Representation of Colonized People in Kipling's White Man's Burden

Categories: Rudyard Kipling
About this essay

1- Introduction

In the modern world history, Western countries have mastered a vast part of the world. And this kind of control, based on domination and subordination, aroused mainly from colonialism and imperialism like the power of the British Empire over many colonized countries in the world. Thus, this imperial power had intensively engaged writers’ attention. Among those major writers is Rudyard Kipling. He is a British novelist and poet who was born in British India in 1865 and died in 1963. Though he lived over thirteen years there, the reader finds that his works espouse the imperial ideology and he came to be recognized as a “prophet of the British imperialism”(Orwell 116).

And this is well manifested in his poem “The White Man’s Burden” published in 1899. It ideologically justifies the process of colonization and empire naming it a “burden”. It urges the colonial power to take up the burden of colonialism representing the West as the superior whose responsibility is to civilize the backward colonized nations.

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Thus, in analyzing the issue of representation of colonized people in the poem from Edward Said’s perspective, one can find out that it is just a misrepresentation. And through Kipling’s accusation of camouflaging the atrocity of the imperial vision by this misrepresentation, it is clear that the real reason behind this unrealistic image is empowering the cultural hegemony of the colonizer.

1- The analysis
2.1- Defining Edward Said’s notion of representation.

People can be able to understand the complex world in which we live through language and representation.

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The term representation has a range of interpretations. According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, representation, etymologically, can be seen as constructing and representing the object in a new form of picture rather than by depicting it as it is in its reality (172). And no one of these representations is objective because it’s impossible to disconnect them from the society and culture that produces them, and wants to control and change these represented objects to promote a certain set of values and ideologies (172). Thus, the term representation can’t have an exact definitive interpretation because there’s always a gap between the intention or what is original, and the realization or what is a copy.

Within these representations, it is usually dissimilarity that signifies by creating binary oppositions within which one part is always dominating. And this act of representing the other is a long-standing practice of domination within the context of colonization. The most influential scholar examining the process of representing or constructing the other is Edward Said (1935-2003). Said’s book Orientalism explains how the West, through a discourse executed by Western intellectuals, produced the Orient politically, militarily, ideologically, and imaginatively.

He unveils the Western intellectuals’ biased way of thought, since the Orient that appears in their texts is but a system of representation framed by essential ideas, assumptions, and stereotypes. This construction of the Orient as the other, in an uninterrupted way over many centuries, became the rationale that legitimates colonial oppression and served to reinforce the identity of the Western culture. Although Said’s argument has been challenged, his work is still the leading voice that drives scholars to critically analyze the stereotypical representations established between the colonizer and the colonized. 2.2- Analyzing Kipling’s Representation of the Colonized People in the Poem and his Notion of The White Man’s Burden.

As an imperialist writer, Rudyard Kipling in his poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ makes the representation of the imperial supremacy. He stresses the Eurocentric view of the world in which non-European nations are seen as uncivilized and in a strong need of the White Man to save them from their backwardness and bring them from their undisciplined childhood to a civilized maturity. This is what Hannah Arendt means in her book when she says, “The author of the imperial legend is Rudyard Kipling, its topic the British Empire, its result the imperialist character… and chivalry, nobility, bravery answered the legend’s call…” (208-9).

Imperialism here is maintaining unequal political, economic and cultural relationships between nations based on the superiority/inferiority dichotomy and, “promotes the spread of civilization to allegedly ‘backward’ societies to elevate living standards and culture in conquered territories” (Feuer 4). Thus, Kipling insists throughout the poem on the colonial authority to take up this responsibility and to be virtuous by bringing civilization to the developing world which is seen by Kipling as a “burden” (1). We can see this in the first line of each stanza, “Take up the White Man’s Burden”. Besides, he explains the difficulty of this duty while saying:

Take up the White Man’s Burden,Send forth the best ye breedGo bind your sons to exileTo serve your captives’ need (1-4). This suggests that it is not just the colonized people who are bearing the negative effects of this process of civilization and held in captivity, but also the Westerners may expose their fellows to death which is seen as great sacrifice from the part of the colonial power for the benefits of the natives. Kipling then, represents the White Man as a hero or a God. He held the belief that the White Man has “A Divine Burden to reign God’s Empire on Earth” (Wikipedia).

As God gives them wealth, civilization and advancement, it’s then a duty for them to educate the non-white people and help them by spreading their civilization and better way of living to, “Fill full the mouth of famine/ And bid the sickness cease;” (19-20) and create from the savages who are “Half-devil and half-child” (8), advanced, effective and active members in their societies. That’s why Kipling represented the imperial mission of the superior White Man as sacrificial and virtuous towards the colonized people who do not know where their welfare is. They are “Your new-caught, sullen peoples,” (7) who want to live with their ignorance rather than improve their way of living and be educated. Kipling here says:

The ports ye shall not enter,The roads ye shall not tread, Go mark them with your living,And mark them with your dead (29-32). For that reason the colonizer must resort to violence in order to fulfill his duty towards the crazy, stupid devil-like people even if this will sacrifice members of their white race. He sees violence as means to treat the savagery of the natives which is a justification for taking over all the natives’ lives for not accepting the process of enlightenment brought from the West. However, despite all these efforts and sacrifices made by the Europeans to sophisticate a backward community, these non-white people seem to be ungrateful. It is here when Kipling says:

And reap this 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 he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?’ (34-40) Kipling warns the Europeans that the process of colonization is ungrateful. Instead of thanking the Europeans for bringing them into the light of civilization, the natives will blame them for doing that and will be nostalgic to their dark past. Then, they will hate the colonizer more and more. The summary of Kipling’s brand of imperialism by his biographer Charles Carrington is worth quoting at length here: No man had done more than Kipling to stimulate interest in the opening-up of new worlds in the East and South.

He never doubted the validity of Western civilization, never lapsed into sentiment over the supposed virtues of savages; but it was the spread of law, literacy, communications, useful arts that he applauded, not the enlargement of frontiers… civilizing the world was a worthwhile task, and though likely to be thankless, a task in which all might join if they would accept the law (Carrington 332). Thus, all these details show Kipling’s representation of the colonized people and justify his perception that the policy of imperialism manifested in his concept of The White Man’s Burden is a noble enterprise.

2.3- Showing the Unrealistic Aspect of Kipling’s Representation of the Natives from Said’s Perspective
2.3.1- Said’s criticism of Rudyard Kipling

However, Kipling is strongly criticized for his concept by many anti-imperialist writers who held opposing ideologies mainly Edward Said. He sees that the notion of The White Man’s Burden, just like Orientalism, has one goal to justify the supremacy of the Western colonizer over the colonized people through depicting stereotypical images of them known as a discourse. This discourse relegates the non-white people to a lower position in the hierarchical divisions of the races which by virtue of their ontological inferiority, Kipling asserts, should be ruled and subjugated.

And the ruling race, on the other hand, burdened by its enlightening mission, has the right to expand beyond its geographical boundaries, and rule the first category. In the analysis of the Orientalist discourse, thus, Said shows how the colonized nations that appear in that discourse is not an objective fact of nature, but it is rather a phenomenon constructed by the maintenance of a whole set of racial and cultural assumptions. Said maintains here: Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements, about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, reconstructing, and having authority over the Orient (Said 3). In short, Said explains that The White Man’s Burden is but a system of representation that has little in common with the real image of the natives.

For Said then, The White Man’s Burden is created to legitimize Western colonialism in the eyes of Western agents. And it works to convince the natives that Western civilization represents the universal culture that should be accepted to reach flourishing and be elevated from the backward conditions in which they live. Therefore, according to Said, this misrepresentation plays a crucial rule in registering, sustaining, and camouflaging the imperial vision which is an illustration of cultural displacement, military domination, and economic exploitation for which Kipling is blamed. 2.3.2- Kipling’s accusation of racism

Said and many other critics have seen that Kipling’s ideology is nothing more than a manifestation of racism when they said, “Whatever the avowed justification, there can be no doubt that the poem is profoundly racist in sentiment” (Keating 172), and, “[C]ertainly a great number of them [the White Men] must have been puzzled as to how the color of their skins gave them superior ontological status plus great power over much of the inhabited world” (Said 226-7). It is strongly insisted then that the idea of European supremacy introduced in Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” is nothing but an allusion of racism, as opposed to the imperialists who held a philanthropic view of the empire. From the late Victorian era, Social Darwinism has been sturdily linked to imperialism (Wikipedia Social Darwinism).

Social Darwinism is the belief which claims that the strongest and richest is better suited to thrive in his community and rule the weak who is fitted to die and it considers this as a natural process (Wikipedia). For Social Darwinists therefore, strong nations are only formed by white people representing power and sophistication and are successful in enlarging their empires (Wikipedia). And only people of those nations are fitted to survive among those weak and less powerful non-white people (Wikipedia). And this natural distinction is their justification for their acts which is, according to many anti-imperialist writers, based on racism. In undermining non-white people and regarding them as inferior to oneself just for the simple reason of being white, one can feel a deep racism.

2.3.3- Kipling’s accusation of brutality

Besides, one of the indictments Kipling is often blamed for is brutality. In this poem Kipling writes, “Freedom for ourselves and freedom for our sons/ And, failing freedom, war” (19-20). This, according to Said, unveils the real Orientalist’s (White Man’s) intention and shows that beyond his angelic-like mission “there is always the express willingness to use force, to kill and be killed” (Said 226). Orwell, in his first paragraph of his essay about Kipling, argues that no one should agree with Kipling’s ideology toward imperialism or even exonerate him as he is “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting”.

He argues that he is not just reporting violent acts by the White Man, but actually enjoying them as one cannot remark any sign of disapproval against brutality in his work. Equally, Robert Buchanan, in his book, was bitterly charging Kipling with violence as he describes him as “the voice of the hooligan”. Max Beerbohm as well, “in his famous parody of Kipling in A Christmas Garland, mimicked the pathological reveling in cruelty which, to Beerbohm, seemed a chief distinguishing feature of Kipling’s work” (Gilbert 207). This accusation takes a very negative view of imperialism which is depicted as a morally and materially destructive move whose real purpose is subjugation which is a total contradiction to civilization. 2.3.4- Kipling’s accusation of exploitation

It is widely argued too that Westerners use the concept of the White Man’s Burden as a camouflage for their exploitation of the non-white people and their lands. One of the significant reasons for the hostile policy of the imperial expansion is economic exploitation. By acquiring new territories, the colonial nation testifies an economic growth. It takes benefits from their resources; makes use of their raw materials with receiving their cheap labor, brings the raw materials to their homeland to be turned into manufactured goods and then gets it back to the colonized lands to be sold in their markets with larger profits.

That’s how economy works under imperialism. As important as the first reason, imperialism is spurred by the political need. With the territorial expansion, the colonial nation acquires more power which puts it in a more prestigious level in the world. And for maintaining this authority, the White Man kills or imprisons all those who form an opposition to the colonial policy like the originally ruling class or social and religious leaders just to implement his policy in the new acquired territories which resulted in the disruption of the social structure and total chaos. Therefore, the colonized nations are terribly exploited and their loss is far more enormous than their benefits.

2.4- Unveiling the real reason behind this unrealistic representation.

So far, after depicting the unrealistic aspect of the representation of the colonized people, it’s clear that The White Man’s Burden is a political policy of the colonial authority to glorify Western nations. Said explains here, “I myself believe that Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient that it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient” (6). The colonizer uses thus, derogatory representation of the colonized people to reinforce their stupidity in their own minds and in the minds of people all over the world, and excuse for themselves and for the world their inexcusable crime.

But more deeply, one comes to conclude that the reality of The White Man’s Burden is only an empowering of the cultural hegemony of the colonizer who, through this misrepresentation, makes himself seem powerful and superior to all other nations, and gives durability to himself. Said here says, “Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerners in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand” (7-8).

One example for this is that the policy of the British government that retires any British servant in India in his 45th birthday is for the reason, according to Said, that no native could see the British master when he would be old and powerless (Dalarna 9). Thus, the colonial authority is not only locked to the colonized nations in its economy, but it has also used the representation of the colonized to constitute its own identity reinforcing its ideologies and superiority as it is not completely self-defining but rather built in contrast to the colonized.

1- Conclusion

When analyzing Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden”, one can have a clear picture about both the colonial authority and colonized nations. Kipling depicts a picture that shows that native people are backward and uncivilized. And since they can’t stand by themselves and can’t rule a whole nation, it’s the colonizer’s duty to help them by educating them and showing them the right path. Kipling shows throughout the poem the maturity, civilization, and wisdom of the White Man that give him the duty to rule the natives. However, many critics mainly Edward Said have shown that this representation is just an illusion. It is an imaginary picture constructed by the White Man to justify the process of colonialism.

They see Kipling as a racist who represents natives as inferior, a violent who encourages brutality against natives, and a profiteer for the natives’ land. Thus, The White Man’s Burden is just a camouflage for this atrocity toward the natives. And the White Man creates this binary opposition between white and non-white people that puts him in a superior position just to strengthen his hegemonic power and to reinforce his authority over the world. This opposition gives the colonial authority its durability as it can’t exist without the presence of its colonies having an upper hand on them.

Primary resources
Kipling, Rudyard. “A Song of the White Man”. The Friend [Bloemfontein] 2 Apr. 1920: D 300-301. Print. Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden”. McClure’s Magazine. 12 Feb. 1899. Print. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. England: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2003. Print. Secondary sources

Achebe, Chinua and Lyons, Robert. “Africa’s Tamished Name”. Another Africa. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print. Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of
Totalitarianism. Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1958. Print. Brantlinger, Patrick. “Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’ and Its Alternatives”. English Literature in Transition 50. 2 (2007): 172. Print. Buchanan, Robert. “The Voice of the ‘Hooligan’”. Contemporary Review LXXVI (1899): 776-89. Print. Carrington, C. Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work. London: Macmillan, 1955. Print. Feuer, L.S. Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind. N.p. : Transaction Publisher, 1989. Print. Foster, Bellamy and McChesney, Robert. “Kipling, the White Man’s Burden and U.S. Imperialism”. Monthly Review. N.p. Nov, 2003. Web. 27 Dec. 2012. Gibert, Eliot L. “The Aesthetics of Violence”. English Literature in Transition 7. 4 (2002): 207-217. Print. Hoganson, Kristin L. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1998. Print. Orwell, George. “Rudyard Kipling”. A Collection of Essays. New York: N.p. 1970. Print. “Representation, Mirror.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2nd edition. Web. 13 Feb. 2013. Samee, Sabir Abdus. “White Man’s Burden in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Limitations of Pambe’Serang’, ‘At the End of the Passage’ and ‘Only a Sublaltern’”. ISOR Journals (2005): 42. Print. “The White Man’s Burden”. Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Web. 25 Dec. 2012. Woodroffe, J. Is India Civilized? Essays on Indian Culture. Madras (Chennai) : Ganesh & Co. Publishers, 1919. Print

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Representation of Colonized People in Kipling's White Man's Burden. (2017, Jan 25). Retrieved from

Representation of Colonized People in Kipling's White Man's Burden

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