The White Man’s Burden

wm1When Theodore Roosevelt read  Rudyard Kipling ‘s poem: “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands”, was so very favourably impressed that he copied the poem and sent it to his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge with the following comment : “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view“. The publication of the poem in McClure’s Magazine in February 1899  coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. In his poem Kipling invited the U.S: to take up the “burden” of the empire, as Britain and other European nations had done. Kipling thought that the white man had the duty to help the less fortunate peoples of the empire and the goodness of their civilizing mission would have crushed any resented opposition even if, choosing the word “burden” to define this glorious accomplishment, Kipling somehow underlined that it was not such a simple task. More than one hundred years after the publication of this poem, just reading through the pages of any newspaper, we know there must have been something underrated in that optimistic vision.

wm2The fact is that the “civilising mission” consisted not only in expanding a more modern economic and social system – certainly more for the sake of the civilizers rather than the  civilized – but imposing those values and habits typical of western cultures without caring much of the sensibility of the “captives” that Kipling defined in the poem “half devil and half child”. In these last two expressions there is all the blindness and hypocrisy of an age. The natives were seen as devils, that is “sullen”, dark , evil; therefore, they needed to be redeemed. At this point we should remember the role of the Church in promoting the idea of the expansion of the empire as fundamental for the spreading of the Christian faith. Since the discovery of America, economic and religious issues had always gone hand in hand, in fact. However, that childish trait should have made easier the “salvation” of those poor souls, because of their “natural” naivety and gullibility. Needless to say that such representation earned Kipling bitter accusations of racism.

wm3Certainly in those words there was nothing new, but a prejudice which had been commonly shared for ages; therefore, the civilizing mission of the white man was deliberately indifferent of those values expressed by the cultures of the subdued peoples of the empire, which were considered inferior. Even Robinson Crusoe, after all, was a prototype of this vision. He feeds Friday, teaches him British good manner and even if they are alone on a desert island the master and servant relationship is preserved: Robinson wants to be called “Master” and names his companion “Friday”, rather than giving him a proper name; therefore, he does not seem to consider him a person, he just wants him to remember the day Robinson/ the Master saved him and then he proceeds with his own private civilizing mission. Had he been interested, he would have made the effort to ask his name, but maybe it sounded too democratic for the time.

Sikh officers of the British 15th Punjab Infantry regiment, shortly after the Indian Mutiny, 1858But is it really possible to cohabit just fixing the rules of a master/servant relationship based on an alleged superiority, without caring about the nature of that servant? There is a great risk, in fact. It could happen that  the Fridays in the world one day might rebel, just because of the carelessness of a Robinson for whom a little detail may be meaningless, while it is, actually, so meaningful for them, just like a trivial cartridge, for instance. We are talking about the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. The British had issued the Sepoys, the native Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army, with new gunpowder cartridges. To load their rifles, the soldiers had to bite the cartridge first, but this simple action was considered an insult to both Hindus and Muslims, as they believed that the cartridges they were supplied with were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims and tallow (cow fat) which angered the Hindus, as cows were equal to goddess to them. The Sepoys’ British officers regarded these claims unimportant, and suggested to grease a batch of the new cartridges with beeswax or mutton fat.  For the Sepoys this was evidence that the original cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow. Hence, a meaningless cartridge became the cause of a meaningful uprising that in all Indian History books is regarded as India’s first War of Independence.





16 thoughts on “The White Man’s Burden

  1. We have an interesting cultural debate going on in England at the moment over whether a statue of champion of imperial expansion and father of apartheid, Cecil Rhodes, should be removed from an Oxford college. The issue complicated by the fact that Rhodes’ money also built the college and provides grants to students who often have become champions of liberalism and emancipation. Poor old Kipling championed one set of values but lost a lot of faith in them when his son was killed in the First World War. Another fine post.

    • Hi Simon, well any debate is sign of cultural progress, however, the possible removal of the statue of Rhodes sounds a little ” Taleban” like. Thank you for stopping by. Stefy. 🙋

      • I’m not sure many of the student protesters at Oxford would compare their campaign to the statues of Bhudda. Though I think old Rhodes might be a little flattered!

  2. Great post, very insightful. I confess I consider Roosevelt a hero in many ways and woefully villainous in others, and this is a prime example of the latter. Things like this make me want to research colonization incidents that DIDN’T end with genocide and enforced cultural shifts. I’ve heard that such an example would be the Moors presence in Spain, but I haven’t done much research about it.
    Wonderful, in-depth post!

  3. Pingback: The White Man’s Burden | e-Tinkerbell | First Night History

  4. One of the historian’s dilemma is how to evaluate the greats of the past. Like all of us, they were a mixture of positives and negatives. For instance, how do we evaluate Martin Luther. One of the great negatives is that he was antisemitic. If we evaluate those of the past with our current sensibilities, makes me ask how we will be evaluated by our descendants.

  5. Your comment on the Fridays of the world rebelling against the Robinson Crusoes reminded me of a fantastic play “Pantomime” by Derek Walcott. The two-men play is about the dialog between a very smart (and smart alecky) Friday and a bumbling Robinson Crusoe. All of the themes of colonialism and white supremacy and rebellion are well captured. I’ve seen it twice, but would see it again, if I had the chance…

  6. Great post … and expansion for economic benefits and imposition of values is a record that has been played over and over throughout history. I don’t say it to justify it, but when will humanity ever learn.

  7. Stefy your post is very thought provoking. The treatment of our indigenous people in Canada is not something our country is proud of. This civilizing notion more like suffocating of a culture.

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