The White Man’s Burden—Imperialism or Imperialist’s Enlightenment Essay

The white man’s burden, published originally in magazine McClure’s was written by English short story writer, poet, novelist Rudyard Kipling (1865~1936) who had been an issue and still a talk of the town these days—he was generally known for his tales and poems about British soldiers in India and got the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. 1] During his middle age from April to August, 1898, there was an Spanish- American war in Cuba and Philippine over the issue aroused by American’s intervene in Cuban War of Independence, which resulted in Treaty of Paris that allowed American’s permanent colonial authority over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, marking the proceeding imperia-list policy of US.

This poem was accordingly a response to American’s territorial authority over Philippines. 3] Coming out of this poem and the title itself was a huge controversy, raising the argues between imperialists and those dissenters—one side arguing that it’s racist view against non white people, and another side arguing that white men has obligation and responsibility to enlighten those developing nation till they could firmly and beautifully build up their own houses. [4] In the following passages, it will analyze literal meaning of the poem The white man’s burden, and how those words are composed related to Kipling’s ideal and the situation during that period.

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And look into the views that both sides brought forward. Then meditating what impact it would have if the white men virtually encourage colonization of developing countries or colonizing certain country. Analytical part Every stanza in The white man’s burden starts with ‘take up the white man’s burden’, which would give rise to misunderstanding. Generally, the title at first sight seems to motivate white people to repay to those nation ruined by the white’s colonization or war.

However, in this poem, it’s literally obvious that Kipling is encouraging the white people to go into developing country, colonize them, then enlighten people and do nation building as philanthropy. And his idea gets more vivid if we know that the phrase ‘a white man’ in the eighteen –nineties did not only mean a man with white skin, but also a secondary symbolic meaning: a man with the moral standards of the civilized world. [5] One aspect that might have influenced Kipling to come up with such idea would be industrialization of the western countries.

Firstly, his country British empire that started out first stage of industrial revolution which brought great prosper to the nation, and its colony dimensions reached the peak at 19th century. In the middle of 19th century, Britain’s leading position in the world trade productively controlled many countries’ economy such as China and Argentina. [6] Then, secondly at the end of the 19th century, he slowly recognized Seaborne trade, financial organization, naval power, which were once was Englishman’s prerogative, there were no longer much place for British India in those system.

While he was in Japan in 1889, he felt as if he’s in American sphere. [7] Then what he saw was American’s flourish starting from Progressive Movement in 1890s, and its emergence as a world military and economic power. [8] Unfortunately, other nations throughout the Asia rarely made out striking progress while only Japan who restored imperial rule and modeling after western ideology through Meiji Restoration since 1868 for their nation was seeing noticeable development of the country.

The first crisis of imperialism he saw was in South Africa in 1898, and Kipling probably had done so much than any other people to stimulate interest in opening-up the new worlds in the east and south. Such surroundings and background would have contributed to Rudyard Kipling’s intension showed in this poem. He deeply believed not in western civilization’s superiority, but in justice and righteousnesss of western civilization— to him, it was the spread of culture and communication, not the enlargement of frontiers. 9] Kipling was living in the era that the Americans and British were far more superior than other nations not intellectually, but economically, militarily and politically. Another aspect might have influenced Kipling’s belief is religious movement. During the second half of the 18th century, there was an Evangelicalism—a Protestant Christian movement which improved imperialists’ virtue, strengthening the sense of responsibility on their colonies.

The law released in 1773 in Britain was intended to protect native people in British colony India. [10] Plus, Christian and missionary alliance[11] that focused on higher Christina life and work in foreign missionary efforts was formed in 1887, emphasizing the theme of aiding the unfortunate. [11] Even if the religion in those days or today is one of the ways to gain support from certain people and restore power, the theme about value and virtue it held would greatly influence human or even an era.

Briefly, it might not only the Americans and British nation’s enormous power, but also the religion with great thoughts and virtue would have constructed Kipling’s ideal against that period of time. We would see the reflection of Kipling’s thought clearly from the first stanza, he call the Filipino captives half-devil and half-child. He’s showing his sympathy towards that nation— who to him isn’t civilized at all, rather than criticizing Americans who caught these people, which means he’s only telling the white that this nation’s ability is not enough to upbuild their own country without scolding their invasion.

He directly gives his reason to the white why they should enlighten them by “sending forth the best ye breed”. After giving out the reason, the aim and procedure would lay out more distinctly in the third stanza. It reads “The savage wars of peace, fill full the mouth of famine,” indicating the white man’s going into the non white’s territory is needed—which means war or invasion— to bring them prosper the white had went through. Then we could see Rudyard Kipling clearly aware of what made the white man strong in the fourth stanza.

It was ports and roads that enabled trading and brought growth in western economy, and Kipling is asking the white men to mark them with their living in developing country. From this stanza we recognize how Kipling define significance of the white man’s burden—it’s not simply an invasion and bring some profit to those nation, but give them the key to real prosper and teach them build strong foundation that they could one day defend themselves from the danger an defeat it.

Even though some may say Rudyard Kipling is observing the none-white people in racist view, it is certain that his sympathy towards these people is sincere. As it is mentioned in the introduction part, there was mainly two different points of views against this poem, one claiming that it is racist view and the white people’s condescending attitude towards developing country, and the other claiming that it is philanthropic view that is aroused from religious movement. But seeing analyze above, we would see those two point of views are hugely affected by the background that time.

Starting from another meaning of the phrase ‘the white man,’—a man with the moral standards of the civilized world—it was the period that the westerner are proceeding in rapid pace through reform, industrial revolution and making profit through the conquer of developing country. By seeing only themselves making progress while the none-white people suffering from the invasion and not showing any spectacular world class work, the westerner’s self esteem would be higher than any of other periods.

Then making the Kipling’s poem as racist view or imperialism would be very common during that time. But something that enabled sympathy while US and Britain rise as empires through the invasion and colonization was religious impact. The thing appeared in people’s mind was benevolence, which implies that people should help the unfortunate better off. But if we read this poem in nowadays’ thoughts and expectation, it is hard to avoid thinking this is written by racist because we are now living in the world of the majority’s peace and independence.

To most of people, letting the white going into the developing country for help would only be an excuse for their taking advantages of those countries. Let’s think about we are encouraging the westerners to adopt Kipling’s idea today. How about recolonizing Africa. UN Human Development in 2003 stated that bottom 25 ranked nations were all from Africa. AMCOW is still asking the question when Africa would be able to halve the number of people who are lack of access to safe drinking water. It is known worldwide there are thousands of lives dying in Africa every year for starvation.

We know there would be murder if any of the troops go into another country, but as the Irish poet W. B Yeats’ thought shown in his poem, there’s a violence or adverse fortune is needed for great change. Hongkong had been a colony of Britain for 100 years, but with the organized rule over, it is now a world financial center, which makes people hard to believe that it is part of China. If westerners truly obey the humanitarian principles and build their home in Africa as Kipling encouraged, it might be possible to expect another Honkong in Africa.

The white man’s burden was imperialism and imperialist’s enlightenment at the same time. Conclusion The British poet and writer Rudyard Kipling was born in Westerners’ golden age. From his childhood to his adulthood, what he saw was rapid development in the white people’s society and economy, which were greatly benefited from industrial revolution and colonization. The only Asian country that could stand with the western country was Japan who adopted imperialism and western style of politics, science technology and thoughts.

And at the same time, religious movement spreading their ideology was interacting with such environment. Rudyard Kipling saw the pain that A developing nations going through without help and inspired him that now it is the greatest time for the white men to carry out this glorious task—helping the non-white people build up their own strong home by sending intelligent and civilized white men into those country. From the poem, we could see Kipling’s philanthropy was sincere without any sarcasm of the developing nation, but he showed sympathy for their uncivilized appearance.

And the two sides that arguing about this poem is racist or philanthropy is also deeply influenced by those environment. Living in the world nowadays, recolonizing any countries is unimaginable. But if we truly do that, obeying Kipling’s will, then Africa could be the choice for its decline in economy, lack of basic human rights and even simple resources such as water. Maybe we could expect another Hongkong come up. During his years, it could be an imperialism but it is more about imperialist’s enlightenment.


1. Rudyard Kipling. Retrieved from—http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Rudyard_Kipling 2. Spanish- American war. Retrieved from—http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Spanish-American_War 3. M. Grigoletti, (the one in the webschool, the white man’s burden) 4. The white man’s burden. Retrieved from—htpp://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/The_white_man%27s_burden 5. Charles Carrington. Rudyard Kipling-his life and work. London: Macmillan CO LTD, 1955. Page: 124 6. History of the United Kingdom. Retrieved from—http://en. wikipedia. rg/wiki/UK_History 7. Charles Carrington. Rudyard Kipling-his life and work. London: Macmillan CO LTD, 1955. Page: 124 8. History of the United States. Retrieved from— http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Us_history 9. Charles Carrington. Rudyard Kipling-his life and work. London: Macmillan CO LTD, 1955. Page: 274