American Imperialism in Kipling’s Poem “The White Man’s Burden”

← Robots Are Coming: Article AnalysisStephen Gardiner's "Ethics and Global Climate Change" →

American Imperialism in Kipling’s Poem “The White Man’s Burden”

After the United States won its independence, it started a long way of maturing from a former colony to a powerful country with its own imperial ambitions. The American-Spanish War was a sign that the US was becoming an imperial player on the global arena, and by World War II and onwards, this status became more evident and recognized. Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden”, even though believed to be controversial in terms of contemporary views of race and culture, is undoubtedly a remarkable historical evidence of imperial outlook, which claims that bringing its own civilization to other, less “civilized” nations is an honorable duty and mission that developed cultures of white people have.

When analyzing the poem, it is worth paying attention to the fact that Kipling does not consider imperial politics solely beneficial for the United States and its European allies. On the contrary, he chooses the word “burden” to reveal his vision of the mission. This description suggests that it is a hard task for the white people to follow the road of imperialism because it involves sacrifice on their part too. Controversial as it might sound now, he insists that what Americans have to do to conquer other nations is to help them, not to exploit them:

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need. (Kipling, 1899)

One of the aspects that characterize the imperial nature of Kipling’s message is that he believes in cultural superiority of the European civilization, which needs to be transferred to other nations by means of education. In a quite condescending way, he names those nations which are patronized by the white missioners “new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child” (Kipling, 1899). This labeling is quite significant because, first of all, it suggests that the white civilization has higher moral standards in contrast to savage traditions and rituals that are condemned as “devilish”.

However, the poet tries to be reserved in his estimation of the “wild” nations claiming patronizingly that they are not innately bad, but their culture is just childishly na?ve and immature. Therefore, a logical conclusion is that they should be overlooked and educated by elder brothers, such as Americans and other representatives of the imperial leaders. However, even in Kipling’s times, the reaction to the imperial message was polar; as one of the critics wrote, “it means the white man taking his own burden and putting it upon the brown man’s back” (Murphy, 2010, p.25).

When describing the mission of the educators, Kipling emphasizes the fact that in most cases their efforts are not appreciated by the local population because of its ignorance. The conquered nations cannot see the benefits of the education that their patrons are bringing; hence, the imperial powers have to accept this challenge as part of their mission. In many cases, they have to be prepared to the fact that all their efforts are ruined by the savages:

Watch Sloth and heathen Folly

Bring all your hope to nought. (Kipling, 1899)

Apart from cultural superiority, which presents the white people as more cultured, more educated and more hard-working, other aspects of imperialism such as economics and militarism are implied. It is the white man’s burden to stop the war, which in fact might have been started as a war for the local lands and resources. He believes that this is the price the white people have to pay for their mission, and knowing this, they should continue their devoted labor:

Take up the White Man's burden-

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better,

The hate of those ye guard. (Kipling, 1899)

It is obvious that there is good reason to blame Kipling’s poem for its racist attitudes, which cannot be accepted in today’s world. Yet, it is impossible to deny that the poem is an important historical evidence of imperialist view, which is not totally gone even today. As researchers point out, “The racialized notion of the “The White Man’s Burden” became a euphemism for imperialism, and many anti-imperialists couched their opposition in reaction to the phrase” (““The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism”, n.d.). As Snodgrass (2010) adds, the very approach of Eurocentrism with the US participation became infamous since Spanish-American war (p. 168).

Even though today’s United States of America cannot be named an imperialist state because the period of empires and colonies is over, the clash of civilizations and values is still the case. For example, the United States sees its mission in spreading democratic institutions worldwide as part of their cultural superiority. Democracy is believed to be the best system that needs to be implemented elsewhere - no matter to what extent a nation is historically or culturally ready for the change. On the one hand, the initiative to be a world’s leader in democratic culture is quite beneficial; nonetheless, many people blame the United States for being superficial and insensitive to other systems of values, which can be different and yet not inferior to the American one.


Therefore, when estimating the poem, it is hard to fully agree or disagree with its message. It is true that it was historically relevant in Kipling’s times as history has its own rules and regulations. Besides, there are civilizational changes that are inevitable, and different countries take the role of a leader in different epochs. It is natural that the young country such as the United States became a powerful player because it was flexible and ambitious enough to bring about innovations and changes. On the other hand, however, cultural superiority and racism could not be justified because the position was one-sided and not sensitive or respectful to local cultures. For the sake of economic and political progress, imperialism was a historically relevant option; yet, it took many victims to implement the new order. From this point of view, the price that the imperial countries had to pay for their mission in the form of local oppression and rebellion was quite natural.