The term "white man's burden" refers to the difficulties of managing a colonial empire over nonwhite peoples. Kipling's poem was written to encourage the United States to "civilize" the Philippines by assuming control of the islands. Kipling's poem is operating under the assumption that outside of the western, Christian world, people are barbaric, not fit to rule themselves, and must be molded by white Westerners into becoming more like their colonizers. In the poem, Kipling presents the work of the colonizers as hard and thankless, composed of many difficulties.
Firstly, he claims that the colonizers must sacrifice the comfort of their own children to send them abroad:
Go bind 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.
He is claiming people will need to send the best of their young to educate uncivilized peoples. He paints the colonized as both childish and violent, suggesting the nobility of the enterprise (educating children and childlike people) and the potential danger (being harmed or killed by those under colonial rule).
Kipling also claims the push for civilization in these conquered lands will be long and hard, due to what he believes is inherent laziness and ignorance of the colonized peoples:
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
It was assumed that the colonized people would do nothing for themselves. In trying to improve the conditions of a foreign land, the people within would fight against any attempts to better their lot, which negatively affects both colonizer and colonized.
Kipling further claims the colonizers will have to deal with ingratitude from the colonized populations:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"
Here, he compares the colonized to the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, who complained of Moses taking them from Egypt. Though they were slaves there and initially glad to be free, the discomfort of wandering in the desert makes them wish to return to the familiar world of the slave. Kipling is suggesting that any colonized peoples who wish to retain their religion, culture, or former customs are similarly ungrateful to the Western colonizers who are only "freeing" them from their own folly.
Overall, Kipling is claiming the "civilizing" of conquered nonwhite peoples is hard, rarely fruitful work that imperial workers should be praised for undertaking. His poem was both embraced and criticized in the years to come.
Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" takes the approach that, in setting themselves up as the rulers of other peoples, imperialistic whites are actually undertaking a noble and necessary task which will cause them some degree of suffering. His argument is that the white man is sacrificing "to serve [his] captives' need."
There are therefore several specific difficulties Kipling foresees and describes in this poem. In the first stanza, he points out that imperialism requires the white man to "bind [his] sons to exile" in the service of those "half devil and half child" who will not appreciate the help they are receiving. So, imperialists must "send forth the best" to foreign shores and suffer distance without feeling appreciated for this sacrifice.
Next, Kipling suggests that it will be extremely demoralizing for imperialists who have dedicated themselves to "fill full the mouth of famine" to find that "Sloth and heathen Folly / Bring all [their] hopes to nought." That is: Kipling foresees that the white man might set himself diligently to the task of improving a foreign country, only for the native peoples to destroy what he has tried to build through "Sloth and heathen Folly."
Finally, Kipling notes that the white imperialist will not be viewed favorably by either his peers or those he is "guarding." On the contrary, for all his hard work, he will receive "the hate of those [he] guard[s]" and "the judgment of [his] peers." Kipling is suggesting that because only one who has experienced it knows what a sacrifice it is to stake out an empire in this way, those who are unfamiliar with it will not realize the white man is deserving of praise for his work.
Published in 1899, Kipling's poem, "The White Man's Burden" provides the ideological justification for imperialism. But Kipling recognised that imperialism came at a cost to the those who practised it.
First of all, in lines three and four, Kipling instructs the imperialists to "send their sons" to faraway lands. For the imperialists, then, colonisation requires the sacrifice of their men. They must send them abroad, with no idea of the potential dangers nor any notion of when they might return.
Secondly, in lines 11 and 12, Kipling states that colonised people pose a "threat of terror" and are filled with "pride." For the imperialists, overcoming these negative character traits is a difficult but necessary task. As Kipling states in the next two lines, this task may pose problems ("An hundred times made plain") but it must be carried out, if colonised people are to be made civilised.
Finally, Kipling recognises that imperialists are often the target of social criticism. As he says in lines 19 and 20: "The blame of those ye better/the hate of those ye guard." For Kipling, the imperialists must ignore this criticism and continue in their endeavours abroad. Eventually, people will realise that imperialism is both necessary and advantageous, as he states in the closing lines: "Cold-edged with dear bought wisdom/The judgement of your peers."