Did Rudyard Kipling Regard India as a “White Man’s Burden”?

Some critics have claimed that writer Rudyard Kipling's portrayals of Indian characters in his works supported the view that colonized people were incapable of living without the help of Europeans, describing these portrayals as racist.

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Image ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

British felt they had a civilizing mission during colonial rule in India

During the period of European colonial rule in India, Europeans in India typically regarded many aspects of Indian culture with disdain and supported colonial rule as a beneficial “civilizing mission”. Colonial rule in India was framed as an act that was beneficial to the people of India, rather than a process of political and economic dominance by a small minority of foreigners.       Under colonial rule, many practices were outlawed, such as the practice of forcing widows to immolate themselves (known as sati) with acts being deemed idolatrous being discouraged by Evangelical missionaries, the latter of which has been claimed by some scholars to have played a large role in the developments of the modern definition of Hinduism.

Development of the definition of modern Hinduism

These claims base their assumptions on the lack of a unified Hindu identity prior to the period of colonial rule, and modern Hinduism’s unprecedented outward focus on a monotheistic Vedanta worldview. These developments have been read as the result of colonial views which discouraged aspects of Indian religions that differed significantly from Christianity. It has been noted that the prominence of the Bhagavad Gita as a primary religious text in Hindu discourse was a historical response to European criticisms of Indian culture. Europeans found that the Gita had more in common with their own Christian Bible, leading to the denouncement of Hindu practices more distantly related to monotheistic worldviews with some historians claiming that Indians began to characterize their faith as the equivalent of Christianity in belief (especially in terms of monotheism) and structure (in terms of providing an equivalent primary sacred text).       Hindu nationalism developed in the 19th century as an internalization of European ideological prominence; with local Indian elites aiming to make themselves and Indian society modern by “emulating the West”.  

The emergence of ‘neo-Hinduism”

This led to the emergence of what some have termed ‘neo-Hinduism’:   consisting of reformist rhetoric transforming Hindu tradition from above, disguised as a revivalist call to return to the traditional practices of the faith.   Reflecting the same arguments made by Christian missionaries, who argued that the more superstitious elements of Hindu practice were responsible for corrupting the potential rational philosophy of the faith (i.e. the more Christian-like sentiments).   Moving the definitions of Hindu practice away from more overt idol worshiping, reemphasizing the concept of Brahman as a monotheistic divinity, and focusing more on the figure of Krishna in Vaishnavism due to his role as a messianic type figure (more in line with European beliefs) which makes him a suitable alternative to the Christian figure of Jesus Christ

Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”

Some critics have claimed that writer Rudyard Kipling’s portrayals of Indian characters in his works supported the view that colonized people were incapable of living without the help of Europeans, describing these portrayals as racist. In his famous poem “The White Man’s Burden”, Kipling directly argues for this point by romanticizing the “civilizing mission” in non-Western countries. Jaway Syed has claimed that Kipling’s poems idolize Western culture as entirely rational and civilized, while treating non-white cultures as ‘childlike’ and ‘demonic’. Similar sentiments have been interpreted in Kipling’s other works, such as his characterization of the Second Boer War as a “white man’s war” along with his presentation of ‘whiteness’ as a morally and culturally superior trait of the West. His portrayal of Indians in his Jungle Book stories has also been criticized by Jane Hotchkiss as example of the chauvinistic infantilization of colonized peoples in popular culture. Some historians claim that Kipling’s works have contributed tto the development of a colonial mentality in the ways that the colonized people in these fictional narratives are made submissive to and dependent on their white rulers.

Indians adopted European culture called ‘Macaulay’s Children”

 Individuals of Indian descent who adopt European culture have sometimes been labeled as “Macaulay’s Children”. The term is usually used in a derogatory fashion, connoting disloyalty to India. It derives from 19th-century historian, politician, and colonial administrator Thomas Macaulay, who instituted the system of Macaulay’s, replacing Indian languages and dialects with English as the official medium of instruction in Indian educational institutions. The consequences of this educational policy can still be felt in contemporary India, where the use of English, as opposed to Hindi, still carries with it a level of superiority.   Nationalist politicians have campaigned and pushed forward policy changes to promote the official usage of Hindi in education and media over English, which was protested against in the south of India as the imposition of Hindi upon non-Hindi speakers.   

Difference between Spanish overseas territories with British India

In the overseas territories administered by the Spanish Empire, racial mixing between Spanish settlers and the indigenous peoples resulted in a prosperous union later called Mestizo. There were limitations in the racial classes only to people of African descent, mainly for being descendants of slaves under a current state of slavery. Unlike Mestizos, castizos or indigenous people who were protected by the Leyes de las Indias “to be treated like equals, as citizens of the Spanish Empire”. It was completely forbidden to enslave the indígenas under the death penalty charge.  Spanish Empire, 1824  Mestizos and other mixed raced combinations were categorized into different castas by viceroyalty administrators. This system was applied to Spanish territories in the Americas and the Philippines, where large populations of mixed raced individuals made up the increasing majority of the viceroyalty population (until the present day).  Casta painting showing couples of different races arranged hierarchically, and the resulting racial status of their children.     

These racial categories punished those with Black African or Afro-Latin. With those of European descent given privilege over these other mixtures. As a result of this system, people of African descent struggled to downplay their indigenous heritage and cultural trappings, in order to appear superficially more Spanish or native.   With these internalized prejudices individuals’ choices of clothes, occupations, and forms of religious expression.   Those of mixed racial identities who wanted to receive the institutional benefits of being Spanish (such as higher education institutions and career opportunities), could do so by suppressing their own cultures and acting with “Spanishness”.  

This mentality lead to commonplace racial forgery in Latin America, often accompanied by legitimizing oral accounts of a Spanish ancestor and a Spanish surname. Most mixed-white and white people in Latin America have Spanish surnames inherited from Spanish ancestors, while most other Latin Americans who have Spanish names and surnames acquired them through the Christianization and Hispanicization of the indigenous and African slave populations by Spanish friars.       However, most initial attempts at this were only partially successful, as Amerindian groups simply blended Catholicism with their traditional beliefs.   Syncretism between native beliefs and Christianity is still largely prevalent in Indian and Mestizo communities in Latin America.   On the other hand, the Spaniards did not impose their language to the degree they did their religion, and the Roman Catholic Church even evangelized in Quechua, Nahuatl, Guarani, etc., contributing to the expansion of these Amerindian languages and equipping them with writing systems.            

Prior to the arrival by the Spaniards (1565-1898), the Sulu Archipelago (located in southern Philippines) was a colony of the Majapahit Empire (1293–1527) based in Indonesia. The Americans were the last country to colonize the Philippines (1898–1946) and nationalists claim that it continues to act as a neo-colony of the US despite its formal independence in 1946  In the Philippines colonial mentality is most evident in the preference for Filipino mestizos (primarily those of mixed native Filipino and white ancestry, but also mixed indigenous Filipinos and Chinese, and other ethnic groups) in the entertainment industry and mass media, in which they have received extensive exposure despite constituting a small fraction of the population The Cádiz Constitution of 1812 automatically gave Spanish citizenship to all Filipinos regardless of race. The census of 1870 stated that at least one-third of the population of Luzon had partial Hispanic ancestry (from varying points of origin and ranging from Latin America to Spain).     

The combined number of all types of white mestizos or Eurasians is 3.6%, according to a genetic study by Stanford University. This is contradicted by another genetic study done by California University which stated that Filipinos possess moderate amounts of European admixture.       Evidence suggests that fair skin was a characteristic of the cloistered ladies called binukot, who were often kept indoors from a very early age. In historical epics of the Philippines, their fair skin was presented as a standard of beauty among the upper class. Some cite this as proof that the desire for light-colored skin predates overseas influences. One of the more adverse physical consequences of the idealization and acceptance of colonial mentality can be seen in the high rate of consumer demand for skin-bleaching products used by some indigenous women and a smaller percentage of indigenous men and dark-skinned mestizas and mestizos, in the Philippines. Demand in the Philippines and in some other tropical countries continues to be widespread.


         Marlow’s story in Heart of Darkness takes place in the Belgian Congo, the most notorious European colony in Africa because of the Belgian colonizers’ immense greed and brutal treatment of the native people. In its depiction of the monstrous wastefulness and casual cruelty of the colonial agents toward the African natives, Heart of Darkness reveals the utter hypocrisy of the entire colonial effort. In Europe, colonization of Africa was justified on the grounds that not only would it bring wealth to Europe, it would also civilize and educate the “savage” African natives. Heart of Darkness shows that in practice the European colonizers used the high ideals of colonization as a cover to allow them to viciously rip whatever wealth they could from Africa.      Unlike most novels that focus on the evils of colonialism, Heart of Darkness pays more attention to the damage that colonization does to the souls of white colonizers than it does to the physical death and devastation unleashed on the black natives. Though this focus on the white colonizers makes the novella somewhat unbalanced, it does allow Heart of Darkness to extend its criticism of colonialism all the way back to its corrupt source, the “civilization” of Europe.            American Imperialism    

Rise of American Imperialism

 “American imperialism” is a term that refers to the economic, military, and cultural influence of the United States internationally.           The late nineteenth century was known as the “Age of Imperialism,” a time when the United States and other major world powers rapidly expanded their territorial possessions.      American imperialism is partly based on American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is different from other countries because of its specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy.      One of the most notable instances of American imperialism was the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, which allowed the United States to gain possession and control of all ports, buildings, harbors, military equipment, and public property that had belonged to the Government of the Hawaiian Islands.      Some groups, such as the American Anti-Imperialist League, opposed imperialism on the grounds that it conflicted with the American ideal of Republicans and the “consent of the governed.”      Darwinism,    An ideology that seeks to apply biological concepts of Darwinism or evolutionary theory to sociology and politics, often under the assumption that conflict between social groups leads to social progress, as superior groups surpass inferior ones. 

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism: A belief, central to American political culture since the Revolution, that Americans have a unique mission among nations to spread freedom and democracy.     

The American Anti-Imperialist League: An organization established in the United States on June 15, 1898, to battle the American annexation of the Philippines as an insular area.     

American Imperialism: A term that refers to the economic, military, and cultural influence of the United States on other countries.      Expansion and Power      “American imperialism” is a term that refers to the economic, military, and cultural influence of the United States on other countries. First popularized during the presidency of James K. Polk, the concept of an “American Empire” was made a reality throughout the latter half of the 1800s. During this time, industrialization caused American businessmen to seek new international markets in which to sell their goods. In addition, the increasing influence of social Darwinism led to the belief that the United States was inherently responsible for bringing concepts such as industry, democracy, and Christianity to less developed “savage” societies. The combination of these attitudes and other factors led the United States toward imperialism.                 

“Ten Thousand Miles from Tip to Tip”: “Ten Thousand Miles from Tip to Tip,” refers to the extension of U.S. domination (symbolized by a bald eagle) from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. The cartoon contrasts the 1898 representation with that of the United States in 1798.     

American Exceptionalism and Alexis de Tocqeville

American imperialism is partly rooted in American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is different from other countries due to its specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. This theory often is traced back to the word’s of 1800s French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who concluded that the United States was a unique nation, “proceeding along a path to which no limit can be perceived.”      Pinpointing the actual beginning of American imperialism is difficult. Some historians suggest that it began with the writing of the Constitution; historian Donald W. Meinig argues that the imperial behavior of the United States dates back to at least the Louisiana Purchase. He describes this event as an, “aggressive encroachment of one people upon the territory of another, resulting in the subjugation of that people to alien rule.” Here, he is referring to the U.S. policies toward Native Americans, which he said were, “designed to remould them into a people more appropriately conformed to imperial desires.”                 

Uncle Sam teaching the world: This caricature shows Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled “Philippines,” “Hawaii,” “Puerto Rico,” and “Cuba” in front of children holding books labeled with various U.S. states. In the background, an American Indian holds a book upside down, a Chinese boy stands at the door, and a black boy cleans a window. The blackboard reads, “The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact… the U.S. must govern its new territories with or without their consent until they can govern themselves.”  

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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