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

According to Kipling, the "white man's burden" is the responsibility of Western countries to "civilize" peoples in other lands through imperialism and to impose their cultural standards on them. This "burden" also involves the difficulties that Kipling believed arose from this task.

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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