Colonialism in the Name of Religion: The Coming of a New Age
By Kyle Lyman
European colonialism introduced the coming of a new age for the continent of Africa. Many traditions and customs fell to pieces as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe recounts in Things Fall Apart. British expansion introduced the white man, bible in one hand a gun in the other, and his influence over the Nigerian Igbo tribe. By comparing and contrasting colonial religion to the Igbo animism the motives to assimilate Igbo culture will be better understood.
During the early 1900s, mainstream society believed that African ideology was both primitive and savage. Most published literature at this time only reflected European perspectives. Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as an attempt to encourage society to understand both sides of colonialism through a limited, third person perspective. This lens captured the life of Okonkwo and his reactions to the new age of religion and colonialism. Through an Igbo perspective Achebe’s audience would perhaps be able to empathize with this now-strangled culture.
Primitiveness in African culture was condemned to be polytheistic, sinful and a lesser religion than Christianity. Part I gives the audience details of Igbo customs and law, and Part II shows two opposing religions colliding: British Christianity and Igbo animism. The influence of Christianity was rooted within the Jewish law forming what western society now calls Judeo-Christianity. This movement alluded to the potential afterlife with one God through His son, Jesus Christ. Assimilation required a culture to forfeit all false worship of idols and live a life pleasing to Christian worship. Polytheism was not going to gain entry into Heaven. There was no room to expand upon Christianity and the British never took into account the other side’s worship. Missionaries sought to impose their own ideology upon the “uncivilized” culture. They failed to realize that what seems strange to one culture could have been a different interpretation of the very same practice.
Christian missionaries came into Igbo territory [southeast Nigeria] attempting to share the gospel for two reasons: to save souls and to mold the soon to be Nigerians into a British lifestyle. One missionary, Mr. Brown, attempted to understand the culture. Another, Mr. Smith, sought only to cut and divide bringing only the “worthy” into Christianity. Each missionary had it wrong. They didn’t realize that the fundamental Christian concepts of God were actually similar to Igbo theism. This is revealed when Mr. Brown debates with a villager named Akunna stating that “We also believe in Him [the One Creator] and call Him Chukwu [Christianity calls him Jehovah]. He made the entire world and the other gods” (Achebe 179). The problem was that Mr. Brown still believed that the “other gods” [animistic sculptures or human mediums] were idols, not speakers of God. Without success, Akunna reminds Mr. Brown that if God “finds that he cannot do the work alone, then he appoints” (Achebe 180) others to serve for him. This is quite similar to contemporary ministries in which God is found through charismatic leaders.
Devout tribe members like Akunna refused to convert, but the missionaries were successful in converting Igbo osu, or outcasts, preaching messages such as “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Christianity was a religion for the broken and the ambiguous struggle of light vs. darkness was quite appealing for outcasts such as Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye. Those who didn’t convert had to deal with the establishment of a British government. Since there was no such thing as separation of Church and State, the monarchy issued a legal system to be established “in Umuofia to protect the followers of their religion. It was even said that they had hanged a man who killed a missionary” (Achebe 155) upholding God’s law. This is where the problem lies. This wasn’t just an attempt to share God’s word. Instead it was an opportunity for the British to expand territory in an attempt to become a global power.
A British colonist, Frederick Lugard, argued in defense that “a higher civilization was brought into contact with barbarism, with the inevitable result, as history teaches, that boundaries were enlarged in the effort to protect the weak from the tyranny of the strong, to extend the rule of justice and liberty, to protect traders, and missions, and to check anarchy and bloodshed on our frontiers” (Lugard 40). He goes on to argue that their sole purpose was to protect humanity, but only if a foreign land were under colonial rule. As my professor Dr. Alpana Sharma stated: “This is language pertaining to British colonial interests, and not the interest of the natives.” Igbo culture would be forever changed from this experience.
Non-converts recognized this and went on to call the missionaries “efulefu”, or the “worthless empty man who sold his machete and wore the sheath to battle” (Achebe 143). Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would consider the “name calling” part of the coming of a new age. The older existing ideology [Thesis] would always find disharmony with the new ideology [Antithesis]. No generation wants to let go of their habitual customs, but typically the newer generation prevails [Synthesis] (Orenstein). This is taken into account with Okonkwo fighting back in the end without success. Upon realizing that there wouldn’t be a revolution he resides to hanging himself. This act is a symbolic reflection of the dying Thesis being replaced by the post-colonial Synthesis of Igbo culture. While suicide was an abomination to the Igbo tribe, Okonkwo believed that there was no such thing as Igbo culture anymore – it was now a white man’s culture and he would rather die.
The Igbo learned that “the white man was very clever in coming quietly and peacefully with his religion. The Igbo tribe were amused at the missionary’s foolishness and allowed them to stay, but the clan could no longer act as one. The white man put a knife on the things that held them together and now the Igbo tribe has fallen apart” (Achebe 176). Colonialism in the name of religion brought the coming of a new age that would inevitably leave future Nigeria in political unrest. An example is the Biafran War. Had this been about peacefully sharing western gospels, then perhaps Okonkwo and the Igbo tribe would still be alive with a choice in what direction to take. Achebe’s writing reveals that cultures must always be aware of ulterior motives within an offering. Things may have fallen apart for Igbo culture, but through their texts an authentic culture and be restored – to an extent.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 50th anniversary Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Lugard, Frederick. “The Value of British Rule in the Tropics.” (1920), 35-45.
Matthew. Biblegateway. 25 Apr. 2009 <www.biblegateway.com>.
Orenstein, Dr. David M. “Hegelian and Neo-Hegelian Perspectives.” Philosophy of Social Sciences Class. Wright State University, Dayton, OH. Jan. 2009.