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“The White Man’s Burden”: White Supremacy and Christianity

On February 4, 1899, The Times published a new poem by Rudyard Kipling. Titled “The White Man’s Burden”, Kipling wrote the poem in November 1898 to commemorate the inception of the United States as an imperial nation, soon after the American victory over Spain and signing of the Treaty of Paris. After the signing of the treaty, the United States took over military and political control of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Since then, this poem, perhaps Kipling’s most controversial, has become an anthem for those who still express their confidence in jingoistic nationalism. But there is a section of academicians, especially postcolonial thinkers and literary critics, who have vehemently criticized “The White Man’s Burden” for excessively asserting white supremacy and chauvinistic nationalism.

This article is an attempt to show that the poem continues to perpetuate its ideology of white, male supremacy in our contemporary globalized world. Although differences based on race, religion, and nationality seem to have slowly become irrelevant, some people still believe in white supremacy and integrate it into their personal lives. This article tries to understand this colonial perspective in context of ’The White Man’s Burden’ with specific reference to: 1) the representation of darkness in Christianity, and 2) scientific racism.

All seven stanzas of the poem begin with the line “Take up the white man’s burden”, emphasizing the savage nature of colonized people and the civility of colonizers. Kipling calls upon the people of America to send their best breed to serve the needs of captives who are half devil and half child. It is the responsibility of white people to civilize dark races by patiently abiding to the doctrines of Christianity without succumbing to the fear of death, because their endeavor is for other’s profit. Kipling draws upon the fact that the dark races have no sense of peace and their people die in war, from sickness, and famine. In the mission of civilization, the Americans will have to go through hardships: they will have to toil like serf and sweepers, tread on roads they have never walked on. The white man’s burden may bring blame and hate as reward, Kipling warns, but it is a slow journey which will light up the lives of natives. There is no scope for exhaustion, tears, and escape, as the sullen people (colonized) would be grateful at the end. Kipling ends the poem with a statement that this pursuit of civilization is neither a childish game nor an exercise done for laurels but is an expression of and search for manhood.

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Kipling reconstitutes the concept of white supremacy by focusing on the backwardness of dark races in politics, sociology, culture, religion, ethics, and values. His argument for white supremacy seems to be different from conventional disputations, but derives largely from Christian theology. The white man’s supremacy has its roots in the Biblical story “The Curse of Ham” and some highly popular scientific theories on racism. “The Curse of Ham” is explicated in the Genesis 9 in which Noah, the father of Ham, curses him for his unruliness. One day, Noah drank wine and slept naked in his tent. Ham saw his father sleeping naked, and asked his brothers - Shem and Japheth - to cover him with cloth. While Shem and Japheth were covering Noah, he woke up and cursed Ham that his descendants would become slaves:

“And Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

And he said, Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren

And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem, Canaan shall be his servant.

God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan shall be his servant”

Throughout the period of colonization, this curse was referred to by Christian imperialists as a biblical justification for forcing blacks and people of other races into slavery. Benjamin M. Palmer gave traction to this justification by categorizing white Europeans as the descendants of Japheth, whom Noah prophesized to cultivate civilization, while the Africans were called the descendants of Ham, who was cursed to possess a slavish nature. In the Middle Ages, the blackness of Africans was taken as the outcome of sin committed by Ham. This racial theory was widely popular from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century, and also contributed to the promotion of slave trade.

Another reason for the acceptance of white supremacy is the theory of scientific racism that received recognition from the late sixteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. Scientific evidence was furnished for the classification of human races according to their physical structure so as to assert the inferiority of some races against others. In the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle, the famous chemist and natural philosopher, believed that all human races had one origin. In contrast, Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician, argued in his book Systema Naturae that human races had different origins.

Thomas Jefferson, the American politician, scientist, and slave owner, did not believe in the equality of races and claimed that the black people were inferior to the white in body and mind. Scientific racism became one of the fundamental principles that propelled imperial ideology in the nineteenth century. As David Cody explained, “the Empire existed not for the benefit — economic or strategic or otherwise — of Britain itself, but in order that primitive peoples, incapable of self-government, could, with British guidance, eventually become civilized (and Christianized).” (David Cody, ‘The British Empire,’ Victorian Web: Literature, History & Culture in the Age of Victoria) In the beginning of the twentieth century, the members of Nazi party firmly believed in scientific racism and published several books like Ethnology of the German People and Race and Soul to advocate ethnic purity and racial exclusivity. These ideas slowly percolated into the race-specific nationalism and strengthened racial inequality.

The poem becomes even more relevant for those people who are against migration of dark races to the countries of white race. With the increasing job opportunities in the developed countries for people of dark races owing to the revolution in information technology and liberal economic policies, people of white race consider migration a threat to their culture, ethics and values. Consequently, there have been substantial escalation in attacks on students, engineers, doctors and migrants in Europe, America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Kipling’s poem acts as a catalyst for the fundamentalists and those who believe in ethnic purity.

Although “The White Man’s Burden” was written 120 years ago when jingoistic imperialism voraciously vouched the Christian doctrine of religious superiority, the poem has never been out of literary discourse as it is always referred to whenever any racial and cultural conflict happens in any part of the world. Be it the American war against Iraq and Syria or terrorist attacks in Australia and New Zealand, the poem resurfaces in newspaper columns and online articles, drawing thinkers to re-examine the power of literature to spread racial bias and violence.

The Author

My name is Chetan and I am a PhD student at Department of English Delhi University. My PhD research area is Kipling’s writings and British writing on India. I have been teaching undergraduate at Bharati College (Delhi University) on the position of Assistant Professor English for last five years. I completed my MPhil in the area of popular literature, history and fiction from the Department of English, Delhi University. I have published academic articles in national and international journals along with several popular articles on online forums, online media portals and e-magazines.

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