Kipling Tuesday: Pondering 'The White Man's Burden' -- and understanding the past

Kipling Tuesday: Pondering 'The White Man's Burden' -- and understanding the past
Rudyard Kipling. Source:

For those who have wondered, and for those readers who have asked in the comments, here it is: It’s time to consider Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Perhaps tellingly for the poem’s reputation and Kipling’s, I can’t find it on the Poetry Foundation’s otherwise exhaustive web site. My quotations are from “Rudyard Kipling Complete Verse, Definitive Edition.”

First of all, if you are thinking that this poem is pro-British, I’ll argue the point. Kipling, who lived in India and Vermont (!) as well as Britain, was writing more about the burden of colonial power than of any particular race. Get a copy of the poem and look beneath its notorious title, where the next lines read “1899” and “The United States and the Philippine Islands.”

The U.S. was just becoming a colonial power in 1899, with its influence in the Philippines, and Kipling’s poem is welcoming this young country to problems the much older British Empire already had.

“Take up the White Man’s burden,” the poem says at the beginning of each stanza. Not “hooray for our side,” not “we’re better,” but “take up a burden.”

Remember, this was 1899.

As a society, we’re developing the habit of re-writing any historical event, trying to understand it only in light of present-day values. We tend to think that any art, any style, any opinion, ought to be considered the same as any others. Whatever you want to believe, politically or religiously, is right for you, say many people.

We forget that there was ever an age when there were absolute standards, when it was not only all right, but it was expected that some things were better than others.

For example, the age that ended with the Great War — so soon re-named World War I — was an age of empires. Bringing civilization — sewage control and other infrastructure, not just political control — to a colony was a burden. The personnel needed to teach colonies (and colonists) how to run things had to come from colonizing countries.

That’s why Kipling is repeating “Take up the White Man’s burden” — because the U.S. was beginning to become a colonial power in the Philippines. These days, we wouldn’t put it so restrictively, but Kipling, a man very much of his time, was saying what we might translate as “Take up the superpower’s burden.”

Here’s what the burden sounds like in the penultimate verse:

“Take up the White Man’s burden — 

    Ye dare not stoop to less —

Nor call too loud on Freedom

    To cloak your weariness;

By all ye cry or whisper,

    By all ye leave or do,

The silent, sullen peoples

    Shall weigh your Gods and you.”

This is not saying that the burden is a good thing. It’s saying that a country will be judged by its handling of the burden of having colonies. (Sure enough, both Britain and this country are attacked to this day about “imperialist” actions — but places that were our former colonies have benefitted from our influences, just as we’ve benefitted from Britain’s influence on our form of government.)

If you don’t understand U.S. foreign policy at the turn of the last century, do some reading with “The White Man’s Burden” in mind as your starting point.

At this time of year, there’s an historical comparison that’s easy for me to think of: the many novels, poems and other art about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

I marvel at the idea that the presidential party that day was in an open-topped car. When I was growing up and mentioned that I had never seen a president do that, the answers I got could be summed up as “You wouldn’t.” (I was born on the day of the president’s funeral.)

Studying stories about those days, the “this is where I came in” of history, has taught me a lot about context. It’s hard to imagine TV news basically creating itself on the run that November.

It’s even tougher to go back 64 more years to the era of this poem. But that’s why we need to do it.

How else will we even try to understand?

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook. 

Filed under: Expressions, Writing

Tags: Rudyard Kipling


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  • But, was the purpose of Imperialism the introduction of "civilization" to the benighted souls of Africa and Asia? Or was the true purpose the economic exploitation of these regions, with the "white man's burden" as the salve to still the moral discomfort this exploitation caused? Remember that slave owners also invented white man's burden narratives to justify their immortal practices.

    What was Kipling's opinion of those he would have us save? Notice another verse from the poem.

    Take up the White Man's Burden--
    And reap his old reward
    The blame of those ye better
    The hate of those ye guard--
    The cry of hosts ye humour
    (Ah slowly to the light.
    "Why brought ye us from bondage,
    "Our loved Egyptian night."

    Those "ye better". Those "ye guard". Those "ye humour".

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thank you for reading, jnorto. I'm glad to discuss this with you. As I see it, Kipling is cautioning the U.S. that those in the new colony 'being helped" (as the colonizers see it) are going to use blame and hate. He still saw the advantages his system had taught him to see; I stand by my comments there. But Kipling isn't saying that the job is going to be an easy thing.
    As for the slave owners, well, gotcha -- the Emancipation Proclamation was in the early 1860s. This poem is from 1899. Call the slave-owners' justifications whatever you may -- "disgusting" will do -- it's an anachronism to bring Kipling into it.

  • You miss my point. I am well aware of when the Emancipation Proclamation and later the Thirteenth Amendment became effective. I was citing the long history of arguing that the exploitation of one group of people by another is often justified by claims that the exploiters are benefiting the exploited.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thank you, jnorto. I think we're writing past one another here, because you're missing at least part of my point. Exploited people(s) see themselves as exploited even when those doing the exploiting can't see what's happening. It's like a parent or a doctor saying "This is for your own good!" and not understanding that the kid being treated hates, fears and/or is in pain from what is being given "for his own good." The parents and doctors will keep doing what they do until someone teaches them a better way. Meanwhile, they just don't see what's wrong with the situation.

  • One year before Kipling wrote his poem, the Anti-Imperialism League, whose members included Mark Twain, Henry and William James, and Andrew Carnegie, stated its opposition to U.S. colonialism in the Philippines in the following words:

    "We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is "criminal aggression" and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government...

    We cordially invite the cooperation of all men and women who remain loyal to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States."

    Which makes me wonder if Twain ever met Kipling when the latter lived for a time in Vermont.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you for a fine contribution. I don't know whether Twain and Kipling met in Vermont, but if they had, I would have paid for the chance to serve them tea and keep my ears open!

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Somehow I can't visualize Twain having a spot of tea. Unless he'd add something a little stronger.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I'm afraid tea would be the only thing he'd get from me.

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