The Civilizing Mission

As we see in Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" (NAEL 8, 2.1794) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (NAEL 8, 2.1890), empire-building might involve the most ruthless exploitation of subject peoples, and the imperialist might be violent, mercenary, selfish, short-sighted, or outright stupid. Yet Great Britain often represented imperialism to itself in a highly idealized fashion. When the British took over a territory, or so the argument went, they brought civilization to the barbarian, enlightenment to the heathen, prosperity to the impoverished, law and social order to the brutish primitive. While most saw no reason to apologize for forwarding British economic interests in the colonies, imperialist expansion found further justification in Britain's self-appointed mission of spreading "civilization, commerce, and Christianity" across the globe, in the words of the famous explorer and missionary David Livingstone.

Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden," written to inspire brother imperialists across the Atlantic, identifies the civilizing mission as one to be undertaken by all right-minded people of European descent. But many believed that the British were especially suited for the governing of an Empire by virtue of their national, racial, and cultural superiority. In his lecture on "Imperial Duty," John Ruskin praises the English as "a race mingled of the best northern blood" and enriched by "a thousand years of noble history." Given these advantages, England has not just the right, but a mandate to expand: "she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able". Joseph Chamberlain's lecture "The True Conception of Empire" describes the English as a "great governing race" whose greatness is manifested especially in the British "sense of obligation" to the savage populations under its benevolent rule.

Chamberlain distinguishes the white "self-governing colonies" like Canada and Australia, identified as more-or-less equal partners within the Empire, from the "tropical" colonies in which indigenous populations greatly outnumbered the white settlers. These populations were seen as backward, ignorant, and culturally and spiritually bankrupt — desperately in need of guidance from the superior white man. In his "Minute on Indian Education," Thomas Babington Macaulay argues that India's cultural inferiority is so pronounced that Indians should not be allowed to gain literacy in their own native languages. Macaulay hopes to form an anglicized native ruling class, "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect," that would serve as an intermediary between the British and the mass of colonial subjects. In Kipling, by contrast, the gulf between colonizer and colonized remains seemingly unbridgeable: the "new-caught" subject races are "sullen," barbaric, and ungrateful, and the white man's civilizing mission is a stern and thankless one.


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback   :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home