No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Context


Western Colonialism in History and Literature

Beginning in about 1500, various European countries explored, conquered, settled, and exploited large portions of the world, particularly in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. This phenomenon is known as Western colonialism. The colonization of Africa was particularly intense during the 19th century, with almost the entire continent violently subjugated to European powers. Between 1854 and 1874 alone, France and Britain created formal colonies in Senegal, the Gold Coast, and Lagos. A decade later, 13 European nations met in Berlin for a series of negotiations called the Berlin West Africa Conference (November 15, 1884–February 26, 1885). During these meetings the attending European powers decided how to carve up the Congo River basin in Central Africa. The conference marked the upswing of the "Scramble for Africa," in which European nations competed for territory on the continent.

Western colonialism was promoted by a discourse justifying it, often on racist, white-supremacist grounds. For example, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853–55), by French writer and diplomat Arthur de Gobineau (1816–82), argues that whites are a superior race. British writers of the 19th century, including Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) and Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), claimed that Europeans had a duty to bring civilization to nonwhite peoples through colonization. This justification was called the "white man's burden," after the title of a poem (1899) by Kipling.

In No Longer at Ease author Chinua Achebe's characters discuss the literature of Western colonialism. Thus, while Achebe contributes to African literature while writing his novels, he also situates his books in the context of what Europeans had written about Africa. The main character, Obi Okonkwo, thinks about British novelist Joseph Conrad's (1857–1924) Heart of Darkness (1899), which depicts a confrontation between "civilized" Europeans and "uncivilized" Africans. In Chapter 5 Obi gets involved in a discussion of "the modern novel" with one of the Englishmen conducting his job interview. Their discussion "ranged from Graham Greene to [Amos] Tutuola." Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola (1920–97) wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town (1952) in the English dialect spoken by many Nigerians, and it became the first Nigerian novel to attain international recognition. The other novel Obi and his interviewer discuss is The Heart of the Matter (1948), set in West Africa, by British novelist Graham Greene (1904–91). Thus in ranging "from Graham Greene to Tutuola," their discussion makes the point that modern African literature develops from the literature of Western colonialism. This development does not mean that Achebe thinks of African literature as inferior or secondary. But he realizes that African novelists have to deal with African history, and part of that history is the record of Western colonialism.

Nigerian History

No Longer at Ease is set in Nigeria in the late 1950s, when independence from the British is on the horizon. The British had gained a foothold in Nigeria during the 1850s, when they established a presence around Lagos on Nigeria's eastern coast. By 1861 the British had strengthened their hold over Nigeria and governed by indirect rule through local leaders.

In the 1870s emissaries from Belgium established trade with native Africans in territory surrounding the Congo River. This act inspired a land grab by various European countries for colonies in Africa.

German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–98) convened the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 to formalize borders drawn by the individual European countries involved in the colonization of Africa. Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden–Norway, and Turkey attended. The United States was invited but had no interest in establishing a presence in Africa. There were no African representatives at the meeting, and the borders that the Europeans created ignored the differences among groups distinct in their beliefs, languages, and practices. The imperative for each European nation was to develop Christianity and trade. By 1914 nearly all of Africa was colonized by European countries.

Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria officially became British protectorates in 1906 and were united as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914. In 1958 Britain agreed to Nigerian independence, which became official in 1960. Nigeria was declared a federal republic in 1963. The 1960s were a tumultuous time for Nigeria. Divisions between the semifeudal Muslim Hausa-Fulani people of the southeast, the monarchist Yoruba of the southwest, and the predominantly Christian and democratic communities of the Ibo north resulted in civil conflict and political instability. When Achebe was writing No Longer at Ease, these various peoples had spread throughout the cities but had not integrated, because the groups and their interests were so different.

Aimé Césaire and Discourse on Colonialism

In No Longer at Ease Obi Okonkwo's friend Joseph recalls the time Obi got in trouble, as a schoolboy, for writing an appreciative letter to German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). When Obi wrote the letter, World War II (1939–45) was underway. As a citizen of an English colony, Obi would have been expected to take the English side in the war. Obi's act of schoolboy rebellion also resonates with ideas about colonialism that were current at the same time Achebe was writing No Longer at Ease. In 1950 Martiniquan poet (from the Caribbean island of Martinique), playwright, and politician Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) published Discourse on Colonialism. The essay was about the necessity for African colonies to free themselves from European domination. Reappropriating the rhetoric of imperialist discourse, Césaire argued that the so-called civilizing mission was inherently decivilizing and served to decivilize the colonizers themselves. This influential work of anti-colonialism also contained views on Adolf Hitler that may have seemed scandalous at the time.

Césaire pointed out the similarity between Hitler's actions in Europe and the actions of European colonizers in Africa, suggesting that Europeans were hypocritically outraged at Hitler's applying to Europe the imperialist tactics that Europe reserved for nonwhite colonial subjects. Hitler had rounded up in concentration camps people of various groups, including political dissidents, Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and the physically and mentally disabled. Once interned they were either directly executed or exposed to the risk of death through disease, starvation, or exhaustion. The parallels to colonialism were too obvious for Césaire to have to spell them out. For example, early in the 20th century, German forces rounded up into concentration camps many Nama and Herero people in the colony of German South-West Africa (now Namibia). Roughly three-fourths of the entire Herero population were killed, either by execution or by starvation when they fled into the desert.

Because of the parallel between Nazi violence and colonial violence, Césaire argued that Hitler was not an aberration of European civilization. Instead, Hitler was its culmination. If most right-thinking European people rejected Hitler, Césaire argued, that was only because he turned colonial techniques of domination against other white people. "It is not [Hitler's] humiliation of man as such" that Europeans object to, wrote Césaire. "It is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man," he followed. Césaire's book, which remains a touchstone for postcolonial studies, was very influential in African thinking about colonialism, and it is entirely possible that author Chinua Achebe was thinking about it when crafting the scene where Obi writes to Hitler.

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