In A Nutshell
South Africa, December 29, 1895: a group of British mercenaries enters a Boer-controlled and administered territory known as the Transvaal Republic. "Boer" was the name given to the descendants of South Africa's early Dutch settlers, but the mercenaries were attempting to take control of Johannesburg for Great Britain. Through a series of mishaps (the invaders failed to cut all the appropriate telegraph lines, for example, and the Boer government was thus able to halt their advance), the invasion ultimately stalled.
The raid was led by one Sir Leander Starr Jameson, and has thus become known as the Jameson Raid. While initially only a small blip on the radar, the raid ultimately had a number of profound effects on the later history of South Africa (which was not yet a unified nation in 1895). The whole deal was part of an unauthorized British plan to gain control over the Transvaal and its recently discovered gold and diamond deposits.
The basic plan had been this: foreigners living in Johannesburg (called "Uitlanders") would be encouraged to revolt against unfair Boer government practices. Then—poof, the invaders would enter, quell the uprising, take control of the city and thus the nearby gold mines. It was an elaborate plan, to be sure, and one that depended on everybody doing their part (the Uitlanders revolting, Jameson's crew cutting the right telegraph lines, etc.). Clearly, things went… well, awry.
And two things happened as a result of the Jameson Raid. (Well, lots of things happened, but there are two big ones that we need to talk about.) First, things only got worse between the British and the Boers in South Africa. In fact, things got so bad that the two groups decided to duke it out on the battlefield in a conflict that has become known as the Second Boer War (1899-1902). At the end of the war, nearly 100,000 people died, both on the battlefield and in British concentration camps. The Brits got the lands they wanted, though, and ultimately incorporated them into the Empire.
The other important consequence of the Jameson Raid was Rudyard Kipling's poem "If." While Kipling is best known these days for the Jungle Book (1894), he wrote lots of poems, stories, and even a novel—all works that are not as widely read as they once were. (And, yes, this is the same Jungle Book that was the basis for the Disney movie. You can read what we have to say about one of the stories in Kipling's famous short story collection here.)
Kipling was inspired by Jameson's leadership and bravado. While written shortly after the raid in 1896, Kipling didn't publish the poem until 1910, when it appeared in a collection of short stories and poems called Rewards and Fairies. The poem is often described as a near perfect description of Victorian Stoicism, or the stiff upper lip, philosophical outlook and attitude that champions strength and endurance even in times of immense struggle. "Unblinking fortitude even in the face of adversity and hardship," as the BBC describes it.
If anything is definitively British, it is this outlook, this stiff upper lip. It is for this reason that, ever since its publication, the poem has been very dear to the British people. Lines from the poem show up all over the place, such as in the tunnel entrance to center court at the All England Club (where Wimbledon tennis tournament is held every year). You can read more about the Victorian period here and still more about Kipling's poem here.
Why Should I Care?
In the 2000 hit movie Gladiator, Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix encounter each other in a computer-generated version of the Roman Coliseum. Maximus (Crowe), a general-turned-gladiator, finds himself taunted by the Emperor Commodus (Phoenix), who tries to enrage him with details about how his son and wife were killed at Commodus's orders. Maximus, who must be seething with anger, maintains composure. The only visible signs of his pain are a brief swallow and, maybe, a choked back tear.
Most people would have lashed out at the evil Commodus and attempted to dispatch him immediately. Maximus has been deceived, betrayed, enslaved, forced to fight—in short, he's lost everything, largely at the hands of Commodus. He's a general, however, and knows better. He remains strong, waiting for the time when he will rise again. He is, in short, the definition of stoicism.
Stoic? Yes, "stoic": an adjective that means enduring pain, hardship, misfortune, but not showing any emotion. The word is used loosely nowadays, but it used to refer to a very specific school of philosophy, pioneered by one Zeno of Citium. You can read more about the movement right here.
It is a word that is often used to describe people like Maximus, who manage to be strong (or appear that way) despite staring misfortune right in the face. Somebody could have recited Rudyard Kipling's "If" at some point in Gladiator, and it would have fit in just perfectly.
This is because "If" is a poem about stoicism, about being strong in the face of pain, sadness, bad luck, hard times, etc. and continuing to move forward without throwing a fit or acting up. It is about being patient, about finding a happy medium between extremes of emotion. The speaker of Kipling's poem, for example, talks about losing everything but starting over without crying about it, about watching other people lie and hate and choosing to not stoop to their level, about not letting friends or enemies hurt you, and many other things.
To put it simply, "If" is a kind of primer, 32 lines of advice about how to be stoic. In fact, you could say it's a poem about how to become a gladiator in the coliseum of life.