The White Man’s Burden Themes
The two main themes in “The White Man’s Burden” are the duty and altruism of colonization, and the challenge of colonization.
- The duty and altruism of colonization: Kipling’s archaic and troubling view of colonization is that it is a noble, selfless calling to colonize, “civilize,” and Christianize the people of the non-Western, non-white world.
- The challenge of colonization: According to Kipling, the colonizing efforts of white men are not simply a duty, but a challenging “burden.”
Last Updated on September 22, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
The Duty and Altruism of Colonization
Rudyard Kipling’s archaic and troubling view of colonization is that it is a noble calling to colonize, “civilize,” and Christianize the people of the non-Western, non-white world. This calling, the duty of the “White Man,” is the central theme of this poem. According to Kipling, this is a test of manhood, and “peers”—other white empires—will judge a colonial power’s endeavors. This demands empires’ best efforts: the speaker urges them to “Send forth the best [they] breed” to work in their colonies.
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Kipling presents the “civilizing” efforts of colonizers as unselfish and disinterested: forming colonies and bringing them to Western civilization is a process in which he claims they will “work another’s gain.” It is their duty to the people of the non-Christian, non-white world to civilize and Christianize them—not for the benefit of the white man, Kipling says, but for that of the countries the white man colonizes. Today, this attitude is sometimes referred to as a “white savior” complex, in which white people are figured as heroes offering needed help to non-white groups.
The Challenge of Colonization
According to Kipling, the colonizing efforts of white men are not simply a duty, but a “burden.” The “childish days” of “easy, ungrudged praise” are over: colonizing powers will face harsh opposition from the people they control. They cannot rule as “kings,” but must labor for these people; and despite their efforts, the people will blame and despise them. Kipling compares the protests of colonized peoples to those of the Israelites in the Bible, who complained against God for freeing them from the oppression of Egypt. The initial rewards the white man will reap for attempting to “better” colonized peoples are “blame” and “hate,” but enduring this, Kipling implies, is his duty: he dare not run, for his fellow white colonial powers are judging him.
Race and Religion
Kipling explicitly expresses a dichotomy between “the White Man” and all the other peoples of the world. White men, in Kipling’s worldview, are the earth’s natural conquerors and colonizers, the only ones capable of bringing civilization—and the civilizing Christian religion—to the supposedly benighted indigenous peoples of places such as the Philippines. Whiteness and civilization are thus, in the poem, inextricably linked, even synonymous with each other.
The people whose countries are in need of colonization are, on the other hand, referred to in racist terms as “Your new-caught sullen peoples, / Half devil and half child.” The word “devil” links the indigenous people of the Philippines and elsewhere with non-Christian religions, while the word “child” suggests the paternalistic attitude adopted by Kipling and other supporters of imperialism: the non-white, non-Christian peoples of the world must be taken in hand and taught, as children are by adults, what is best for them; they must be shown “the light.” The fact that Kipling refers to all white peoples collectively as “the White Man” suggests the poet’s faith in the solidity of whiteness as a social, cultural, and perhaps biological category, while all non-white peoples (most of the world’s population) are similarly reduced to a single category of their own.