Gunga Din House renaming sparks row among Dragon School's alumni

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Rudyard Kipling - portrait with cigarette. English poet and novelist. 30 December 1865 (in Mumbai ) - January 1936. - Culture Club/Getty Images/Culture Club/Getty Images
Rudyard Kipling - portrait with cigarette. English poet and novelist. 30 December 1865 (in Mumbai ) - January 1936. - Culture Club/Getty Images/Culture Club/Getty Images

As alma mater to a long line of illustrious alumni, Oxford’s Dragon School may have considered itself above the fray of modern controversies.

However, the fee-paying school has found itself embroiled in a very 21st century culture war after taking what it thought was the sensitive step of renaming one of its houses over its racist connotations.

The decision to change the name of the senior boys' boarding house from Gunga Din to Dragon House has now prompted an angry backlash from old boys who accuse it of kowtowing to modern attempts to “obliterate the past”.

The move follows that of Edinburgh University in renaming its David Hume Tower over the philosopher’s “racist” views.

In a letter to all Dragon School alumni, including the actors Emma Watson and Tom Hiddleston, former Wimbledon semi-finalist Tim Henman and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, the Dragon School's governors explained the decision to remove the name, made famous in one of Rudyard’s Kipling’s most loved poems.

They said: "Hum chose Gunga Din as the name given to the boys’ boarding house to highlight the higher ideals of equality, fairness and human dignity; these align with today’s core Dragon values of Kindness, Courage and Respect.

"Sadly, the term 'Gunga' has now become derogatory, and even used as a racial slur.

"Such potentially offensive language is against the Dragon's ethos of inclusivity and diversity.

"Kipling's poem was of its time and it is no longer appropriate to continue using the name Gunga Din."

Kipling’s poem, published in 1890, is written from the point of view of a British soldier in India, who tells of an Indian water-carrier named Gunga Din who, after the narrator is wounded in battle, saves his life, only to be shot and killed. 

In the final lines, the soldier regrets his previous abuse of Din and admits that he is by far “the better man”. 

The boarding house was named Gunga Din almost 80 years ago, by the then headmaster 'Hum' Lynam. Alumni of the school include First World War hero and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt, Indian Army stalwart Sir John Smythe, and the pioneering geneticist JBS Haldane. 

Although Din is presented as a heroic character who is not afraid to face danger on the battlefield while tending to the wounded, and is subject to abuse from the white soldiers he serves alongside, the name was subsequently adopted as a racial slur against people of south Asian origin.

However, writing in the latest edition of The Spectator, the Dragon School alumnus and writer Alexander Pelling-Bruce said the decision to rename the house was “pure madness” and he urged those connected with the Dragon School not to pledge any further donations in protest.

Mr Pelling-Bruce said: "Alumni who are dismayed by the Gunga Din nonsense ought to pledge to withhold any future donations (and withdraw any outstanding), and not attend any alumni events.

"Current parents, who apparently were not consulted over the name change, could collectively withhold fees. See how quick the reverse-ferret is then."

Niall Ferguson, the historian and author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, added: “As a former Dragon parent I find this deeply disappointed.”

In the poem, Kipling has the narrator state: “Of all them black-faced crew/The finest man I knew/Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din”, ending with the lines: “Though I've belted you and flayed you/By the living Gawd that made you/⁠You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

The poem has inspired the plot of several films, including a 1932 version starring Carey Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, and Sergeants 3 in 1961, with the Gunga Din character played by Sammy Davis Jnr.

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