The White Man's Burden Questions and Answers
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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Alec Cranford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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...

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