The White Man's Burden

by Rudyard Kipling

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

The Speaker

The speaker in this poem does not identify himself, but set against the context of Kipling’s other works and his generally understood views about empire and imperialism, we can assume that the speaker represents Kipling’s ideals and that he is not writing satirically. The main theme of the poem reflects a view that Kipling generally supported: that colonization is virtuous and that it is the duty of Western powers to send their children into “exile” in order to serve the “needs” of the non-Western world. The speaker recognizes that some will be deterred by the frustrations and difficulties of colonization, and attempts to provoke his audience to action: forming and “civilizing” colonies, he declares, will prove a country’s “manhood.”

The United States

The poem’s original title, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” makes it clear that the intended audience of this poem is the United States. Through the poem, Kipling urges the United States to join Britain and other Western colonial powers in colonizing the non-white world. The United States, according to Kipling, has not yet faced challenges as daunting as colonization, as the speaker exhorts it to move on from “lightly proffered laurel[s]” and “easy, ungrudged praise” to colonization, the true test of “manhood.”

While Kipling originally wrote this poem for Britain and published it later for America, his repeated refrain that cites the “burden” of the “White Man” addresses other white, Western powers as well. In naming colonization as the “duty” of white people, he indirectly calls upon other Western powers to form colonies and become empires, too.

The British and Other Empires

Great Britain was already an empire at the time of the American wars in the Philippines and when Kipling wrote this poem to urge the United States to form colonies. The speaker informs his audience that the “judgement of [their] peers” awaits them; other white, Western powers like Britain will be watching and evaluating their colonial efforts. 

The People of the Philippines

The group of people America is called to colonize and “civilize” in the poem are those of the Philippines. The “White Man’s burden” is to colonize other peoples, so Kipling groups the people of the Philippines with all people who have not been brought to Western civilization and Christianity through imperialism. Kipling refers to these people in terms which are extremely racist: “half-devil and half-child.” Still protesting against their colonization, these people will, according to Kipling, initially hate their colonizers; but once the children of their colonizers have adequately “served” them, they will come to recognize that they have been brought out of their “darkness” to the light of Western, Christian civilization like enslaved people out of Egypt.

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