charge to our children in sign of the price we paid
The price we paid for freedom that comes unsoiled to your hand
Read revere and uncover for here are the victors laid
They that died for the city being sons of the land

These chiselled, unpunctuated words made a great impression on my schoolboy mind: not least because of their obscurity. I did not know what ‘a charge’ meant here; plainly it did not refer to something that people did on battlefields or in games of rugby. And who exactly were the ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘they’ that the lines evoked with such confidence? Most mysterious of all was the command to ‘read revere and uncover’. Uncover? At school the boys sometimes talked in spooky voices about the massive, never-to-be-opened steel door lodged in one of the monument’s walls, behind which (it was said) there was a flight of stairs leading down to a place where all the ‘honoured dead’ from the siege were interred. But if that were the case, who would think of going down there to ‘uncover’ them? To what end? And what gruesome spectacle would meet their eyes if they did it?

By the time I left school some of these puzzles had been resolved; but others had taken their place. I knew, for instance, that the ‘freedom’ proclaimed in the inscription had nothing to do with the ambitions of the Nationalist Afrikaners, the ‘children’ of the Boers, of whom relatively few had been living in Kimberley when I entered school, but who in the ten years since then had grown to be a significant minority of the city’s white population. (Just a few years later, there were enough of them, countrywide, to vote the Afrikaner Nationalist Party into power.) I also knew by then that neither the English-speaking nor the Afrikaans-speaking whites had any intention of extending the ‘freedom’ they enjoyed to the black-skinned ‘sons of the land’, who had always outnumbered both white groups put together. Considerations like these had for me already turned the inscription on the monument into a kind of ponderous joke, a warning to all monument-builders never to take for granted anything about the future they would not live to see.

Remarkably enough, it was in South Africa, near an inconsequential place in the Orange Free State by the name of Karri Siding, that Kipling found himself under fire for the first time. It would have surprised his readers to learn this, for by then he had won worldwide fame for his writings about soldiers and soldiering in India, Burma and Afghanistan. In his last book, Something of Myself, a ‘partial autobiography’ published in 1937, he devoted three or four vividly skittish pages to that baptism of fire near Karri Siding; and in so doing produced a more satisfying piece of prose than any of the formally composed fictions he had set in South Africa. (Some critics have made big claims for a few of the South African stories, especially for ‘A Sahib’s War’ and the famously mysterious ‘Mrs Bathurst’ – a tale I have never been able to understand, with or without its admirers’ helpful notes.) The poems he wrote on South African themes are another matter. The two starkly entitled ‘South Africa’ are hardly more than doggerel; but the best (‘Bridge-Guard in the Karroo’ or ‘The Old Issue’) are much superior to the comparable prose pieces. Poetry, it turns out, can lend itself more readily to expressing political passion than fiction. A poet is able to speak directly to the reader: the conflicts at the heart of any successful piece of fiction have to be acted out by seemingly autonomous characters possessing an interior life of their own.

It is exactly that kind of autonomy that the politically engaged – and enraged – Kipling was unable to grant to any of the characters who appear in his South African stories. With very few exceptions he regarded the Boers as his personal enemies, and particularly sneaky ones at that, irrespective of whether they lived as British subjects in the Cape Colony or had taken up arms in the Transvaal and the Free State. He felt much the same about the vociferous liberals back ‘home’, whom he accused of flagrant sentimentality about the Boers and a criminal indifference to the fate of the empire as a whole. Even less forgivable, perhaps, were all the complacent, well-bred, games-playing English amateurs occupying high positions in Parliament and the colonies, in the civil service and the army (the flannelled fools and muddied oafs, as he famously described them in his poem ‘The Islanders’), who imagined that wars could be won and overseas possessions held without the exercise of ruthlessness and professional skill. In the hands of such idlers, he believed, British interests had been put at risk, not just in southern Africa but everywhere else too: above all in India. As Umr Singh, the Sikh mouthpiece of ‘A Sahib’s War’, dutifully puts it, in speaking of what he has witnessed during the war in South Africa: ‘It is for Hind [India] that the Sahibs are fighting this war. Ye cannot in one place rule and in another bear service. Either ye must everywhere rule or everywhere obey.’1

The geopolitical misgivings expressed here by Umr Singh take one back to Rhodes, to Kipling, and to the curious intensity of their relationship. The two men became intimate when each was more or less at the height of his fame.2 True, Rhodes’s reputation had been tarnished by his complicity in the Jameson Raid, a failed attempt to overthrow the government of the Transvaal by organising a military coup from outside the country’s borders. (Hence his enforced surrender of the premiership of the Cape Colony, four years before the outbreak of the war.) True also that Kipling, the younger of the two by about a dozen years, hadn’t yet written several of what would become his most widely admired books – Kim among them, as well as Puck of Pook’s Hill and Just So Stories. Yet his work had already secured for him a degree of esteem in the English-speaking world – and beyond it – that was almost Dickens-like in its fervour. Each of the two men could therefore take the eminence of the other for granted, as they did also their shared belief that the English or British ‘race’ was more qualified than any other to rule over peoples and territories which in their view were incapable of governing themselves.

To these affinities were added a few mutually supportive differences. For all his success, Rhodes had difficulty in finding the words in which to express his ambitions: he was ‘as inarticulate as a schoolboy of 15’, according to Kipling, whose own fluency (almost from birth, it seems) was phenomenal. Yet Kipling himself remained a schoolboy of a kind, too, not least in his perpetual hunt for heroes to worship: men of action, usually, who set about shaping the world to their own ends, whether as soldiers, sailors, camel-drivers, district commissioners, surgeons, engineers, gardeners, empire-builders. And here in Cape Town he found himself the friend and confidant of the greatest empire-builder of all, whom he had admired for many years (long before meeting Rhodes he had written of him as ‘one of the adventurers and captains courageous of old’), and who candidly revealed how much he relied on this newfound confidant to become his ‘purveyor of words’. (The phrase is quoted by Kipling in Something of Myself.)

Equally significant was their shared conviction that the world could best be understood – and best mastered, therefore – as what the critic W.L. Renwick called ‘an aggregation of secret and semi-secret societies, a pattern of circles, intersecting indeed, but closed’. These half ideas – megalomaniac from one aspect and paranoid from another – were to lead each of them in some strange directions, among which their shared ardent interest in freemasonry was probably the most innocent. Kipling’s hunger always to be in the know, and to make sure that everyone else knew him to be in the know, is manifest almost everywhere in his writings, sometimes to their advantage, often not (especially when he is carried away by his unique capacity for picking up specialised jargons of all kinds.) As for Rhodes, his schemes ranged from the formation of a secret society with the object of ‘the furtherance of the British Empire’ and thus ‘the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule’ (in his first will) to the slightly more modest plan (in his seventh will) to ‘rejoin’ the United States to the Empire and thus to found ‘so great a power as to … render wars impossible’. By the time he and Kipling got together these ambitions had been greatly scaled down, publicly at any rate, to the establishment of the Rhodes scholarships at Oxford, a scheme of which Kipling duly became a trustee.

Within a week or two of Rhodes’s death, Kipling wrote to a friend: ‘No words could give you any idea of that great spirit’s power … It seems absurd to speak of one’s own petty loss in the face of such a calamity but I feel as though half of the horizon of my life had dropped away.’ This outburst is all the more striking when one thinks of the shattered silence with which he had met the death of his eldest daughter, Josephine (‘my little Maid’), three years before, not to speak of the even grimmer silence he was plunged into by the second great loss of his life: the death of his only son on the Western Front 13 years later. The grief he felt for his daughter eventually found expression – of a deliberately distanced kind – in one of his most touching stories, ‘They’; his son he mourned as openly as he ever did in the poem ‘My Boy Jack’, written as if the boy had been lost at sea and not in the mud of the trenches. On the death of Rhodes, on the other hand, he immediately wrote two memorial poems, one of them to be read at the funeral in the Matopos Hills outside Bulawayo. Declamatory and prophetic in style (and utterly mistaken, as time was to show, about what lay ahead), there is a touch of unintended pathos in the final verse of the poem, with its covert allusion to the exchanges between the poet and the politician:

There, till the vision he foresaw
    Splendid and whole arise,
And unimagined Empires draw
    To council ’neath his skies,
The immense and brooding Spirit still
    Shall quicken and control.
Living he was the land, and dead,
    His soul shall be her soul!

That stanza appears on the wall of the grandiose Rhodes Memorial, designed once again by Herbert Baker, just below Table Mountain. It was Baker who chose to make use of the lines quoted above, rather than the verses initially and tentatively suggested to him by Kipling, which are more dramatic in tone and looser in form and grammar:

As tho’ again – yea, even once again,
    We should rewelcome to our stewardship
The rider with the loose-flung bridle-rein,
    And chance-plucked twig for whip,
The down-turned hat-brim, and the eyes beneath
    Alert, devouring – and the imperious hand
Ordaining matters swiftly to bequeath
    Perfect the work he ordained.

Another poem, written by Kipling before he and Rhodes had met, and slightly rephrased after the death of Rhodes, was later pressed into service as the inscription on a seated bronze of Rhodes now overlooking the rugby fields of the University of Cape Town. It too speaks of ‘empire to the northward. Ay, one land/From Lion’s Head to the Line’.3

With Rhodes dead and ‘half the horizon of my life … dropped away’, it might have been expected that Kipling’s interest in South Africa would diminish sharply. In fact, for another seven years, he continued to make protracted annual visits to the Cape, during which time he went on publishing, among much else, poems and stories with a South African setting or derived from his experiences there. In many of the poems he excoriated British complacency and softness of mind, which, he insisted, were on display once again in the payments for damages being made to the Boer inhabitants of the two defeated republics; not to speak of the relatively early return to them of a measure of self-government. This last move he described as putting the Boers ‘into a position to uphold and expand their primitive lust for racial domination’ – a statement seized on by various British biographers and essayists as evidence of how concerned he was about the fate of South Africa’s blacks, should they be left to the mercies of the Boers. Unfortunately, these writers have misunderstood what Kipling meant. From beginning to end of his South African sojourns he took remarkably little interest in black Africans; it was Boer domination of the British in southern Africa that was on his mind. During the earlier decades of the 20th century the term ‘race’ was habitually used in South Africa to refer to the quarrel between Boer and Briton, and it was repeatedly used in this sense by Kipling in his letters and Rhodes in his speeches.4

After inspecting the living conditions of the black mineworkers in Kimberley, who were held in ‘compounds’ by the De Beers Corporation for their entire term of hire (six months at a time), Kipling noted merely that ‘Kaffirs like to steal diamonds.’ About the Boers he wrote in his letters in even more hostile fashion after the war had been won than he did while it was still being waged. Occasionally he acknowledges an honourable exception among them; more often he refers to them as ‘idle dirty Dutch animals’, ‘a creolised race’, ‘speakers of a hideous taal patois’ and so forth. Outbursts of this kind may properly be compared with his half-mad imprecations against the Germans during the First World War. ‘The idea begins to dawn upon the German mind that this is not a war of victories but a war of extermination for their race … There can only be killing, butchery, and three nations, at least, desire ardently that the Boche be killed – at retail, since he can’t be killed wholesale.’ Admittedly, the letter containing that passage was written on the last day of 1915, only a few months after the death of his son in the battle of Loos, but it was not untypical of much else in his correspondence before and after 1918.

In his postwar published writings on South Africa, Kipling did write several reconciliatory poems, like ‘Half-Ballade of Waterval’, ‘Piet’, ‘Chant-Pagan’, and ‘The Settler’. These were clearly intended to promote a process of healing between the two ‘races’, and some of the reverberating passages that appear in them – descriptions of landscape, evocations of states of mind, renderings of details that only an eye as sharp as Kipling’s would register – show how genuinely the prospect of reconciliation appealed to his imagination. What is troubling about these poems is that they are all victors’ poems; in each case the suppositious speaker of the poem is a Briton speaking either to his fellow Britons or to one of his defeated enemies; in none are the latter permitted to utter a sentence or even a single word for themselves. They are pitied for their death in battle or their plight in being shipped off as captives to Ceylon or St Helena; they are congratulated in sportsmanlike fashion for having put up a good fight (and no hard feelings, mind). Yet the imbalance between the speaker and the spoken-to or spoken-about is never rectified; in the following lines, for example, the intention to honour the dead Boer is plain, yet implicitly the poem honours more highly still the rough, patronising generosity of the British soldier mourning him.

Ah, there, Piet! whose time ’as come to die.
’Is carcass past rebellion, but ’is eyes inquirin’ why.
Though dressed in stolen uniform with badge o’ rank complete,
I’ve known a lot o’ fellers go a dam’ sight worse than Piet.

As a man and a writer Kipling was by nature both obsessional and protean: two modes of responding to the world that for him were less at odds with each other than one might expect. Intermittently at least, he was a driven, tormented individual, who had been subject to one major nervous breakdown and other, lesser collapses; haunted by fears of madness and cancer; given to dwelling with manifest pleasure on the pain inflicted on – or suffered by – his invented characters; insistent on hammering moral lessons into other people’s heads (though capable at times of doing the job far more effectively with a single witty phrase). He was also a master at dramatising localised forms of obsession, as in his extraordinary story ‘The Disturber of Traffic’, in which a lighthouse-keeper becomes convinced that the waves in the straits he watches over are running lengthways in sinister, parallel ‘streaks’; these distress him so much he eventually takes it into his ‘pore sick head’ that the only way to stop them is to forbid all ships from passing his light. The story is, in effect, about a man whose thoughts are incessantly driven down narrow channels – straits indeed – from which he cannot escape.

Unlike the single idée fixe in the mind of this unfortunate creature, Kipling’s obsessions were themselves protean; they moved in many directions at once. His need to show that he knew more about everything (mechanical, social, linguistic, religious, historical, masonic etc) than other people knew about anything was in itself an obsession. So was the ferocity with which he attacked those he believed to be his country’s enemies: first the Boers, then the Germans (whom he had deeply mistrusted long before the outbreak of the First World War), then the Americans (before they entered the war on Britain’s side in 1917), then the Irish republicans (of course), then the Jews (about whom he wrote in increasingly paranoid fashion as he grew older – choosing to forget that the collaboration of the Beits and Rothschilds had been indispensable to Rhodes’s success). During his startlingly precocious and productive years in India he had been able to think of the empire, by and large, as a given fact, as a demanding yet thoroughly well-deserved piece of good fortune that no one would be able to take from his people or himself. After his South African experiences a new urgency began to dominate his preoccupation with the empire’s future. Now he was inclined to see it as a grandly evolving project that no bounds could contain, and at the same time as a besieged enterprise under threat from powerful enemies of many kinds.

All this cohabited in his mind with a late-developed passion for England itself, which he described as ‘the most marvellous of all foreign countries I have ever been in’, and which inspired some of his most thrilled and eloquent writing. What Kipling found so glamorous about England overall, and about the landscapes of southern England especially, was that its topography was inseparable from its human history. Unlike the South African veld, which he admired for other reasons, this landscape was coded, reclusive, idiosyncratic; its hills and fields continually spoke to him of half-forgotten historical events and social intimacies impenetrable by outsiders. See, for example, Puck of Pook’s Hill, as well as many of the other stories and poems set in the Sussex countryside in which he had finally made his home.5

But if an immemorial bonding of land and people was what Kipling loved most about England, how could that same people in another guise go about claiming for themselves perpetual title to a vast, amorphous empire that had no natural boundaries? How could England be at once ‘An Habitation Enforced’ – the title of one of his most famous stories – while at the same time serving as a springboard for the seizure and occupation of so many distant parts of the world? And what would happen to all those eager Britons whom he urged for empire’s sake to turn themselves into Australians and New Zealanders, say, or South Africans and Canadians – or even, as some had done long before, into Americans, like the leading characters of ‘An Habitation Enforced’? In such poems as ‘A Song of the English’, ‘The Houses (A Song of the Dominions)’, ‘Our Lady of the Snows’, ‘The Native-Born’, and many others, one can see Kipling trying with a certain desperation to resolve the conflict between his enthusiasm for the world-straddling greatness of Britain, on the one hand, and, on the other, for everything about England that was distinctive, allusive, unavailable to others. Would ‘the Blood’ and ‘the Race’ and ‘the Heritage’ (his terms – and his capital letters) be enough to keep in place these two poles of his imagined world? Would the ties between motherland and (white) empire that his poems insisted on be strong enough for the task? Could ‘The hush of our dread high-altar/Where the Abbey makes us We’, as he bathetically put it in ‘The Native-Born’, really sustain as one people the Britons at home and the British ‘natives’ yet to be born in countries so geographically remote?

The contrary tug of these impulses led him up many political and poetical blind alleys, but he couldn’t have managed without them. They sustained his extraordinarily prolific and various output almost to the end of his life; they drove him restlessly from one self-assumed public duty to another, from one mode of writing to the next, from one stern exhortation to further reproachful outbursts against those who let him down, as they so often tended to do. Everything he wrote, all his urgings in prose and verse, he put before the public with a seemingly indiscriminate haste, a shamelessness even, that led him to be mocked as well as honoured for the copiousness of his output. He wrote for adults; he wrote for children; he cajoled and bullied young and old alike; he insulted them, flattered them, warned them, made them laugh, spoke up tenderly for the humblest of them, made their flesh creep with intimations of uncanny forms of life and death, and, when nothing else would do, he bewildered them by retreats into taciturnity, blank refusals either to abandon or to explain the mysterious omniscience his writing so often hinted at.

He was like a figure from a fairy story: at one moment a noisy bullfrog; at the next, a prince. And something of a prophet too. He had never understood, or even tried to understand, some of the bedrock certainties of South African life, the most prominent among them being the sheer weight of numbers that the indigenous inhabitants of the country would eventually bring to bear on every aspect of its political life. (To be fair, the same could be said about almost all other whites, the novelist Trollope aside, who visited the country after the great diamond and gold rushes of the 1870s and 1880s.) But Kipling never forgot the crushing defeats the Boers had inflicted on British forces during the first few months of hostilities in South Africa: episodes that had left him with the conviction that since Britain’s military and moral unpreparedness for a major war had been revealed to all, an ‘Armageddon’ must now lie ahead.

Thus, ironically enough, it was in England that he set the finest of the poems to emerge from his South African experiences; it was from Romney Marsh, some miles from Bateman’s, his house in East Sussex, that he drew the poem’s imagery; and it was written with a directly political, propagandist, even warlike purpose. His aim in this long poem, ‘The Dykes’, was to incite the British government to introduce universal military training – of a kind similar to the training which circumstances had always enjoined on the Boers – for the young men of the United Kingdom. From this distance it could be suggested that the programme of wholesale conscription and rearmament he was urging on Britain might not have averted the European war he feared, but merely hastened its onset. Yet, from this distance, again, who can tell?

One thing we can be sure of is that the language he used in ‘The Dykes’ survives the occasion of its writing and the motives of the writer himself. As these three verses plucked from it go to show:

Far off, the full tide clambers and slips, mouthing and tasting all,
Nipping the flanks of the water-gates, baying along the wall,
Turning the shingle, returning the shingle, changing the set of the sand …
We are too far from the beach, men say, to know how the outworks stand.

So we come down, uneasy, to look, uneasily pacing the beach.
These are the dykes our fathers made: we have never known a breach.
Time and again the gale has blown by and we were not afraid;
Now we come only to look at the dykes – at the dykes our fathers made.

O’er the marsh where the homesteads cower apart the harried sunlight flies,
Shifts and considers, wanes and recovers, scatters and sickens and dies –
An evil ember bedded in ash – a spark blown west by the wind …
We are surrendered to night and the sea – the gale and the tide behind.

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