“The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism

This lesson is part of a larger unit on the Philippines: At the Crossroads of the World.  Broaden the horizons of your social studies class with a view of history from the perspective of these fascinating islands. See more of the imperialist vs. anti-imperialist debate with Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire.

In February 1899, British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands.” In this poem, Kipling urged the U.S. to take up the “burden” of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. Published in the February, 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine, the poem coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become vice-president and then president, copied the poem and sent it to his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting that it was “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view.” Not everyone was as favorably impressed as Roosevelt. The racialized notion of the “White Man’s burden” became a euphemism for imperialism, and many anti-imperialists couched their opposition in reaction to the phrase.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

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.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Have done with childish days–
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!


Crosby on Kipling: A Parody of “The White Man’s Burden”

In February 1899, British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands.” In this poem, Kipling urged the U.S. to take up the “burden” of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become vice-president and then president, copied the poem and sent it to his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting that it was “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view.” Not everyone was as favorably impressed. Poet Ernest Crosby penned a parody of Kipling’s work, “The Real White Man’s Burden,” and published it in his 1902 collection of poems Swords and Plowshares. Crosby also wrote a satirical, anti-imperialist novel, Captain Jinks, Hero, that parodied the career of General Frederick Funston, the man who had captured Philippine leader Emilio Aguinaldo in 1901.

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling

Take up the White Man’s burden;
Send forth your sturdy sons,
And load them down with whisky
And Testaments and guns …

And don’t forget the factories.
On those benighted shores
They have no cheerful iron-mills
Nor eke department stores.
They never work twelve hours a day,
And live in strange content,
Altho they never have to pay
A single cent of rent.

Take up the White Man’s burden,
And teach the Philippines
What interest and taxes are
And what a mortgage means.
Give them electrocution chairs,
And prisons, too, galore,
And if they seem inclined to kick,
Then spill their heathen gore.

They need our labor question, too,
And politics and fraud,
We’ve made a pretty mess at home;
Let’s make a mess abroad.
And let us ever humbly pray
The Lord of Hosts may deign
To stir our feeble memories,
Lest we forget — the Maine.

Take up the White Man’s burden;
To you who thus succeed
In civilizing savage hoards
They owe a debt, indeed;
Concessions, pensions, salaries,
And privilege and right,
With outstretched hands you raise to bless
Grab everything in sight.

Take up the White Man’s burden,
And if you write in verse,
Flatter your Nation’s vices
And strive to make them worse.
Then learn that if with pious words
You ornament each phrase,
In a world of canting hypocrites
This kind of business pays.

The Bottom Line

Questions for writing and discussion:
  1. According to Kipling, and in your own words, what was the “White Mans Burden”?
  2. What reward did Kipling suggest the “White Man” gets for carrying his “burden”?
  3. Who did Kipling think would read his poem? What do you think that this audience might have said in response to it?
  4. For what audiences do you think Ernest Crosby wrote his poem? How do you think that audience might have responded to “The Real White Man’s Burden?”
  5. Examine the political cartoon below – which poem do you think it best illustrates?  Why?

whitemansburden

Read more on this subject -> The Origins of the Philippine-American War  ◦  The Brutality of the Philippine-American War  ◦  The Philippines in the American Empire  ◦  “The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism  ◦  Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire  ◦  In The Trenches: Harper’s Weekly Covers the Philippine-American War

 

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