The Relationship Between Cultures

Differences between cultures continuously lead to prejudice and conflict. The two pieces of work the class focused on, Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka and The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings by Olaudah Equiano, are full of comments on cultural differences and relationships. The different beliefs and behaviors can cause prejudice and can result in violence and mistreatment that is often one-sided. Although they were written and published at drastically different time periods, they both send out the same message. They portray the ways in which those different cultures think about themselves, the world, and each other, and in-turn cause tension and violence.  

An important part of both the book and the play is self perception, specifically that of the natives. Equiano dedicates the entire first chapter of his narrative to describing his home country, Eboe. He goes into deep detail about their customs, clothing, currency, wealth, law, religion, and health. He writes about one man who was disciplined for kidnapping, despite his social position. This memory is proof that they were organized and fair. The people of Eboe

“are remarkably cheerful. Indeed cheerfulness and affability are two of the leading characteristics of our nation” (38).

He also mentions how their land is “rich” and “fruitful” with few poor people. This shows they are self-sufficient. He compares their religious practices to those of the Jewish. Equiano even describes the clothing in Eboe as

“brighter and richer than anything I have seen in Europe” (35).

One reason for these comparisons is that Equiano was trying to show the potential European readers that Eboe was successful and deserving of respect. He creates this image to counter what the Eurpoeans think of the African Americans, to show they are more similar than previously believed. Equiano writes so highly of Eboe to show how civilized it really was, and prove there is no reason to have such violent practices like slavery. The natives in Death and the King’s Horseman view themselves as traditional and rational. They have a lot of respect for their culture’s rituals and for those who partake in them. This level of importance is shown when Elesin is taken to jail. Iyaloja grows angry at him for not following through with the planned suicide.

“You have betrayed us. We fed your sweetmeats such as we hoped awaited you on the other side. But you said No, I  must eat the world’s left-overs… We said, the dew on earth’s surface was for you to wash your feet along the slopes of honour. You said No, I shall step in the vomit of cats and the droppings of mice… We called you leader and oh, how you led us on” (68).

Iyaloja feels betrayed by the disruption. They had laid out an honorable path for him, but he turned and decided to walk a different, much worse, way. She uses very oddly specific details, like cat vomit, to show the severity of the situation. I think this also shows how personal she takes the offense. Despite the interruption in the ritual being Pilkings fault, Elesin is still frowned upon because he was meant to be honorable and represent their culture, but he let them down. The natives believe their culture to be so important, they should be able to practice however they choose. 

A huge part of each culture is how they see the world. In this case, it is how religion influences them. In Equiano’s narrative, Christianity has a major role in how he sees the world and himself. While on a ship near the North Pole, he and his crew were forced to dislodge the ship after being hit by an iceberg. Equiano fell in the ocean and nearly drowned. This had a great impact on his mindset.

“Brought me gradually to think of eternity in such a manner as I never had done before. I had the fears of death hourly upon me, and shuddered at the thoughts of meeting the grim king of terrors… for we saw that our existence could not be long on the ice after leaving the ships” (175).

Equiano, for the first time in his life, sees death as a very real and possible thing. He is small and the universe is big and powerful. He fears the idea of death. After this experience, Equiano takes it upon himself to pray. He looks to God for help. Not long after, the winds change and the boat is set free. To him, this is a sign from God. If he practices the Christian religion, he can feel hopeful and safe. Again, Equiano is more similar to Europeans than they choose to believe. Equiano goes through many other experiences very similar to this one that proves to him that God is there. 

The natives in Death and the King’s Horseman also value their religion highly. One example of this is just in the title alone, Death and the King’s Horseman. By using the word “and” rather than “of” it paints death as a character rather than an action. This shows how the natives see death in their culture. The suicide is seen as an honorable way to assist the king in his own death. It also is shown as a very calm, trance-like, non-violent way for Elesin to pass, rather than an aggressive thing that should be punished by law like how the white settlers see it. In the play, the Natives are very different from the Europeans, but still deserve the same amount of respect. 

These perceptions and ideologies cause a lot of obvious tension between cultures in both the book and the play. How the cultures see each other influence their behavior. In Equiano, the prejudice that the white settlers have towards the Africans is very obvious. They steal them from their homes, often at a young age, and then force them into slavery. The conditions were unbelievably terrible. On the slave ships, there was not nearly enough room for the amount of people they had aboard. Sickness broke out and took people’s lives (Liverpool International Slavery Museum). After working day and night, they were beaten and raped. Slaves who had earned their freedom still had no rights. Often they would be taken back into slavery. Making a profit for themselves was also extremely difficult as the Europeans would take advantage of their power. Not only did slavery have an impact physically but also mentally. Families are separated, even children under the age of ten are forced to complete housework (Monticello). On the slave ships, they would jump off into the ocean, seeing death as a better option. We see this desperation in Equiano when he writes of being depressed and suicidal both as a slave and as a free man. He wonders if being a free man is truly the better option. The settlers viewed the Africans as objects to be used at their disposal. 

In Death and the King’s Horseman the settlers are extremely disrespectful and intrusive of the native’s culture. The white settlers impose their own values onto the natives. The entire play follows the story of Pilkings trying to arrest Elesin for a felony. Elesin’s actions, however, are only considered a felony in the eyes of the white settlers. To the natives it is an accepted and necessary ritual, they don’t see anything wrong with it. The settlers rip this away from Elesin only because it doesn’t line up with their cultural beliefs. 

The white settlers appropriated the Native’s clothing. Amusa finds Pilkings and his wife, Jane, wearing clothes of Amusa’s culture. He is horrified.

“He peeps through and observes the dancing couple, reacting with what is obviously a long-standing bewilderment. He stiffens suddenly, his expression changes to one of disbelief and horror… ‘I beg you sir, what you think you do that dress? It belong to dead cult, not for human being’” (24).

Pilkings and Jane consider the clothing meaningless and just a toy for them to play dress up with, despite it having a very serious significance in the culture. Later, when Jane meets Olunde at the ball, she seems excited to see him and proud of him as well.

“Olunde! Let’s look at you. What a fine young man you’ve become. Grand but solemn” (50).

Jane is pleased with Olunde’s cultural assimilation, seeing him as more civilized than the other characters. 

The way that the African’s viewed the white settlers has an interesting twist in Equiano. Because he is writing something that would be read by Europeans he often needs to word things just right to convince them of his case. An example of this is comparing Eboe to European ideologies like their clothing, system of law, and religion. Equiano does ask the question

“Are slaves more useful by being thus humbled to the condition of brutes, than they would be if suffered to enjoy the privileges of men?” (111).

Equiano rhetorically asks if slaves would be better workers if they had been treated better. He is calling attention to the unreasonable treatment of himself and the slaves around him. Similarly, the natives in Death and the King’s Horseman see the white settlers as violent and irrational. This is revealed through how the women treat Elesin and how they treat Amusa. In Act 1, the women speak highly of Elesin and praise him repeatedly. When Elesin shows he is annoyed by this praise, they beg for forgiveness.

“It does not bear thinking. If we offend you now we have mortified the gods. We offend heaven itself. Father of us all, tell us where we went astray” (16).

The women compare Elesin to heaven, like he is God. These women have an extreme amount of love and respect for Elesin. 

However, Amusa is treated entirely differently. The women immediately block the path through the market when he tries to ride through with the other policemen. Amusa is harassed and his hat and batons are stolen. They taunt Amusa and make him out to be dumb when he explains to them that he is there to arrest Elesin. There is a clear lack of respect towards him despite his status as a police officer as well. The women leave the other officers alone and aim their hatred at Amusa. The reason for this difference is because Amusa works for the white man. One of the women claims

“We don’t want the eater of white left-overs at the feast their hands have prepared” (39)

This change in loyalty means Amusa has turned his back on his own culture and they look down on him for that. 

The final portrayal of the white settlers as overpowering and violent is in Act 5 when the women arrive at the jail to see Elesin. Pilkings threatens violence to control the crowd and Iyaloja steps in.

 “to prevent one death, you will actually make other deaths? Ah, great is the wisdom of the white race” (73).

The natives are very aware of the irrationality of the white settlers. 

Death and The King’s Horseman and The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings convey the relationship between two cultures. In Equiano, he uses the similarities between him and the Europeans to counter the violence that occurs. In Death and the King’s Horseman, they argue that their extreme differences are no reason to cause conflict. These relationships are dependent on each group’s self perception, perception of the world, and perception of each other. These factors cause tension, discrimination, and extreme mistreatment. 

Works Cited

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. Penguin Group.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. W. W. Norton & Company.

Saran, 09/10/2015 by, et al. “Life on Board Slave Ships.” Black History Month 2020, 8 Sept. 2018, 

“Slavery at Monticello FAQs- Work.” Monticello

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