I first came across the work of Rudyard Kipling as a child. My favorite Disney movie was (and still is) The Jungle Book. You can imagine my surprise when I first encountered Kipling’s other works in a sociology class in relation to colonialism; in that class, we read “The White Man’s Burden” and “Gunga Din.” In this blog post, I will be addressing “The White Man’s Burden,” an 1899 poem encouraging the United States to join in on imperialism.
The timing of this poem coincided with the defeat of the Philippines in the Philippine-American war as well as the ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control.
Below I have copied one stanza of the poem, found toward the end. Here, you can see the justification of imperialism- the idea that the subjugated benefited from being colonized and (forcibly) assimilated into white ways of life.
Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his 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 ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night?”
I was reminded of this poem when reading Roach, excerpted below.
“As Aeneas casts a parting look back to the rising pillar of smoke, his ambivalence fuses memory and forgetting into one gesture. In that gesture, he enacts the historic tendency of Europeans, when reminded, to recall only emotions of deep love for the people whose cultures they have left in flames, emotions predicated on the sublime vanity that their early departure would not have been celebrated locally as deliverance.”
This brings up so many of Roach’s theories, namely the duality of remembering and forgetting and performance as conscription.
I’d like to start by addressing Roach’s idea that “Echoes in the bone refer not only to a history of forgetting but to a strategy of empowering the living through the performance of memory.” The question raised is, who is empowered through the performance of memory? How much does this “history of forgetting” erase horrors that should not be forgotten?
In the case of Kipling and the attitude of the Europeans toward the peoples they subjugated, the forgetting is clearly not an act of moving on, but rather a necessary act in order for them to feel good about what they did. Taking up the “White Man’s burden” intrinsically requires deliberate forgetfulness of the “cultures they have left in flames.” Rather than being a strategy of empowerment by forgetting collective trauma, as so many of my classmates and myself have discussed this quote as being about, colonists instead chose to selectively erase the horrors they committed, choosing to remember themselves as saviors “liberating” the “savages” from their “primitive” ways.
This gets to the “empowerment of the living”: which members of the living are empowered through performance? White people chose to be performers, rather than being conscripted into performance like those they colonized, and because of this, are able to choose their roles. The roles they chose to play when they got back from committing atrocities was that of the white savior, so artfully illustrated in Kipling’s poem. However, this performance reduced the colonized to a role they did not want to play and was unfair to them: that of the illiterate savage. Empowerment doesn’t necessarily mean that another group is put down, but in this case, it does.
As Roach said, white people looked back fondly at the colonies they destroyed, pretending to be their saviors, while at the same time reducing the native peoples to nothing more than a stereotype. This plays both into memory and performance, and the nuances of each- each can be used constructively or destructively, depending on who is forgetting and remembering, and who is conscripted into performance and in what roles they must play.
In the instance of Kipling and his fellow white colonizers, it is easy to see who is in the wrong. However, as I have learned in the class thus far, most of the world is not that simple, making it absolutely necessary to consider all possible interpretations of a situation before casting people into roles they were not meant to play and judging those who have already been subjugated by conscription into performance.