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It’s History: The White Man’s Burden

The White Man’s BurdenTake 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.
-Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden”, 1899 (full text here)

“The White Man’s Burden” was an 1899 poem published by British writer Rudyard Kipling in 1899 when the United States took over the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Reading the thing is unavoidable if you study U.S., European, or African history, because British imperialism had such a huge impact on the world in the nineteenth century, and because this poem is very much representative of European attitudes toward the “uncivilized” world at the time.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines imperialism, in British politics, as

the principle or policy (1) of seeking, or at least not refusing, an extension of the British Empire in directions where trading interests and investments require the protection of the flag; and (2) of so uniting the different parts of the Empire having separate governments, as to secure that for certain purposes, such as warlike defence, internal commerce, copyright, and postal communication, they should be practically a single state.

Basically, this meant that while they entered various areas of the world, like South Africa or India, for instance, for economic purposes, they also took things a step further by imposing political and cultural control, as well; basically, they tried to make the territories they took over an extension of the British state, by imposing their government on their new territories, or their language, or sending in missionaries to spread the word of God. If no one minds sitting through a four hour movie, the 2001 film Lagaan does a good job illustrating this.

And why were the British – and other world powers – so keen to colonize the “uncivilized” portions of the world? Well, Kipling lays it all out there in his poem, really. Europeans believed that it was their “burden” as white, civilized Christians to civilize the “silent, sullen peoples” who made up the rest of the world in order to eradicate “sloth and heathen Folly”. Since the Europeans had the tools to bring the peoples of African and Asia out of the darkness, it was their duty to use them.


British imperialism is a subject that fascinates me, so I don’t doubt that I will revisit it at some point. Until then, I will be compiling some links for one of my classes, so you’re welcome to check those out. Honestly, I could rant about British imperialism all day, but I have an essay to write for educational psychology, so I really should end this now. Until I post again!

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One thought on “It’s History: The White Man’s Burden

  1. I usually teach about this topic in spring, reading about the Victorian age. My favourite authors about imperialism are E. M Forster (A Passage to India) , George Orwell (Burmese Days)and Conrad (Heart of Darkness). It is an extremely fascinating subject!

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