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Social Darwinism and White Man's Burden

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First, we must examine what social Darwinism means. In the 19th and early 20th century this theory gained in popularity to rationalize policies that were imperialist, colonialist, and racist as the Anglo-Saxon culture spread out and took land and territories from other cultures. Social Darwinists believed the weak were delimited and the strong grew in culture and power over the weak. Thus, the term “Survival of the fittest” was coined by English philosopher, Herbert Spencer. They viewed society as an organism and related wealth to strength. The best competitors would win, become wealthy and therefore survive only making that society stronger. If you were poor, then you should not receive assistance and were unfit for society. Social Darwinism was disproven during the 20th century as research on biological and social research expanded proving that this theory only undermines society rather than support it.

By breaking down the poem we will notice his intent was actually a letter to America encouraging them after winning the American/Spanish war. Kipling fully embraced the imperialist mentality and believe it was the “white man’s” duty to spread out and conquer “uncivilized” nations. The phrase, “send forth the best ye breed” is referring to sending the strongest and smartest men to conquer the uncivilized people. He is warning America that it will be a hard life for the people who go off to colonize these new territories, however it was these imperialist nations duty to civilize and convert the “sullen peoples” who are “half devil and half child”.

Even though, at first glance, this poem is steeped in ethnocentrism if you look closer, there is also a warning about the hard road and toll it takes to overtake another country. Kipling fully believed it was the white man’s duty to over throw these “uncivilized countries”. The native, “captive peoples” are “sullen peoples, “Half-devil and half-child”. They are being saved and act ungrateful toward those who want to better them. Today’s society, this attitude is understandable, however Kipling seems to be baffled that these people would not jump up in thanks to their ‘civilizing’ conquerors.

As the poem continues it is not all a love letter to imperialism. He wrote this as warning to America to not allow laziness and make the same mistakes as England did. He also cautions patience. By saying, it is the “toil of serf and sweeper,” not the “tawdry rule of kings”, he makes it clear that this work is difficult and burdensome. He encourages the reader to push through even when people criticize you, with the statement “and reap his old reward.”

My first impression of the poem, I thought Kipling was criticizing imperialism. When I began my research and found out people truly believed in social Darwinism, it blew my mind. This poem really shows how society has changed over the past couple of centuries. People believed they were doing good forcing others to their beliefs and customs. It makes me wonder who the naive peoples are, the colonist’s being overthrown or the imperialists doing the overthrowing? At the same time, we really haven’t changed. There is still war, there are still governments overthrowing other governments. Even though our thinking has changed, we are trying to evolve as a society, greed never seems to change.

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Social Darwinism And White Man’s Burden. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from
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