European colonial influences on African culture in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Achebe’s “Civil Peace
Imperial powers employ different methods to control the nations ruled by them. Apart from force, they also use various ideological means as an indirect mode of attaining control over the colonized nation. Sometimes more than military prowess, ideological instruments makes the people of the colonies accept the power of the ruling imperialist nation, and make them receptive to the domination inflicted on them. Some of the ideological instruments include religion, literature, and education, and these instruments were used to create a false sense of awe among the colonies. Many European powers tried to justify their imperial designs in Africa, by calling their colonizing efforts as ‘A white man’s burden’. Through this, they imply that the European culture was far ahead of the African culture, and it was the burden of the White men to educate and civilize the Africans and Asians. In reality, colonization succeeded only in sabotaging the native culture, and exploited the people both economically and socially. This essay will explore two literary works, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Achebe’s “Civil Peace”, and would discuss the ways in which authors have represented the European colonial influences on African culture in their stories.
Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ is a political critique on the Belgian imperialism on its African colony of Congo. Belgium during its imperial rule not just extracted Congo’s natural resources, but also made the country’ people as slaves making them work in inhumane conditions. In the context of the nineteenth century imperialism, Africa was considered a place of savages and darkness. However, the colonizing powers, who proclaimed that their mission was to help Africa become free from this daemonic state of affairs, were, in fact, performing the hideous barbarism they were meant to eradicate. As Brown (2000) says, this is the historical context that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness both emerges from and extends.
Published in the year 1899, heart of darkness is one of the most anthologized works of Conrad, garnering praise from the likes of literary giants such as William Faulkner. The story of the novel revolves around the life-describing journey the protagonist Marlow undertakes from Belgium to the Congo. The novel depicts his journey into the deep woods of Africa, and his obsession with the mysterious Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is one of the successful agents of the company for which Marlow works, and he is stationed at one of the innermost stations of the Congo.
While rescuing Kurtz, who is very ill, Marlow realizes that Kurtz is nothing like the idealistic visionary he had imagined, but a greedy sailor exploiting the local population for his materialistic ends. Aboard the steamer, Kurtz and Marlow have a soul searching conversation, which reveals more about his time in Africa. Later Kurtz die succumbing to his illness, and the last words uttered by him are “The Horror! The Horror”. The story ends with Marlow meeting Kurtz’s fiancé, and to comfort her, he lies that Kurtz took her name in his dying moments.
The novel is an attempt by Conrad to demystify the truths about colonialism. During that era, the European public was led to believe that colonialism had a noble cause. Conrad is widely perceived to be one of the earliest writers, who tried to expose the evils of colonialism in his works. The journey undertaken by Marlow, into the depth of Africa is considered by scholars, to be an allusion to the journey a European takes into his soul.
No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. ; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
These words capture the abject realization that dawn on Marlow, about the way African people were socially and economically exploited by the Europeans. They were not inhumane or savages as imagined by him but were very much human like. In fact, when they perform their customs in their traditional way, Marlow even feels a kinship with them. These lines also indicate the parallels between the Roman occupation of Britain and the European occupation of Africa, whereby one culture imposes its values on the other. Yet, a point to note is that, Marlow considers the Africans to be a primitive version of him selves, which portrays the stereotypes Europeans had about native people.
As Marlow travels further into the interiors of Africa, he encounters disturbing scenes of torture and cruelty. The book offers the blatant hypocrisy surrounding the justifications given for imperialism. While the European nations offered trade and civilization as their primary reason behind their colonial designs, the book shows how the resources were not traded but were taken by force from the colonies, and the traditions and values of the native people were destroyed in the name of civilization.
The book is not an attempt to glorify African culture, but it offers a reaction of a typical European to the ground reality of imperialism in Africa. Marlow is just an observer in a road trip, who comments on the scenes that he sees. From what he conveys, it can be incurred that a systematic butchering of lives and traditions of the African people was carried out by Colonial powers in the name of progress and civilization.
Despite being celebrated as a bold portrayal of colonialism, the book did receive its share of negative criticisms. One of the most vocal and well known critics of the ‘heart of darkness’ was Chinua Achebe. He called the novel a high European document of racism, projecting Africa as a foil for Europe, constituting a negative and bleak space which contains all those elements Europeans do not want to see. Achebe argues that, the novel portrays Africa as a primitive world which unleashes the dark forces of the European heart.
The reaction of Achebe to the portrayal of Africa and Africans by the European writers had a heavy influence, on his novels and short stories. He believed that the African writers had a responsibility to portray the real social issues of Africa, and teach his readers how to resist the colonial powers.The other story of our discussion, ‘Civil Peace’ is a work in which Achebe portrays the real situation in post colonization Nigeria, which is his native land.
While Conrad’s book centers on Congo, a central African region colonized by Belgium, Achebe’s short story deals with the woes of Nigeria, a western African nation colonized by the British. The story happens in a post colonization period unlike in Conrad’s story, which happened during colonization. While Conrad highlighted the process of the deterioration of African lives and culture under colonization, Achebe presents the aftermath of the colonization. ‘Heart of Darkness’ describes the response of a European bearing witness to a horrific act, in which he is unknowingly a small part. ‘Civil Space’, on the other hand, is narrated in an African perspective and gives insights into the experience of the natives.
Civil Peace was first published in 1971, at the end of the Nigerian civil war which happened between 1967 and 1970. The protagonist Jonathan Iwegbu survives the civil war with his wife and three children, and miraculously he was able to keep his bicycle. Though he loses one of his four children in the war, he is optimistic about God’s plans and goes about rebuilding their life with enthusiasm. They are also able to repair their house, and every member of the family work hard to earn money. Jonathan uses his bicycle as a taxi, his wife Maria sells akara balls, and the children collect mangoes.
Jonathan gets "egg rasher" (ex-gratia) reward of 20 legitimate pounds, for turning in rebel currency, but in the night robbers invade their house and take the money away from the family. The next morning the family continues doing their chores as usual, showing optimism in the face of adversity and believing in God’s plans.
“What is _egg-rasher_? Did I depend on it last week? Or is it greater than other things that went with the war? I say, let _egg-rasher_ perish in the flames! Let it go where everything else has gone. Nothing puzzles God.”
This laconic story stands as a testimony to the economic deprivation suffered by Nigeria, due to decades of colonization and civil war. When British colonized Nigeria, there were 200 ethnic groups in the country, the main groups being the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa. The ruling British gave some sovereignty to the Hausas, leaving their religion (Muslim) and culture intact.
However the Igbos of the Southeast and the Yorubas of the West, were introduced to Christianity by the missionaries and were given western style education. Thus, after the colonization the country was divided into two groups. Both had huge gaps in terms of education, employment levels and religion, which led to the Biafra war, a bloody civil war that claimed over a million human lives. The story reveals the aftermath of this destructive war.
The story lacks any heroic or dramatic elements but portrays a humble optimism born out of faith in God. Achebe through this story depicts the indestructible fibre of the Nigerians, and he celebrates the return of peace to his region, although the peace is a precarious one. Achebe has always used the African folklore, whereby a toad wrongly conveys the immortality wish of humans to God and thus the Gift is lost to humans forever, extensively in his works. Through this folklore Achebe warns, “When language is seriously interfered with, when it is disjoined from truth . . . horrors can descend again on mankind.” Thus, Achebe believes that when a story, of one’s life and culture, is narrated by others, it leads to serious distortion of facts, and this applies to the European writers’ portrayal of Africans. So he being an African takes upon him selves, to reveal the plight of the African people to the world.
In his civil peace, Achebe gives a taste of the African culture which survives the onslaught of colonialism and civil war. While Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ revealed how the local culture, and the way of life were tampered with to suit the selfish motives of Europeans, Achebe’s ‘civil peace’ describes its aftermath. Achebe shows how a society is divided, and lawlessness takes grip of a land, because of the insensitive handling of the colonizers of the African culture and traditions.
'You done finish?' asked the voice outside. 'Make we help you small. Oya, everybody!'
_'Police-o! Tief-man-o! Neighbours-o! we done loss-o! Police-o!'_
It also serves to highlight, how the imposing of foreign language and education has resulted in the division among his people. The Biafran war was not just a struggle for survival but also a new beginning for Africa. It marks a new definition of Black identity for the Africans trying to find their place in the modern world. ‘Civil Peace’ by Achebe captures the moral resilience and the responses of Africans to the war aptly, and portrays them as people who have shown immense courage and optimism in rebuilding their lives torn by centuries of oppression and wars.
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