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?