Ezeulu's Tragic Encounter with Colonialism
When the Umuaro people began to encounter the spreading European colonialists, most realized that the colonialists were not like their other enemies and that they could not be defeated in the same way. So, even those most fiercely opposed to the colonial presence at first eventually conformed to its power. However, Ezeulu, the tragic hero of Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God, was not the typical Umuaro villager. As the chief priest of the powerful deity Ulu, Ezeulu felt that he could be subordinate to no one and accordingly rose up in direct confrontation with both the colonialists and his own community. Even as strong of a man as Ezeulu could not fight successfully against such outnumbering odds; Ezeulu was defeated completely and witnessed the breakdown of his family, his religion, and even his own sanity.
The first contact that the Umuaro villagers had with the colonialists in the novel came as the result of a war stemming from a land dispute with a neighboring village, Okperi. Ezeulu's actions in this conflict would shape the future relationship between himself and colonial Captain Winterbottom, called Wintabota by the villagers. The conflict leading up to the war began in an Umuaro meeting of the elders. Being a democratic society, the village had no chief and therefore relied on the assembly to make decisions, such as whether or not to go to war. Nwaka, an important Umuaro elder, led the people to believe that they should attack the Okperi people because they had infringed upon farmland that traditionally belonged to Umuaro. Ezeulu did not agree with the war and believed that it would not be accepted by the gods. Therefore, he said, "If you choose to fight a man for a piece of farmland that belongs to him, I shall have no hand in it" (15). But, even though Ezeulu was the chief-priest of the most important Umuaro deity, the people were convinced not by his words, but by Nwaka's well-crafted speech and they eventually went to war against the neighboring Okperi people. Captain Winterbottom stepped in, used colonial soldiers to stop the fighting, took the villagers' guns away, and held a trial to determine which village rightfully owned the farmland in dispute. Winterbottom later explained to a colleague that during the trial, "Only one man... witnessed against his people" (17). The man was, of course, Ezeulu who disagreed with the warlike actions of his village. Winterbottom interpreted Ezeulu's refusal to defend the actions of his village as great honesty and, accordingly, held Ezeulu in high esteem.
Because of his trust in Ezeulu and a misinterpretation of the chief-priest's role in the community, Captain Winterbottom selected Ezeulu to serve as a puppet chief under the new system of indirect rule promoted by Lord Lugard. Winterbottom thought that the title Eze was that of a priest-king and did not realize that it was only that of a chief and held no political power. Although Ezeulu did indeed have political aspirations, others in the village, such as Nwaka, were quick to prevent any takeover by a religious leader. Nwaka says of Ezeulu, "He is a man of ambition; he wants to be king, priest, diviner, all" then said that the village must hold him in check (27). It would seem as though a man with political aspirations would have been thrilled to have the backing of the colonial power. But, Ezeulu was a proud man and refused to be a "white man's chief" when the position was offered to him (175). This refusal angered Clarke, one of Winterbottom's subordinates, who locked Ezeulu in prison for several weeks.
This imprisonment by the colonialists would lead to a severe intensifying of the conflict between Ezeulu and the Umuaro people. One of Ezeulu's primary functions as chief priest of Ulu was that of a timekeeper. He ate one of twelve sacrificial yams every new moon in a symbolic ritual. It was not until these were gone that Ezeulu could announce the New Yam feast. Before the New Yam feast, the villagers were unable to harvest the new season's yams. While imprisoned, Ezeulu could not eat the sacrificial yams and the calendar was interrupted. The Umuaro people became worried about their harvest and pleaded with Ezeulu to go to the shrine of Ulu and ask whether he could eat the extra yams to make up for his absence. Ezeulu visited Ulu's shrine as his people asked him to do, but he interpreted the god's response to mean that the village would have to wait two more moons before being able to harvest, spreading "alarm as had not been known in Umuaro in living memory" (210).
The alarm quickly transformed to animosity directed towards both Ezeulu and his family. Tensions existing originally because of Ezeulu's reproach of the war and political aspirations were intensified. People were also upset by the sacrilegious attempted killing of a sacred python by Oduche, Ezeulu's middle son who had been sent to be Christianized and to learn the ways of the colonialists. In addition to all this, the Umuaro people were obviously not content to "sit down and watch [their] harvest ruined and [their] children and wives die of hunger" (207). The bitterness towards Ezeulu and his family was manifested on all levels of society, even among the young children. Ezeulu's youngest son, Nwafo, got in a fight because one of his friends was making fun of his father.
The village's animosity led to truly tragic consequences for Ezeulu in a rather indirect way. Ogbuefi Amalu, a rich village man, had died during the rainy season but could not be buried with a proper feast because of the famine that had been brought upon Umuaro by Ezeulu's refusal to declare the New Yam feast. Not having a proper funeral meant leaving Amalu's spirit wondering without rest and his family saw that "the fault was Ezeulu's" (218). Amalu's family decided to go on with the funeral, even during the time of famine, and came to ask Obika, one of Ezeulu's sons, to perform the ogbazulobodo, a funeral rite that required much physical exertion. Although Obika had been suffering from illness, he reluctantly agreed to perform the ritual, afraid that if he did not, they would say "Ezeulu and his family have revealed a second time their determination to wreck the burial of their village man who did no harm to them" (224). Obika performed the rite, but the physical exertion in his weakened state was too much for him and he died immediately after completing his task.
The death of Obika was much more devastating to Ezeulu than just the loss of a son would have been, even as heartbreaking as that can be. "At any other time Ezeulu would have been more than a match to his grief" (229). Children sometimes die before their fathers, but strong men like Ezeulu are able to overcome the enormous grief that it causes. Here, however, Obika's death was not just the death of a man; it was a sign that Ulu had turned his back on his chief priest. As the villagers saw it, "Their god had taken sides with them against them against his headstrong and ambitious priest and thus upheld the wisdom of their ancestors--that no man however great was greater than his people" (230). Ulu's decision to desert his priest was the culmination of a long battle between Ezeulu, his people, and colonial power.
Ezeulu watched all of the things important in his life fall apart, one after the other. First, his Westernized son Oduche had committed the unthinkable act of attempting to murder a sacred python. Then, animosity between Ezeulu's family and the village grew, greatly escalated by the delay of the New Yam feast, and eventually led to the death of another of Ezeulu's sons, Obika. While his family was falling apart, Ezeulu had to endure the disintegration of his religion as well. Ezeulu, the chief priest, was abandoned by his god, Ulu, who was in turn abandoned by the Umuaro people. Oduche's Christian god offered protection from the wrath of Ulu, allowing the villagers to harvest their yams while quickly forgetting their old god. As Ezeulu realized that the title of Ezeulu would not be passed on to one of his remaining sons (and that they would probably not accept it even if it was available), he lost his sanity. Everything that had been important to him, his family, his religion, and his community had abandoned him. Now, even his own mind turned against him.
Achebe's Arrow of God is such a powerful novel because it shows that the immense power of colonialism can cripple even the strongest of men like Ezeulu. While we watch Ezeulu spending the remainder of his waning life living "in the haughty splendor of a demented high priest" spared the knowledge of the final outcome, a question forms in our minds: if Ezeulu could not stand up to the white man, what chance did the average man have? (229).
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Anchor Books, 1969.