The White Man's Burden: Meaning & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Background on Kipling,…
  • 1:26 The White Man's Burden
  • 3:20 Response to the Poem
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

What is the 'White Man's Burden?' You may be familiar with the phrase, but unaware that it comes from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling. This lesson will discuss the meaning and the importance of that poem.

Background on Kipling, Imperialism

The United States is used to exerting its influence and power, but just over 100 years ago, this was not the case. During the 19th century, the United States followed a policy of isolationism; as a country, it did its best to stay out of the business and conflicts of other countries, and it encouraged other countries to keep their noses out of U.S. business as well.

During that same time, Great Britain controlled a massive empire. While the United States was still an isolationist country, European powers embraced imperialism, a foreign policy where the country expanded its influence around the world, both peacefully and by force. They scrambled to control as much of the world as they could. India was considered to be the crown jewel of the British Empire, but maintaining that jewel came at a high price.

Rudyard Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay. He spent his early life in India, but went to school in England before returning to his birthplace in the 1880s. Kipling would become a famous poet and novelist whose work was heavily influenced by his unique perspective. Kipling witnessed firsthand the number of British and Indian lives that were lost as a result of imperialism. Despite this fact, Kipling believed that the British not only had a right to control India, but also had the responsibility of civilizing the Indian people. This sentiment was reflected in his poem, 'The White Man's Burden'.

'The White Man's Burden'

Kipling's poem 'The White Man's Burden' was originally published in February of 1899, under the title, 'An Address to the United States'.

But why would a British writer publish a poem specifically for the United States? In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain as a result of a revolution in Cuba. On the surface, it looked like the United States merely wanted to help Cuba gain its independence from Spain. But by the end of the Spanish-American War, this was obviously not the case. As the winner of the war, the United States controlled the Cuban government and also walked away with the rights to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. After decades of isolationism, the United States had finally become an imperialist country.

'The White Man's Burden' was meant to both encourage and warn the United States. In Kipling's view, imperialism was not just a way for countries to grab power; it was also a form of humanitarianism, a way to help less fortunate people around the world. Kipling's poem explained that as an advanced nation, the United States was responsible for educating and civilizing the native peoples it now controlled. This responsibility was the White Man's burden.

The phrase White Man can be taken two different ways. Literally, the White Man describes people who are Caucasian. In the early 20th century, many Americans believed in the concept of social Darwinism, where certain people were superior to others based on their color and race. The phrase White Man can also be taken figuratively. Around the time the poem was published, people who were considered to be good or pure were called White Men.

Although Kipling's poem emphasized the goodness of imperialism and the White Man's burden, he also told the United States that this burden came with a price. The native people they ruled over would be resistant. Controlling and civilizing these places would also require significant manpower and, in many instances, would lead to deaths.

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