Idle Ideas in 1905

Author: Jerome K. Jerome

The White Man’s Burden! Need It Be So Heavy?

It is a delightful stroll on a sunny summer morning from the Hague to the Huis ten Bosch, the little "house in the wood," built for Princess Amalia, widow of Stadtholter Frederick Henry, under whom Holland escaped finally from the bondage of her foes and entered into the promised land of Liberty. Leaving the quiet streets, the treebordered canals, with their creeping barges, you pass through a pleasant park, where the soft-eyed deer press round you, hurt and indignant if you have brought nothing in your pocket—not even a piece of sugar—to offer them. It is not that they are grasping—it is the want of attention that wounds them.

"I thought he was a gentleman," they seem to be saying to one another, if you glance back, "he looked like a gentleman."

Their mild eyes haunt you; on the next occasion you do not forget. The Park merges into the forest; you go by winding ways till you reach the trim Dutch garden, moat-encircled, in the centre of which stands the prim old-fashioned villa, which, to the simple Dutchman, appears a palace. The concierge, an old soldier, bows low to you and introduces you to his wife—a stately, white-haired dame, who talks most languages a little, so far as relates to all things within and appertaining to this tiny palace of the wood. To things without, beyond the wood, her powers of conversation do not extend: apparently such matters do not interest her.

She conducts you to the Chinese Room; the sun streams through the windows, illuminating the wondrous golden dragons standing out in bold relief from the burnished lacquer work, decorating still further with light and shade the delicate silk embroideries thin taper hands have woven with infinite pains. The walls are hung with rice paper, depicting the conventional scenes of the conventional Chinese life.

You find your thoughts wandering. These grotesque figures, these caricatures of humanity! A comical creature, surely, this Chinaman, the pantaloon of civilization. How useful he has been to us for our farces, our comic operas! This yellow baby, in his ample pinafore, who lived thousands of years ago, who has now passed into this strange second childhood.

But is he dying—or does the life of a nation wake again, as after sleep? Is he this droll, harmless thing he here depicts himself? And if not? Suppose fresh sap be stirring through his three hundred millions? We thought he was so very dead; we thought the time had come to cut him up and divide him, the only danger being lest we should quarrel over his carcase among ourselves.

Suppose it turns out as the fable of the woodcutter and the bear? The woodcutter found the bear lying in the forest. At first he was much frightened, but the bear lay remarkably still. So the woodman crept nearer, ventured to kick the bear—very gently, ready to run if need be. Surely the bear was dead! And parts of a bear are good to eat, and bearskin to poor woodfolk on cold winter nights is grateful. So the woodman drew his knife and commenced the necessary preliminaries. But the bear was not dead.

If the Chinaman be not dead? If the cutting-up process has only served to waken him? In a little time from now we shall know.

From the Chinese Room the white-haired dame leads us to the Japanese Room. Had gentle-looking Princess Amalia some vague foreshadowing of the future in her mind when she planned these two rooms leading into one another? The Japanese decorations are more grotesque, the designs less cheerfully comical than those of cousin Chinaman. These monstrous, mis-shapen wrestlers, these patient-looking gods, with their inscrutable eyes! Was it always there, or is it only by the light of present events that one reads into the fantastic fancies of the artist working long ago in the doorway of his paper house, a meaning that has hitherto escaped us?

But the chief attraction of the Huis ten Bosch is the gorgeous Orange Saloon, lighted by a cupola, fifty feet above the floor, the walls one blaze of pictures, chiefly of the gorgeous Jordaen school—"The Defeat of the Vices," "Time Vanquishing Slander"—mostly allegorical, in praise of all the virtues, in praise of enlightenment and progress. Aptly enough in a room so decorated, here was held the famous Peace Congress that closed the last century. One can hardly avoid smiling as one thinks of the solemn conclave of grandees assembled to proclaim the popularity of Peace.

It was in the autumn of the same year that Europe decided upon the dividing-up of China, that soldiers were instructed by Christian monarchs to massacre men, women and children, the idea being to impress upon the Heathen Chinee the superior civilization of the white man. The Boer war followed almost immediately. Since when the white man has been pretty busy all over the world with his "expeditions" and his "missions." The world is undoubtedly growing more refined. We do not care for ugly words. Even the burglar refers airily to the "little job" he has on hand. You would think he had found work in the country. I should not be surprised to learn that he says a prayer before starting, telegraphs home to his anxious wife the next morning that his task has been crowned with blessing.

Until the far-off date of Universal Brotherhood war will continue. Matters considered unimportant by both parties will—with a mighty flourish of trumpets—be referred to arbitration. I was talking of a famous financier a while ago with a man who had been his secretary. Amongst other anecdotes, he told me of a certain agreement about which dispute had arisen. The famous financier took the paper into his own hands and made a few swift calculations.

"Let it go," he concluded, "it is only a thousand pounds at the outside. May as well be honest."

Concerning a dead fisherman or two, concerning boundaries through unproductive mountain ranges we shall arbitrate and feel virtuous. For gold mines and good pasture lands, mixed up with a little honour to give respectability to the business, we shall fight it out, as previously. War being thus inevitable, the humane man will rejoice that by one of those brilliant discoveries, so simple when they are explained, war in the future is going to be rendered equally satisfactory to victor and to vanquished.

In by-elections, as a witty writer has pointed out, there are no defeats—only victories and moral victories. The idea seems to have caught on. War in the future is evidently going to be conducted on the same understanding. Once upon a time, from a far-off land, a certain general telegraphed home congratulating his Government that the enemy had shown no inclination whatever to prevent his running away. The whole country rejoiced.

"Why, they never even tried to stop him," citizens, meeting other citizens in the street, told each other. "Ah, they’ve had enough of him. I bet they are only too glad to get rid of him. Why, they say he ran for miles without seeing a trace of the foe."

The enemy’s general, on the other hand, also wrote home congratulating his Government. In this way the same battle can be mafficked over by both parties. Contentment is the great secret of happiness. Everything happens for the best, if only you look at it the right way. That is going to be the argument. The general of the future will telegraph to headquarters that he is pleased to be able to inform His Majesty that the enemy, having broken down all opposition, has succeeded in crossing the frontier and is now well on his way to His Majesty’s capital.

"I am luring him on," he will add, "as fast as I can. At our present rate of progress, I am in hopes of bringing him home by the tenth."

Lest foolish civilian sort of people should wonder whereabouts lies the cause for rejoicing, the military man will condescend to explain. The enemy is being enticed farther and farther from his base. The defeated general—who is not really defeated, who is only artful, and who appears to be running away, is not really running away at all. On the contrary, he is running home—bringing, as he explains, the enemy with him.

If I remember rightly—it is long since I played it—there is a parlour game entitled "Puss in the Corner." You beckon another player to you with your finger. "Puss, puss!" you cry. Thereupon he has to leave his chair—his "base," as the military man would term it—and try to get to you without anything happening to him.

War in the future is going to be Puss in the Corner on a bigger scale. You lure your enemy away from his base. If all goes well—if he does not see the trap that is being laid for him—why, then, almost before he knows it, he finds himself in your capital. That finishes the game. You find out what it is he really wants. Provided it is something within reason, and you happen to have it handy, you give it to him. He goes home crowing, and you, on your side, laugh when you think how cleverly you succeeded in luring him away from his base.

There is a bright side to all things. The gentleman charged with the defence of a fortress will meet the other gentleman who has captured it and shake hands with him mid the ruins.

"So here you are at last!" he will explain. "Why didn’t you come before? We have been waiting for you."

And he will send off dispatches felicitating his chief on having got that fortress off their hands, together with all the worry and expense it has been to them. When prisoners are taken you will console yourself with the reflection that the cost of feeding them for the future will have to be borne by the enemy. Captured cannon you will watch being trailed away with a sigh of relief.

"Confounded heavy things!" you will say to yourself. "Thank goodness I’ve got rid of them. Let him have the fun of dragging them about these ghastly roads. See how he likes the job!"

War is a ridiculous method of settling disputes. Anything that can tend to make its ridiculous aspect more apparent is to be welcomed. The new school of military dispatch-writers may succeed in turning even the laughter of the mob against it.

The present trouble in the East would never have occurred but for the white man’s enthusiasm for bearing other people’s burdens. What we call the yellow danger is the fear that the yellow man may before long request us, so far as he is concerned, to put his particular burden down. It may occur to him that, seeing it is his property, he would just as soon carry it himself. A London policeman told me a story the other day that struck him as an example of Cockney humour under trying circumstances. But it may also serve as a fable. From a lonely street in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden, early one morning, the constable heard cries of "Stop thief!" shouted in a childish treble. He arrived on the scene just in time to collar a young hooligan, who, having snatched a basket of fruit from a small lad—a greengrocer’s errand boy, as it turned out—was, with it, making tracks. The greengrocer’s boy, between panting and tears, delivered his accusation. The hooligan regarded him with an expression of amazed indignation.

"What d’yer mean, stealing it?" exclaimed Mr. Hooligan. "Why, I was carrying it for yer!"

The white man has got into the way of "carrying" other people’s burdens, and now it looks as if the yellow man were going to object to our carrying his any further. Maybe he is going to get nasty, and insist on carrying it himself. We call this "the yellow danger."

A friend of mine—he is a man who in the street walks into lampposts, and apologises—sees rising from the East the dawn of a new day in the world’s history. The yellow danger is to him a golden hope. He sees a race long stagnant, stretching its giant limbs with the first vague movements of returning life. He is a poor sort of patriot; he calls himself, I suppose, a white man, yet he shamelessly confesses he would rather see Asia’s millions rise from the ruins of their ancient civilization to take their part in the future of humanity, than that half the population of the globe should remain bound in savagery for the pleasure and the profit of his own particular species.

He even goes so far as to think that the white man may have something to learn. The world has belonged to him now for some thousands of years. Has he done all with it that could have been done? Are his ideals the last word?

Not what the yellow man has absorbed from Europe, but what he is going to give Europe it is that interests my friend. He is watching the birth of a new force—an influence as yet unknown. He clings to the fond belief that new ideas, new formulae, to replace the old worn shibboleths, may, during these thousands of years, have been developing in those keen brains that behind the impressive yellow mask have been working so long in silence and in mystery.


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Chicago: Jerome K. Jerome, "The White Man’s Burden! Need It Be So Heavy?," Idle Ideas in 1905, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in Idle Ideas in 1905 Original Sources, accessed July 14, 2024,

MLA: Jerome, Jerome K. "The White Man’s Burden! Need It Be So Heavy?." Idle Ideas in 1905, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in Idle Ideas in 1905, Original Sources. 14 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Jerome, JK, 'The White Man’s Burden! Need It Be So Heavy?' in Idle Ideas in 1905, ed. and trans. . cited in , Idle Ideas in 1905. Original Sources, retrieved 14 July 2024, from