Hernandez 1 HIST 110 Danielle Hernandez 26 September 2012

Imperialism: Manning Up “The White Man’s Burden.” The keyword here is “man.” Rudyard Kipling challenges his male reader’s manhood throughout his infamous poem to gain support for Western Imperialism. The poem stands as a threat to emasculate all readers who dare to disagree with the takeover. And how could anyone disagree when the poem is comparing you prospectively to a soldier, a saint, and the truest man all at once? “The White Man’s Burden” was a tool that didn’t just bring down the Black man, but also told the White man to “man up.” It’s a safe bet to say that nearly anyone familiar with the Imperialist period of the 19th century is also familiar with “The White Man’s Burden-” if not the poem, then the general concept. It is the idea that it is a moral duty for the White man (Western nations) to take over the people they consider uncivilized (while treating themselves, of course, to the foreigners’ markets, labor, and resources). Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem on the eve of American takeover of the Philippines in 1899, an already tumultuous year for him. He had recently returned to the United States after a nasty row with his wife’s parents led him to find refuge in his homeland, England, his daughter, Josephine, had died during the trip, he had succumbed to grave illness, and he was suffocating under his burgeoning fame.1 And still his fame increased ever more with this poem’s publishing. After all, what reader doesn’t like to consider themselves


Weibel, Kathleen. University of Illinois, "Biographical Sketch of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)." Last modified 2004. Accessed September 26, 2012.

Hernandez 2 this Jesus-like figure he portrays? It’s a “burden” for White man, he claims- a necessary, humanitarian, and almost slavish act. It’s a call to be the best you can be for the sake of a people who are both devilish and childish and therefore in need of a mentor in morality and civilization.2 But most of all, what can make you more popular than giving a man the tools to be more of a man? Just as one observes in modern college fraternity culture, a popular man is one who asserts his manliness. For the turn of the century man, nothing says manliness like taking on the White man’s burden. Everybody loves a man in uniform, as they say. Eric Hobsbawm observed this tale-asold-as-time phenomenon between 1871 and 1914. To fight for one’s nation was an honor. It was glorifying, it validated one’s manhood, gained the soldier all sorts of suitors, and became a means of rising oneself up in social status and bragging rights.3 Imperialists were a lot like soldiers, in this way, putting themselves on the line in savage lands all for king and country. Kipling calls “your sons… to serve” in a war for peace.4 He notes that anyone- even “serf and sweeper” can take up “arms” in this battle5 which brings to mind Hobsbawm’s emphasis on service being used to ascent the social ladder. Kipling acknowledges both the guts and glory, as well. As in any war, there will be bloodshed. “The ports ye shall not enter/ The roads ye shall not tread/ Go make them with your living/ And mark them with your dead.”6 He shows that the takeover will be dangerous, not just for those standing in the way, but for your own fellow men. Nothing appeals to a man like the chance for action- especially through violence.


Rudyard Kipling, "Imperialists," Imperialism in the Modern World, ed. William D. Bowman, Frank M. Chiteji, J. Megan Greene (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007), 21-22. Lines 1-8. 3 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, (New York: Random House, 1989), 304-305. 4 Kipling. 3, 18. 5 Ibid. 27. 6 Ibid. 29-32.

Hernandez 3 Capability for violence is what is thought to make men different than women, after all. Michael Kimmel’s modern sociology study of young men notes that violence is simply part of male culture. It is a natural defense mechanism to protect their entitlement that society tells them they have.7 The best-selling early 20th century child-rearing guide, The Boy and his Gang by J. Alfred Puffer told parents to encourage their sons to fight regularly. He instructs that “there are times when every boy must defend his own rights if he is not to become a coward and lose the road to independence and true manhood.”8 Without an appropriate amount of violent tendencies, men become considered weak and lose the respect of their fellow men, their kin, and their country. So if Kipling tells men that this gives them a chance to fight, readers will stand up and take the opportunity to prove themselves. Not only can violence be a judge of manhood, but so can righteous character. Although women have been considered the more moral sex, men are enforcers. They live in a culture of protection in which they must always defend themselves if their values or lifestyles are being challenged.9 The people being taken over by Western civilization pose a threat to men’s security by living in such a different way as to startle their own moral grounds. Hence Kipling referring to indigenous people of foreign lands as devilish10, sullen11, and enslaved by their own “backward” and “sinful” ways. They are charged with breaking the deadly sins, sloth and folly, and thus are breaking the White man’s foundational faith!12 Using such an upsetting proposition, Kipling sets up a perfect dilemma to call his fellow men to enforce righteousness- to be a saint and savior- in order to protect what they know to be true. They are told that they cannot “call too

Kimmel, Michael S. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. (New York : Harper Collins Publishers, 2008.) 56-64. 8 Puffer, Joseph Adams. The Boy and his Gang. Cambridge : Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912. 90-91. 9 Kimmel. 56-64. 10 Kipling. 8. 11 Ibid. 7, 47. 12 Ibid. 23.

Hernandez 4 loud on Freedom”13 and that they must communicate rationality to those they “save” to remove threats of terror14, immorality, and sickness15. But Kipling cannot be any more direct about his intentions to make Imperialists “man up” than in the final stanza of his poem. He says, “Take up the White Man’s burden–/Have done with childish days–”16 or, in other words, he tells boys to grow up, come of age, and become real men. Kipling continues, “The lightly proffered laurel,/The easy, ungrudged praise./ Comes now, to search your manhood/ Through all the thankless years.”17 In saying this, he suggests that one’s boyhood years of going unrecognized and underappreciated (or simply synthetically appreciated) can be over as soon as one uses this opportunity to finally take on manhood. He then concludes, “Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,/ The judgment of your peers.”18 One’s past of boyhood had been cold, meaning, again, unrecognized and underappreciated, but it was filled with a slow accumulation of wisdom. Now comes the time to use all the wisdom you had stored up to exchange it for a label of manhood and, as a result, a positive judgment from your peers who have also done the same. Although this poem simply reeks of a mannish essence, there are some surprisingly feminine elements mixed in which, I am sure, Kipling was not hoping for his reader to pick up on. To “fill full the mouth of Famine/ And bid the sickness cease”19 can be seen as an effort to “civilize” the Black man thus ensuring the protection of one’s own culture, but does it not also have a spirit of femininity? It seems also to conjure an image of a nurse- a traditionally female

13 14

Ibid. 43. Ibid. 11. 15 Ibid. 20. 16 Ibid. 49-50. 17 Ibid. 51-54. 18 Ibid. 55-56. 19 Ibid. 19-20.

Hernandez 5 role- or, had she been alive at the time, a sort of Mother Teresa. Similarly, the taming of a devilish, childish, people sounds fine when put in that way, but if the Black man is compared to a child, does it not imply child-rearing, parenting, and mothering? It is nearly always inevitable that gender roles will not remain binary and neatly separated, probably to Kipling’s chagrin, and “The White Man’s Burden” is not an exception. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” didn’t prey upon nationalism, bravery, or honor. It was a strong, masculine, incentive, drugging its male readers with the promise of true manhood. It has become notorious as a tool for Imperialism, White supremacy, and slavery all in the name of morality, dignity, civility, and, of course, masculinity.

Hernandez 6 Works Cited

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Empire. New York: Random House, 1989.

Kimmel, Michael S. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York : Harper Collins Publishers, 2008.

Kipling, Rudyard. Imperialists. Imperialism in the Modern World. Edited by William D. Bowman, Frank M. Chiteji, J. Megan Greene. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.

Puffer, Joseph Adams. The Boy and his Gang. Cambridge : Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912.

Weibel, Kathleen. University of Illinois, "Biographical Sketch of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)." Last modified 2004. Accessed September 26, 2012. http://ccb.lis.illinois.edu/Projects/ history/kweibel2/BiographicalSketchofRudyardKipling11865-1936.htm.

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