White Man Burden Imperialism Meaning

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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.