The White Man's Burden

by Rudyard Kipling

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How would you define the thesis statement of "The White Man's Burden"?

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Rudyard Kipling himself provided a thesis statement for "The White Man's Burden" when he wrote to his friend Theodore Roosevelt, who had recently become governor of New York, in 1898:

Now, go in and put all the weight of your influence into hanging on, permanently, to the whole Philippines. America has gone and stuck a pick-axe into the foundations of a rotten house, and she is morally bound to build the house over, again, from the foundations, or have it fall about her ears.

The principal specific message of the poem is here: that America ought to colonize and govern the Philippines—not for its own benefit, but as a moral obligation. The Filipinos, according to Kipling, were incapable of governing themselves, and he felt that the country would collapse without American rule.

In fact, however, the first draft of "The White Man's Burden" was written in 1897, before the Philippine-American War began. Kipling rewrote it in 1899 with the Philippines specifically in mind, but it nonetheless has a wider scope than Kipling's letter to Roosevelt, referring to the colonialist project in general. Kipling was also clearly thinking of India, the colony of which he had most experience, and in which many of his best-known stories and poems are set.

A good thesis statement to define Kipling's point, therefore, should be more general, and might go something like this:

The people of Africa and Asia are primitive and uncivilized; it is therefore our duty to colonize and govern their countries, however ungrateful they are.

This expresses a major theme in the poem that is not in the quotation from Kipling's letter: the idea that empire-building is a thankless task and that colonized people will generally be uncooperative.

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