The White Man's Burden by Rudyard Kipling

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Who is Kipling referring to in the first stanza of "The White Man's Burden," with the lines "Your new-caught sullen peoples, Half devil and half child"?

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"The White Man's Burden" is often read as a general paean to imperialism, which, in short, it was. But in context, the entire poem, and the specific lines in question, are referring to a very specific situation. Kipling wrote "The White Man's Burden" to exhort the United States to annex the Philippines, a former Spanish colony, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. The poem was thus a salvo of sorts in the debate over annexation in the United States, where many anti-imperialists argued that the Filipino people should be free. The "new-caught, sullen peoples," then, were the people of the Philippines, and Kipling's characterization of them as "half-devil" and "half-child" reveals much about the racial attitudes that undergirded imperialism. Kipling claimed that in order to claim its place among the great nations of the world, the United States had to rise to meet its "duty" to "civilize" the people of the Philippines. American efforts to maintain control of the Philippines led to a bloody, brutal war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Filipino people.

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In the first stanza, Kipling is referring to the Filipinos. In fact the full title of the poem is The White Man's Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands. Interestingly, Kipling's poem was written in February 1899, the same month and year the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris. With the treaty, the United States gained control of the previous Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. To gain possession of the Philippines, the United States also had to pay $20 million to Spain.

During the senate debate process, Senator Knute Nelson defended the prevailing notion of American imperialism as a civilizing force. Notably, other public figures disagreed. Some famous anti-imperialists of the time were Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan, and Grover Cleveland. The notion of American expansionism as a peaceful endeavor is expressed by Kipling in his poem. He argues that the United States must proceed with its global ministry of bringing civilization to foreign nations, regardless of how others perceive their efforts. 

To seek another’s profit

And work another’s gain

Take up the White Man’s burden—

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better

The hate of those ye guard—

As history attests, the Philippines thoroughly rejected the American rationale for imperialism. Just two days before the treaty was ratified, Philippine nationalists clashed with American soldiers in a violent conflict. The rebellion evolved into the Philippine-American War, which lasted for three years and left many casualties on both sides. So, in the first stanza, the "sullen peoples/ Half Devil and half child" describe the Filipino people who rebelled against American imperialist rule. Kipling characterizes the Filipinos as savages who are in need of taming. 

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In the first stanza of “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling is referring to one specific group of colonized people when he talks about the “new-caught, sullen peoples.”  This group is the Filipinos. However, we can also read this as his commentary on all imperialized people.

Kipling wrote this poem as his way of responding when the United States took control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.  To his way of thinking, this was the first time that the US had imperialized another country and he wrote the poem as his way of welcoming them to the (metaphorical) club of imperial powers.  This means that the Filipinos are the specific group of “new-found, sullen peoples” that the poem refers to.

However, Kipling was also talking about imperialized people in general when he wrote these lines.  They were not all “new-caught,” but he felt that all of the people of these lands were basically uncivilized and perhaps only partly human.  The poem discusses what he sees as the characteristics of these non-white, subjugated people. 

While this line can refer to all imperialized people, perhaps the best answer is to say that it refers most particularly to the Filipinos since they were the group of people who were “new-caught” at the time that he wrote this poem.

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