In the African novel Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe, the missionaries first came with subtlety and what seemed to be innocence. Not even the oracle could have foreseen the impact these foreigners would have on them. Although this book is fiction, it describes and mirrors real events of colonialism throughout North African history. For example, when the British sought to colonize Nigeria, they came bearing diligence, but with a plan. Similarly, in Things Fall Apart, we understand that the missionaries came few in number, but pretty soon they had imperialized most of Umuofia. With the conflicts Achebe presents in his novel, the question as to how colonialism shaped our perception of “Third World” countries is one of difficulty, and through the use of missionaries and religion, they achieved what many scholars consider, subtle destruction.
To know how colonialism has impacted our perception of third-world countries, one must first understand what it means. By definition, colonialism refers to “the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area”(Oxford Dictionary). We see this most commonly in the novel when the missionaries first came to share their religion, but over time, they acquired land, resources, information, and loyalty. The foreigners appeared weak, but with due process, they had conquered the natives and as Oknonwo put it, “our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever.” (Achebe 176). In this excerpt, Okonkwo feels betrayed and hopeless because his own people refuse to fight along his side, but furthermore, he is forced to admit that the white man, meaning foreigner, is very clever. In the novel his character is associated with pride, so for him to express his anger shows that Okonkwo, arguably the Igbo people’s fiercest warrior, feels the essence of defeat and solitude. This is the main reason why I feel he ends up committing suicide toward the end of the book.
In “Nigeria”, a collection of documents written by The British Office, they detail information regarding geography, politics, and more importantly, a description of some of the native tribes in the region of Nigeria. For the sake of this paper, I will elaborate on the ladder. In the text, it says, “The population of Nigeria is extremely heterogeneous. The fundamental type is that of the negro, found in its purest form in the Niger delta and the forests of the south. Farther north, on the savanna lands, are negroid peoples…Negroes.—There are an enormous number of negro tribes, of which the more important are as follows…” (Nigeria 9). In its context, this section of the passage is discussing the physical make-up of Nigeria’s population and uses the term “heterogeneous”, which means diverse in this sense. However, they continue to specifically reference the native tribes as “negroes”. Of course, the term used in today’s age is considered vulgar, but in this context, I consider it valid that these British authorities look at all of the people inhabiting Nigeria the same: Black, poor, primitive, and lazy.
For further evidence, the passage talks about the European power expanding their regime by demolishing the Niger Company and implementing new systems that are predominantly run by English men. This economic situation translated to the lack of black representation in the country, as well as severe decreases in pay rates. In addition, the text says, “The people of Nigeria vary greatly in economic capacity. The negroes of the delta appear to be the least capable folk in the country: they do little more than provide themselves with the food necessary for existence, a task of no great difficulty in the district where they live.” (Nigeria 41). The British office declared that the majority of Nigeria was made up of black people, yet according to this passage, they are the least capable, meaning productive. What’s more, they go on to say that this shouldn’t be the case, as they are provided with abundant resources in the region.
The major powers of Europe initially came to Africa with the intent to uphold and abolish the remaining slave trade occurring in Africa. Although succeeding, they did not leave, nor did they plan to. Instead, they built ports, businesses, bases, churches, and they would even go on to establish governments. To add, the British regime did this with racial aggression and by means of nationalist supremacy. Through this book, written by the British authorities themselves, we learn that the empire sought economic and political gain using imperialistic methods to achieve its goals.
In Achebe’s novel, the main character, Okonkwo, watches as the foreign men destroy his nation. He writes, “Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking and falling apart” (Achebe 183). By the use of the word “mourned”, which means to have deep sorrow, we learn of Okonkwo’s pain. The one thing that grieved and ultimately killed him was the division of his people, which was directly caused by the missionaries. They initially came to enlighten, or present new ideas to the tribes of Umuofia, but soon we’d discover they had much deeper plans.
Similarly, in Tonya Langford’s State Failure and the Politics of Intervention, she discusses why a native colony collapses post-colonization. She writes, “The capacity of a regime to destroy state structures through repression and neglect brings about the ‘breakdown not only of the governmental superstructure but also that of the societal infrastructure.’ As the government falls, civil society is dealt lethal blows” (Langford 65). In its context, I believe this passage means that even with a government’s potential to create destruction, it produces it in numerous ways. One example the author used was “civil society”, which refers to a society centered around similar interests and beliefs. This system starts to collapse when people arrive with contrasting ideas, or in this case, religion.
Upon their arrival, the missionaries came peaceably with their religion. In the novel, the author presents an interesting analogy that when thought about, is relevant to the topic at hand. He mentioned how when the missionaries first came, they were given a small portion of land but pretty soon, as their influence increased, so did their property. They went from subtly ministering to the natives, to building churches and offering medicine, and pretty soon they had established their own laws and systems of regulation. But what’s the problem?
In Enrique and Fernando Galvan’s analysis of the novel, they describe the missionaries’ true intentions as they sought to influence Northern Africa. In their article, it says, “To sum up, Chinua Achebe presents in Things Fall Apart, the whole strategy of European domination, which is based on the disempowering of a people, firstly by introducing a series of ideas that openly challenge their beliefs from a foreign perspective”. They go on to reason that another method is dividing up the people by those “who are learned…and those who are not”(Galvan 11). With their input, we can gather that the missionaries in the novel play just another role in the grand scheme of colonization. They describe the first step of colonialism with the term “openly”, to show that they don’t fear the native people, but in addition, it’s to display their sovereignty over the tribes. The missionaries believe that their religion is the only one to be true, and perhaps that’s part of where they draw their power from.
Through Things Fall Apart, I learned that colonialism is not so much different from imperialism. I discovered that through Nigeria, colonization ties into racism and sovereignty, as the British described the tribes as “barbaric and primitive”. In Tanya Langford’s “Things Fall Apart: State Failure and the Politics of Intervention”, we’re presented with examples of how colonialism fails, and through their analysis of Christianity in the novel, Enrique and Fernando Galvan give an interesting perspective of how colonialism succeeds with the use of religion. From all of these inputs, I learned that colonialism is a slow process of imperialism, and that in its wake, it destroys people groups, cultures, governments, and religion with the use of the ladder and various techniques. Even now, as I think back to elementary school, how often did we see Northern Africa as this poor, primitive, and underdeveloped society with its population barely struggling to stay alive? In contrast, how often did we learn of colonialism being a factor in those circumstances? It was only through Things Fall Apart that I realized most of our actions and being are controlled by outward opinions and powers that don’t include our own. Sometimes these factors don’t appear right away, or maybe they seem inconspicuous, but subtle destruction runs deeper than just colonialism.