The White Man’s Burden

British Imperialism

At one time, the British Empire was a global system of dependencies (colonies and protectorates) and other territories that, for around three-hundred years, fell under the British Crown’s sovereignty and the British government’s administration.  How the British accomplished this was quite clever (and ruthless).  In time, the British Empire transitioned into the British Commonwealth, which today forms an association of self-governing states that acknowledge symbolic British sovereignty.

Sixteenth-century ambition and competition led to maritime expansion — which accelerated over the next one-hundred years.  This resulted in the establishment of settlements in North America and the West Indies.  Before 1675, the British had colonies in New England, Virginia, and Maryland; they had settlements in the Bermudas, Honduras, Antiqua, Barbados, and Nova Scotia.  They seized and retained Jamaica.  The Hudson Bay Company was set up in Northwestern Canada.  The East India Company established trading posts in India and settlements in Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Labuan.  They even found themselves with a property on James Island on the Gambia River.  In 1806, the British acquired the Cape of Good Hope.

Almost none of this resulted from any scheme by the British Crown. Instead, the moves were the brainchild of the owners and managers of certain companies.  The Crown exercised some right of appointment and supervision, but the colonies and settlements were essentially self-managing enterprises.  Altogether, it was a somewhat muddled process through piecemeal acquisition, sometimes with the British government being the least willing partner of the enterprise.  The colonies were granted monopolies for their products (tobacco and sugar) in the British market.  In exchange for that monopoly, the colonies were expected to conduct all their trade by English ships — and serve as markets for British manufactured goods.

In 1651, the Navigation Act (and follow-on acts) established a closed economy between Britain and its colonies.  All colonial exports had to be shipped on English ships to the British market, and all colonial imports had to come by way of England.  This arrangement lasted until the combined effects of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the loss of the American colonies, and the growth of a “free-trade” movement in Britain.

Slavery in Great Britain

Slavery in Britain existed before the invasion of Rome and lasted through the eleventh century when the Norman conquest resulted in the merger of post-Roman slavery into serfdom.[1]  By the middle of the twelfth century, the institution of slavery as it had existed before the Norman conquest had entirely disappeared — leaving other forms of servitude for several centuries.

British merchants were a significant force behind the Atlantic Slave Trade between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no legislation was ever passed in England that legalized human bondage.  In 1772, Charles Stewart enslaved a person named James Somerset.  Stewart intended to send Somerset to Jamaica, where he was to be sold.  Somerset sued his owner in court, arguing that his owner had no right to forcibly remove him from English soil and sell him in another country.

The king’s court agreed with Somerset, and as there was no law in England protecting slavery, he was freed.  Over time, an abolitionist movement developed in England.  The Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, but slavery itself was not abolished until 1833.

After 1843, slavery was illegal in India and other British territories; after 1865, the United States banned slavery as well.  The fact that national policy no longer supported human bondage did not impede the ordinary course of imperialism — the policy or practice of extending power and dominion (through territorial acquisition or gaining political and economic control of the territory).  The working of imperialism always involves the use of force (military or financial) to achieve its goals.

Maintaining the Realm

What the British learned about themselves from the Seven Years’ War (1754 – 1763) was that if they wanted something desperately enough, they had the wherewithal to reach out and take it.  The Treaty of Paris (1763) left Great Britain with all of Canada, and men such as Robert Clive and Eyre Coote gained the Indian sub-continent.  Once more, the French were whipped, and the rulers of Bengal offered the British a massive territory.  It was sufficient to guarantee an English future in India.  In any case, the loss of the North American colonies offered the British time to concentrate elsewhere — such as Upper Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India.

From the mid-1850s, British-controlled territory increased in Burma, the Punjab, East Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Cyprus, Malta, and Gibraltar.  British influence spread to Hong Kong and Shanghai from the Straits settlements and federated Malay states.  The greatest 19th-century extension of British power took place in Africa, including Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa.

Changing the Culture

At some point, the people living in Canada ceased being English and became Canadians.  Well, except for the French.  One simply cannot get le François out of one’s system.  Similarly, at some point, Englishmen became Americans — and people born elsewhere in the Empire may have been British, but they weren’t English.

Imperial nations believed such policies created new technology and economic growth — and thought such a return was a fair exchange for schools, railroads, medicines, and improved communications.  Depending on one’s point of view, one might argue that it wasn’t an equitable exchange.  To solidify the arrangement, indigenous populations had to relinquish their culture and assimilate that of the conqueror.

Anti-imperialists viewed this system as condescending toward people from other countries — and, of course, it was.  But there are those today, the unhappily under-educated people, who use the word “racism” in everything imaginable.  The truth is otherwise.  A racist is someone with a predilection of discrimination toward those of different races — hence the word. 

Rudyard Kipling’s parents were English — he was not.  The fact that he was raised in India had a significant impact on the balance of his life.  It affected his career as a journalist, a novelist, a  writer of short stories, and a poet.  He told the story of the British Empire from various points of view: from the young Indian boy, from the British Soldier, and the standpoint of the British Foreign Office as it goes about “managing” the Empire.  One of his many glimpses of Imperial life was his poem titled The White Man’s Burden (1899).

The poem follows —.


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.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper—
    The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
    The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
    And mark them with your dead!

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!) toward the light:—
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian night?”

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.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

Some History

Difficulties between Spain and the United States developed over several years, ultimately resulting in the war of 1898.  It wasn’t a long war, but it ended with the United States possessing Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.  Internally, the notion of the United States as an imperial (colonial) power was hotly debated, with the outward-looking President McKinley and his imperialist allies having their way over those with inward-looking (anti-imperialist) views.

The problems associated with imperialism began much earlier, of course.  European nations interested in Chinese trade began dividing the country up for their own purposes — often using force to obtain concessions from China’s imperial government.  One example of this was the Sino-British Opium War (1841).  Japan, believing it should become the dominant power in the Far East, began a series of imperialist confrontations with China (as well).

Following the Sino-Japanese War (1895) and the Spanish American War (1898), people living in North China correctly feared the expansion of foreign spheres of influence.  They deeply resented the extension of privileges to Christian missionaries who used them to shield their followers from traditional Chinese relationships.  The result of this was the Boxer Rebellion (1899 – 1901).

Critics of Rudyard Kipling argue that in writing his poem, he was writing about the Philippine-American War (1899 – 1902), or perhaps the Boxer Rebellion (1901) and that in doing so, he urged the United States to assume colonial control over the Philippines or its enclaves in China.  Critics say that he implored Americans to assume the white man’s burden.  In the minds of these shabbily educated critics, Rudyard Kipling was a racist — and this is the uninformed message carried forward to today in America’s institutions of ignorance.

I disagree with the analysis of most literary critics about Kipling’s message.  Rudyard Kipling was British but not English.  He was born in India, which was part of the British Empire. Kipling was not a racist; he was ethnocentric — believing that his British culture was superior to all others and represented the preferred way of life. He no doubt noted the attitudes toward those of less-white complexion — and may have even shared them. Rudyard Kipling was a jingoist in the same way that most upper-class people believed their values should be preferred to all others.

I believe Kipling’s poem pushed forward the opposite argument: a sarcastic warning about assuming the white man’s burden.  “Send forth the best ye breed, go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captive’s needs.”  (Send your sons) to wait in heavy harness, on fluttered folk and while — your new-caught sullen people, half devil, and half child.”  In this passage, Kipling does not recommend becoming involved with sullen people who offer more challenges than benefits.

I wonder — who in their right mind would deign to follow such advice?  Whether Kipling was writing about the Philippines, or American involvement in other places — China, or Mexico, for example, to “watch sloth and heathen Folly, bring all your hopes to nought.”

The white man’s burden was dragging people along in a direction they did not wish to go.  Forcing on them aspects of a foreign culture that they did not understand and could not abide — the liberators began experiencing great disappointment when the unwashed refused, for example, to convert to Christianity.  They rebelled.  They murdered their betters.  “The ports ye shall not enter, the roads ye shall not tread, Go make them with your living, and mark them with your dead.

In Conclusion

The United States did embark upon a period of imperialism.  Some argue that it continues still.  My opinion is that we have, in the past 125 years, sent too many of our young men off to serve and die in a muddy field or fungus-infested swamp.  We’ve emptied our treasury so that people living in far distant places can benefit from our labors.  We’ve even gone into debt to ensure Ho Lee can receive free medications while our seniors pay premium prices for the same medication.  I see Kipling’s poem as a warning: Assume the white man’s burden at significant risk.  Did we listen to this man’s sage advice?  No.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was indeed anti-imperialist and quite vocal about it.  For example, in response to Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, Clemens penned To the Person Sitting in Darkness.  Despite these differences of opinion, Clemens (the commoner) and Kipling (as part of the British upper class) were good friends — in the same way, Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt were friends.  And, of course, Kipling married Caroline Starr Balestier, an American from Rochester, New York — where the Roosevelt’s lived.

It should go without saying that people living under the imperialist yoke deeply resented the intrusion of foreigners.  The resentment resulted in uprisings and rebellions on more than a few occasions.  Ultimately, the bitterness evolved into a new nationalism that spread throughout the world following the end of the Second World War.  In that sense, perhaps imperialism served its purpose. But let me add that what the critics have done is misconstrue Kipling’s message — and I believe it was an intentional effort to unfairly malign one of Britain’s greatest poets as part of a larger effort to discredit “white” history.  True or not, that’s how I see it.


[1] Serfdom was the status of peasants under feudalism — a condition of debt bondage and indentured servitude with similarities to (and differences from) slavery. 

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in Antiquity, British Canada, British Colonies, Christianity, Civil War, Colonial America, History, Imperialism, Indenture & Slavery, New England, New France, Revolution. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The White Man’s Burden

  1. Phil Strawn says:

    Good history Mustang. The Indian caste system is a perfect example of how British rule changed their past. The Canadian treatment of the Indians was as bad, or at times worse than the Americans. I had relatives that were part of the trail of tears and were born on the Cherokee reservation in OK. I was never a Kipling fan, but it’s not surprising to me how he thought. There was still a good bit of that class distinction in Britian during WW2, and the Royal’s are still keeping it alive today. Now, it’s of a soap opera.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Phil. I hope you’re feeling better.

      I enjoy trying to make connections in history. Sometimes it’s possible, other times not so much. I would be interested to see how the caste system in Arab cultures compares (or contrasts) with Hispanic culture. As you know, I’ve written a lot about New Spain and the transition to Mexican culture, and whenever I get to the Spanish/Mexican social structure and labels, my mind starts to melt. Since original Spaniards were (nearly) bred out of existence in the almost 800 years of the Arab conquest, it would be interesting (to me) to learn how the Arabs might have also re-branded Spanish notions of society.

      I’ve always enjoyed Kipling’s tales. I think I started reading his short stories when I was in the 6th grade. Good stuff back when reading was the primary source of entertainment … until the boob tube came along.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Phil Strawn says:

      Yeah, I’m a history geek from way back, should have been a teacher, but got sidetracked. My sister visited Spain a few back and she said once you got outside of Barcalona it was like a Mexican border town.Seemed like two different cultures. Odd.


  2. Andy says:

    Mustang, you have put forth an interesting, perhaps enlightened, interpretation of Kipling’s famous poem.

    To their credit however, Kipling’s contemporaries were critiquing his poem from their understandings at the time. You have the benefit of judging the situation from a well-established historical perspective of colonialism; his critics had no such benefit.

    Well done. Again, you have taken a dark and little-known topic of history and brought it into the brilliance of daylight.


    Liked by 1 person

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