The White Man’s Burden Summary

The White Man’s Burden Summary & Analysis

The White Man’s Burden Summary : “The White Man’s Burden” is a poem by the British Victorian poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling. While he originally wrote the poem to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Kipling revised it in 1899 to exhort the American people to conquer and rule the Philippines. Conquest in the poem is not portrayed as a way for the white race to gain individual or national wealth or power.

The White Man’s Burden Summary

Instead, the speaker defines white imperialism and colonialism in moral terms, as a “burden” that the white race must take up in order to help the non-white races develop civilization. Because of the poem’s influential moral argument for American imperialism, it played a key role in the congressional debates about whether America should annex the Philippine Islands after the Spanish-American War. The phrase “white man’s burden” remains notorious as a racist justification for Western conquest.

The White Man’s Burden Poem

Take up the White Man’s burden—

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go send 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

Take up the White Man’s burden

In patience to abide

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride;

By open speech and simple

An hundred times made plain

To seek another’s profit

And work another’s gain

Take up the White Man’s burden—

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better

The hate of those ye guard—

The cry of hosts ye humour

(Ah slowly) to the light:

“Why brought ye us from bondage,

“Our loved Egyptian night?”

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!


“The White Man’s Burden” Summary

The speaker exhorts the audience (assumed to be people identifying as “white”) to perform a difficult task assigned to them by virtue of their whiteness. This task will require the best people in white society to go forth to another land, with an entire generation of young men essentially being exiled. These young men will be made to serve a foreign people they themselves conquered; paradoxically, the young men will have to serve their own unwilling captives. The young white men will be harnessed like horses awaiting the beck and call of an unreliable, nearly savage people, who have just been captured like prizes in a contest. These same people are not human adults but both childlike and evil.

The speaker again implores the presumed white audience to perform this difficult task. This duty will require patience, and restraint. Though the speaker seems to think that the white race has reason to feel proud in comparison to the non-white races, the whites must restrain themselves from showing their pride in order to govern well. The whites must also use plain and honest language in order to be understood by those they rule. All this will not be for the benefit of whites but for the benefit of those they rule.

The speaker again implores the white audience to perform this difficult task. The speaker lays out what will be the goals of the whites who go forth to conquest. They will constantly have to fight wars in order to maintain peace in the lands they rule, and these wars will be especially cruel. The whites will also have to provide food for starving peoples and fight diseases among them. All these specific tasks worked on behalf of the non-whites will be jeopardized even as they near completion by the fact that the non-white, non-Christian races are both lazy and foolish. The speaker insists this will happen despite the whites’ best efforts.

The speaker again implores the white audience to perform this difficult task. The imperialistic duty that the whites will take up is better than the traditional rule of kings and princes, because it is far more common and more moral. The duty is more like a homely household task than a grand dynastic inheritance. The speaker mentions the roads and ports that the whites will build for the non-whites, neither of which the whites will themselves use, before adding that the whites will not just have to build these amenities, they will also have to die in battle to preserve them from ruin.

The speaker again implores the white audience to perform this difficult task. The speaker lays out the supposed rewards of this imperial project, which are negative and thus only rewards in an ironic sense. The whites will make the non-whites better by ruling them, but the non-whites will only respond with spite and blame, even when the whites protect them from worse enemies. The whites will be indulgent in a parental fashion toward the non-whites, who will cry out against their teachings. While the whites slowly bring them toward the light of civilization, the non-white people will cry out for the “Egyptian” darkness of their previous savagery, which they loved.

The speaker again implores the white audience to perform this difficult task. To do anything other than take up the burden would mean lowering oneself to an unworthy task. The audience may choose to decline the burden in the name of freedom, either the freedom of the non-white peoples or their own freedom from this responsibility, but to do so would be merely a cheat to hide the exhaustion that is the real reason for refusing the challenge. Moreover, the speaker insists, the non-white peoples will see through the ruse. They will know instantly that the audience declined the challenge from exhaustion and fear, and they will judge them accordingly. If the task is declined, the non-white peoples will judge not just the whites themselves, but the things the whites hold dearest, including their religion and their tradition, as unworthy.

The speaker again implores the white audience to perform this difficult task. The speaker then encourages the audience to grow up and put childish ways behind them. This will let the audience refuse tasks that will get them easy praise. Instead, the white audience will have to prove themselves to be adults, even if this task offers little reward over the years. And in the process, they will get the respect of their fellow adults, which is both more honest and more valuable.

“The White Man’s Burden” Themes

Colonialism and Imperialism

“The White Man’s Burden” presents the conquering of non-white races as white people’s selfless moral duty. This conquest, according to the poem, is not for personal or national benefit, but rather for the gain of others—specifically, for the gain of the conquered. The white race will “serve [their] captives’ need” rather than their own, and the white conquerors “seek another’s profit, / And work another’s gain.” Even if they do not recognize their benefit, the non-white races will be brought “(Ah, slowly!) toward the light,” escaping the “loved Egyptian night” in which they idled before their conquest. Yet the non-whites’ positive sentiment for their own “darkness” indicates the extreme difficulty whites will face in seeking to educate the conquered peoples.

By emphasizing the hardships of this “burden,” the speaker positions himself as a realist who sees all the difficulties of an imperialist project and the inevitable thanklessness that results. The speaker announces that imperial conquest will “bind your sons to exile” and cause them to “wait in heavy harness” in pursuit of the “savage wars of peace,” indications of the difficulty and tedium of the inevitable war. The “silent, sullen peoples” lifted up from “bondage” will never offer the imperialists any thanks or praise.

By taking the difficulty and thanklessness of imperialism seriously, the speaker establishes his credibility as someone of clear-sighted judgement. This stance of realism offers the speaker’s argument two key things. First, it staves off the retort that the speaker is some idealist blinded by an impossible dream. The speaker’s focus on the difficulty of the task actually has the effect of making that task seem, eventually, achievable, since all the difficulties have already been foreseen. Second, it sets up the speaker (and the European powers the speaker seems connected to) as a kind of stern, realist father figure to America who will offer Americans true respect—“the judgement of your peers” both “cold” and “edged with dear-bought wisdom”—if they fulfill their imperialist task.

Indeed, the poem in many ways appeals to the middle-class virtues of ordinary turn of the 20th century Americans by presenting imperialism as a sober, tedious duty rather than a grand adventure of conquest. Imperialism is a “toil of serf and sweeper,” not a “tawdry rule of kings.” The larger part of “the white man’s burden” is thus an exercise in “patience,” accepting the length and difficulty of the task set for the imperialists. Not a calling to a high heroic destiny, but a crude, almost homely task, imperialism suits the desires of those who imagine themselves honest workers on humanity’s behalf, rather than triumphant conquerors of weaker peoples. Put another way, the poem can be seen as cannily playing to the vanity of America precisely by refusing to play to its vanity. The poem is saying to an America that, in 1899, was feeling itself ready to emerge on the world stage: this is how you can stop being a child and grow up.

While the speaker of “The White Man’s Burden” can be seen as trying to cannily build an argument that will specifically appeal to a certain set of Americans, it also seems possible that the speaker is not being purely cynical. The speaker seems to believe everything he is saying: that imperialism and colonialism is a thankless task, taken up by whites purely out of goodwill for other races (even if those other races lack the ability to see the gift being bestowed upon them), without any ulterior motive of profit, reward, praise, or even gratitude. This enterprise may not even succeed; references to the task’s difficulty far outnumber references to its success. Thus even as the speaker believes it is the white man’s duty to engage in conquest, he may also believe that this conquest will fall short of its moral goals. Imperialism, the speaker sincerely believes, is the white man’s gracious sacrifice on behalf of non-whites.


Racism is not really a theme of “The White Man’s Burden.” The poem doesn’t in any way explore or grapple with racism or its effects in the world. And yet it is impossible to discuss “The White Man’s Burden” without also discussing racism, because the poem is, simply put, blatantly racist. Its premise—that white imperialism is a moral burden that white races must take up in order to conquer and educate, by force and against their will, the non-white races of the world—is based on a racist worldview. The poem does not even defend or explain the basis of this worldview. Instead, the poem takes it as being obvious and objectively true that white races are superior and civilized, while non-white races are inferior and savage.

The poem’s racism toward non-white peoples is so general, so entrenched, and so over-the-top that it would be pointless to seek to identify or refute all of its appearances. However, it is worth pointing out the way that Kipling’s racism made him blind to the reality of the white imperialists—and, one might say, to the white race—which “The White Man’s Burden” so esteems. There is no honest history of colonialism or imperialism that would describe either the motivations or effects of European or American imperialism as being driven by selfless benevolence or as having purely positive effects. From the devastation and enslavement of native people in the Americas; to the slave trade that developed out of European colonialism in Africa; to the uniquely rapacious corrupt practices of the Belgian Congo; to the profit and power and national pride that Britain derived from its empire on which it gloatingly exulted “the sun never set,” white imperialism was never primarily driven by the selfless motives that Kipling ascribes to it.

Of course some imperialists and missionaries set forth with the seemingly-noble goal of “helping the savages,” but such efforts were often at best complicated and at worst destructive, as captured in all sorts of books, ranging from Heart of Darkness, to Things Fall Apart, to Wide Sargasso Sea. In Heart of Darkness, before the main character Marlow sets off to Africa, he has a farewell conversation with his aunt. She sees Marlow as being “an emissary of light” off to educate the African natives out of their “horrid ways.” Marlow points out to his aunt that the company he is working with is run for profit, and despairs at his aunt’s inability to see past illusion to the truth. Later, Marlow will see this inability as a veneer that allowed European society to hide its rapaciousness from itself, and therefore as a key part of the heart of darkness that lies at the root of Western Civilization. One can certainly argue that the Kipling of “The White Man’s Burden” has much in common with that nameless, racist aunt.

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