The White Man’s Burden

(Notes by Mary Hamer)

Publication history

The Times, 4 February 1899; Literature, 4 February 1899; New York Tribune, 5 February 1899; San Francisco Examiner, 5 February 1899; the New York Sun, 5 February 1899; Daily Mail, 6 February 1899; McClure’s Magazine, February 1899; in a small pamphlet of the Anti-Imperialist League from The Boston Evening Transcript, 18 February 1899.

Published separately in London for copyright purposes, 1899; there were also pirated printings. Kipling’s agent brought suit against one issued in Chicago, and the two offending pages were torn out. Reprinted in Santiago de Chile as part of the unauthorised collection With Number Three Surgical and Medical, 1900. (This collection also reprinted “Pharaoh and the Sergeant”, “Kitchener’s School”, “White Horses” and “The Absent-Minded Beggar”.)

Also in A Kipling Pageant, 1935. Collected in The Five Nations, I.V., 1919, D.V., 1940, the Sussex Edition, vol.33 and the Burwash Edition, vol.26.


Completed by late November 1898, it was written at the point when the US, in a reversal of previous policy, and despite internal opposition to the move, first became an imperial power. On 25 April 1898, America had declared war on Spain, ostensibly to free Cuba from Spain, though that is not how the Cubans see it. The peace negotiations which began in October led to the Treaty of Paris, by which the US was awarded Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Before publishing this poem, Kipling sent a copy to Theodore Roosevelt, who forwarded it to Henry Cabot Lodge. In a letter of 10 January, 1899 to Robert Barr, Kipling told him to look in the next issue of McClure’s for ‘a poem about expansionism that will make you rejoice.’ [Letters Vol 2, Ed. Pinney]

One of the most often quoted and most regularly misunderstood poems in the canon. It is helpful to read “The White Man’s Burden”, which has been used to condemn the form of imperialism that Kipling embraced, alongside his letter of 18 August 1898, to the American, George Cram Cook. At the time of Kipling’s letter, Cook, a professor of English, was stationed at Camp Cuba Libra in Florida, as a member of the 50th Iowa Volunteers; he later went down to fame as the founder of the Provincetown Players.

Welcoming America to the world of adult responsibility among the nations, Kipling writes of :

‘…the White Man’s work, the business of introducing a sane and orderly administration to the dark places of the earth that lie to your hand.’

It is this ‘new imperialism’ to which he wanted to convert Andrew Carnegie, as he told the magnate in a letter of 25 June 1899 (Pinney ed., Letters vol 2). It is fair to say that it was the vision of enabling orderly development based on economic progress which inspired Kipling, perhaps naively. (For an assessment of Kipling’s forays into politics, see ‘“Outside his Art”: Rudyard Kipling in Politics’, Michael Brock, Kipling Journal March 1988.) He made no allowance for greed and exploitation, or for conflicts of interest between empire and colony. This allowed him, not always but very often, to appear blind to the destructive effect of empire on its subject peoples and their cultures.

As Kipling represents it, however, the call of Empire is a humanitarian one. (We might bear in mind the fact that in the US the phrase ‘white man’ was current as a term of commendation, meaning straight or decent. Kipling himself made use of it in this sense, in the letter of 20 June 1900 to John St Loe Strachey [Letters Vol 3, Ed. Pinney]. Kipling’s belief that non-western and ‘primitive’ peoples were waiting to be developed and improved was shared by contemporary thinkers who took their lead from Social Darwinism; the ‘more evolved’ nations must guide those which are ‘less evolved’ into a more ‘civilised’ way of running their societies. Hence the now insulting references to subject races as children. There is no doubt that Kipling also shared the assumptions of his Western contemporaries concerning the superiority of light over dark in the matter of skin tone, notions that received support from the terminology of religion. Christianity traditionally associated black with sin and the devil and white with purity. Thus Kipling joined in consigning entire races to inferiority, even while he might express admiration and respect in the case of individual non-Europeans.

The poem is also a warning. As a man who had worked shoulder to shoulder with those upholding the Raj for seven years in India, Kipling was entitled to speak with authority of the costs involved – the dangers of sickness and the risk of death by violence – in undertaking such a task. He had seen how young men sent out from India died in droves ‘at the regulation age of 22 or thereabouts.’

Notes on the Text

(by Mary Hamer drawing on various sources, in particular Ralph Durand, “A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling” 1914.)

On its original publication, the poem bore the heading ‘An Address to the United States’.

[Stanza 1] Half-devil and half-child: see note on publication history, above. For the coloniser wishing to install his own Western notions of decency and right behaviour, alien behaviours might be dismissed as indications of moral collapse.

fluttering:  unsteady, as in a bird struggling to hold its balance in a high wind.

[Stanza 4] No tawdry rule of kings: cf “The Old Issue”, also collected in The Five Nations. ‘Tawdry’ was originally ‘iron’

sweeper: in India, the lowest caste, assigned to clearing up refuse and human waste.

The ports ye shall not enter . . . ye shall not tread: By the Treaty of Paris the United States undertook to hand back Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico to their own inhabitants after ten years; this provision was in fact honoured only technically, as the US retained control of the Philippines until 1946, while Puerto Rico is still classed as an unincorporated territory of the United States. Cuba regained its independence in 1902. Nevertheless, under a treaty of 1903, the US continues to hold the port of Guantanamo. It has exploited this to set up a prison camp there, whose legality has been repeatedly questioned, in the name of combating terror.

[Stanza 5] Why brought ye us . . .Egyptian night?: The Israelites complained against Moses, who had led them out of Egypt where they were enslaved, when they found themselves going hungry in the wilderness. Exodus: 16, 2-3. For the association between Egypt and darkness see also Exodus 10,22

[Stanza 6] Gods: originally ‘God’.


©Mary Hamer 2007 All rights reserved