What, according to Kipling, is the "white man's burden"?
For Kipling, the white man’s burden is the responsibility of Europe’s imperial adventurers to tread forth into the savage, untamed wilderness and bring its peoples and resources to submission (and I use these words (savage, untamed) in the sense that Kipling himself would have intended, not as a reflection of my own attitude). On the one hand, it is true that Kipling was an imperial apologist, and his poem reflected a general cultural superiority. This is evidenced, for example, when he calls upon the reader to take up the white man’s burden and flutter to the wild, where there will be
“Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.”
Many of Kipling’s critics have used his very articulation of a “white man’s” burden, and poetry such as the lines above, as evidence of his racist dispositions and European exceptionalism. This may very well be the case. However, the majority of his poem is not directed at degrading the indigenous inhabitants of Europe’s colonies but rather at highlighting the insalubrious and awful circumstances that the colonists themselves had to face. The majority of The White Man’s Burden are about the horrible conditions of colonial life. For example, Kipling, in the very next stanza, says that the ultimate purpose that a colonist will serve will be
“To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain,”
meaning that all of their hard work will be for the benefit of a privileged European imperialist back home. He continues to describe the ways in which the colonizers of new places will be plagued with incessant wars with the native inhabitants, famine, diseases, and hopelessness. The travels of colonizing peoples are as depressing as the fates of the natives themselves, as he indicates:
“The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.”
Therefore, while it is easy to cast Kipling as a heartless imperialist by a surface-level interpretation of his writing, I think the message he is really trying to convey is the dreadfulness of colonial life for most people. The “white man’s burden” is not so much his civilizing responsibility as it is the unimaginable hardships that await him once he finds himself making a home in a foreign and exotic land.