Chapter 1

The White Man's Burden


The bard of a modern Imperialism has sung of the White Man's burden.

The notes strike the granite surface of racial pride and fling back echoes which reverberate through the corridors of history, exultant, stirring the blood with memories of heroic adventure, deeds of desperate daring, ploughing of unknown seas, vistas of mysterious continents, perils affronted and overcome, obstacles triumphantly surmounted.

But mingled with these anthems to national elation another sound is borne to us, the white peoples of the earth, along the trackless byways of the past, in melancholy cadence. We should prefer to close our ears to its haunting refrain, stifle its appeal in the clashing melodies of rapturous self-esteem. We cannot. And, as to-day, we tear and rend ourselves, we who have torn and rent the weaker folk in our Imperial stride, it gathers volume and insistence.

What of that other burden, not our own self-imposed one which national and racial vanity may well over-stress; but the burden we have laid on others in the process of assuming ours, the burden which others are bearing now because of us? Where are they whose shoulders have bent beneath its weight in the dim valleys of the centuries? Vanished into nothingness, pressed and stamped into that earth on which we set our conquering seal. How is it with those who but yesterday lived free lives beneath the sun and stars, and to-day totter to oblivion? How shall it be to-morrow with those who must slide even more swiftly to their doom, if our consciences be not smitten, our perception be not responsive to the long-drawn sigh which comes to us from the shadows of the bygone?

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These contemplations are not a fit theme for lyrical outpourings. These questions are unbidden guests at the banquet of national self-laudation. They excite no public plaudits, arouse no patriotic enthusiasms, pander to no racial conceits. They typify the skeleton at the imperial feast.

But this is a time of searching inquiry for the white races; of probing scrutiny into both past and present; of introspection in every branch of human endeavour.

And these questions must be asked. They must be confronted in the fullness of their import, in the utmost significance of their implications -- and they must be answered.

I respectfully ask the reader to face them in these pages.

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My canvas is not crowded with figures. One figure only fills it, the figure which has incarnated for us through many generations the symbol of helplessness in man -- the manacled slave stretching forth supplicating hands.

The figure on my canvas is the African, the man of sorrows in the human family.

And the reason he alone is represented there is that the question of "native races" and their treatment by the white races, centres henceforth upon the Black man, as the African is called, although few Africans are wholly black. The statement needs amplifying, perhaps.

Wherever, in Asia, in Australasia and in America, the invading white man has disputed with the aboriginal coloured man the actual occupation and exploitation of the soil, the latter has either virtually disappeared, as in Northern America, the West Indies, and Western Australia; or is rapidly dying out; or is being assimilated and absorbed; the two processes operating in combination in Southern America, while in New Zealand assimilation is the chief factor.

On the other hand where, in Asia, the white man is political over-lord, as in Hindustan, Indo-China, and the East Indies, the problem of contact is not one in which the decay and disappearance of the Asiatic is even remotely problematical. Taking into account the incalculable forces which events are quickening throughout the East, the problem is whether the days of white political control south of the Great Wall are not already numbered. Europe's delirious orgy of self-destruction following the unsuccessful effort of her principal Governments to apportion China among themselves; "the most stupendous project yet imagined," has set vibrating chords of racial impulse, whose diapason may yet shake the Western world as with the tremors of approaching earthquake. For, conceding every credit to force of character, innate in the white imperial peoples, which has enabled, and, enables, a handful of white men to control extensive communities of non-white peoples by moral suasion, is it not mere hypocrisy to conceal from ourselves that we have extended our subjugating march from hemisphere to hemisphere because of our superior armament? With these secrets of our power we have now parted. We have sold them to Asia, to an older civilisation than our own. We thrust them, at first under duress and with humiliation, upon brains more profound, more subtle, more imitative, more daring perhaps than our own. Then, for lust of gain, we admitted into partnership those we earlier sought to subdue. Nay more. We have invited our apt pupils to join with us in slaughtering our rivals for-the-time-being; bidden them attend the shambles, inspect the implements, study at their ease the methods of the business.

And so, to-day, after long years of furious struggle with some of its peoples, long years of rough insolence towards others, White imperialism finds itself confronted with a racial force in Asia, which it can neither intimidate nor trample underfoot. Equipped with the knowledge our statesmen and capitalists have themselves imparted to it, this racial force faces us with its superior millions, its more real spiritual faith, its greater homogeneousness, its contempt of death. As the mists of fratricidal passion lessen, our gaze travels eastwards and vainly strives to read the purpose which lurks beneath the mask of imperturbable impassivity which meets us. Do we detect behind it no more than an insurance against white exploitation, or do we fancy that we perceive the features of an imperialism as ruthless as our own has been, which shall mould to its will the plastic myriads our own actions have wrenched from age-long trodden paths of peace? Do we hope that the "colour line," we ourselves have drawn so rigidly and almost universally, may operate between brown and yellow; that the ranges of the Himalayas and the forests of Burma may prove a national barrier to a more intimate fusion of design than the white races have yet shown themselves capable of evolving?

The answer to these riddles lies hidden in the womb of the future. But to this at least we may testify. In Asia the question is no longer, "How have we, the White imperial peoples, treated the Asiatic peoples in the past?"; nor is it, even, "How do we propose to treat them in the future?" It is, "How will they deal with us in their continent, perchance beyond its frontiers, in the days to come?"

Source: The Black Man's Burden
The White Man in Africa from
the Fifteenth Century to World War I
By E. D. Morel

Manchester: National Labour Press, 1920