Literary Analysis Podcast: Colonialism
Hello everyone, and welcome to the Literary Analysis Podcast with me as your host, Luke Harding. This podcast is designed to explain difficult and important concepts through their interpretations represented in various literary works. Today, we will be discovering colonialism as represented in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. I will be tying in some other literary pieces, however this episode is built primarily around this play, first performed in 1975. Let’s start by defining colonialism as a term, then we can dive into its importance and the play itself.
Colonialism, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is the “practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another.” Now, that is great as a written definition, but what colonialism actually means to the people it impacts requires a deeper dive into history as well as the present day. When the word colonialism is mentioned, many people jump to the ideas of Britain colonizing America centuries ago. While yes, this is an example of colonialism, it is a much more expansive thing that has impacted virtually all corners of the world. Colonialism, one can argue, is still a major component of international relations today, not just with physical militaristic conquering but with cultural and economic dominance as well.
Now that we understand that colonialism extends beyond militaristic conquerings that were squashed in the past, we have our historical backdrop for our discussion on Soyinka’s play. We can start with a generic plot overview. The play takes place in an area of Africa where British forces have colonized. We start with a discussion between Elesin, who holds the position of the king’s horseman, then there is the Praise-Singer, and lastly Iyaloja, an older woman with a prominent position within the tribe. It is unknown to the reader at first, but the discussion is over Elesin’s ritual suicide. It is tradition for the king’s horseman to commit suicide after the king’s death, as he is to provide guidane through the afterlife. Elesin then chooses a random woman with whom he decides to conceive a child with. Meanwhile, Simon Pilkings and his wife Jane hear of these plans and, as they are British and unfamiliar with the culture, plan to stop the ritual. Then, as the ritual is taking place, Olunde, Elesin’s son, returns from Britain. He had been sent by the Pilkings to study and practice medicine. His discussion with Jane Pilkings is where we can observe most of the play’s criticism of colonialism. Olunde argues in favor of his father’s suicide, something that Jane cannot understand. Olunde describes colonialism well in one sentence. He tells this to Jane: “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, 50). He goes on to describe the criticism in their attempts to halt the ceremony. He describes the ongoing war that Britain is engaged in a “mass suicide” and he suggests that this is by no means worse than their ritual suicide practice and claims that they simply change the name to imply positive messages. It is then discovered that Simon Pilkings had succeeded in stopping the ritual suicide. He locks Elesin in a cell in his basement. The people from the village, including Iyaloja and the Praise-Singer arrive. They reveal Olunde’s body to Elesin, as he had taken his own life. Elesin then swiftly strangles himself with the chains within the cell, and the play ends. So, now let’s dive into some major components of colonialism that demonstrate themselves within the text.
First, I want to discuss Olunde’s assimilation into white culture. Olunde, similar to Equiano, spent time in England to earn expertise in academia. Assimilation plays a major role when discussing colonialism, as it involves the process of teaching one group of people (the colonized) to adopt the practices and culture of the other (the colonizers). Equiano was a prominent abolitionist writer who, in his life, was assimilated into British culture. In his book The Interesting Narrative, Equiano argues in favor of the dismantlement of slavery by discussing things such as the golden rule, a prominent component of European religion. Equiano is a fervent believer in God as seen through the New Testament, and that is demonstrated throughout his memoir. He describes how he lost hope and started believing that “if it were my fate not to be freed I never should be so, and all my endeavours for that purpose would be fruitless. In the midst of these thoughts I therefore looked up with prayers anxiously to God for my liberty” (Equiano). Equiano uses his faith in God in everything, even in his criticism of British practices i.e. slavery. Olunde too calls upon his experiences within white culture to criticize it, as he discusses how war is not better than ritual sacrifice. So, while assimilation calls on its partakers to abandon aspects of their original culture and, in a sense, give in to the idea that their peoples’ practices are worse than that of the colonizers, it also, as is the case for both Olunde and Equiano, provides the means by which many criticize the practices of colonization. We could continue to discuss assimilation for a lengthy period of time because it is such a prominent and impactful field, but for now let’s just move on.
The other overseen component to the play that I wanted to mention was Equiano’s wife and the overall role of women in this piece. In the opening scene, Equiano simply chooses the woman with whom he wants to conceive a child. There appears to be no consideration of consent in this scene. Also, later on, Elesin talks to Jane Pilkings. He says to her “that is my wife sitting down there. You notice how still and silent she sits? My business is with your husband” (Soyinka 66). Elesin does not see the role of women to be of contribution to the discussion, for the most part. Iyaloja is the only woman who seems to have any influence over him. This is another area in which the moral lines of colonization can get blurry. Cultures view different groups in a variety of ways, and there are cultural practices that separate rights based on sex. While outside groups might be critical of those practices, the culture itself views them as traditional and necessary to their own wellbeing.
This is why colonialism is such an important topic to discuss. There are blurred moral lines that can often have us second-guessing and reevaluating our stances. Take assimilation. While it can be argued (and I generally do argue) that assimilation is an immoral practice, it’s outcomes provided a perspective on which Equiano can make an argument against the institution of slavery by appealing to the religious beliefs of Europeans. Olunde’s arguments about war as a mass suicide and claiming Britain hypocritical cannot be made without years of practicing medicine on the frontlines of the war. So, assimilation may be an immoral practice, but it has given opportunities for bright minds to bring about positive change. Are the results of Equiano’s assimilation enough to justify the taught abandonment of his culture? Colonization brings about a number of questions on the roles of cultures and their impacts on one another. Is there a moral standard upon which all cultures should be placed? When should groups step in and criticize a culture for discriminating based on sex, religion, race, etc.? And when you do look to criticize, is there a responsibility to stop and ask oneself ‘am I simply masking another example of this practice, like war as mass suicide?’ Are there modern examples of a powerful group’s hypocrisy when criticizing other cultures? Colonialism extends beyond militaristic control and it highlights the ways in which cultures are interconnected, and whether or not they should be.
That’s all for today’s episode of the Literary Analysis Podcast, thank you for taking the time to listen. I hope you learned something new today, and I encourage you to continue the fight in bringing the written word to life.
I chose to do a podcast episode because I always find podcasts to be engaging and informative. I also have a lot of experience in audio editing, so I figured I should lean into my strengths. While I initially wanted to add a video explanation of some sorts (whiteboard drawings to accompany the audio), the podcast itself took longer than I anticipated. The process of finding information, writing a script, and recording of the audio work took a lot longer than I initially thought, even though I have experience with it. I figured the process of doing a video, something that I do not have a lot of experience with, would take far longer. In addition, I am unsure if I have quality video editing software on my computer.
Originally, I considered doing something argumentative where I discuss the negative impacts of colonialism by going over Death and the King’s Horseman and argue against it. However, after consideration, I came to the conclusion that the podcasts and explanation videos that I find most helpful are rather centered, simply providing information and then challenging the listeners to come up with their own stances and beliefs. I wanted to ask challenging questions that don’t have simple answers and call the reader into a more broad and expansive conversation on the role of colonialism in the ever-more-connected world.
I think this is where I wanted to go with the question of “why is literature important?” I wanted to challenge the listener to read texts in a cultural context and ask important questions in regards to colonialism and other topics. I may consider doing another one of these podcasts for a future project, as I like the way it came out. Again, I want to promote the ongoing conversation in literature and how these texts relate to complex issues that don’t have simple answers.
The episode ended up being longer than I anticipated, but I just wanted to cover everything that I had planned on covering. I probably could have done away with most of the plot overview, but I figured that if it were a real podcast, many listeners would not have read the text and it is important to understand what happens in the play in order to understand its significance. I especially wanted to cover Act IV, the scene in which Olunde has his impactful conversation with Jane Pilkings. This scene carries what could be seen as the most weight in terms of the colonialism conversation. Olunde makes a number of profound points about the actions of the British, and I felt as if it deserves mentioning and additional attention. I chose to then tackle some of the issues that may not be obvious to the listener based on the plot. I decided to give special attention to Olunde’s character, more specifically his assimilation into British culture. I thought this was a great place to tie in Equiano’s piece, as that is something that he experiences as well. Again, I did not want to provide too much opinion on the piece and instead state the facts as they were and then ask challenging questions that would lead the listener into an in-depth conversation and consideration of the practice of assimilation. I also gave special attention to the role of women within the play. Again, I wanted to state facts and then ask challenging questions without clear-cut answers.
Ultimately, I wanted the podcast to connect a piece of literature to an important and complex conversation about colonialism in the modern world. That is why literature is important. It provides a variety of perspectives on intercultural issues and it even calls attention to issues that we weren’t aware of.
Equiano, Olaudah. “THE LIFE.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African”, by OLAUDAH EQUIANO., 2005, www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm.
Kohn, Margaret, and Kavita Reddy. “Colonialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 29 Aug. 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/colonialism/.
Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. W. W. Norton, 2003.
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One thought on “First Major Project”
Luke, this came out really good! I’m glad I was able to see it beforehand and after, because when we just saw the script, I was really excited to see how it came out.
I like how delicately you addressed the cultural differences relevant to Death and The King’s Horseman. I particularly enjoyed how you looked at the value of different genders in the piece and how each culture treats women. You pointed to what could be seen as problematic behavior, but stopped short of condemning a cultural practice. This shows a lot of careful consideration about what you wanted to say, and how you wanted to say it.