The White Man's Burden

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The White Man's Burden is a Eurocentric view of the world used to encourage powerful nations to adopt an imperial role. The term is the name of an 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling, the sentiments of which give insight into this world view.

The first stanza of the Kipling poem reads:

Take up the White Man's burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

In this view, non-European cultures are seen as child-like as well as demonic, with people of European descent having an obligation to rule them and encourage their development until they can take their place in the world by fully adopting western ways.

The poem was originally published in the popular magazine McClure's in the United States. It was written specifically because after the Spanish-American War, feeling in the US was more isolationist than not. It was believed that had the U.S. not taken over Spain's position in the Philippines, another foreign power would have moved into the vacuum. Kipling wrote this poem specifically to help sway popular opinion in the U.S., so that a "friendly" western power would hold the strategically important Philippines.

The view and the term itself are often regarded, in modern times — particularly by multiculturalists and liberals — as racist and condescending, cultivating a sense of European ascendancy of other people, or of quantifying and evaluating the value of culture. (See also cultural imperialism). However, some conservatives and various other right-wing groups today still have sympathy for the idea of a White Man's Burden, although most explicitly remove the idea of race from the concept. They argue that it is a responsibility of richer countries to help less developed countries. They point out that law and order are vital to the economic and cultural growth of a nation, and sometimes difficult to achieve without foreign intervention. Nation building could be seen as an example of a modern-day "White Man's Burden".

The term "liberal guilt" is sometimes used as a modern parallel to the historic "white man's burden". It is used by some modern whites to validate discrimination or double-standards towards their own ethnic group because of their own perceived responsibility or culpability for historical wrongs.

In a historical context, the concept makes clear the prevalent attitudes that allowed colonialism to proceed. Although a belief in the virtues of empire was widespread at the time there were also many dissenters and the publication of the poem caused a flurry of arguments from both sides, most notably from Mark Twain and Henry James. Much of Kipling's other writing does suggest that he genuinely believed in the beneficent role which the introduction of Western ideas could play in lifting non-Western peoples out of poverty and ignorance. Lines 3-5 and other parts of the poem suggest that it is not just the native people who are enslaved, but the functionaries of empire who are caught in colonial service.

Kipling himself was not simply a worshiper of the power of empire. He wrote many poems celebrating the working classes, particularly the common soldier. Also, six months after White Man's Burden was published he wrote The Old Issue, a stinging criticism of the Boer War and attack on the unlimited and despotic power of kings although the Boer War itself was a fight between a colonial power and a group of colonists.

The final stanza of the poem seems to refer to events in the poet's own life:

Take up the White Man's burden —
Have done with childish days —
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

In 1892 the long-standing poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson died. Many important poets of the day were considered for the post and it was offered to Kipling but he refused it. Whether this was because he felt he did not deserve it or he thought it would damage his career is not certain, but in this poem he seems to be reconsidering the offer and contemplating unwelcome responsibility and duty.

The poem shows that, to a large extent, colonial powers relied upon the argument that they were "civilizing" indigenous peoples. A similar idea is the Hamitic Myth. The Hamitic Myth was a biblical rationalization for European exploitation in Africa, based on the supposed biblical lineage of certain African peoples.


  • "The White Man's Burden." McClure's Magazine 12 (Feb. 1899).

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