The White Man’s Burden – How a poem for Americans energized European colonization in Africa

Nii Ntreh January 27, 2021
A cartoon at the dawn of the 20th century capturing "The White Man's Burden". Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When we look back and confront the audacious moralism of Rudyard Kipling’s maxim “the white man’s burden”, we continue to be surprised that the philosophy that propped the exploitation of marginalization of Africans was actually conceived by Europeans convinced by its absolutism.

Rudyard, a 20th-century Englishman, published the poem The White Man’s Burden (1899) neither for Europeans nor about Africa – he sought to celebrate the American colonization of native Filipinos. For Europeans and about Africa, one may refer to his Recessional poem penned in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee as well as to extol the virtues of British imperialism.

It is however thought that Kipling originally intended for Burden to have been the queen’s celebratory poem but decided against it. Some have said the reason for shelving his explicitly imperialist work was because it was explicitly imperialist.

The seven-stanza poem is not only very loud about the Platonic goodness of empire but also unapologetic about the white supremacist ideology fundamental to the imperialist mission. It reads as both an appeal and a command to the desired audience who are called to answer to duty or burden, married to their very existence as citizens of a conqueror-state. At the beginning of the first stanza, the civilizational idea is most clear when Kipling implores that the white man’s burden needed to be carried out by “the best ye breed”.

But Kipling’s poem also fetches its ethical sense from a disturbing transcendentalism, that imagines that the war upon “sullen peoples, half devil and half child” is not necessarily pursued for its benefits for the non-white population but also as a project in “search [of white people’s] manhood; through all the thankless years”. Kipling firmly plants into his jingoistic poem, the idea of unavoidable imperativeness of white domination.

Historically, the intent expressed in Kipling’s poem was not the first documentation of the spirit of European colonization. Britain’s civilizational goals in colonization were barely hidden in the infamous Three Cs: Civilization, Christianization and Commerce. This was the single biggest motivation for the British capitalist and the epitome of colonial entrepreneurship Cecil Rhodes who succeeded in dispossessing Africans of their land and resources in southern Africa.

The diseased conviction Kipling’s poem left in colonizers was so profound that most people to date do not actually realize that the author did not publish his poem in affirmation of what the Europeans were doing in Africa. Obviously, he approved of European colonization. But how did the poem and specifically its title, come to represent the ‘moral crusade’ of colonizers in Africa?

In 2012, the professor of African history, John Edwin Mason noted:

“The White Man’s Burden” is more than a racist screed, however.  It wouldn’t have appealed so much to Americans, in 1899, and it wouldn’t resonate so strongly today, if it were simply an ode to white supremacy.  A much more important part of its attractiveness is the way it appealed to Americans’ highest ideals and summoned them to join a transcendent cause.”

Mason points out that it was propagandistically important that Kipling offered not absolution for colonialism but a ringing moral endorsement. Colonialism was not sinful but a burden “to seek another’s profit”, a point overlapping into Christian sentiments. Playing colonialism as a quest to redeem was easy for Christian Europe to swallow up. Europeans have been employing that tactic since the Middle Ages.

Apart from the above, Kipling was a well-known and respected English journalist and novelist of a privileged upbringing. People often regarded those ones as wordsmiths of national consciousness who are able to measure the nation’s pulse and inform purpose. As it was in America, The White Man’s Burden was acclaimed in Kipling’s own country, the citadel of 18th and 19th-century imperial ambitions.

In the essay Literature and Society, the celebrated Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o postulates that the hijacking of the tools cultural impartation was a colonialist method of re-orientation. Artistic, cultural, and literary means of expression are controlled by the colonizer for the purpose of psychological results. Colonization was, therefore, apart from all that it is, a reproduction of the African person. This person lived for the reason of never threatening the hold that the colonizers have on them.

What Burden gave to Europeans was an impetus to create in the white man’s image, the sort of Black person worthy of dignity. Kipling asked colonizers to “Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease” as if the colonized in Africa or Southeast Asia were starving, miserable people. It was a lie but the lies the white colonizer told himself did not matter. In the bigger scheme of things, they are white lies.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 28, 2021


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