The White Man’s Burden

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The White Man’s Burden”

-Rudyard Kipling

Take up the White Man's burden

One of the justifications of colonizing by Europeans was that they  had an obligation to "better the lives" of the people they conquered. So, they were not actually doing it for (primarily) profit, but as an obligation, a duty to act for those people.

Send forth the best ye breed

Only the bravest, strongest go forth as colonizers and soldiers

Go bind your sons to exile

Just getting to some of the colonies took months; it would be 

years or decades before many would or could return to England

To serve your captive's need

Again, the purported reason was to better the lives of the natives

To wait in heavy harness

The average soldier wore uniforms and carried gear that weight over 

60 pounds, and British discipline made little allowance for altering
uniforms for the climate.

On fluttered folk and wild

Many of the territories were populated by nomadic people and 

those unwilling to acknowledge the British rule. This was especially
true in eastern India and Afghanistan.

Your new-caught, sullen peoples

Newly conquered people were rarely happy to be conquered...

Half devil and half-child

Half devil because of the brutality natives were perceived to be 

capable of (more than one British soldier died grizzly death by 
torture), and half child because to the British the natives seemed
to have short attention spans and childlike naiveté.

Take up the White Man's Burden
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror

To put down insurrection and uprisings against the British authorities

And check the show of pride

To remind the natives they were the conquered, not the conquerors

By open speech and simple
To make plain British demands and expectations to the natives

Ah hundred times made plain

Recognition that the message would have to be repeated, over 

and over again 

To seek another's profit

Here Kipling is recognizing that the empire's actions are not all

noble; he admits to the economic/financial gain of the empire
by collecting revenues from the defeated natives, by taxes or 
other means

And work another's gain

Again, the British reap what others have built.

Take up the White Man's burden
The savage wars of peace
Fill full the mouth of Famine

Having conquered, the conquerors are under the obligation of 

helping their conquests. in this case by providing food in 
the event of famine, which was an all too common occurrence

And bid the sickness cease

Providing (to them) modern medicine to the conquered

And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought

The troops and colonial officials were usually acting on behalf of

"powers that be" back home. A British soldier gained little but 
his monthly pay for all his hard work

Watch sloth and Heathen folly

Laziness of both colonial officials, as well as the native fears and


Bring all your hopes to nought

All the blood sweat tears and work could be ruined in a single up-

rising or disaster brought about by both officials and the natives

Take up the White man's burden. 
No tawdry rule of kings

The work of "the white man's burden” was done by common men,

not the royalty

But toil of serf and sweeper
the tale of common things.

The story of conquest is that of the average man, average soldier

Kipling always looked on things from this view, rather than that of 
the ruling elite

The ports ye shall not enter the roads ye shall not tread
Go mark them with your living
Go mark them with your dead

Conquest means going where your enemies do not wish you to

to gain the conquest means paying for it with the blood of your

Take up the White Man's burden
and reap his old reward

This is a complaint of the gratitude given to those 
common soldiers who made the empire possible

The blame of those ye better
the hate of those ye guard

Refers both to the "ingratitude" of the conquered, but also to the

distain the Colonial rulers often had to their own commoner soldiers

The cry of hosts ye humor
(ah slowly) towards the light

Having conquered, this refers to the process of educating and 

enlightening the "heathen natives", which refers both to matters
religious, and more importantly, to the scientific and technological
advances of the age

Why brought he us from bondage
Our loved Egyptian night?

A biblical reference of the Jews coming out of Egypt to the Holy 

lands. In this case indicating the natives resist the enlightenment
being offered them, and that they must be prodded 

Take up the White Man's Burden
ye dare not stoop to less
Nor call to call on freedom
to cloak your weariness..

The rest of this stanza refers to the fact that the conquered will judge your fitness to rule them by every action word and deed done. A failure to act appropriately will result in uprisings and more strife. A job well done, no matter how exhausting it is, will result in successful assimilation.

The last stanza points out that the military conquest of natives was relatively easy (given technological superiority and military disciple) and the conquerors could look forward to being cheered at home, earning promotions and honors. The real work of empire building is done by those who stay in often inhospitable conditions and surroundings to do the work of empire.

While to some degree this poem may be looked on as being condescending, Kipling's focus is not on the natives, but on those responsible for making the conquered lands part of the Empire. His references to the natives as "half wild half child" are reflections of how most British viewed them. The poem is not about trying to prove to the British the natives were or were not inferior; he merely reflects the common sentiments of the time here. In other of his poetry, he makes the point that virtues like heroism, integrity, courage, and pride are not unique to Europeans, but can be found in all cultures. So don't read more into the poem than is there.

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