Colonialism in Soyinka and Conrad

Rachel Teisch '94 (English 32, 1990)

Both Soyinka and Conrad discuss the fear, terror, and oppression Africa endured under its period of European domination. At the turn of the century, colonialism had reached its peak in the African states. With colonialism came a realization of its dark future and ultimate futility. Heart of Darkness, a story Conrad derived from his personal experience in the Congo in 1890, exemplifies this realization through the tale of Marlow, who confronts and reflects upon the horrible truth he witnesses in the heart of the jungle. At this time, the Belgian Congo, though nominally independent, in essence belonged to Leopold II of Belgium. In later years, as Conrad shows in Heart of Darkness, many publicly exposed the appalling abuses involved in the colonial exploitation. Shocked by his experiences in 1890, Conrad views colonialism as a moral vice and a cultural bully of the Europeans, clearly elucidating the vices of western culture in Africa. In the novel, for example, the railway truck, a vestige of European civilization, lies "there on its back with its wheels in the air. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal." Remnants of European society, rendered useless in the jungle, symbolically display Conrad's idea of the futility of colonialism--although it may succeed in establishing a facade of western culture, it ultimately fails.

Soyinka, although writing more than half a century after Conrad, as well as from the view point of a native African instead of a European (Conrad was Polish), saw the same problems of colonialism as did Conrad. Yet, Soyinka reacted against Negritude, a movement which reflected a reaction to colonialism and rejected the political, social, and moral domination of the West. Whereas Negritude assumes the total consciousness of belonging to the black race, and thus becomes a rationale against western imperialism, Soyinka saw Negritude as belonging to colonial ideology and "otherizing," or giving the African group an identity that so radically differs from that of Europeans that it comes to represent savagery and irrationality. Similarly, Conrad describes the African natives as savages who "howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; 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. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly."

Although Soyinka criticizes Negritude, his drawing on African myths, including those of his own Yoruba culture, does in fact define Negritude in the best sense; thus, there appears to exist a contradiction in his sentiments against Negritude, for, on the other hand, he accedes to dominant African culture in his works. In The Pantheon and Myth, Literature, and the African World, Soyinka discusses the creation of the universe by Yoruban deities as well as Orgun, king of the Yoruban gods, thus yielding to the dominant ideology of Negritude-- pride in African history. However, Soyinka does base his play Death and the King's Horseman on the events in Yorubaland in the 1940's when European ideology dominated Nigeria: he depicts European versus Yoruba notions of personal honor and self-sacrifice which he renders irreconcilable. In this aspect of Soyinka's writing, his use of African "mythology is part of an active, dynamic, liberating African culture and political assertion." Furthermore, "there is a double focus in the play, almost as if the world of British skepticism and power only superficially impinged on the real world of the Yoruba community" ("Wole Soyinka and the Nobel Prize for Literature," Sewanee Review 96 (1988), pp.339-45). Whereas Soyinka disagrees with the ideas prevalent in Negritude but ironically embraces it in the subject matter of many of his works, as an artist he commits himself to social awareness, seeing his African heritage as a background in which to express the Africans' struggle with the environment of colonialism.

His poetry and plays show that colonialism clearly affected Soyinka. When the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought increased exploitation to Africa due to the European demand for large quantities of raw materials, with the entrepreneurs came missionaries and teachers with the intent of smothering native African culture. The process of colonialism inflicted not only physical but also spiritual domination over young Africans who began to view their traditional poetry, including freelancing with songs, dancing, and theatrical renditions of the poem ("Changes in African Poetry," Emily Steiner) as pagan. In this aspect Soyinka does not yield to the Negritude movement, for he does not utilize the traditional African poetic style-- his form is "quite arbitrary" (A Shuttle in the Crypt, p.59). In this sense, one may ascertain that to Soyinka, colonialism can only scratch the surface of a culture, similar to Conrad's belief. Whereas his poetry refuted the traditional style of writing, thus acceding to the dominant ideological influences of westerners, the content of much of his work deals with the black nation and subjects prevalent in the Negritude movement.

In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz serves as the embodiment of man's potential for evil, a symbol of the European colonist in Conrad's eyes. His heads on the stakes, while gruesome, deserve no more criticism than the chain-gang or grove of death at the main station. In essence, Marlow's embracing of Kurtz at the end of the novel in fact portrays his embracing of his own potential for the evils of colonialism. Both men had seen the spectacle of human capability for evil, and both had recognized "the horror, the horror" (Norton, p.1880). However, instead of a blatant criticism of colonialism, as Soyinka utilizes as the subjects for many of his works such as Death and the King's Horseman, Heart of Darkness takes its readers on a personal journey into the depths of their souls, and then presents them with a horrifying reflection of self, leaving them with the feeling of futility of subjugating a people to the values of a foreign culture. The choices that face the white man in the heart of the Congo-- as well as Nigeria-- render one to become either like the entrepreneur who sees Africa in terms of financial gain, or like Kurtz, a corrupt idealist. Realizing these two choices in Heart of Darkness, Conrad must render colonialism futile, for it only succeeds in corrupting those whom it touches. So too does Soyinka, a victim of colonialism as he witnessed white Europeans trying to change his Yoruba culture to fit their own, acknowledge the evils of colonialism and the dangers it has concerning every person involved in the one-sided glorious exploitation.

Last Modified: 20 March, 2002