One of the more interesting things about Death and the King’s Horseman was the role the British educational system played in the lives of the native Nigerians. In the Stoler and Cooper article, one of the things mentioned is the “question of just how much ‘civilizing’ would promote [colonial] projects, and what sorts of political consequences ‘too much civilizing’ would have in store” (7).  This is also a question, I think, that is central to themes of the text. When the guard Amusa attempts to remove Elesin in the middle of his suicide ritual (and wedding night), he is turned away by the mocking tones of a group of girls surrounding Amusa and his men. The girls’ success lay in the ways they played upon British tropes in order to undermine Amusa’s authority. The trick, we learn immediately after, came from their time spent in British schools, learning to ape the accents and mannerisms of the colonists. As members of the ritual, they certainly have not had “too much civilizing,” but they also had enough “civilizing” to upend the social order to which they were supposed to be subjugated by.

The same can be said for Olunde, who in his conversation with Jane Pilkings, speaks from both sides of the colonial experience to make her understand his father’s situation. He highlights the example of the self-sacrificing ship captain, compares his father to the Prince, and critiques the portrayals of WWII by the British media, and, successfully I think, convinces Jane of his position. Additionally, his ability to work as an intermediary between the colonizing British and his father is evidence of a British civilizing mission which, as Stoler and Cooper maintain, was to make Africans “of their own imagining” (7). This is revealed both by Jane and Simon Pilkings’ thoughts of making Olunde into a doctor educated in England, and by the Aide-de-camp’s insistence that “these natives put a suit on and they get high opinions of themselves” (45). Again, Olunde has been “civilized” enough to have mastered English and wear a suit, but not so “civilized” that he can either fit into British society, or have any say in British affairs, even those which impact him directly. This raises an interesting question: Is too much or just enough “civilizing” even a possibility, or is the “civilizing mission,” with the present participle, mean that the work of colonialism is always ongoing, and never complete? Can the “civilizing mission” ever end with someone “civilized” at all?

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One response »

  1. Staciay says:

    As readers of historical novels and of history, we all often overlook the interdependence between race, identity and language. Even though colonialism as a tour de force is over, its influence is still felt mainly through education and economics. Most who are in search of a genuine post-colonial cultural identity are pulled in opposite directions by Europe and Africa. Take Amusa for example, he acts blindly on the authority bestowed upon him as “a police officer in the service of His Majesty’s Government” in order to arrest the ringleaders of the death cult but doesn’t believe that that authority surpasses that of the egungun. The girls of the market women are very well educated but we get the sense that this education and “cultural engineering” only amounts to mimicry as this it only serves to makes them aware of their inferiority. They understand that the white man considers them “tractable,” “faithful oxes” and “liars.” Lastly, Olunde is “grateful” to Britain for his experience abroad but, this experience only served to remind him “what he left with” (from home) and that, he “will never give up.”

    One can see how it is hard to transcend cultural oppositions to a genuine hybridity. One reason is that language, specifically the language of the coloniser, is a powerful purveyor of ideologies. In the essay “Reconstructing Racial Identities,” Kwame Appiah concludes that there can be a gap between what a person is ascriptively and the racial/cultrual identity they perform. In this case, “the signifier rather than the signified, the word rather than the concept…played more of a central role in determining how the label was applied and to what purposes” (70). He posits that if one understood the socio-historical process of the construction of race, one would realize that the label works despite the absence of an essence. Here is an abbreviation for his equation of identity construction:

    Label R = ascription + identification

    The R is the name given to the particular identity, ascription is the descriptive criterion used in applying the label and identification is how an individual shapes their reality by referencing available labels and identities. Therefore, it might be argued that racial identities, albeit unjust and false ones, could persist provided both ascription and identification continue. Ian Hacking, in “Making Up People” asserts that the “numerous kinds of human beings and human acts come into being hand in hand with our invention of the categories labeling them.”

    So it appears that being “civilized” would be less of a state of mind than being beyond conceptual boundaries. For all intents and purposes, Olunde is ascriptively “civilized” but isn’t considered so by the persons with the power to label. The Aide-de- Camp complains that “these natives put a suit on and they get high opinions of themselves.” Perhaps, once the term “civilized” continues to be used along with the same repressive descriptive criterion of colonialism that Cooper and Stole list in Metropole and Colony .ie. rationality, technology, progress and reason – the “civilizing” mission may be ongoing and no one ever deemed or deeming themselves “civilized” enough.

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