The White Man's Burden by Rudyard Kipling

I have never understood the long-standing allegation that this poem is about racism and speaks favourably about imperialism. I come from one of the former British colonies; my parents are both far bigger anti-imperialists than I am (especially my dad- he once very memorably came to see the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London and loudly proclaimed that the British "stole these from us!", or words to that effect, within a large crowd of predominantly white Brits). And yet, I have no problem seeing Kipling's poem for what it is: a sober, realistic assessment of the burdens and costs of maintaining an empire.

Kipling wrote this poem as a warning to the Americans, when they began their (abortive) attempts to stake out an overseas empire of their own with their colonisation of the Philippines in 1899. (Okay, technically he originally wrote it to celebrate Queen Victoria's jubilee in 1897, but he replaced it with "Recessional", an even more impassioned warning against the dangers of overweening pride and imperial overreach.)

He might as well have written it in 2003, when America embarked on its own disastrous version of the "Syracuse Expedition" into the Middle East. Some warnings, it would seem, never grow old- because they are seldom heeded.

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 hope to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden--
No iron 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, make 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 ye 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 cloak your weariness.
By all ye will or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your God and you.

Take up the White Man's burden!
Have done with childish days--
The lightly-proffered 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.


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