The White Man's Burden

by Rudyard Kipling

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How does the poem "The White Man's Burden" relate to imperialism?

The poem "The White Man's Burden" relates to imperialism because it supports the problematic belief that white people are obligated to educate and improve other races. Rudyard Kipling is arguing that the United States should realize its obligation to exercise imperialism over the people of the Philippines.

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To be able to properly answer this question, it is important to know what imperialism means. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, imperialism is "the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas."

Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865 in India. At the time, England was one of the world's most imperialistic nations, and India was subjugated under and ruled by England. Kipling left India when he was five years old to obtain his education in the United Kingdom. He then returned to India as a journalist, so he experienced England's imperialism firsthand both as a child and as an adult.

Kipling was a great proponent of imperialism, believing in the obligation of white civilizations to educate and improve what he considered lesser third-world peoples. There is evidence of this in "The White Man's Burden," when he calls native people "half devil and half child," "those ye better," and "silent sullen peoples." To Kipling, what he refers to as the white man's burden is the obligation of imperialism. He considers it a necessary sacrifice that white people must make to send their sons into exile, work for the well-being of the people they have conquered, put up with the resentment and hatred of their oppressed subjects, and even die in faraway lands for a supposedly noble cause.

This poem was originally titled "The White Man's Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands." It is an exhortation to the government and people of the United States to become an imperialist power over the people of the Philippines, just as England has become such a power over India and numerous other territories. To Kipling, imperialism was not just an option but rather a moral obligation.

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The "White Man's Burden" is related to imperialism in a number of ways.

Firstly, through the title of the poem, Kipling makes it clear that it is the responsibility of the the white man (the Americans) to establish hegemony over foreign nations. To emphasize this point, Kipling uses the word "burden" to describe this unwanted, though necessary, responsibility.

Secondly, this poem is related to imperialism through its characterization of people from foreign lands. They are described as savages, as not Christian, and as people who do not know how to make the most of their natural resources and labor. By characterizing them in this way, Kipling argues that it is necessary to teach these people Western ways and, as a result, make them more civilized.

Finally, Kipling alludes to the controversial nature of imperialism in this poem. In the final line, for example, he notes that imperialists are often judged by their "peers" for such activities and that the subjugated people often act ungrateful towards the white man. Historically, imperialism has been a very controversial policy because it is exploitative by nature.

For Kipling, however, imperialism is a necessary evil. Through this poem, he...

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provides a call to action, encouraging the next generation of imperialists to go forth and conquer as many lands as possible.

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Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" is a plea to English people to spread their civilization all over the world.  Even the name of the poem is paternalistic in that he views spreading white culture as a "burden."  He views native people of the developing world as being incapable of civilization and in need of British help.  While these people may not want to become civilized according to British values, they must accept them anyway.  He does not view imperialism as the exploitation of other people; rather, he views it as a price that the English have to bear because of their "superior" culture and morals.  

The poem was also meant for Americans.  By 1890, America had already subjugated its natives and was in the process of trying to assimilate them into mainstream society.  Kipling wanted Americans to spread across the oceans and have their own colonies.  In 1898, America would do this through the Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawaii.  

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This poem relates to imperialism because it is a warning to the United States about what it should expect when it sets out to become an imperial power.  Kipling felt that the US was embarking on its first real imperial action when it took control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.  As a British person, Kipling felt that he knew what having an empire entailed.  He was warning the Americans of the problems involved with having an empire.

According to Kipling, an imperial power is in for a very hard time.  It is going to have to work very hard to try to bring civilization to the people it conquers.  The imperial power is told to

Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives' need; To wait in heavy harness…

What all of this means is that the work of civilizing the imperialized peoples will be very difficult.  In addition, it will be a very thankless task.  The imperial power will have to work hard to

Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;

Even as it works hard, it will not see the benefit of what it does.  Instead, Kipling warns that

And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought, Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.

In short, what this poem is doing is warning the United States about what Kipling sees as the perils and difficulties of imperialism.  For this reason, it is very closely connected to imperialism.

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What parts of this poem prove that “The White Man’s Burden” is really about imperialism?

The poem is written from the point of view that the white man is more civilized than other groups of people and that the "white man’s burden" is to bring "civilization" to those other groups. This is a major part of imperialism, because the goal of imperialism is to expand a country, usually through colonization or military force. At the time, more and more places were being colonized (by the United States as well as European countries), and Kipling was all for it. The poem’s message is that bringing white culture to these colonized places will be a thankless duty, but a noble duty nonetheless. Really, any part of the poem that talks about spreading civilization can show that imperialism is the focus here.

An example I would choose is from the lines “Go send your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need.”

"Exile" implies that the colonizers are going far away (to a colony), and the second line ties in with how they plan to bring white culture there and satisfy the so-called need for civilization.

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