White Man’s Burden: The Poem That Stirred Many Racial Debates

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem, the white man’s burden, was written as a response to the American acquisition of The Philippines after the Spanish American war. The poem continued and reinforced an opinion already shared with Roosevelt in Kipling’s private letters where he states, “Now go in and put all the weight of your influence into hanging on permanently to the whole Philippines”.

The poem advocates for the necessity of colonialism, it is ‘the white man’s’ honourable sacrifice to go forth and civilise “sullen peoples”. Thus, the poem personifies the racist and imperialist attitudes of the time meanwhile Kipling seems unaware of the destruction and misery inflicted upon colonised peoples and culture ensuing from Colonial Empires. The poems’ themes are strikingly reflected in Yasmin Ahmed ‘so Brits are proud of colonialism?’ with the centrepiece of the article being a YouGov poll stating 44% of Brits were proud of Britain’s colonial history, highlighting a lack of knowledge, understanding and empathy with the realities of empire. Therefore, through critical analysis, this essay will argue that Britain’s loving nostalgia for colonialism is a continuation of the beliefs expressed through ‘The White Man’s Burden’ over one hundred and twenty years later. Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’ is a significant moment in American political rhetoric drawing attention from across American society in a variety of forms such as satirical reviews, newspapers and even political speeches.

Most notably been debated on the floor of the senate Whilst written in 1899 in American colonial perspective, the poem uses specific linguistic techniques to overtly imply the cultural and racial superiority of the white man over the different races from around the world. This is evident with his perception that colonisation is required “To serve your captives’ need”. The poem builds from this to create firm linguistic and thematic structures, which are representative of colonial dialogue. The poem represents a peculiar discourse of Western thought. Under the preconceived notion of racial and cultural superiority, Kipling represents the non-American, or broader non-white, cultures as something less developed by characterizing them through words that reflect their perceived lack of civility and education. The poem elevates, in a persuasive way, the identity of the white race as a civilizing driving force for the colonised world. For example, his contrasting of the inferior “half-devil and half child” against the “best ye breed” emphasises their imagined inferiority in order to allow America and other imperial forces to to justify their colonisation and indoctrination into Western behavioural standards. When one goes onto read Ahmed’s article for the independent one could be forgiven for believing little has changed since 1899. This is in part due to the rather alarmist nature of the article, leading with the statistic that 44 percent of Britons supporting their colonial history.

Clearly, then there is a continuation of the lack of knowledge about the realities of Empire. As Heath points out between 12m and 29m Indians died in famines that the colonial regime largely facilitated instead of alleviated. Yet this is a fact largely unrecognised relative to the notion of the British supposedly installing ‘law and order’ or gifting a railway system. Therefore, this is strong evidence for the persisting misrepresentation of colonialism into the 21st century showing how the two sources are inextricably linked through a continuation of shared themes. However, when we look in depth at the YouGov statistic it becomes apparent that the sample size for the survey was only between 1000-1, 500 meaning at best the survey had 660 respondents proud of empire and at worst 440. Therefore, it must be considered whether this statistic is wholly representative of the entire British population as it is portrayed by the article. What this draws attention to is the nature of the article, designed to attract clicks and engagement rather than complete objectiveness. As it is obvious ‘of 1000 people surveyed, 440 are proud of the British empire’ is not nearly eye-catching enough for the ad revenue-based newspaper. Subsequently we see large sweeping statements drawn from less solid foundations then one assumes when you are presented with an official YouGov statistic. While this is a point of contention, it does not completely dismantle the premise of the argument made by Ahmed.

She continues her article with the argument that much of this absent knowledge of Empire is resultant from our white-washed education system that tends to omit the harsher realities of British history. In her eyes a prominent cause of this was the appointment of “pro-empire historian Niall Ferguson to rewrite the curriculum for English schools”. While it should be noted that Ahmed rather simplifies Fergusons views on Empire omitting his acknowledgment that “no one would claim the record of the British Empire was unblemished. On the contrary, I have tried to show how often it failed to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty”. This illustrates how Ferguson is not completely blind to the enslavement and massacres that featured in the British Empire as the article would let you believe with its very deliberate selection of quotes. Despite this, as a result of Fergusons appointment much of Primary and more significantly secondary education revolves around far less contentious aspects of British history and notably highlights parts which are deemed acceptable to be proud of, such as British involvement in WW1 and WW2 which are core to the history curriculum. Once again, this represents an omission of the realities of Empire which as such a major part of modern British history could reasonably be expected to be included in the curriculum in some respect. This theme of learning in blissful ignorance is firmly translated from Kipling’s poem with the focus of the poem primarily on the white man’s experience of benevolent sacrifice while wholly ignoring the painful experience of the colonized peoples.

This oversight of atrocities in Kenya, Ireland and India to name a few are examples of how the white man and his desire for empire is prioritised against the ‘fluttered folk’, the ‘White Man’s Burden’ becomes the epitome of the way colonialism is presented to benefit the imperialist, and not the colonised. Remarkably this attitude has strikingly resemblance to many of the comments made by recent high-profile politicians much to the dismay of Ahmed asserts that this process of unlearning past attitudes “starts with our governments”. Unfortunately, this has not materialised yet, Gordan Brown in his quest to redefine Britishness in the late 2000’s stated “Liberty, tolerance, fair play – these are the core values of Britishness”. This notion that common features of human decency can be solely attributed to Britishness shows how an air of superiority still exists in the modern political arena.

Furthermore, comments made by David Cameron in 2015 suggesting that Jamaica should “move on from the legacy of slavery” were met with criticism as he avoided officially apologising for Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and was accused of ignorance over the issue of reparations to descendants of slaves. Therefore, in conclusion, these two very different sources expose how the ignorance surrounding empire in 1899 presented through Kipling’s poem has precipitated through into the modern day. ‘The White Man’s Burden’ poem paints the detailed picture of the altruistic west creating empire to save lesser peoples glazing over their harsh reality. Similarly, Ahmed’s article reveals how a significant amount of misunderstanding stemming from our education still exists today creating a falsely manufactured ideal of the empire in the British Psyche.

Thus, the linked themes of the sources should help the reader to understand where our perceptions of Empire originate from and why we should continue broaden our knowledge and understanding of the topic in order to get away from damaging perspectives that have and will affect modern day government policy. Overall, the sources give a fascinating perspective of themes that link our current and past understanding of British colonialism.


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