Imperialism Essay, Research Paper
Published in McClure’s Magazine in February of 1899, Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” appeared at a critical moment in the debate about imperialism within the United States. The Philippine-American War began on February 4 and two days later the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Spanish-American War, ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States, and placed Cuba under U.S. control. Although Kipling’s poem mixed refrain to empire with sober warnings of the costs involved, imperialists within the United States latched onto the phrase “white man’s burden” as a euphemism for imperialism that seemed to justify the policy as a noble enterprise.
During that time, Anti-imperialists quickly responded with parodies of the poem. They mostly concentrated on the new warfare in the Philippines, the hypocrisy of claiming moral sanction for a policy, they argued, originated from greed for military power and commercial markets, with ongoing racial and gender inequality at home, and also the special “burden” of imperialism to the working people of the United States.
The pursuit of imperialism has raised up antagonists to Great Britain in every part of the world; it has imposed upon her people a heavy burden of debt and taxation; it has disturbed her politics by the continual menace of war and thus prevented the accomplishment of many needed reforms at home; and finally it has brought her into a position where without helper she is confronted by a hostile world and is in danger of having her commerce, and perhaps even her empire, swept away at the first outbreak of war.
Mr. Kipling’s verses are interpreted in some quarters as an appeal to the United States to join Great Britain in carrying the burden Great Britain has taken upon her shoulders. A good many Americans preach the doctrine that it is the white man’s duty to force his civilization upon peoples who ignorantly enjoy themselves under a lower grade of civilization. The increase of the army from 25,000 to 100,000 men is urged on the ground that these soldiers, stationed in fever-stricken countries, will be agents of civilization. The commanding general in Cuba reports that 50 percent of the American troops on the island are on the sick list. These men are the best we breed. Each man is the pick of three. They are sent to exile by a high sense of duty. Some of them will find hospitable graves in Cuba, others will return with broken constitutions. The “best ye breed,” if doomed to exile, will not reproduce themselves. The poison of the tropical climate will infuse itself in their blood. Such is the sacrifice which the extending of high civilization requires.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the poem was not quickly forgotten. In 1901, after two years of devastating warfare in the Philippines, Mark Twain remarked: “The White Man’s Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man’s?” In December of 1903, C. E. D. Phelps used a parody of the poem to criticize the U.S. acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone. The “white man’s burden” concept was also revived in later discussions of U.S. interventions in the Americas and during World War I. Kipling’s poem, two racial images interpreting its meaning in the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba, an example of its use in contemporary advertising, and more than fifty anti-imperialist responses are included here.