The White Man's Burden by Rudyard Kipling

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

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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."

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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.

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