Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Poem “The Black Man’s Burden”

Tarzan, The Tarzan Files

Quite frequently we hear about racism in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and I frankly don’t buy it.  He was a man of his time, to be sure, and did not have the sensitivities that we now have 100 years later.  But racist?  His civil war veteran “Virginia cavalryman” never hesitated to fall in love with a red martian woman, and he showed utmost respect to Tars Tarkas, etc.  Racist?

Here’s the clincher in my view.   It’s a poem that Burroughs wrote called “The Black Man’s Burden”.  But to understand it fully, we have to first take a look at Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”.

In February 1899 Kipling’s poem appeared in McClure’s magazine and was the talk of the nation.  It was called “The White Man’s Burden” and its publication came at a time when America had just defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, and as a result of that war  had just taken the Philippines as a colony,  and had done so against the vast majority of Fililpinos’ will.  In fact in the same month Kipling’s poem was published, the Filipinos started a war against America, a nasty affair that would last a half dozen years, cost 5,000 American lives, and foreshadow Vietnam and Iraq.  The Filipino rebels hung pictures of George Washington on their wall and considered themselves to be fighting for independence from America as surely as Washington had fought for independence from Britain. (They don’t teach us this war in school in America, but that’s another story.)

Kipling’s poem was written in reaction the the American Philippine adventure, and was published with the subtitle:  “The United States and the Philippine Islands”.

The White Man’s Burden

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

You get the point.  You can read the rest here.

Two months later, Edgar Rice Burroughs published “The Black Man’s Burden” in the Pocatallo Tribune.  The editor wrote the following introduction:   The following clever lines, in imitation of a recent very celebrated poem (The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling), are the composition of one of the well-known young men of Pocatello

 The Black Man’s Burden 

Take up the white man’s burden,
The yoke ye sought to spurn;
And spurn your father’s customs;
Your father’s temples burn.
O learn to love and honor
The white God’s favored sons.
Forget the white-haired fathers
Fast lashed to mouths of guns
Take up the white man’s burden,
Your own was not enough;
He’ll burden you with taxes;
But though the road be rough,
“To him who waits,” remember,
“All things in time shall come;”
The white man’s culture brings you
The white man’s God, and rum.
Take up the white man’s burden;
‘Tis called “protectorate,”
And lift your voice in thanks to
The God ye well might hate.
Forget your exiled brothers;
Forget your boundless lands;
In acres that they gave for
The blood upon their hands.
Take up the white man’s burden;
Poor simple folk and free;
Abandon nature’s freedom,
Embrace his “Liberty;”
The goddess of the white man
Who makes you free in name;
But in her heart your color
Will brand you “slave” the same.
Take up the white man’s burden;
‘And learn by what you’ve lost
That white men called as counsel
Means black mean pays the cost.
Your right to fertile acres
Their priests will teach you well
Have gained your fathers only
A desert claim in hell.
Take up the white man’s burden;
Take it because you must;
Burden of making money;
Burden of greed and lust;
Burden of points strategic,
Burden of harbors deep,
Burden of greatest burdens;
Burden, these burdens to keep
Take up the white man’s burden;
His papers take, and read;
‘Tis all for your salvation;
The white man knows not greed.
For you he’s spending millions —
To him, more than his God —
To make you learned, and happy,
Enlightened, cultured, broad.
Take up the white man’s burden
While he makes laws for you,
That show your fathers taught you
The things you should not do.
Cast off your foolish feathers,
Your necklace, beads, and paint;
Buy raiment for your mother,
Lest fairer sisters faint.
Take up the white man’s burden;
Go learn to wear his clothes;
You may look like the devil;
But nobody cares who knows.
Peruse a work of Darwin —
Thank gods that you’re alive —
And learn the reason clearly: —
The fittest alone survive.
— Edgar Rice Burroughs

I rest my case.

And by the way — what an absolute delicious delight.  He completely eviscerates Kipling — and he’s on the right side of the argument.  Racist?  I think not.

From the tone of it, it seems that ERB was in solidarity with the Anti-Colonialists, a very vocal movement that included among its most prominent members Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie.  But this was pretty much ERB’s only salvo on this topic.  I think it reveals a lot about the man, and I like what I see.

Now …. this post should end here, but bear with me.   Reading ERB’s poem reminded me of another writer who wrote with the same flair as ERB.  His name is James H. Blount.  He went out to the Philippines as an officer in 1899 and stayed on as a colonial judge for more than half a dozen years, traveling around the country meting out American justice to Filipinos when a “circuit” court meant just that — you traveled.   Eventually he became passionately opposed to the U.S. Occupation of the Philippines and wrote a truly remarkable book called “The American Occupation of the Philippines”.    Here is a tribute I wrote to him on my other blogsite.  You’ll see from the introduction that when writing “over there”, my head was a little bit “over here”, because Blount was a little bit of a John Carter or Jake Sully.

Remembering James H. Blount, an unsung hero of Philippine-American history (and a real life  Jake Sully or John Dunbar)

(Note: Written before John Carter came out, or I would have referenced our Virginia cavalryman as well in the opening paragraph.  MS)

In popular culture we’ve seen this tale on the silver screen: John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves, or Jake Sully in Avatar; the American soldier who is sent to a distant land and finds himself siding with the “enemy”, who is not an enemy at all but a culture as worthy (or moreso) than America’s own. In the real world pantheon of American soldiers who have been thrust into an alien environment and seen their values transformed, James H. Blount stands out as one who contributed much, but is remembered little. Those undertaking a formal study of Philippine American History in sufficient depth to warrant seeking out “primary source” historical texts will be familiar with his work; but he has no place in the general consciousness of Americans or Filipinos. He deserves better, and since the means to make a movie about his life (oh, would I love to do that!) don’t immediately exist, I will content myself with writing an article about why he should be remembered, and hope that it finds its way into google search results in a way that helps, at least a little, in increasing awareness of Blount and his writings.

First, the good news: Blount’s Anti-Imperialist magnum opus “The American Occupation of the Philippines 1898-1912” is now available for free in eBook form. Just click on this download link and and it’s yours. If you don’t have Kindle software on your computer — that’s free too and can be downloaded here for Mac and here for PC) you can have a free copy of this very important and highly readable book.

Blount had a unique perspective.  After serving in Cuba during the brief campaign of the Spanish American War, he was transferred to America’s new colony of the Philppines where he served as a military officer from 1899-1901 during the peak period of the Philippine American War, and then as an American colonial official serving as a circuit Judge from 1901-1905.  Suffering from various infirmities, he returned to the US in 1905 where he became a leading voice in Anti-Imperialist Circles, giving speeches and lectures and writing articles all of which were focused on calling attention to the injustice of America’s policy toward the Philippines, culminating in 1913 with the publication of “The American Occupation of the Philippines 1898-1912”.

I first came across Blount’s opus when I was “reading in” at the State Department in preparation for assignment to the Philippines in the months after the EDSA Revolution in 1986.  I found myself quite taken by Blount’s vivid, passionate, and colorful account of the ironies and hypocrisies of American Policy toward the Philippines, by one who had been tasked to implement those policies.   He had a highly intense  and personal way of composing his arguments.  A good example comes in his introduction to “Occupation”:

This book is an attempt, by one whose intimate acquiantance with two remotely separated peopels will be denied in no quarter, to interpret each to the other. How intelligent that acquiantaince is, is of course altogether another matter, which the reader will determine for himself.

The task here undertaken is to make audible to a great free nation the voice of a weaker subject people who passionatelyy and rightly long also to be free, but whose longings have been systematically denied for the last fourteen years, sometimes ignorantly, sometimes viciously, and always cruelly, on the wholly erroneous idea that where the end is benevelot, it justifies the means, regardless of the means necessary to the end.

At a time when all our military and fiscal experts agree that having the Philippines on our hands is a grave strategic and economic mistake, fraught with peril to the nation’s prestige in the early stages of our next great war, we are keeping the Filipinos in industrial bondage through unrighteous Congressional legislation for which special interests in America are responsible, in bald repudiation of the Open Door policy, and against their helpless but universal protest, a wholly unprotected and easy prey to the first first-class Power with when we become.

Blount’s passionate and articulate attack on American policy toward the Philppines, rooted in 7 years of personal experience no just in Manila, but throughout the Philippines, did not endear him to what we now term the “mainstream” media, as the New York Times review in 1913 makes clear:

It is doubtful whether public opinion in the country will be affected much by James H. Blount’s book entitled “The American Occupation of the Philippines 1899-1912.”  This criticism is not based on the fact that the author is an “anti-imperialist” and an ardent pleader for Filipino independence, but on the fact that in presenting his views he is undified, unjust, intemperate, and abusive.


Even when I first read Blount’s book, at a time when I was about to journey out to the Philippines in a similar capacity — i.e. to work side by side with the officials of Cory Aquino’s government to help re-establish democratic instituations in the aftermath of 15 years of martial law– I thought his views were anything but abusive: they were cogent, articulate, and enlightening.

“Occupation” begins at what is arguably the beginning of America’s adventure in the Philippines — with American Ambassador Spencer Pratt in Singapore in April 1898 at the time of the outbreak of war between America and Spain.  Meticulously researched and vividly re-created, Blount recounts how Pratt approached Philippine leader Emilio Aguinaldo, then exiled in Singapore, and engineered for Aguinaldo to go to Hong Kong and present himself as an ally to Admiral James Dewey, who was then preparing to sail to Manila to confront the Spanish fleet.  Blount is unequivocal in stating that Pratt absolutely did promise Philppine independence to Aguinaldo, doing so without authority and with the result that soon thereafter, Pratt was separated from the consular service and forced to retire.

Blount then traces Aguinaldo’s dealings with three crucial Americans: Dewey, and Generals Andersen, Merrit, and Otis.  Out of these four relationships comes the most reasonable and balanced account I have ever read of just how it happened that America granted independence to Spain but not the Philippines — yet gave Filipinos the clear impression that independence would indeed be forthcoming.  My Filipino friends who think much about such things tend to simply believe that Dewey “lied through his teeth” to Aguinaldo, to gain the latter’s cooperation.  Blount’s beat by beat explanation, coming from someone who is sympathetic to Filipino aspirations but also a good researcher and one who is aware of “the way things are” in the US Government — manages a compelling explanation for just how Dewey came to mislead Aguinaldo which has the ring of truth and reality.

One of the first points which Blount reminds us of is that Aguinaldo never met with Dewey in Hong Kong — he arrived the say after Dewey sailed, and came across from Hong Kong to the Philippines on the Mccullough, arranged by Pratt’s counterpart in Hong Kong, Consul Wildman, who like Pratt clearly led Aguinaldo to believe that Philppine independence was in the offing , as evidenced in a letter he wrote to Dewey in which he wrote:

Do not forget that the United States undertook this war for the sole purpose of relieving Cubans from the cruelties under which they were suffering, and not for the love of conquest of the hope of gain.  They are actuated by precisely the same feelings for Filipinos.

General Andersen, one of the other interlocutors who would be implicated in misleading Aguinaldo, was quoted in 1900 in the Chicago Record as saying:

Every American citizen who came in contact with the Filipinos at the outset of the Spanish-American War, or any time within a few months after hostilities began, probably told those that he talked with that we intended to free them from Spanish oppression.  The general expression was, “We intend to whip the Spaniards and set you free.”

One of the interesting aspects of Blount’s account is the degree to which it shed’s light on the state of Dewey’s likely knowledge, or lack of knowledge, about America’s ultimate policy toward the Philippines during the period between May 1, 1898, when he defeated the Spanish Armada in Manila Bay, and June 30th, when American ground forces finally arrived, bringing with them not only their military capacity but also news of the evolving view of the Philippines as seen by an America who had wandered into the Spanish American conflict without much thought about the Philippines–most of the focus being on Cuba.

As recently as December 1897 President McKinley had gone on record stating that war with Spain would never be fought with “forcible annexation” in mind:  “That  by our code of morality would be criminal.”  And indeed the Teller Amendment, necessary to gain the vot in Congress necessary to authorize the war, explicitly stated that American could not take Cuba as a colony, but would instead grant independence.  The Americans first present n the Philippines seem to have assumed that the Teller Amendment and statements of the “criminality” of forced annexation would apply — and thus freedom would be granted to the Philippines, same as Cuba.

Blount doesn’t give Dewey a “pass” on having contributed to the deception – rather he just provides the kind of intelligent context necessary to make the whole sorry episode understandable to anyone who cares to try and imagine how it actually went down.

(click to enlarge)

Chapter after chapter, with great verve and not a little caustic wit, Blount recounts each of the beats of America’s historic involvement in the Philippines.  He buttresses his own observations with extended quotations from the subsequent congressional testimony of Dewey and others, and puts a microsope onto the performance of a series of American military leaders, and then governors general, in the Philippines.

In the end, Blount throws his backing to the Mcall Resolution, which was then a proposal popular among anti-imperialists for an early grant of independence to the Philippines, coupled with guarantees that the Philippines would be “neutral” in a manner analagous to Switzerland (this to counter the argument that if America left, another great Power would move in and take over).

The McCall Resolution read:


declaring the purpose of the United States to recognize the independence of the Filipino people as soon as a stable government can be established, and requesting the President to open negotiations for the neutralization of the PHilippine Islands.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America: in Congress assembled:

That in accordance with the prinicples upon which this overnment is founded and which were again asseterd by it at the outbreak of the war with Spain, the United States delares that hte Filipino people of  right ought to be free and independent.and announces its purpose to recognize their independene as soon as a stable government, republican in form, can be established by them and thereupon to transfer to such goeverment all its rigths in the Philippine Island s upon terms which shall be reasonable and just, and to leave soverignty and ctonrol of their country to the Fililpino people.

Resolved, That the Preisdent of the United States be, and he hereby is, requested to open negotiations with such foreign Powers as in his opinon would be parties to the compact for the neutralization fo the PHilippine Islands by international agreement.

That was 1913.  In the end, it was 1946 before the Philippines would be released from the ‘claws of the eagle’ — but it is worth remembering that there were good Americans like Blount who “got it” long before the American government finally “let go” ….. they are worth remembering, as Blount is, for taking a stand that was less than popular, but which was right and consistent with the veryp rinciples on which America had been founded, and which its leaders seemed to forget.

It’s a great book and it’s free: click on this download link 


  • i have a term paper would you help me in this poem
    kipling’s poem the burden of the white man has generated hostile reaction among third world readers (ex- colonised ) . discuss in relatin to the two other poems (harrison’s the black man’s burden;and johnson’s the black man’s burden) written in response to it .
    please i need help u if u can 🙂

  • This is wonderful to read. I hadn’t known about “The Black Man’s Burden”, and can’t imagine why it isn’t more widely known. It makes total sense to me that there would have been plenty of folks who disagreed with Kipling at the time.

    Henreid hit the nail on the head with that quote from the end of Warlord. The end of that book always seemed to me to slap the “imperialist white man’s burden manifest destiny” elitist narrative about ERB right across the face. It’s cool to learn more about the real-world situations that likely gave rise to his perspective on self-governance throughout the Barsoom stories. There is much to respect about this “pulp adventure writer”, and more to his works than mere “rotten entertainment.” 🙂

  • I’ve been defending Edgar for years and this poem settles the debate. Thanks for digging this up and congrats on finishing your book!

  • “…the integrity of Okar must be preserved. The red men are ruled by red jeddaks, the green warriors of the ancient seas acknowledge none but a green ruler, the First Born of the south pole take their law from black Xodar; nor would it be to the interests of either yellow or red man were a red jeddak to sit upon the throne of Okar.”

    Illuminating post, Michael.

  • Stan …that’s an interesting and encouraging comment coming from you…..the implication that this isn’t replowing thoroughly plowed ground encourages me to put it on the list of things to look more deeply into. A few preliminary thoughts.

    First, context means a lot and it’s always fascinated me that the acquisition of the Philippines and the subsequent Philippine-American War was a huge deal right at a very formative period for ERB — yet is something that most casual students of American History don’t know anything about. I remember being taught “White Man’s Burden” but I never saw it offered with the subtitle that originally appeared making it clear that it was about the US and the Philippines — nor did I ever get taught that it appeared in the same month that Philippine “insurrectos” started a war with the US — a war that was initially a more or less conventional war (they were organized, had been fighting Spain for a long time, and were mobilized in Manila helping the US) and later evolved into a guerrilla conflict.

    Burroughs, it seems from the poem, was paying pretty close attention and giving it real thought. The Spanish American War had happened the previous summer, 1898 and we know he applied for the Rough Riders and was turned down, so his “head was in the game” for sure. He clearly saw the irony of the Teller Amendment, which was necessary to get congressional approval for the war, and required that America give Cuba (one Spanish colony) its freedom and not, therefore, fight the war for territorial acquisition. But the Teller Amendment was silent on the Philippines, Spain’s other colony. The assumption, though, was that it would be treated the same as Cuba. How it ended up, then, that the US took the Philippines as a colony in the Treaty of Paris in December 1898 is quite a tale — and ERB’s “Black Man’s Burden” is really a response not just to Kipling, but to the whole situation and seems to show he’d thought a lot about it. I’d like to know more….

    The other part that is intriguing is ERB’s whole relationship to Manifest Destiny and how, with the western frontier closing (or closed, really), the Philippines became the “new wild west” for Americans, a continuation of the westward expansion — a place for those still seeking adventure to go and seek their fortune at a time when our own western frontier had been tamed. We all have a sense of Burroughs’ reaction to the taming and gentrification of America, closing of the frontiers and so on, so I wonder how the Philippines fit into that equation for him. The troops that went to the Philippines included many of the same Indian fighters who pursue the last of the Apaches….not to mention ex Rough Riders, etc.

    Anyway, these are just random thoughts but it might be fun to look more deeply at some point.

    Also .. as a PS, a nod here to Bob Couttie who first brought up the ERB/Philippine connection a few months back. Bob has written two books on the Philippine American war and is a great resource on that end of this conversation.

  • I took that as a comment on the sort of man that is John Carter, not on the slaves themselves.

  • The very first chapter of APOM when describing JC it unfortunately states, “The slaves worshiped the ground JC trod on”. Slaves in Virgina not on Barsoom. I suppose that would
    immediately cause some potential first time readers to think out of date racism laden book
    then not proceed further.

  • Thanks, Michael, for this insight. I mention ERB’s poem in my book (The Teenage Tarzan, page 149) in exploring his attitude toward “civilization.” But my one paragraph lacks the depth and context you apply here. I had little awareness of the Philippine context. I also read the poem in Pocatello at the 2011 Dum-Dum as part of my presentation on ERB and poetry. Again, that presentation looked more at form and style than at the racist commentary. I appreciate you giving the poem a wider audience here.

  • I have never seen Burroughs as racist in any sense. I’ve seen quite the opposite, as you have and would point out the very same things you did. And that John Carter and his other heroes always seem to befriend a member or the enemy’s ranks – and not just a casual friendship, but a long-standing, highly respectful connection that lasts. This is a wonderful article and Burrough’s poem is so moving! And, I grabbed my copy of “The American Occupation of the Philippines 1898-1912?, too! 😀

  • Awesome text! Thanks a lot. I never bought Burroughs’ racism either, as the accusation of “white man imperialism” that some modern critics seem to see in his work, too happy to appear smart in doing so without reading further.

  • I was familiar with Black Man’s Burden but didn’t know ERB had written it. I’d nominate an American governor of Ifugao province, Dosser, as more of a John Carter but Blount fits just as well.

    When the issue of ERB’s alleged racism came up on a Back To Barsoom post I did cautiously suggest that the American experience in the Philippines might have been layered into ERB’s stories – the idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched now.

  • Michael, you constantly amaze me. The Burroughs poem is completely delightful, although that may be too frivolous an adjective for so serious an intent. But, as you’ve often pointed out, he has a wicked sense of humor.
    This is a great find and a great post.

    In my mind this echoes Wells’ anti-imperialist attack on white racism in “The War of the Worlds.” But Burroughs here gets the point across with enviable wit and brevity.

    Any Burroughs book or interview or speech or essay I’ve read has been well worth any time I’ve devoted to it. Thanks so much for a worthy addition to the list — not to mention the history lesson.

Leave a Reply