The Black Man's Burden

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The Black Man’s Burden: The White Man in Africa from the Fifteenth Century to World War I by Edward Dene Morel
Chapters I and II
Published 1920

Chapter I. The White Man’s Burden[edit]

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 usinsistence.

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?

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.

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 people, 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?”

Chapter II. The Black Man’s Burden[edit]

It is with the peoples of Africa, then, that our inquiry is concerned. It is they who carry the “Black man’s” burden. They have not withered away before the white man’s occupation. Indeed, if the scope of this volume permitted, there would be no difficulty in showing that Africa has ultimately absorbed within itself every Caucasian and, for that matter, every Semitic invader too. In hewing out for himself a fixed abode in Africa, the white man has massacred the African in heaps. The African has survived, and it is well for the white settlers that he has.

In the process of imposing his political dominion over the African, the white man has carved broad and bloody avenues from one end of Africa to the other. The African has resisted, and persisted.

For three centuries the white man seized and enslaved millions of Africans and transported them, with every circumstance of ferocious cruelty, across the seas. Still the African survived and, in his land of exile, multiplied exceedingly.

But what the partial occupation of his soil by the white man has failed to do; what the mapping out of European political “spheres of influence” has failed to do; what the maxim and the rifle, the slave gang, labour in the bowels of the earth and the lash, have failed to do; what imported measles, smallpox and syphilis have failed to do; what even the oversea slave trade failed to do, the power of modern capitalistic exploitation, assisted by modern engines of destruction, may yet succeed in accomplishing.

For from the evils of the latter, scientifically applied and enforced, there is no escape for the African. Its destructive effects are not spasmodic: they are permanent. In its permanence resides its fatal consequences. It kills not the body merely, but the soul. It breaks the spirit. It attacks the African at every turn, from every point of vantage. It wrecks his polity, uproots him from the land, invades his family life, destroys his natural pursuits and occupations, claims his whole time, enslaves him in his own home.WZ

Economic bondage and wage slavery, the grinding pressure of a life of toil, the incessant demands of industrial capitalism — these things a landless European proletariat physically endures, though hardly. It endures — as a population. The recuperative forces of a temperate climate are there to arrest the ravages, which alleviating influences in the shape of prophylactic and curative remedies will still further circumscribe. But in Africa, especially in tropical Africa, which a capitalistic imperialism threatens and has, in part, already devastated, man is incapable of reacting against unnatural conditions. In those regions man is engaged in a perpetual struggle against disease and an exhausting climate, which tells heavily upon child-bearing; and there is no scientific machinery for salving the weaker members of the community. The African of the tropics is capable of tremendous physical labours. But he cannot accommodate himself to the European system of monotonous, uninterrupted labour, with its long and regular hours, involving, moreover, as it frequently does, severance from natural surroundings and nostalgia, the condition of melancholy resulting from separation from home, a malady to which the African is especially prone. Climatic conditions forbid it. When the system is forced upon him, the tropical African droops and dies.

Nor is violent physical opposition to abuse and injustice henceforth possible for the African in any part of Africa. His chances of effective resistance have been steadily dwindling with the increasing perfectibility in the killing power of modern armament. Gunpowder broke the effectiveness of his resistance to the slave trade, although he continued to struggle. He has forced and, on rare occasions and in exceptional circumstances beaten, in turn the old-fashioned musket, the elephant gun, the seven-pounder, and even the repeating rifle and the gatling gun. He has been known to charge right down repeatedly, foot and horse, upon the square, swept on all sides with the pitiless and continuous hail of maxims. But against the latest inventions, physical bravery, though associated with a perfect knowledge of the country, can do nothing. The African cannot face the high-explosive shell and the bomb-dropping aeroplane. He has inflicted sanguinary reverses upon picked European troops, hampered by the climate and by commissariat difficulties. He cannot successfully oppose members of his own race free from these impediments, employed by his white adversaries, and trained in all the diabolical devices of scientific massacre. And although the conscripting of African armies for use in Europe or in Africa as agencies for the liquidation of the white man’s quarrels must bring in its train evils from which the white man will be the first to suffer, both in Africa and in Europe; the African himself must eventually disappear in the process. Winter in Europe, or even in Northern Africa, is fatal to the tropical or sub-tropical African, while in the very nature of the case anything approaching real European control in Africa, of hordes of African soldiery armed with weapons of precision is not a feasible proposition. The Black man converted by the European into a scientifically-equipped machine for the slaughter of his kind, is certainly not more merciful than the white man similarly equipped for like purposes in dealing with unarmed communities. And the experiences of the civilian population of Belgium, East Prussia, Galicia and Poland is indicative of the sort of visitation involved for peaceable and powerless African communities if the white man determines to add to his appalling catalogue of past misdeeds towards the African, the crowning wickedness of once again, as in the day of the slave trade, supplying him with the means of encompassing his own destruction.

Thus the African is really helpless against the material gods of the white man, as embodied in the trinity of imperialism, capitalistic-exploitation, and militarism. If the white man retains these gods and if he insists upon making the African worship them as assiduously as he has done himself, the African will go the way of the Red Indian, the Amerindian, the Carib, the Guanche, the aboriginal Australian, and many more. And this would be at once a crime of enormous magnitude, and a world disaster.

An endeavour will now be made to describe the nature, and the changing form, which the burden inflicted by the white man in modern times upon the black has assumed. It can only be sketched here in the broadest outline, but in such a way as will, it is hoped, explain the differing causes and motives which have inspired white activities in Africa and illustrate, by specific and notable examples, their resultant effects upon African peoples. It is important that these differing causes and motives should be understood, and that we should distinguish between them in order that we may hew our way later on through the jungle of error which impedes the pathway to reform. Diffused generalities and sweeping judgments generate confusion of thought and hamper the evolution of a constructive policy based upon clear apprehension of the problem to be solved.

The history of contact between the white and black peoples in modern times is divisible into two distinct and separate periods: the period of the slave trade and the period of invasion, political control, capitalistic exploitation, and, the latest development, militarism. Following the slave trade period and preceding the period of invasion, occurs the trade interlude which, indeed, had priority of both periods, as when the Carthagenians bartered salt and iron implements for gold dust on the West Coast. But this interlude concerns our investigations only when we pass from destructive exposure to constructive demonstration.

The first period needs recalling, in order to impress once more upon our memories the full extent of the African’s claim upon us, the white imperial peoples, for tardy justice, for considerate and honest conduct.

Our examination of the second period will call for sectional treatment. The history of contact and its consequences during this period may be roughly sub-divided thus:

(a) The struggle for supremacy between European invading Settlers and resident African peoples in those portions of Africa where the climate and other circumstances permit of Europeans rearing families of white children.

(b) Political action by European Governments aiming at the assertion of sovereign rights over particular areas of African territory.

(c) Administrative policy, sanctioned by European Governments, and applied by their local representatives in particular areas, subsequent to the successful assertion of sovereign rights.

These sub-divisions are, perhaps, somewhat arbitrary. The distinctiveness here given to them cannot be absolutely preserved. There is, for instance, a natural tendency for both a and b to merge into c as, through efflux of time, the originating cause and motive of contact is obscured by developments to which contact has given rise.

Thus racial contention for actual possession of the soil, and political action often resulting in so-called treaties of Protectorate thoroughly unintelligible to the African signees, are both landmarks upon the road leading to eventual administrative policy: i.e., to direct government of the black man by the white.

Nevertheless administrative policy in itself has assumed a peculiar character and precision in certain extensive regions of Africa, irrespective of the antecedent events which led up to it. When this has occurred, as in the Congo and French Congo, for instance, issues have been raised which call for special and separate treatment...


Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem "The White Man's Burden" presented one view of imperialism. Beginning in 1893 and continuing for three decades, E. D. Morel, a British journalist and activist, drew attention to the abuses of imperialism, particularly in the Congo Free State. The Congo Free State (later known as the Belgian Congo, Zaïre, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was perhaps the most famously exploitative of the European colonies.


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