white man's burden


: a duty formerly asserted by white people to manage the affairs of nonwhite people whom they believed to be less developed

Word History


Note: The phrase "the white man's burden" is closely associated with a poem of that name by Rudyard kipling, which was first published in The Times of London on February 4, 1899, and in The New York Sun on February 5. Kipling's poem asserts that it is the moral duty of the nations of the West to bring civilization to the less enlightened populace of the South and East—to, as Kipling put it, "Your new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half devil and half child." At the time of its publication the U.S. Senate was debating ratification of the Treaty of Paris, negotiated by Spain and the U.S. to end the Spanish-American War; a major clause of the treaty would have turned over government of the ten million people of the Philippines, who were judged "uncivilized," to the U.S. (On the day of the poem's publication, Filipino nationalists, not having been consulted about their status, began military operations against U.S. troops on Luzon.) Kipling favored Philippine annexation, and sent a copy of the poem to Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York. The phrase "the white man's burden," however, was not Kipling's coinage, and appears a few times in print before 1899. The earliest known occurrence appears to be in the Methodist newspaper The Southern Christian Advocate for September 21, 1865.

First Known Use

1865, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of white man's burden was in 1865

Dictionary Entries Near white man's burden

Cite this Entry

“White man's burden.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20man%27s%20burden. Accessed 25 May. 2024.

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