Why Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem ‘IF’ is rightly revered by Serena Williams

‘Williams, who arguably has done more in her lifetime to advance racial and sexual equality than any other living athlete, is like many fans inspired by the poem’s celebration of stoicism and bravery in the face of adversity’

The poet Rudyard Kipling was a terrible old racist who ‘dehumanised people of colour’ and ‘stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment and human rights’. His most popular literary work must therefore be censored.

So says one Sara Khan, a self-styled ‘queer Muslim woman’ who currently rejoices in the job title of ‘liberation and access officer’ at the University of Manchester’s Students Union.

This week, Ms Khan presided over a widely reported protest that saw excitable undergraduates daub paint over a new mural of Kipling’s poem ‘If’ that had been added to the Union building in an attempt to motivate students. (In its place, they wrote out a poem by the black American writer Maya Angelou.)

Apparently, the Victorian writer’s 300-word celebration of hard work and bloody-minded determination — which has several times been voted Britain’s favourite poem — is offensive to ethnic minorities.

The reason? Kipling, who was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865, was, like the vast majority of his countrymen, an advocate of the British Empire.

Though many of his famous works, such as the novels Kim and The Jungle Book, contain nuanced and affectionate portrayals of indigenous cultures, some, notably the poem The White Man’s Burden, portray other races as inferior.

This, in the eyes of modern critics, is enough to render all of his work verboten. Including the famous poem ‘If’.

They are, of course, entitled to their view. But perhaps these sensitive souls should be a little more generous in the way they judge the social opinions that were held in another age.

Or they could take a lesson from the likes of the black tennis star Serena Williams.

She has walked past a mural of ‘If’ on each of the ten occasions she has contested a singles final at Wimbledon, since its most famous lines are carried above the entrance to Centre Court, to inspire players.

Williams, who arguably has done more in her lifetime to advance racial and sexual equality than any other living athlete, is like many fans inspired by the poem’s celebration of stoicism and bravery in the face of adversity.

Last year, she even decided to publish a recording of herself reading a specially adapted version, to celebrate International Women’s Day.

In the recording, Williams replaced Kipling’s final line (‘You’ll be a Man, my son!’) with a form of words more appropriate to the occasion. Namely: ‘You’ll be a woman, sister!’

Some might take the view that Serena’s adoption of the 1910 poem highlights the extraordinary degree to which it can remain relevant and inspiring more than a century after publication. 

But apparently Manchester’s right-on student leaders know better as they sparked yet another round of soul-searching about British cultural icons being demonised by the insidious forces of political correctness.

Yesterday, critics accused Ms Khan of ‘liberal fascism’, arguing that even George Orwell, who once described Kipling as a ‘jingo imperialist’, might have found recent events a touch, well, Orwellian.

Equally vociferous supporters, meanwhile, stood by her, arguing that Kipling was ‘imperialistic and racist’ and that the mural was therefore ‘inappropriate’. 

One thing neither side bothered to consider, though, was what ‘If’ is actually about.

For while admirers consider it a brilliant motivational text and Left-wing critics regard it as a stiff-upper-lipped celebration of outmoded values, the truth is that Kipling’s poem is a unique, and in its own way quite subversive, take on a little-known chapter in Britain’s colonial history.

Indeed, had Ms Khan, who claims to be an English Literature student, bothered to actually study the work, she would have learned that it was intended as a bitter condemnation of one of our government’s largely forgotten imperial adventures in 1890s Africa.

The poem was in fact written to celebrate the exploits of Dr Leander Starr Jameson, a buccaneering Scottish adventurer and friend of Kipling who was betrayed and imprisoned by the British Government. 

Jameson, a medical doctor who boasted the Matabele chief Lobengula as a patient — and was made an honorary tribal ‘induna’, or adviser, in return — came to grief in 1896 when leading an audacious military raid on Boers in the Transvaal region of what would later become South Africa.

Kipling’s poem celebrates what he saw as his heroism and bravery, when faced with the duplicity of the British ruling class.

To understand why, we must wind the clock back to the 1890s, when the region was divided into four major colonies: two British (the Cape Colony and Natal) and two Boer ones (Orange Free State and Transvaal).

And while all white residents of the British areas were allowed to vote (along with some black citizens who were educated and owned property), the Dutch ran their colonies along more racist lines.

Transvaal therefore contained 30,000 white male voters, of Dutch descent, plus 60,000 white male ‘Uitlanders’ — primarily British expatriates — whom the Boers refused to grant the vote, and treated as second-class citizens.

Their cause was eventually taken up by the British adventurer Cecil Rhodes, then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, who (with the support of the British Government in London) cooked up a plan to encourage the disgruntled Uitlanders to rebel against the ruling class they happened to outnumber.

Rhodes decided that if he sent a force of armed men to overrun Johannesburg, an uprising would follow. 

By Christmas 1895, a 600-strong militia had therefore been placed on the border under the command of his friend Dr Jameson, a charismatic character famed for his so-called ‘Jameson Charm’.

Back in Britain, meanwhile, the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, father of future Prime Minister Neville, initially encouraged Rhodes’s plan, on the grounds it might give the UK access to valuable gold mines.

However when he heard the raid was to be launched imminently, Chamberlain suddenly lost his resolve and changed his mind, telling aides: ‘If this succeeds, it will ruin me.’

Presumably he feared that such an act of naked military aggression could start a war for which he would be blamed.

He duly decided to order the Governor General of the Cape Colony to publicly condemn the so-called ‘Jameson Raid’ and Cecil Rhodes for planning it.

He also called for every British worker in Transvaal to be told not to support it.

Those orders were initially resisted, and the plan remained a secret.

But as the politicking between London and Cape Town developed, Dr Jameson and his men became increasingly frustrated.

On December 29, 1895, he decided to go ahead regardless, leading his men across the border. Unfortunately (for him, at least) their raid would fail, miserably, within a few days.

The Boer Government, who thanks to Chamberlain’s flip-flopping had caught wind of it, tracked Jameson’s force from the moment it crossed the border, and attacked it in a series of minor skirmishes that cost the raiders vital supplies, horses and indeed the lives of a handful of men.

Around 20 miles from Johannesburg, they were then confronted by more than 400 Boers and were forced to surrender. 

Jameson and the surviving raiders were then taken to jail in Pretoria.

The development left the British Government in a tricky spot. Rather than admitting their involvement in the plot, ministers decided to claim they had nothing to do with it, scapegoating Jameson as a renegade and traitor.

He was shipped back to England for trial and sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment. During his high-profile trial, Jameson never revealed the extent of the British Government’s support for the raid, and never sought to implicate collaborators such as Cecil Rhodes, who was later celebrated in the founding of Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe.

Kipling, who first met Dr Jameson several years later, was deeply moved by this display of extraordinary loyalty — and became angered by his government’s duplicity.

This has led a string of modern Kipling scholars to point out that the poem’s lines: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you’ were written to pay tribute to his courage and dignity, and to critique the cowardice of the colonialist authorities.

Jameson’s biographer Chris Ash points out: ‘He went to prison for attempting to help a group of people who had been denied basic human rights, because of their race.

‘That is one of the things Kipling found so admirable. You would have thought it something Left-wing people today would also find admirable. But for some reason, they don’t.’

Typically, Jameson was not broken by his imprisonment. Instead, after serving just three months, he was pardoned on grounds of ill health.

He returned to Africa and rebuilt his fortune and reputation, becoming the leader of the Progressive Party in the Cape Colony and, on winning the election, Prime Minister of the Cape from 1904 to 1908. 

Today, the University of Cape Town’s Jameson Hall is named after him, as are the city’s fleet of blue buses, the ‘Jammie shuttle’.

Kipling’s deep respect for the manner in which his friend rebuilt his life is further reflected in the lines from the poem: ‘If you can make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it at one turn of pitch-and-toss / And lose, and start again at your beginnings / And never breathe a word about your loss…’

The poet’s anger at Jameson’s treatment helped ignite a disdain in him for the British establishment that never really abated.

Even though Kipling became the first English-speaking recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, he refused a knighthood and the Order of Merit from the British Government and the King, along with posts of Poet Laureate and Companion of Honour, saying he would not accept an award that would identify him with one country.

In private, the author liked to refer to his sovereign, Edward VII, as ‘a corpulent voluptuary’.

This disdain for the authorities — again something today’s angry young Lefties should, in theory, applaud — was cemented when Kipling’s only son, Lieutenant John Kipling, was killed in the Great War Battle of Loos in 1915.

John’s body was never found, prompting Kipling to write: ‘If any question why we died / Tell them because our fathers lied.’ His sorrow and anger persisted until his death in 1936.

Over the years that followed ‘If’ would, of course, catch the imagination of people of all political persuasions.

‘It was the favourite poem, for example, of that anti-imperialist American president, Woodrow Wilson, a strong believer in self-determination,’ says Kipling’s biographer David Gilmour.

‘It is also a great favourite with the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who said it was not “imperial bombast” but ‘a great poem for dissidents’ — at a time when she was a dissident, and even produced a Burmese translation to inspire her supporters.’

Recent times have, however, been less forgiving, with Kipling attacked because some of his work — particularly earlier poems — are seen to have advocated colonialism.

All of which dismays such experts as David Gilmour. ‘Kipling might be accused of racial disparagement rather than of racism, but so could almost anyone of that period,’ he adds.

‘Even Gandhi did not think that black Africans should have the same rights in South Africa as whites or Indians.

Jeering at our ancestors because they were not as “enlightened” as us has always seemed to me a rather fatuous and anti-historical exercise.’

But in modern academia, more’s the pity, it’s now par for the course. 

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