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The White Man's Burden

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The White Man's Burden is a view of the world used to justify imperialism. The term is the name of an 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling, the sentiments of which give insight into this world-view.

The first verse 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, with people of European descent having an obligation to dominate them until they can take their place in the world.

The poem was originally published in a popular magazine (McClure's) in the US. 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 US not taken over Spain's position in the Philippines, another foreign power (quite possibly Japan) would have moved into the vacuum. Kipling wrote this poem specifically to help sway popular opinion in the US, so that a "friendly" western power would hold the strategically important Philippines.

The view and the term itself are widely regarded in the modern world as racist. (See also cultural imperialism.) However, it serves a useful purpose in a historical context, making clear the prevalent attitudes at the time that allowed colonization to proceed.

It is interesting to note the extent to which colonial powers relied upon the excuse of "civilizing" the indigenous peoples - to the point where there exist documented cases of archaeological findings in South Africa having been suppressed. The presumption is that the existence of sophisticated cities in southern Africa prior to European colonization would pose a threat to the argument that white rule was necessary to "civilize" the area.

The term "white man's burden" is sometimes used in the present-time to describe discrimination or double-standards towards those of European descent because of perceived responsibility or culpability for historical wrongs.


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

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