Race and Racism in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman and Bernhard Dernburg’s England: Traitor to White Race
The purpose of this essay is to comparatively assess the relationship between Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, with Bernhard Dernburg’s “England: Traitor to White Race”.
“England: Traitor to White Race”, is a lecture that was given by Dernberg in 1916 to an audience in Austria. This assessment will look at how, according to the ideologies that Dernberg discusses, the British in Nigeria failed to maintain the type of relationship that was necessary for them in order to continue their white rule in colonized Africa, as they failed to maintain an air of superiority, both morally and culturally.
To Dernberg, colonialism in Africa was, in some respects, justifiable. With promises of an education and industrialization (as well as a religious aspect to some colonized communities), Dernberg made it clear that he believed that what the colonizing European was doing was inherently good. Rather than taking land from somebody, Europeans were simply on a mission to help spread industrialization. This idea of moral superiority, which is a staple of imperialism, ended in failure in Soyinka’s play.
Throughout the play, Elesin, a Nigerian chief, was adamant on committing suicide. His suicide, he argued, was necessary to carry out a Nigerian tradition: If a king dies, then a chief must sacrifice himself. The idea of allowing a suicide was not an option for Simon Pilkings. Pilkings, a British officer stationed in Nigeria, was determined to “save” Elesin. As the play progressed and reached its climax, Elesin’s suicide attempt was ultimately prevented, with help from Simon Pilkings. Enraged by the turn of events, Olunde, Elesin’s son, disowns his father, telling him that his failure to perform his duty was a failure for the people themselves. Pilkings, who truly believed that what he was doing was the right thing, made things exponentially worse by stopping the suicide attempt. The obvious moral failure by Pilkings is small in scope, but it is important in understanding how such moral failures go against the ideas that Dernberg discussed.
Dernburg discusses successful colonization is only possible when, “no unnecessary attack is made on the peculiar character, organization, and usages of law which exist even in the most savage States of Central America.” Rather, Dernburg explains, that these characteristics of the colony should not be touched or changed. Dernburg continues that the colonist must, “bear in mind the idiosyncrasies of their vassals, to respect their wishes and aims, to allow them as much freedom as was compatible with progress and the accomplishment of the national purpose.” Pilkings failed in doing so, as he interfered with a Nigerian chief’s scared duty. Pilkings failed to realize the importance of the colony’s ritual.
One tenet of colonization that Dernberg argues is essential, is to keep the belief that the white race was morally superior. Although Nigeria had a total population of about six million people, they were ruled by a group of European colonists of about thirteen hundred. This was made possible through the implementation of indirect rule. Despite being considerably outnumbered, the European colonists would employ local indigenous elites to help police the community. This, of course, would lead to issues and create tension within the community. Specifically, such use of indirect rule would create both an ethnic and cultural division. As members of the community would ultimately be given more power and authority, an alienation between the elites and the rest of the community would occur. In essence, the barrage of colonial Europeans would be able to multiply organically.
Dernberg believed that the communal divide and subsequent belief in the prestige of the white race (both of which often come with indirect rule) were essential with regards to maintaining white rule in the colonies. He writes, “But as…it is a question of dealing with great masses of undeveloped beings, far superior to the whites in number and not united among themselves, this task of the colonizer can be accomplished only if he succeeds in maintaining the prestige of the white race…”
The most damning evidence that shows that Britain failed to maintain a proper relationship can be seen through the Elesin’s son, Olunde. In the play, Olunde serves as somewhat of a middle ground between Elesin, who is a Nigerian chief, and Pilkings, who is a British officer. From a literary standpoint, they both represent completely opposite sides of the spectrum of colonization. Olunde, while born and raised as a Nigerian, was educated in England. The juxtaposition between Nigeria and England makes Olunde a good measure for superiority.
As the play comes to a close, Olunde denounces Pilkings, who, as aforementioned, got involved and subsequently ruined a sacred duty of a Nigerian chief. While he had an opportunity to “represent” Europeans, Olunde “represented” his Nigerian ancestry. This decision shows how the idea of European/white cultural superiority began to fail. In conclusion, the British in Nigeria failed to maintain moral and cultural superiority, according to the ideologies discussed by Dernburg.
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