The very first page of Wole Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman” explains the author’s intention that the “Colonial Factor”, referring to the ever-present cultural miscommunication between the natives and the white man, does not overtake other more notable themes and elements of the play. Upon reading this, I made it a point to not try to give too much weight to the most obvious cases of white disillusionment with the behaviors and general nature of the natives.

However, it became more apparent as the issue of death arose during the play that the distinctive Colonial Factor does in fact shape the emergence of death as a theme. The first instance that comes to mind is when Olunde points out to Mrs. Pilkings that the drumming has stopped, and therefore his father must be dead (p. 45). The Pilkings’s consistently express a disregard throughout the first part of the play for the actual livelihood and beliefs of the natives, and yet as soon as Olunde mentions that his father has just died, Mrs. Pilkings becomes afraid and shocked as once at the fact that a man has lost his life. Olunde also refers to the British people’s habitual covering up of the death and destruction caused by war; he points out, for example, that they have referred to many obvious losses and massive amounts of casualties in the war as victories for the purpose of saving face.

It appears that the way that the Colonial Factor manifests itself in the case of death, essentially, as fear on behalf of white society. The natives, contrastingly, embrace and welcome it as part of their lives. Iyajola decries to Pilkings at the end that his race “usurp[s] the vestments of our dead, yet believe that the stain of death will not cling” to them (p. 62). Colonizers have brought death and destruction all over the world, and yet suffer and weep when faced with the reality of it. And even while the officers are constantly trying to stop the physical action of death from happening, the natives embrace it as natural, even in the most unnatural of circumstances. What the white colonizers attribute to the natives as an irrational, ritualistic, and unnecessary view of death, appears to truly be the natives’ respect for both tradition and death, even in the face of adversity toward their customs from the British.


About ethanmcleod

I'm a sophomore Public Communications major at AU and I like reading books.

One response »

  1. Staciay says:

    I agree that it is precisely that exchange that makes it difficult to see the confrontation in the play as simply metaphysical and not a critique of colonialism and/or the Colonial Factor.

    There are so many moments of correspondence, between the captain who “honorably” died on board his vessel and Elesin’s ritual suicide for example, and other instances of direct antagonism between Olunde and Jane, for the audience not to get a sense of the friction between cultures. We have Olunde criticising the mind of the colonialist in his statement “yet another error into which your people fall. You believe that everything which appears to make sense was learnt from you” and Jane responding that their customs were “barbaric” and “feudalistic” (43). The reader also cannot ignore the undertone of skepticism that buttresses this exchange. When Jane explains the purpose of the ball as “therapy, British style” and Olunde responds “others would call it decadence” and the moment when she spouts that the natives had a “long-winded and round-about way of making conversation” and Olunde answers that at least “we never suggest that a thing is the opposite of what it really is” one cannot help but see the hypocrisy and folly of the British. What becomes even more ironic is that Jane herself is also blissfully oblivious to the fact. The irony seems quite purposeful.

    In the essay, Metropole and Colony, the “measures of man” are listed as “ rationality, technology, progress and reason” and we get the distinct impression that Soyinka is trying to expose the Metropole as being sufficiently deficient in all categories. I believe that it would have been easier to recognise the play’s threnodic essence had this exchange been omitted. We may have then just been able to consider the intrusion of Pilkings in the affair as an artistic vehicle to expose Elesin’s particular weakness/reluctance to leave the earthly realm.

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