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Last Updated on September 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279

Duty and Altruism of Colonization

Kipling’s archaic and troubling view of colonization is that it is a noble calling to colonize, “civilize,” and Christianize the people of the non-Western, non-white world. This calling, the duty of the “White Man,” is the central theme of this poem. According to Kipling, this...

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Duty and Altruism of Colonization

Kipling’s archaic and troubling view of colonization is that it is a noble calling to colonize, “civilize,” and Christianize the people of the non-Western, non-white world. This calling, the duty of the “White Man,” is the central theme of this poem. According to Kipling, this is a test of manhood, and “peers”—other white empires—will judge a colonial power’s endeavors. This demands empires’ best efforts: the speaker urges them to “Send forth the best [they] breed” to work in their colonies. 

Kipling presents the “civilizing” efforts of colonizers as unselfish and disinterested: forming colonies and bringing them to Western civilization is a process in which he claims they will “work another’s gain.” It is their duty to the people of the non-Christian, non-white world to civilize and Christianize them—not for the benefit of the white man, Kipling says, but for that of the countries the white man colonizes.

Challenge of Colonization

According to Kipling, the colonizing efforts of white men are not simply a duty, but a “burden.” The “childish days” of “easy, ungrudged praise” are over: colonizing powers will face harsh opposition from the people they control. They cannot rule as “kings,” but must labor for these people; and despite their efforts, the people will blame and despise them. Kipling compares the protests of colonized peoples to those of the Israelites in the Bible, who complained against God for freeing them from the oppression of Egypt. The initial rewards the white man will reap are “blame” and “hate,” but enduring this, Kipling implies, is his duty: he dare not run, for his fellow white colonial powers are judging him.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

The phrase “the White Man’s burden” is more often on the lips of people who have not read the poem than on the lips of those who have. More damage has been done by the careless invocation of Kipling as an example of vulgar racialism than by the careful examination of what the poet really said. The notion that the Empire-builders are supposed to think only of the service they may render to the “silent, sullen peoples” is not an ignoble one, and indeed many useful projects were created by these empire-builders, very often at the cost of their health, as Kipling insists. Many older residents of former colonies assert that the British did provide better political guidance and more lasting material assistance to their countries than their own rulers have succeeded in providing since freedom came after World War II.

Yet even with all this said in defense of imperial endeavor, there is something radically wrong with Kipling’s view of Empire. For one thing, it has often been said that people would rather be ruled badly by themselves than well by others. In this light, Empire is really little more than an impertinence, and when the British realized that, after World War II, they quietly dropped their imperial pretensions. After all, even stronger than the British desire for a sense of gratification at the extent of British power in the world has been the British horror of bad manners—and after the war, imperialism suddenly seemed like the height of bad manners.

Yet there is something even more radically wrong with Kipling’s view of Empire, something wrong with Kipling’s soul, something that keeps him from ever telling more than half of the truth about anything (though sometimes it is the half that is not often heard). Both in this poem and in the even more famous “Recessional,” the poet makes it quite clear that he did not think that the Empire set up and ruled by the British would endure, or even that the achievements of the Empire-builders would prove permanent. He had too much of a sense of history to think that any empire lasts more than a limited amount of time; the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible would inform him of this fact. So why encourage the growth of Empire? It is here that one comes upon the ethnocentric core of Kipling’s thought: Empire is a test for white men, an ordeal. They are to benefit from their ultimately meaningless activities in the colonies to win the approval of their peers and the moral advancement that accompanies hard work courageously undertaken and carried out. In other words, the people of the colonies are merely the terms of the test for white men. In this respect, the colonial peoples and the ice and snow of the polar regions serve the same function and are, correspondingly, equally inhuman.

Kipling should not be regarded as a vulgar racist; he grew up in India, spoke Hindi almost before he spoke English, had a real sympathy for Indians (mainly Moslems), and had a keen eye for certain aspects of life in India. His only successful novel, Kim (1901), is regarded in India as articulating important though limited concepts about life on the subcontinent. Kipling was a man of giant talents; anyone sensitive to literary history will acknowledge that his works are a permanent part of English literature. It is also true, however, that Kipling provides a classic example of the strange distortion of the soul that results when full human status is reserved for a small part of the human race.

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