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‘Brown Man’s Burden’ of 1899 was prescient

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Every once in a while, I return to Henry Labouchère’s poem, ‘The Brown Man’s Burden.’  It was written in 1899 and a response to another, much more famous poem.  To read it with the conflict of the last seventy or eighty years in mind (and for that matter, the Second Iraq War) is an interesting experience.  An anti-colonial piece, it is eerily prophetic of the shape that arguments and justifications put forth by Zionists have taken.

This is important to keep in mind, too, because there are constant attempts by Zionists to frame the conflict between Zionists and non-Zionists in the Middle East as one between the West and Islam (since all Palestinians are Muslims), or between Reason and Irrationality, or between Life Affirming and Nihilistic worldviews.  But this piece was written before Sayyid Qutb was born, before even Hasan al-Banna was born.  It was written less than 2 decades after the First Aliyah and when there was still an Ottoman Sultan ruling in Istanbul.  Jaffa was still the Bride of Palestine and Tel Aviv had not even been founded.  

And it was not even written about the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Which makes the anti-colonial critique of the Zionist enterprise and the discourse it has spawned to justify its behavior all the more fitting and appropriate.  

Written 111 years ago, it might easily have been written today.  There really is nothing new under the sun.  

The Brown Man’s Burden

Pile on the brown man’s burden
To gratify your greed;
Go, clear away the "niggers"
Who progress would impede;
Be very stern, for truly
‘Tis useless to be mild
With new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Pile on the brown man’s burden;
And, if ye rouse his hate,
Meet his old-fashioned reasons
With Maxims up to date.
With shells and dumdum bullets
A hundred times made plain
The brown man’s loss must ever
Imply the white man’s gain.

Pile on the brown man’s burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don’t hesitate to shoot.

Pile on the brown man’s burden,
And if his cry be sore,
That surely need not irk you–
Ye’ve driven slaves before.
Seize on his ports and pastures,
The fields his people tread;
Go make from them your living,
And mark them with his dead.

Pile on the brown man’s burden,
And through the world proclaim
That ye are Freedom’s agent–
There’s no more paying game!
And, should your own past history
Straight in your teeth be thrown,
Retort that independence
Is good for whites alone.


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