Colonialism and Its Aftermath
Language is a marker of difference and, by extension, culture. That Achebe writes Things Fall Apart in English is less a statement of his identity than it is a challenge to earlier works written about colonial Africa. The use of English to describe the colonial stories of Africa is a small affront that Achebe takes head on. An apparent goal of Achebe’s was to articulate the complexity of his culture and society, and to do so with clarity to the wider audience that English would provide, while simultaneously making a political statement. Since the clash between the white colonial government in Nigeria and the traditional culture of the indigenous people is the primary theme of Achebe’s work, his imperatives are clarity and juxtaposition. The Igbo people in the 1890s were still deeply engaged in their social institutions and cultural imperatives. Indeed, the situations that Okonokwo faces are very much those of his people, with pressures from the white colonists originating from the margins of his — and his people’s — existence. That is not to say that the colonial force is insignificant, but rather to observe that the Igbo people are able to carry on for some time in a manner that only occasionally brings the threat to the foreground. For instance, when the locusts come to their villages, the Igbo people at first treat the insect invasion as bounty; since the Igbos consume the locusts, their perspective is quite different from what it will be when the numbers of locust grow too large and begin to impact their environment in ways that they cannot ameliorate. In the same manner, the movement of the white colonists into their homeland brings an intrusion that they cannot address. The early contact with Mr. Brown lulls the Igbo people into a wary acceptance that they will come to understand, once they encounter the zealousness of the Reverend Smith and the District Commissioner, as misguided. The story in Things Fall Apart is complex and deeply tragic, as the native characters are engaged in transformation that they do not understand and that does not promise to end well for them. The role of the Christian missionaries adds a deep layer of complexity — as it historically has — underscoring the failure of the colonial institutions to add meaning to the lives of the natives. Or even, for that matter, to position the indigenous people more favorably until many decades have passed. Perhaps, then, the deep-seeded, imposed cultural and social changes can be reshaped by the native people themselves.
In the manner of A Passage to India, Orwell’s book, The Burmese Days, the story focuses on the friendship between an English colonist and a native physician, and on the central circumstances of a white woman new to the colony who quickly gets herself in a dire situation, gets engaged and then breaks the engagement. Moreover, both A Passage to India and The Burmese Days expose the cross-sections of the colonial society through the context of a private club. Additionally, both stories make the prevailing, underlying racial attitudes of the characters evident and central to the action. It is notable that A Passage to India was published while Orwell was working in Burma. A key difference between the two stories has to do with the strength of the personal relations between certain British characters and the indigenous characters. In A Passage to India, the personal relations are sufficiently strong to redeem the failures of the colonists. This is, of course, not true in The Burmese Days as Flory is cast as a tragic figure — as much a victim of imperialism as are many of the Burmese people.
Flory, the colonist, holds a clear-eyed view of the imperialism that is the context of his life in Burma. Flory denigrates the imperialist position and purpose in Burma saying, “the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers rather than to rob them.” Dr. Veraswami’s status as a doctor has been achieved because of the colonial occupation, so he is not at all inclined to be a critic, unlike his friend Flory. Indeed, Dr. Veraswami is eager to become a member of the Club in order to further solidify his position with the British. Verasawami casts a bit of a halo glow on the British accomplishments in Burma, arguing that they have built up the infrastructure, worked to improve education, and encouraged the people of Burma to be more civilized, according to Western standards.
Flory’s perspective is markedly different from Veraswami. Flory points out that the buildings that were constructed are prisons and that the indigenous people are not taught much in the way of skills, even manual skills. The British are to blame for bringing diseases to the Burmese, as well. The exploitation of the Burmese and their country is not lost on Flory. He understands that the entire relationship between the British and the Burmese is based on money. Were it not possible to make fortunes on exported teak and the like, there would very little incentive for the British to remain in Burma. Naturally, Flory hopes the British do stay for some time as he, too, is in the country in order to make money. The colonists increasingly observe that British rule is eroding in Burma, which is most evident in the lack of respect for the British by the Burmese. Noting this continued disintegration, Westfield argues that British should simply abandon the country to itself, as he is convinced that Burma would descend the slippery slope to anarchy in short order. Westfield is persuasive and many of the other Club members have apparently already come to the same conclusion; They-even Flory — readily agree with Westfield. Racism commonly raises its ugly head in situations in colonial interactions between populations. While colonialism is at its core a contentious relationship, there are British people in Burma who do not hold the Burmese in contempt. However, a number of members of the British Club do consider the Burmese an inferior race and who are not at all receptive to allowing any Burmese natives to become members of the Club. Flory is the most likely of the members of the British Club to compromise, because he is the compromised man. Having taken a Burmese mistress, Flory has set himself up to allow his attitudes toward the Burmese to soften. Of course, Flory cannot let either of these aspects of his life be seen by the British club members. Nor can he reveal the depth of his friendship with Veraswami.
The emphasis on racist attitudes in the novels is important to the ability of a reader to suspend disbelief. The prevalent racism in the interactions and transactions between the imperialists and the natives was seen as keystone in the colonial arrangements. Without the ability to maintain the power structure inherent in colonialism, the whole assemblage would come tumbling down. That is to say that, in order to exploit the resources of the country, the colonists must, by necessity, oppress the native people. Racist attitudes undergird the power structure. As long as the British uphold the belief that the indigenous people must rely on the colonists to capitalize on their country’s natural resources and to move closer to being a civilized people, then the carefully constructed castle on the sand will withstand the press for change — for a time.
Yet, what is important here in this consideration of racism is the mutuality of its expression in the characterization of the imperialists and also in the natives. There is a natural and doubtless ethnocentrism in the story Things Fall Apart. Anthropologists have long dealt with the concept of The Others in native cultures. We see in Things Fall Apart and in The Burmese Days that this idea of the rightness of one’s own culture, beliefs, values, and practices is not solely the province of primitive cultures. Indeed, though they are not labeled so in the novels, The Others are clearly the indigenous people. In his seminal work, Sarukkai (1997) argues that since subjectivity is an essential element of the anthropological construct of the other, it establishes a framework in which fiction has to be considered valid ethnographic data. One particular strength of ethnographic data is that it is at once subjective and objective. Ethnographic data is subjective from the standpoint that all that is reported about a culture is generated through observations by way of the subjective lens of an individual ethnographer. Ethnographic data is objective in the sense that the observations recorded are just that — observations. The nature of ethnography is that it is ostensibly conducted with full disclosure of cultural taint that resides in the cultural anthropologist. That Achebe is one with two cultures: he observes his characters — in the manner of novelists — both as an English-speaking cosmopolitan Nigerian and an Igbo-speaking local. Because he is able to hold two perspectives at once, he is able to tell the story…