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,...
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.