White man's burden

Posted by Word Camel on May 11, 2002

In Reply to: White man's burden posted by Pivvy on May 11, 2002

: Where did the phrase "the white man's burden" come from? What lays behind it in terms of history and philosophy? Why did "white men" feel this sense of burden? Was it guilt for something done in the past, or something else? (By the way, I'm a white man and I don't know at all what this feeling is.)

It's from Rudyard Kipling's 1865 poem The White Man's Burden (see below)

Basically it's a sort of lament on the part of the Imperialists bemoaning the burden of being racially superior. It makes us cringe now, but it really does sum up the prevailing understanding of the world at the time. It wasn't just a philosophical justification for colonialism, it was part of the broader way in which social relations were naturalised to lend legitimacy to inequalities.

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.