In the poem "The White Man's Burden," why does Kipling suggest it is important for the 'white man' to 'take up' this burden?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling emphasizes over and over that the white man is taking up his burden to help other people. However, there is a reason why it is important, from the white man’s point of view, to do so. The country that takes up the white man’s burden will earn the respect of the other important countries in the world.

When the white man goes out and takes up his burden, he is clearly (in Kipling’s opinion) not getting any tangible benefits from it. We are told that he has to “wait in heavy harness” on his subjects.  He has to “seek another’s profit/and work another’s gain.  He is making ports that he “will not enter” and roads that he “will not tread.” All his work is being done to help other people.

However, the white man is getting some benefit out of this.  What he is getting is a place among the important and respected countries of the world. A country that could and would go out and take an empire is clearly an important country.  It has the power to conquer others. It also has the patience and (in Kipling’s mind) the altruistic sense to go out and work long and hard to help civilize other people.  Such a country is taking an “adult” role in the world.  It is working hard to help improve other people, just as a parent works hard to improve their children.  Because of this, Kipling says at the end of the poem, the country that takes up the white man’s burden will earn “the judgment of your peers!”  In other words, the other important countries of the world will look at it and will recognize that it is a great country just like them. This, according to Kipling, is the main benefit that the white man gets from taking up his burden.

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In keeping with most imperialists of the time, Kipling sees the whole colonial project as a fundamentally decent, noble cause. Today, the general consensus is that European imperialism was inherently exploitative, a product of greed and a misguided sense of racial superiority. Yet we should always bear in mind that there were many, like Kipling, who genuinely believed that white Europeans were engaged in the fulfillment of an historical mission to spread their civilization to the farthest corners of the globe.

According to Kipling, history has given the white man a burden, an onerous responsibility to venture out into the world and subdue the so-called lesser races, bringing enlightenment and the benefits of Western civilization to all. In taking up this burden, the white man is acting, not out of naked self-interest, but from a wholly disinterested sense of obligation to those he considers his racial, cultural, and intellectual inferiors. Kipling exhorts his fellow white men to take up their burden as otherwise Western society could so easily become decadent and materialistic. Whatever economic gains may be had from the project of empire, it is essential to remain focused on what really matters—imperialism as a cultural, civilizing force, touched by the hand of history.