The White Man's Burden Themes
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.
Themes and Meanings
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...
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