Literary Descendants of the Colonial Native

by , 2003

When European colonial authors introduced us to the native, they created the native; the native character became more real to European readers than the actual inhabitants of the new world. The natives’ overwhelming otherness eclipsed any individuality that might have been found among them. The native was childish, incapable of reason, and savagely unchristian, or as Lord Cromer described him, a being which "generally acts, speaks and thinks in a manner that is exactly opposite to the European" (qtd. in Said 39). The European world was first given Robinson Crusoe’s Friday as a native or, more accurately, the native. Friday could easily (and accurately in the European’s mind) be substituted for any non-European. Friday, and the native that he represented, continues to exist in post-colonial literature. Part of him, his otherness, is expressed in the new European character. Another part of him, his nativeness, continues to be expressed in the new native.

The legacy of the other did not die with colonialism. It continues to be a presence in post-colonial literature, only now the other has white skin. Winterbottom/Clarke/Meers/Pilkings is just one character: the other, the European, the white man. Post-colonial literature’s example white man is a reincarnation of Friday; his traits may be slightly different, but he remains the same in that he is overwhelmingly opposite from the important individuals found in the literature. Just as the native and the concept of the native was invented by the Europeans, the European has been invented by the new generation of post-colonial authors. In Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe creates Captain T. K. Winterbottom and Tony Clarke, white officers portrayed as mere unemotional bureaucratic cogs in the colonial system. Buchi Emecheta similarly creates Dr. and Mrs. Meers in The Joys of Motherhood as insulting and insensitive. Finally, Simon and Jane Pilkings of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman are molded with the stereotypical ambition and lack of care for anyone but themselves. Any of these European characters could be switched with any other one because there are no substantial differences between them. Their individuality is not important to the literature of the post-colonialist, just as the individuality of the native was not important to the colonialist. By attacking the European’s physical appearance and stereotypical characteristics, post-colonial authors are able to dehumanize the European the same way the colonial authors dehumanized the native.

The native’s language and education remains relatively consistent through the switch from colonial to post-colonial literature. Friday had the capacity to learn Robinson’s language, just as the new native has the capacity to learn the European’s language. The only limiting factor of the native’s knowledge is his lack of resources. This disadvantage, although it always existed, is highlighted more in post-colonial literature. Natives are distinguished from each other by their education and the language skills that education brings. While attitudes towards other aspects of the European character changed, the importance of his European education has not. The native’s education remains the same in post-colonial literature because it has remained the nearly the same in the post-colonial world.

Even though he was created from the model of colonial literature’s native, the post-colonial European and the original native are certainly not identical. Physical characteristics clearly distinguish the two; the native is dark skinned, the European is light skinned. However, consistency between the two remains in that the other’s appearance is always poorer. In colonial literature, the native was, as a general rule, ugly. There were exceptions, but they were remarkable enough to be commented on. For example, Robinson Crusoe describes Friday’s skin color as an exception to the "ugly yellow nauseous tawny [skin color], as the Brasilians, and Virginians, and other natives of America" had (208). In his idealization of his new slave, Crusoe was quick to point out that he did not have the ugly skin that the natives commonly had. By separating Friday from the typical native, he improved the appearance of him. If Friday had looked like the other natives, he would have been ugly just as they were. Friday’s agreeable skin color was merely an exception to the rule that natives had ugly skin.

Similarly, the white skin of the European appears sickly to the post-colonial author. Nnu Ego, in Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, describes Mrs. Meers as "a shriveled old woman with ill-looking skin like the flesh of a pig" (50). Her disgust at the appearance of Mrs. Meers was so strong that Nnu Ego felt that her husband was less of a man for taking orders from this European woman with such pale skin. She went on to call Mrs. Meers "that thing of a female whom she would not dream of offering to an enemy god" and "madam crawcraw-skin" (50). These insults were harsh and represented a deep resentment towards the European character expressed through the description of physical characteristics. Nnu Ego’s attitude towards white skin was not atypical; her people, the Igbo, often referred to the Europeans as white-bodies, the same term they used for lepers. These descriptions of the European’s sickly skin are remarkably similar to Defoe’s description of the New World natives’. The nauseous yellow became the flesh of a pig. Chinua Achebe noted this same unhealthy character of the European in a more objective manner; Captain Winterbottom "had grown pale and thin… his gums getting whiter and whiter (Achebe 29-30). Even though the narrator in this passage was not insulting the European as Nnu Ego was, he still described the physical appearance of the European as sickly. To the African author, white skin was a sign of deficiency, just as dark skin was to the European author. Although the shade of the skin differs between the colonial native and the post-colonial European, the attitudes towards it do not.

After defining the obvious physical characteristics of Friday, Robinson Crusoe immediately began making assumptions about those characteristics which he could not see. These assumptions led to stereotypes that became key components in the construction of the other, the native. After Crusoe kills Friday’s attackers, he describes how Friday came up to him and put his head under Robinson’s foot. This could have been a sign of gratitude, fear, awe, or one of many other emotions, but Crusoe automatically assumed that "this it seems was in token of swearing to be my slave forever" (207). The native was stereotypically subservient. In order for slave owners to be able to sleep with a clear conscience, they had to constantly tell themselves that non-Europeans were natural slaves. Throughout the rest of the novel, Friday continues to act in the manner of the stereotypical happy slave. The colonial author uses this subservience to dehumanize the native.

The stereotype of subservience of the colonial native is transformed into insensitivity in the post-colonial European. The European’s insensitivity allows him to be hated, just as the native’s subservience allowed him to be enslaved. In response to a question from Nnaife, Mrs. Meers "replied in her cultured, distant voice which she invariably used when addressing the native servants" (Emecheta 41). The language that the European uses separates her from the natives. This separation was originally created by the colonialist to keep the native distant, but is used in this novel by Emecheta to keep the European distant. The European’s distance from the native is reinforced later in the same novel at the golf course, when the white men are about to pay Nnaife for his help retrieving golf balls. Before they gave Nnaife his money, they "made sure they left enough money for drinks at the Island Club on the way home" (94). Here, the men are willing to give a hungry man money to feed his family only after they make certain that they have enough money for their own drinks. It is implied that if they would not have had enough money leftover for drinks after paying Nnaife, they would not have paid him. This harshness again emotionally distances the European from the native. In Death and the King’s Horseman, the European’s insensitivity is commented upon by Olunde. He says to Jane in regard to her carelessly wearing a sacred death mask, "No, I am not shocked Mrs Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand" (Soyinka 41). The lack of respect that Olunde discovered is a key characteristic of the post-colonial European. He is never respectful, caring, or emotional--traits that would make him human. Even towards other white men, the European remains unemotional. In Arrow of God, the natives were very surprised when they saw Dr. Mary Savage’s emotional reaction to Caption Winterbottom’s illness because they had "not expected that she would ever cry for a patient, not even when the patient happened to be Captain Winterbottom whom they mischievously called her husband" (Achebe 150). The people did not think that the European doctor was capable of crying, even for her lover. Her exceptional show of emotion was enough to spread surprise throughout the hospital and village. The insensitivity of the European plays an important role in defining the relationship between the native and the European. Post-colonial authors use it to keep the reader emotionally unattached from the European character, allowing him to be disliked or even hated by the reader, just as colonial authors used the natives’ natural subservience as justification for slavery.

In colonial and post-colonial literature, all characters, both European and non-European, are given the ability to learn the language and customs of the other. However, throughout the colonial world, there was a higher value placed on European knowledge, so generally Europeans did not learn as much of the other’s knowledge as the others learned of theirs. This one-sidedness did not change as the world moved an era of post-colonialism. Accordingly, the characters in both colonial and post-colonial literature strive for European education. In Arrow of God, Ezeulu sends his son Oduche to the white man’s school because he believes that "those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow" (Achebe 46). Ezeulu, Oduche, and the other post-colonial natives inherit the quest for European knowledge. Because the value of European education has remained high even in a world where European appearance and stereotypes have been devalued, both post-colonial Europeans and post-colonial natives continue to seek European education, just as the colonial native did.

Authors, from Defoe to Soyinka, agree that the native is capable of learning Western knowledge when he is exposed to it. Robinson taught Friday "English so well that he could answer… almost any questions" (Defoe 216). After just a couple of weeks, the native had learned enough English to hold a conversation. Defoe, a typical colonial author, never doubted the intellect of the natives. Their inadequacies in English (and even in religion and morality) were explained as the symptoms of being isolated from Europe. Through quick, intense training, the native could be educated enough to be useful to the European. In the same novel, European men learned the language of the natives after being stranded on a different island under a different scenario. Robinson used Friday as an interpreter for the rescued Spaniard "for the Spaniard spoke the language of the savages pretty well" (241). The Spaniard’s use of the native’s language and the native’s comprehension of English was good enough that it was easier to communicate through two languages than to try to speak directly between Spanish and the closely related English language. This example shows how both the native and the Europeans were able to learn the language of the other, when their situation required them to do so. Still, most Europeans chose not to learn the language of the natives and most natives are unable to completely master the use of English.

As a result, the natives often are shown speaking pidgin English. The native’s poor speech is not a sign of incapacity to learn, but an inability to access European education. Although both natives and Europeans share a similar capacity to learn, the two group’s abilities to access the resources needed for education differ from each other widely. Consequently, Defoe does not criticize Friday for his inability to speak perfect English. Both the ability to learn European language and the difficulty in accessing the tools to do so are passed down from the colonial native to the post-colonial native. Some African characters, such as Achebe’s Mr. Goodcountry and Soyinka’s Olunde, are able to fully grasp European language, but most are limited to use of pidgin English. In Arrow of God, Mr. Goodcountry was described as having more knowledge than the white man, even though he was black (Achebe 46). In Death and the King’s Horseman, Olunde attends medical school in England and is well on his way to becoming a doctor. Two of Nnu Ego’s sons in The Joys of Motherhood travel to America to attend universities. These post-colonial natives are the descendent of Friday’s ability to learn. When they are given the resources that they need, there is no limit to the education that the natives can achieve. These natives use the same proper English that the Europeans use. Although their skin color and ancestry may be different, they have the same knowledge and education as the European.

In contrast, there exists a large group of natives in post-colonial literature who still possess Friday’s ability to learn, but lack the resources to take advantage of it. Wole Soyinka describes a scene in Death and the King’s Horseman in which the local policeman, Amusa, is ridiculed in the public market by little girls who possess better English skills than he does. The mothers of the girls comment, "Did you hear them? Did you see how they mimicked the white man?" (32). They were impressed by the schooling their daughters had received and recognized the power that it gave them. Even though Amusa was a police officer, his lack of knowledge reduced him to a position where he could be ridiculed by schoolgirls. Nnaife is plagued with the same lack of language skills in The Joys of Motherhood when he is talking to the golfers. "Nnaife, catching the word ’boy’, thought he was being addressed and replied, ’Yessir!’" (Emecheta 93). This response gave the golfers a good laugh at Nnaife’s expense. His poor language skills here made him a mere laughingstock. These incidents are just two of countless examples of the difficulty of surviving in the post-colonial world without European education. The post-colonial author realizes that the new native must seek the education of the other, just as the colonial native did.

Because post-colonial literature is an extension of colonial literature, the new characters it creates are not completely new. Instead, they are reincarnations of colonial characters, especially the colonial native. In education and language, the post-colonial native closely resembles the colonial native. He is still capable of learning European knowledge, but is often disadvantaged by his inability to access educational resources. The grotesque physical appearance and dehumanizing stereotypes that the colonial native possessed were passed down to the post-colonial European. As the new other, the post-colonial European more closely resembles the old other, the native, than his biological ancestor, the European. The European’s once prized light skin has become a sign of illness and he has adopted a stereotypical insensitivity that prevents him from being human. Colonial literature’s other, the native, did not end with colonialism. Instead, part of him became the new other, the post-colonial European, while the other part of him remained the native and became the new self. The colonial native is the root of post-colonial characters and, as such, continues to be an integral part of post-colonial literature.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Anchor Books, 1969.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1994.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. New York: Norton, 2003.