The Weight of Imperialism in Kipling's “The White Man’s Burden”

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Great Britain is no stranger to imperialism. The British Empire, considered “the empire on which the sun never sets, ” governed more than 412 million people in 1913 – ten times larger than the British population itself (Maddison 97). India was one of many accolades under the British belt as it was ruled by two periods of imperialism between 1640 and 1949, both of which egregiously and permanently affected India. The first period of imperialism ended in 1858 when the British East India Company slowly lost control; the second period of imperialism resumed in 1858 with the British monarchy establishing a full colonial government to assume direct control of India from the British East India Company. It was in 1899 that Rudyard Kipling published his poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” in McClure’s Magazine, hoping to gain attention from the American audience. Kipling’s poem acted as a catalyst for imperialism acquiescence because it aberrantly epitomized the perspective of imperialism from the European male’s point of view.

Imperialism, the expansion of sovereignty from one state over another, often exploits the controlled state or people. Imperialist powers, in its sectors of economic, strategic, political, and humanitarian, are not inhibited by laws, conventional or international. Conversely, imperialist powers make the laws. British imperialism, the crusade of one tiny nation imposing on many other larger nations with total control for profit, had a huge impact on India. When the word of Indian spices got out, outside invasions increased. Europeans sailed to India in the early seventeenth century in missions to corner the spice trade market. At that time, India was ruled by the Mughal Empire.

The Mughal rulers suffered from a religious dissent since the Mughals were both Afghans and Muslims. This resulted in a lack of cultural harmony in India which also weakened the political harmony. Over time, the Mughal Empire failed due to partisanship. Taking an interest in the trade potential of India, the British empire swooped in and took over India. At first, the British empire saw India has a huge source for profit, but as the Industrial Revolution evolved in Great Britain, the interest in India intensified. Now, India was seen as both a potential market for British-sourced goods and raw materials, making India the most precious British colony.

These new changes might have seemed beneficial to India in hindsight, but they swindled the Indian people into a state of dependency on the British empire, allowing Great Britain to hold economic and political power over India. As India developed, many restrictions were instituted to limit the Indian economy. Its wealth was depleted during British rule so much that its economy has never been able to recover. Indian goods could not be produced to compete with the British-sourced goods, and the Indian people were pressured into buying British-sourced goods. All of the local producers and textile workers were pushed out of work. Local craft and cotton industries were destroyed. Many Indian villages suffered from the lack of money being generated by their cash crops; fewer crops were being produced for food. A devastating famine occurred soon after in the late 1880s.

Religious tensions escalated. Religion was getting pushed on the Indian people as the British Empire expanded its missionaries to spread Christianity. This overbearing influence of religious conversion and persistent racism created grievances among the Indian people towards the British people, but most of the subcontinent was under British control by 1850 (Kaur). British imperialism took a large toll on the development of India, especially for those who could not afford to emigrate elsewhere. However, for some, these adverse effects were not as detrimental.

Born Joseph Rudyard Kipling in Bombay, India, in 1865, Kipling was born to John and Alice Kipling, recent arrivals to India from the British empire. Kipling considered India a sensational place. He recalls learning the language, exploring local markets with his sister and nanny in hectic cities of diverse people, and connecting with the country and its culture. He left for education in Great Britain at the age of six but returned to India in 1882 (Stewart). Since Kipling’s family had money, his early time spent in India was less worrisome compared to those people suffering from famine or could not find work at that time. A diary entry from a British soldier stationed in India during the Mutiny effectively depicts the dark reality of India at that time.

September 16th: Went to see Wheeler’s entrenchment. It was a wretched position; the houses are all knocked to pieces, the ground strewed with skulls, pieces of shell, ladies’ dresses, music, books, etc. In the afternoon very heavy rain – our tent full of water – had to dine sitting on our beds with a servant holding an umbrella over one’s head… (Blake) This account would suggest that Kipling saw and experienced a different, more auspicious side of India from what the British soldiers saw and experienced. Even though Kipling lived in India for many years and indulged in its cultures, he still chose to be the faux sympathizer of the imperialist elite. He was wary of democracy who opposed imperialism as a philosophy. He saw World War I as a threat not only to Britain itself but also to Great Britain’s civilizing mission.

In 1898, after the United States went to war with the Philippines, Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden” in response. The concept of “The White Man’s Burden” has become synonymous with describing Western attitudes toward the regression of the rest of the world: the white race is morally obligated to rule the people of color and encourage their social, cultural, and economic progress through settler colonialism. Professor David Cody effectively explains the stance: “The implication, of course, was that the Empire existed not for the benefit—economic or strategic or otherwise—of Britain, itself, but in order that primitive peoples, incapable of self-government, could, with British guidance, eventually become civilized (and Christianized),” (Cody). In Kipling’s poem, he urged Americans to embrace imperialism, disregarding the possible hate and resentment, to expand civilization as far across the globe as possible.

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At the time, Kipling, the writer who molded the British perceptions of India in all its imperialism and exoticism for half a century more than anyone else, sent his poem to Theodore Roosevelt, his friend who had just been elected Governor of New York. Before Roosevelt became politically active, he was anti-Imperialist, meaning he wanted to keep the United States’ business in the United States. He became pro-Imperialist after he became a Senator. Many factors could have swayed his stance on imperialism; imperialism was rampant in the late nineteenth century. Anyone who wanted to hold an office needed to hold a positive stance on imperialism. He wrote to Roosevelt: ‘Now go in and put all the weight of your influence into hanging on permanently to the whole Philippines. America has gone and stuck a pickaxe into the foundations of a rotten house and she is morally bound to build the house over again from the foundations or have it fall about her ears,’ (Childs). More specifically, he intended to encourage America to claim the Philippines, one of the pivotal territories of the Spanish-American War, and rule it with the same energy and honor that he believed Great Britain used to rule over the nonwhite populations of India and Africa.

From Roosevelt, Kipling’s poem was sent to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Roosevelt criticized that while the poem was “poor poetry”, it made “good sense from the expansion standpoint.” Conversely, Lodge retorted that the poetry wasn’t that bad and agreed about its standpoint. A few months later, the poem was published in 1899 in McClure’s Magazine, based in New York City, New York. The poem ignored the profit incentives of imperialism to assuage moral implications, a tactic for an unsullied statement. Moreover, the phrase, “the white man’s burden” became widely used among imperialists, especially around the time of the U.S. taking over Cuba in its Filipino war in 1899. At the end of the War in 1901, Mark Twain even inquired: “The White Man’s Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man’s?”

As Great Britain embarked on an extreme expansionary period at the end of the nineteenth century, Rudyard Kipling quickly rose to fame, being dubbed as a renowned poet and imperial propagandist. Kipling’s views of the British empire as a way to maintain stability, order, and peace amongst the people he considered to be “heathens” were backed by religious, moral, political, and racial, beliefs that held the British as a culture of superiority. Kipling began to see the imperial downfall after the First World War as British colonies would eventually gain sectors of political autonomy and, ultimately, their independence. Ironically, Kipling never saw the absolute end of the empire that came about after the end of the Second World War.

In a speech to the Royal Society in 1920, Kipling spoke of the men who created the Empire: “… they did establish and maintain reasonable security and peace among simple folk in very many parts of the world, and that, too, without overmuch murder, robbery, oppression or torture,” (Gopen). Today, Kipling’s view of British rule is seen as naïve and idealistic. Not only did he believe that the colonized should recognize their inferiority, but they should also welcome their governed position in the British empire.
Kipling believed that Imperialism had five “points of fellowship” necessary to properly colonize areas: immigration, education, transportation, irrigation, and administration. With these elements of civilization implemented when conquering, the mother country created a better and more civilized nation from the colony (Gopen). Imperialism shifted from being thought of as just a confined political subject to a way of moral and social life.

Kipling’s ideal version of imperialism for India was an oppressive, pseudo-feudal imperial one (Varley). With “benevolent” and “valid” rulers in control, the British empire took an entitled position at the top of the social chain, utilizing a systematic manner of government. Kipling also could have influenced by the spread of the philosophy, Social Darwinism: a societal twist to Charles Darwin’s order of the natural world. For Kipling, a hierarchy was instinctive, and it was determined by survival of the fittest. Kipling couldn’t have considered imperialism to be corrupt, because social order is destined, therefore moral (Varley).

Other poems have been composed to challenge, mock, or pay homage to “The White Man’s Burden.” It initiated both the supporters and opponents of imperialism, as well as of racism and white supremacy. After internalizing the main context of Kipling’s poem, America’s colonization of the Philippines, the use of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ has shifted from 1898 to today. In Henry Labouchère’s 1899 poem, ‘The Brown Man’s Burden,’ clarifications, parodies, and citations appear almost immediately. ‘The Black Man’s Burden’ struck a chord in the black press as many parodies and more serious poems with that title began to surface. Edmund Morel’s book The Black Man’s Burden, published in 1920, passionately refuted Kipling’s message by arguing the case against powerful empire and other works under similar strata that criticize racism in the U.S. during the First and Second World Wars.

Until recently, most works that respond to Kipling’s poem have been somewhat parodic or disapproving. However, in response to America’s new wave of “imperialism” in the Middle East, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, many have attempted to revamp Kipling and his poem, ‘The White Man’s Burden.’ For example, Max Boot in his book, The Savage Wars of Peace, published in 2002, chose a line from the poem that he cited more fully with clear approval for the text itself (Foster). Though Boot and other current supporters of American imperialism will accept or deny this apparent fact, Kipling’s poem strongly suggests that imperialism and racism are inseparable.

Many of the same justifying defenses used for imperialism in the Philippines, applicable to the poem at the time, are also applicable to European colonization in Africa, which was practically ceased by 1899. In 1877, British arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes wrote to express these arguments more explicitly than Kipling: Africa is lying ready for us, and it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory, and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes: that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honourable race the world possesses (Brantlinger).
The irrefutable belief in white supremacy was merely a status-quo justification for imperialism by the time Kipling published his poem.

Even though Rudyard Kipling briefly grew up in India, he was a product of his environment in the sense that he explicit aided to the advancement of his demographic: European males with influence. His poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” proved to be pivotal in the historical events at the time it was published. His underlying message of imperialism and racism, while unsavory, made a distinct ripple in the way that many people saw imperialism. Because of the true meaning of one’s burden will continue to be scrutinized.

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