World History 2 135 - 9.2.2 The Civilizing Mission

On the heels of the soldiers who first opened countries in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific to agents of businesses came others seeking to bring what industrializing countries thought was valuable. Many from the United States and Europe considered it the duty of citizens from the industrialized—or as they phrased it, the “civilized”—world to bring the benefits of western culture to the conquered. According to social Darwinism, a theory then popular in Europe and the United States, some groups of people become stronger and more powerful because they are naturally superior. In this view, those of European ancestry could impose their will on others because they were innately “better” and their societies more advanced. Jules Ferry, the prime minister of France in the early 1880s, stressed that such domination was not only the duty of “superior” peoples but also their right. The “benefits” brought to the colonized typically consisted of religion, education, western clothing, and “character-building” sports like soccer. The British also introduced cricket to colonies in Africa and Asia, and baseball came to the Caribbean from the United States. The introduction of these sports was thought to teach people supposedly western values like fair play, teamwork, and competitiveness. The French called this aspect of imperialism “the civilizing mission.” Colonizers also typically erected an infrastructure in the lands they controlled, building roads and railroads and establishing secure water systems and telegraph lines.

As the thinking went, people had been conquered not to deprive them of their wealth but to introduce them to the benefits of civilization through the generosity of the industrialized country. This view no doubt served many as merely a cover for baser motives. Others, however, truly believed that African, Asian, and Pacific Islander societies were being improved by the adoption of the hallmarks of western civilization, such as Christianity, monogamous marriage, and fashions that covered the entire body. This was the attitude taken by English writer Rudyard Kipling in his pro-imperialist poem “The White Man’s Burden.” In the first stanza of the poem, written in 1899 in response to the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines, Kipling expresses his belief that it was the White conquerors who suffered at the expense of the conquered people of color, who are portrayed as uncivilized and in need of guidance by people of a biologically and culturally superior race:

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.

As Kipling’s reference to the “half devil” nature of people of color suggests, missionaries played a prominent role in the civilizing mission. They were often the chief means by which the “gifts” of civilization were brought to people. All the imperial powers except Japan sent missionaries to their new colonies. Roman Catholic clergy had already been converting people in European colonies for hundreds of years. Now Protestant clergy and avid lay volunteers established churches and schools to convert the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific to Christianity and teach them the language of the conquering nation. They also took in orphaned or abandoned children and attempted to assimilate them to the home country’s culture.

Although some missionary activities, like the building of hospitals, may have benefited the Indigenous inhabitants, most others were undoubtedly harmful. Shocked by the practice of polygamy, missionaries often demanded that men with multiple wives choose one and divorce the others, who then had to return to their families in shame or, if they had no family, live without means of support. In China, missionaries’ insistence that Christian converts abandon the practice of ancestor veneration often caused the new Christians to be rejected by their families.

Many aspects of the “civilizing mission,” whether carried out by missionaries or government functionaries, were believed to benefit the conquering nation and its citizens as much as to help the “savage” inhabitants of foreign lands. Telegraph lines enabled communications, and water systems protected city dwellers from diseases like typhoid and cholera. Literate Indigenous people trained in European values and customs were employed in colonial bureaucracies and police forces. Although such changes may have eventually benefitted the people of the colonized country, they also changed the nature of societies, for example by eliminating traditional jobs, and it was always the case that the colonizing nations benefited the most. Instead of connecting population centers as European railroads did, for instance, railroad lines in places like Africa led only from the interior to the coast, the better to move to waiting ships the raw materials destined for European and U.S. factories.

Link to Learning

Visit this site that features the lyrics to several songs celebrating British imperial might to read and listen to songs of British imperialism. How do these songs represent the British imperial endeavor? How would it have made British people feel to hear them? How might it have made Africans or Indians feel to hear the same lyrics?

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax