The White Man's Burden

by Rudyard Kipling

Start Free Trial

What is the message of the poem "The White Man's Burden"?

The message of the poem "The White Man's Burden" is that America must follow the example of European imperial powers in assuming colonial control over the Philippines.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The message of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” is that it is the duty of white people to send the “best” of their “breed” to foreign places. Once the top-notch white people have arrived, they must patiently and selflessly teach the indigenous population how to live and behave like them. Kipling warns that this task isn’t easy. The people in these places are "half devil and half child.” Yet with discipline and “dear-bought wisdom,” the white people should be able to achieve their goal.

Read today, the message of Kipling’s poem can be said to be racist. It reinforces the bigoted trope that white, Western civilization reigns supreme and that other cultures and countries should emulate them. The poem presents white people as saviors and people who aren’t white as hardly people at all. As the aforementioned “half devil and half child” line indicates, Kipling, and the civilization that he’s speaking for, does not view the people that they're supposedly trying to help as fully autonomous humans.

In connection to racism, it’s also possible to say that Kipling’s message is idealization. He romanticizes colonization by transforming white colonizers into selfless actors. It’s as if these white people are performing a humble act of charity by trying to take over another country.

Finally, one could claim that Kipling’s message relates to the politics of his time. Kipling composed this poem in 1899 while the United States was attempting to colonize the Philippines. The poem encourages the United States government to embrace the imperialist politics of empires like Britain and become an empire as well.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Rudyard Kipling wrote “The White Man's Burden,” the United States had just entered a war with Spain over the Philippines. Although it was always assumed that the United States, with its vastly superior army, would eventually prevail over the Spanish, it was never clear precisely what the Americans would do with the Philippines once they'd won.

Kipling, for one, believed that the United States should follow the example of colonial powers like his native Great Britain and assume control over the Philippines. Kipling put his sentiments into “The White Man's Burden,” which urges the United States to recognize its historic destiny to civilize the so-called lesser races of the Philippines for their own benefit, much as the European colonial powers had done elsewhere in Asia and also in Africa.

In the poem, Kipling makes it clear that the process of establishing colonial rule will not be an easy one. For one thing, the indigenous people, whom Kipling describes in racist language as “half devil and half child, ”will not be grateful to the Americans for bringing them the benefits of Western civilization. The white man will have to put up with “the blame of those [he] better[s]” and “the hate of those [he] guard[s].”

But in the end, Kipling thinks it will all be worthwhile. Not only will American colonial rule advance the...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

cause of Western civilization, it will also be of ultimate benefit to the Filipino people themselves, even if they don't yet know it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The White Man's Burden," written in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the American annexation of the Philippines, Kipling frames imperialism as a sacrifice the white race makes for a "sullen" and "thankless" people. These people are depicted as childlike and in need of the adult guidance of a superior race.

Imperialism occurs when one more dominant nation takes over and runs another nation or people for its own benefit. Kipling's argument in his poem that this conquest is actually a favor to the occupied nation is an example of a false ideology (set of ideas) that whites devised to justify their exploitation of native peoples.

Kipling's poem crystallizes that false ideology. In urging America to become an imperial power over the Philippines, he depicts the white Americans as bringing the benefits of their civilization and adult maturity, along with other virtues, to people not really capable of appreciating them. The Americans, according to Kipling, have taken on a "burden" because of their nobleness and superiority. They are the ones to be pitied, not the oppressed natives. As Kipling puts it:

Take up the White Man’s burden—

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go send 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.

In reality, the Americans came to the Philippines for their own benefit, not to "serve" their "captives' need."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The message of the poem "The White Man's Burden" can be understood in part by looking at its historical context. Its author, Rudyard Kipling, was British, and had spent much of his life in British colonies. The poem was written in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-American War, when a major debate was raging in the United States over the question of American annexation of the Philippines. The island nation, long a Spanish colony, had been taken from Spain as a result of the war. Some Americans argued for granting independence to the Philippines, others that the United States should make the Philippines an American territory. Kipling's poem was published in an American magazine, and it argued that the United States, as a nation of people allegedly superior in technology, culture, and political systems, should take up the "burden" of spreading these blessings to supposedly primitive people in the Philippines. Kipling does not think that the people of this nation, who he views condescendingly as "half devil and half child" will appreciate this sacrifice, and they will indeed hate and resist the Americans. Hence his use of the term "burden". But he claims that taking up this responsibility is one of the things that makes a great nation great. Kipling's poem does not consider that the the native people in question might have been capable of deciding what their future should be, and is often synonymous with the racism that underlay imperialism.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team