What, according to Kipling, is the "white man's burden"?

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For Kipling, the white man’s burden is the responsibility of Europe’s imperial adventurers to tread forth into the savage, untamed wilderness and bring its peoples and resources to submission (and I use these words (savage, untamed) in the sense that Kipling himself would have intended, not as a reflection of...

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For Kipling, the white man’s burden is the responsibility of Europe’s imperial adventurers to tread forth into the savage, untamed wilderness and bring its peoples and resources to submission (and I use these words (savage, untamed) in the sense that Kipling himself would have intended, not as a reflection of my own attitude). On the one hand, it is true that Kipling was an imperial apologist, and his poem reflected a general cultural superiority. This is evidenced, for example, when he calls upon the reader to take up the white man’s burden and flutter to the wild, where there will be

“Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child.”

Many of Kipling’s critics have used his very articulation of a “white man’s” burden, and poetry such as the lines above, as evidence of his racist dispositions and European exceptionalism. This may very well be the case. However, the majority of his poem is not directed at degrading the indigenous inhabitants of Europe’s colonies but rather at highlighting the insalubrious and awful circumstances that the colonists themselves had to face. The majority of The White Man’s Burden are about the horrible conditions of colonial life. For example, Kipling, in the very next stanza, says that the ultimate purpose that a colonist will serve will be

“To seek another's profit,

And work another's gain,”

meaning that all of their hard work will be for the benefit of a privileged European imperialist back home. He continues to describe the ways in which the colonizers of new places will be plagued with incessant wars with the native inhabitants, famine, diseases, and hopelessness. The travels of colonizing peoples are as depressing as the fates of the natives themselves, as he indicates:

“The ports ye shall not enter,

The roads ye shall not tread,

Go mark them with your living,

And mark them with your dead.”

Therefore, while it is easy to cast Kipling as a heartless imperialist by a surface-level interpretation of his writing, I think the message he is really trying to convey is the dreadfulness of colonial life for most people. The “white man’s burden” is not so much his civilizing responsibility as it is the unimaginable hardships that await him once he finds himself making a home in a foreign and exotic land.

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The white man's burden, in Kipling's view, is the duty of governing and imposing civilization on the savage "new-caught, sullen peoples" of the world, whether they like it or not. The fact that they generally do not like it, as Kipling acknowledges in the poem, renders the task more burdensome, but no less necessary.

Empire-builders such as Kipling tended to view the British Empire, and the smaller but burgeoning colonial project of America, as natural successors to the Roman Empire, even referring to the "Pax Britannica" as having brought peace to conquered nations in the same way as the Pax Romana of Augustus. Although most historians now see nineteenth-century imperialism as a primarily commercial endeavor, essentially an excuse to plunder the wealth and use the labor of conquered countries, Kipling portrays it as an essentially altruistic project. He goes so far as to compare the Western imperialists to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, while the slaves are reluctant to be delivered from bondage.

Empire-building, according to Kipling, is a difficult, dangerous task. Only "the best ye breed" are equal to the challenge. In addition to this burden of hard work, they must bear the secondary burden of ingratitude and uncooperativeness from those they are trying to help. Only other empire-builders will appreciate the sacrifices they have made to civilize the world.

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According to Kipling, the white man's burden is the need for white, "civilized" nations to travel abroad and impart their values and culture to other nations. The poem, therefore, is a defense of imperialism. This is made clear in the first stanza of the poem when Kipling talks about white men sending their sons abroad to serve their "captives' need."

For Kipling, this burden is a necessary one because people living abroad are in urgent need of civilization. He calls them "half devil and half child," for example, and suggests that they are "wild." Moreover, they suffer from "famine" and "sickness" and, therefore, are in need of the white man's help.

Although this task is a necessary one, Kipling argues that it is a "burden" because people will not appreciate it. He talks about "ungrudged praise," for instance, and "thankless years." However, Kipling believes that imperialism is so necessary that it is worth suffering the judgment and criticism of white peers and colonized citizens alike. It is, in his view, the only way to civilize foreign nations and to increase their cultural and economic worth.

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According to Kipling, the "white man's burden" is a call for predominately white nations to send their best and brightest white males to uncivilized lands to spread Western civilization and culture to the "sullen peoples." Kipling presents the concepts of imperialism as a just and honorable goal to civilize the apparent uncivil natives around the world. Kipling challenges civilized nations with Western ideals to humbly embark on a journey of imperial conquest, which apparently benefits the foreign people living in uncivilized territories. Kipling describes the duties of the "white man's burden" by encouraging imperialist nations to promote peace, educate the natives, and feed the starving. Kipling mentions that the white men should toil as they build infrastructure in the foreign lands and cautions them against becoming lazy. He also informs the imperialists that their work will be difficult and encourages them to persevere even if they do not receive praise from the natives they are civilizing.

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"The white man's burden," according to Kipling, is the civilization of the supposedly uncivilized peoples of the English colonies. Each stanza highlights a different component of the "burden."

In the first stanza, the "burden" is traveling to a foreign land to serve the native peoples. The second stanza emphasizes the need to educate the foreigners with Western philosophy, which will ultimately "work another's gain." According to the third stanza, the "burden" is to fight "heathen" evils like famine, even in the face of discouragement. The "burden" is of servility in the fourth stanza and of thankless labor in the subsequent stanza. (Apparently, the natives will not realize what exceptional aid it is they are receiving.) The final stanzas conclude with the clarion call to take up the burden, regardless of the hardship.

Since its publication, Kipling's poem has received a great deal of criticism, owing to its assumptions that white (Western) culture supersedes all others and that said cultures are ignorant and subsequently indebted to whites for their intervention. The same year (1899), H. T. Johnson responded with the poem "The Black Man's Burden."

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