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Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” has been widely condemned since its publication in 1899 for its apparent advocacy of imperialist policies on the part of the British and, at the time of its drafting, the United States, which had recently joined the ranks of the imperialists with the defeat of Spain and the inheritance of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Kipling, a product of the British Empire, having been born and lived much of his life in India, Britain’s most prized colonial possession, is considered to have been convinced of the moral righteousness of Western imperialism. His correspondence at the time with friends and contemporaries strongly indicates that he was a strong supporter of colonialism as a grand humanitarian gesture for inferior dark-skinned peoples:
“Take up the White Man’s burden -- /Send forth the best ye breed -- /Go bind your sons to exile/ To serve your captives’ needs;/ To wait in heavy harness,/On fluttered folk and wild -- /Your new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half-devil and half-child.”
While “The White Man’s Burden” can certainly be categorized as pro-Western imperialism, much of the poem also serves as a warning to those who dare engage in such munificent activities. Colonialism was costly both in blood and treasure, and the primitive conditions under which British soldiers and civilian administrators lived was apparent in the poem’s stanzas:
“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.”
While much evidence exists to indicate that “The White Man’s Burden” is pro-imperialism, it can just as easily be interpreted today as anti-imperialism. It’s emphasis on the physical tribulations that accompany efforts at taming and civilizing the “sullen peoples” and reaping the “rewards” of the indigenous peoples – “The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard” – are written in such a negative manner as to suggest that, just maybe, Kipling was being ironic.
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