If you ever get a chance, and are so inclined, have a read of Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King. I found it within Penguin’s Kipling Anthology Ten Short Stories that I picked up in an airport bookshop a while back. You can read or listen here.
The 47-page story is narrated by a British Journalist working in India who happens across two burly loafers: Daniel Dravot and Peachy Taliaferro Carnehan, posing as newspaper correspondents and conning local Indian governments; then sub-narrated by Carnehan.
In the first part of the story, Carnehan and Dravot tell of thier plans to trek into Kafiristan, near Afghanistan, with a camel full of rifles and crown themselves kings, quite literally with brute force. As Dravot himself puts it: “in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King” The pair had written up a Contrack [Contract], barring them from alcohol or women until they’d fulfilled their goal.
The pages seeth with Kipling’s jingoism and pro-inperialist perspective, with that in mind, there’s a funny irony to the fact that he wrote The Man Who Would Be King. When Carnehan returns to tell the initial narrator of Dravot and his misadventures, I couldn’t help but smirk at how Kipling essentially outlined in fictional form the birth of an empire, warts and all (in this case, warts being discriminate violence)
And so Carnehan tells the tale of how the two men invade a technologically primitive nation, a nation of mountainous countryside littered with warring tribes of people. Using their guns, initiative, and a readiness for violence, they manipulate the tribes’ priests by appealing to their holy idols, and use them to validate their new found royalty on the growing populace, to a point where they are considered gods.
They unite tribes; squash battles; drill men; mine gemstones; and build an army. They install a Masonic Lodge, and imitate Freemasonry to establish control and legitimacy. As Dravot puts it: “[installing Freemasonry] means running a country as easy as a four-wheeled bogie on a down grade”
As Dravot becomes more powerful with over a hundred men at his disposal, he considers, then insists on taking a wife, much to the disapproval of Carnehan, who argues that they should stick to the terms of the Contrack. The power hungry Dravot argues, and insists that tribal marriage would strengthen their kingdom, a feudal arrangement to unite the tribes. He even dreams of one day handing his crown to Queen Victoria, receiving a knighthood for furthering The Empire.
There is a poignant conversation before the marriage, which I previously thought would be outside the scope of this short story. Carnehan confesses to one of the priests, whom they had named Billy Fish, that the conquering pair are not gods nor kings, but merely men. Billy Fish accepts the information as if it was a given fact, and reiterates his loyalty despite it, but warns that if some of the other priests find out, there would be trouble. This passage touches on other reasons to follow, to believe. Survival is a powerful motivator, and can make religion look very attractive, regardless of whether an individual truly believes in the doctrine. Religious conversion rates throughout history are a testament to that fact.
There is a stark similarity between the birth of an empire here and the tarnished revolution that occurs during Animal Farm*. It’s interesting to note that in terms of political outlooks, the two authors had very different ideologies. It seems that in both stories, once the original Contrack or rules are broken or amended, or rather, once the active parties turn against themselves or each other, the plan is doomed to fail. As Dravot’s lies and manipulation unfold toward the end of the story, and his very subjects put a brutal end to his imperialist dreams, it is hard not to draw a parallel to real world empires rising and falling.
I haven’t enjoyed many of Kipling’s stories as much as The Man Who Would Be King. Like many of his stories, it serves as a snapshot reminder of Nineteenth Century British Colonization, with all the unpleasant attitudes toward fellow man intact, but this story serves as a casual yet ghastly metaphor of human history. The only thing missing is genocide.
The Kipling Society has some interesting background on the story.