According to Kipling in his poem of the same name, what was the "white man's burden?"

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Rudyard Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden” as a way to give advice to people in the United States when they took the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.  Kipling felt that this was the first time that the United States had become an imperial power and he wanted to share what he felt was his wisdom on the issue.  In this poem, he tries to warn the Americans about what they are in for.  What they are in for is the white man’s burden.

In general, the white man’s burden is the difficulty of having an empire.  It is the set of problems that is associated with trying to civilize the people of the country that you are taking over.  This is called the white man’s burden because it is white people who have to (in Kipling’s view) go out and try to civilize the non-white people of the world.  It is a burden because civilizing those people is difficult and thankless.

There are many specific things that Kipling refers to that are parts of the white man’s burden.  The people they are trying to civilize are “fluttered” and “wild.”  They are “half-devil and half-child.”  They will resent the white people even as the whites work hard to help them.  They prefer their “loved Egyptian night” to the new (and better) ways that the whites bring.  When the whites have worked hard and have almost reached their goals, the “sloth and heaven folly” of the non-whites will ruin everything. 

These are some of the details of the white man’s burden.  But they are just the details.  The main idea is that the white man’s burden is the set of difficulties that the white people will have to deal with as they try to civilize the non-white people in their empire.