According to Kipling what was the white man's burden?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling never actually defines the white man’s burden.  He says what will happen when people (he was addressing this to the United States) “take up the white man’s burden” and he tells the audience what the white men will feel, but the actual nature of the white man’s burden is only implied.

The white man’s burden was the burden of having to try to “civilize” non-white people.  The British had long held colonies populated by non-whites in places like India and Southeast Asia.  In 1899, when the poem was written, the US was fighting Spain and would take Puerto Rico and the Philippines (and Guam) at the end of that war.  This was to be the US’s first real move towards imperialism and towards ruling over non-white people in other countries.

Kipling says that it is the white man’s burden to have to work hard to try to improve the non-white people.  Those people will hate the white colonizers.  They will ruin everything the colonizers work for because of their “sloth and heathen Folly.”  The white man’s burden is to work hard to help people (“To seek another's profit,/And work another's gain) who do not want to be helped. 

The white man’s burden, then, is the set of problems that comes with imperialism.  It is the problems that a country faces when it tries to colonize other people and to “civilize” them.  In this poem, Kipling is warning that the burden will be heavy and the task will be thankless, but that it will make the United States greater in “The judgment of your (the US’s) peers.”

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In essence, the "White Man's Burden" refers to the act of imperialism. Specifically, this is the act of going to faraway lands and imposing the white man's culture, norms, and values on the native population.

Note the use of the word "burden" here. For Kipling, this is a necessary task but not necessarily an easy one. He makes this clear from the beginning of the poem when he talks about sending the "best ye breed" to do this task. In other words, it is necessary to send the very best people to do this job, no matter how difficult it might be to part with them.

In addition, this task is also made difficult because of the natives themselves. Described as "sullen" and "half-devil, half-child," Kipling portrays the native population as wild and savage, the very opposite of the white men sent to civilize them.

For Kipling, then, the white man's "burden" is almost a charitable act. It is as though they need the civilizing values of the West and Christianity as much as the white man needs land, labor, and resources.

mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In order to understand the meaning of Rudyard Kipling’s poem "The White Man’s Burden," it is important to understand the time frame in which this was written. The United States had just won a war with Spain and had gained control over several of Spain’s former colonies. The United States now had an opportunity to become an imperial power. This poem advocated that the United States should assume this responsibility.

The poem suggested that imperialistic countries had an obligation to show people they believed were inferior how to run a government, how to run a country, and how to live. These imperialistic countries, whose population was mainly white, needed to assume the responsibility of showing different groups of supposedly inferior people the right way to live. This was not going to be an easy job and might be met with resistance from the people these imperialistic nations were trying to "civilize." However, Kipling believed the United States needed to assume this responsibility.

mfamarie | Student

Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" is a contribution to the debate about the morality of colonization during the late 19th and early 20th century. The phrase "the white man's burden" attempts to justify the violence and harm of colonization by arguing that white men are inherently more civilized and superior than the people that Europeans and U.S. citizens colonized.

The poem argues that by colonizing other cultures, white men are in fact serving them, because they are exposing these colonized peoples to the more "civilized" cultures of European origin. Kipling writes that the white man must:

"Send forth the best ye breed—

Go send 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"

The burden of the white man, then, involves what Kipling saw as a sacrifice of white people, to "Send forth the best ye breed - send your sons to exile" so that these young white men, whom Kipling sees as superior to the people of the Philippines, would then "serve your captives' need."

Kipling's poem suggests that because the "white man" has superior moral and cultural sophistication, the "white man" must save the "half devil and half child" people of the Philippines from their assumed moral and development failings. Kipling reduces the very developed and sophisticated group of societies and cultures in the vast array of Philippine islands to "captives," who "need" the white man to save them.By writing that the people of the Philippines were "half-devil and half child," Kipling utilized an early tool of colonization, the de-humanizing of non-European peoples, to justify the colonization of the Philippines. 

Kipling's poem supports the argument of white superiority, while simultaneously placing the white man in the role of victim of his own superiority.  

"Take up the White Man’s burden—

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better

The hate of those ye guard—"

The white man's burden, then, is to wield a superiority over others and to be burdened by this superiority. Such an argument ignores the incredible amount of power and wealth transferred to the European colonizers from the resources and labor of colonized peoples, and distorts the violence of colonization by suggesting that colonized peoples benefit from becoming the "new-caught, sullen peoples" of European colonization.   

Kipling consciously entered a conversation about the morality of colonization with his poem, "The White Man's Burden." Since it's publication, the ideas in the poem have been cited and utilized by both those who seek to explain and justify racial superiority as well as those seeking to change the legacies of harm and violence left by colonization and racism.