Hands up out there: who liked The Jungle Book? You know: Mowgli? Baloo? King Louie? Well, if this is you, then we've got some good news. "The White Man's Burden" is a poem written by the very same dude who penned The Jungle Book, a fellow by the name of Rudyard Kipling.
And now, we've got some bad news: this poem is nothing like that book, and it's certainly nothing like the feel-good Disney film version that was only loosely based on the book. Nope, a better way to think of this is as a cheer, a fight song, an encouraging ditty that Kipling put together for… well, um, white men.
You see, Kipling published this poem in 1899, a time when white guys were pretty busy taking over the world. In fact, the original subtitle of the poem was "The United States and the Philippine Islands." That's because the good ol' U.S. of A. had just finished acquiring the Philippines from Spain after winning the Spanish-American War. Kipling was inspired enough by that turn of events to put this poem out there as a call for white folks (okay, men specifically) to head over there and show those poor native people just how to be civilized.
Sound like a noble cause? Yeah… not so much. Any modern reader would be shocked by the suggestion that a bunch of white men know what's best for a group of people living halfway across the world. But that was exactly the kind of thinking that accompanied the rise of colonialism. As the U.S. and other European countries conquered foreign lands, stole local resources, and imposed their way of life on the native populations, one way to excuse this behavior was to describe it as a favor. In other words: don't think of it as taking over another people at gunpoint. Think of it as giving them the "gift" of civilization.
Of course, all this presupposes that the victims of colonization—like the native Filipinos—lacked their own civilization in the first place. Today, we know that's simply ridiculous. At the time, though, folks like Kipling couldn't—or wouldn't—acknowledge that truth. Kipling—who was born in India when it was still a British colony—grew up in the imperial system and became one of its most public fans, as this poetic fight song attests.
Racism: it's bad, right? Lucky for us, though, we know better today, though. Don't we? Now that we have multiracial emojis, we're so past all that nonsense that no history lesson is even necessary. Right?
Not so fast. Scroll through any newsfeed these days and you're going to find that racial problems—for all the progress that's been made, and for all the folks who like to say that they no longer exist—are very much still with us. For one reason, that's because we've had such messed-up thinking about race for so long.
How messed up you ask? Put it this way: Let's pretend that, one day, a group of aliens barge into your lunchroom cafeteria and confiscate all the knives and forks. "Silly humans," they say, "you aren't supposed to eat with such primitive tools. Here, use our alien mini-catapults instead—much more efficient." The next day, you're sitting in church when the door flies open. "What sort of god are you worshipping here?" ask the aliens. "That's cute, but it's not the real god. Here, enjoy this statue of Raxon the Galactic. Now pray to him as we do." And did we mention that these aliens have laser guns to persuade you?
It may sound like something out of a science fiction flick (okay, a bad sci-fi flick), but that's essentially the way that colonialism worked in the nineteenth century. People were happily living their lives when—out of nowhere—strange foreigners showed up and forced them to change, overnight, at gunpoint. This is obviously not cool by today's standards. But the legacy of these actions—as well as the philosophy that defended colonialism as a moral duty—can still be felt today. After all, we're just two or three generations removed from this line of thinking.
Reading Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden," then, gives us an inside look at what those aliens were thinking when they tried to take over the world. And understanding the motivations for these horrible acts—no matter how twisted and illogical they might be—is the first step in making sure nothing like that ever happens again.
The Kipling Society's webpage features an intriguing link to more reading, called "The Kipling File."
A Solid Foundation
The Poetry Foundation has a great bio on our guy, as well as links to other works.
A Nobel Fellow
Did you know that Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907? Just click if you don't believe us.
A Bit of Bio
Here's a video overview of Kipling's life and work.
The Spanish-American War
Here's a video all about the conflict that inspired the poem.
A Serious Reading
We don't know about you, but we think the British accent lends this reading some gravity.
Kipling in Spectacles
That's a great mustache, man.
Kipling, the Elder
Are those the same glasses?
Home, Sweet Home
This is the house Kipling was born in, in Bombay, India.
"A Great American"
The New Republic proclaims Kipling a "great American," even though he was British. (To be fair, he did live in Vermont for a few years…)
In a recently-discovered letter, it turns out that Kipling may have lifted material he used for his famous Jungle Book.
Kipling's Amazon Page
Celebrate his whole catalog.
Just into the verses? Then look no further.
The guy wrote a lot of things that have been turned into movies. Check out this impressive list.
White Man's Burden: The Movie!
Check out this trailer for an… interesting movie in which the racial roles are reversed. It stars John Travolta and Harry Belafonte.