The White Man's Burden

by Rudyard Kipling

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The White Man's Burden Summary

Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” is an 1899 poem about the imperialistic duty of the United States to colonize and serve the people of the Philippines.

  • The speaker urges the United States to take up this burden, which he views as the test of true manhood and a moral duty.
  • He warns that their every action will be seen and judged by the people in their colonies, and their efforts in those colonies will be judged by their fellow Western powers.

Summary

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Last Updated on September 22, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

Introduction

English writer Rudyard Kipling originally composed “The White Man’s Burden” in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. At this event, Victoria was celebrated as empress of India and defender of an empire which stretched around the globe. However, Kipling ultimately chose a different poem for the Jubilee and published “The White Man’s Burden” in 1899. He was inspired to do so by the events of the Spanish-American War and titled it “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands.” This time, Kipling’s intended audience was the United States; when the United States defeated Spain, the Philippine archipelago was one of the Spanish territories that the United States gained. In the poem, Kipling urges American colonizers to create an empire similar to that of the British, citing it as the duty of “the White Man.”

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Today, of course, this encouragement toward empire-building reads as extremely problematic. Many readers in Kipling’s own era took issue with the poem’s message as well; the creation of a US empire like those of the European powers was, at the time, a highly controversial idea. Others, however, believed that the acquisition of colonies was a natural extension of American manifest destiny. These included Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote that “The White Man’s Burden” was “rather poor poetry, but good sense for the expansionist standpoint.”

Poem Summary

Kipling’s poem commences with the exhortation that begins each stanza: “Take up the White Man’s burden.” In the first and second stanzas, the speaker calls upon his audience—the United States and other Western powers—to send their children into “exile” in these faraway parts of the world. He states that the white man is duty-bound to act as a servant to his new captives, who are described as “half devil and half child.” In the second stanza, he implies that in colonizing the native peoples of far-off continents, the white man is actually working for their “gain.”

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In the third and fourth stanzas, the speaker calls upon the United States to venture into these other countries in order to put an end to sickness and war. He informs them that the fulfillment of their goals will be hindered by “sloth and heathen Folly.” The “burden” is not ruling these people, apparently, but laboring for them. He notes that serving in others’ countries in this way can frequently lead to death: the colonizers must “mark” roads and ports with their “dead.”

The speaker urges the United States in the fifth stanza to “reap [the] old reward”: the protests and hatred of those they “better,” “guard,” and “humour . . . toward the light” of Christianity and Western civilization. They, like the Israelites God freed from Egypt, will not be grateful or acknowledge the white man’s labors for them.

In the final two stanzas, the speaker exhorts the United States to take up this burden, which he views as the test of true manhood and a moral duty. He warns that their every action will be seen and judged by the people in their colonies, and their efforts in those colonies will be judged by their fellow Western powers.

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Themes