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The White Man’s Burden–Rudyard Kipling

An essay I published at American Thinker provoked a response from a reader. This intrepid fellow suggested that I had misread Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” which I referenced in the essay. In refreshing myself on the poem to be sure that his assertion of misreading did not hold, I had a few thoughts I would like to share now.

My reader suggested that Kipling’s poem “is a very serious, if sarcastic, discourse on the total absurdity of assuming “the white mans burden” and the attitude of liberal do-gooders.” Let’s look at the poem’s first three stanzas to test that suggestion.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Looking at the first stanza, we see Kipling expressing a decidedly non-politically correct (by our standards) view of the colonized population: “Half-devil and half-child.” In stanza 3, he refers to the problem of “heathen Folly.” Nowhere in the poem do we see the colonized as victims, noble savages, or anything else that seems to put the lie to a literal reading of the lines. We can find in Kipling, notably in “Gunga Din” or in Kim, admirable portrayals of the natives, yet they remain the natives. In Kim, the main character we discover to be half English. In “White Man’s Burden,” however, I don’t believe one could argue that the portrayal of the native people can be read in a positive light.

The first two stanzas explore the “white man’s” side of the interaction.Kipling talks of young men being bound “to exile” and waiting “in heavy harness” as if draft animals. In stanza 2, he speaks of the burdened working “To seek another’s profit,/And work another’s gain.” At this point, I argue, we see that the burden is not upon all white men, but upon those caught in the middle, between profiting superiors and uncooperative inferiors. This sense of being caught in the middle can be seen at the close of stanza 3, when all the best achievements come to nothing: “Watch sloth and heathen Folly/Bring all your hopes to nought.” Sloth can be read as representing the superiors. Heathen folly clearly relates to the native people. Read in this way, “White Man’s Burden” can be seen as a sort of working-man’s manifesto.

One can scarcely read this poem without finding a note indicating that its writing, in 1899, was occasioned by the American takeover of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Given that Kipling did not elsewhere speak strongly against the very idea of empire or colonialism, I think it reasonable to suggest that he did not mean this poem to do so either. Instead, I would suggest, he meant it as a sort of “be careful what you get yourself into” warning to the United States.

With empires decidedly out of fashion and virtually all the old colonial areas returned to indigenous control, what possible relevance can Kipling’s poem have for us today aside from an antiquarian interest? I would suggest that the Christian read can view this poem as a cautionary tale about international missions. When missions are pursued improperly, they can closely resemble the worst excesses of the British colonial system. A friend of mine, soon to depart as a missionary in Chile, could well attend to these words:

By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

In hearing of the weighing of “gods and you,” I here an echo of Daniel 5:25-28. “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Whenever someone–individual, race, nation, whatever–intrudes into the affairs of another, very stringent requirements will be expected both by the others and by God. Was this what Kipling intended? I have no idea. I do thank my correspondent for returning my eyes more thoroughly to a work I had not considered in some time.



Posted in English Literature, Realism.

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