In his play, Death and the King’s Horseman, Wole Soyinka explores the clash of modern Western and traditional African cultures and values through a real-life incident that happened among the Yoruba people of Nigeria in 1946. The village king has recently died, and in the tradition of Yoruba customs, his horseman, Elesin Oba, is expected to commit a ritual suicide. Simon Pilkings, a colonial administrator, is horrified and attempts to prevent the ritual by imprisoning Elesin. Many post-colonial readings of the play focus on the ethics and Eurocentrism of Pilkings preventing the ritual. However, post-colonial theory can be applied to a myriad of aspects of the play, not only the primary plot point. For example, Joseph, a native African who serves as Pilkings’s steward boy, can be interpreted as an example of, or even a symbol for, a colonial subject. Colonial subjects are, according to Critical Theory Today, “colonized persons who did not resist colonial subjugation because they were taught to believe in British superiority and, therefore, in indigenous inferiority.” This is demonstrated through Joseph’s cultural and religious conversion, his relationship with Pilkings as the colonizer and colonized, and his identity as the “other.” Soyinka, in his post-colonial narrative Death and the King’s Horseman, uses the character Joseph as an example of a colonial subject to cultural imperialism.
As a colonial subject, Joseph is “converted” from his indigenous African heritage to the Western culture that colonized his nation, resulting in a double-consciousness. Joseph’s
cultural conversion is demonstrated by his mimicry of Western culture; he imitates his colonizers in dress, speech, behavior, and lifestyle. As Pilkings’s steward boy, he speaks in broken English, saying what Pilkings wants to hear. He is also a religious convert to Christianity. When Joseph tells Pilkings that he is a Christian and that seeing him in a Nigerian uniform of death has no power, Pilkings declares, “Thank God for some sanity at last. Now Joseph, answer me on the honour of a Christian…” (27). Pilkings views Joseph’s conversion as something that brings him sanity and honour. This causes Joseph to have a double-consciousness, a struggle between two cultural identities. However, he lacks double-hybridity, the ability to see both cultures as positive aspects of identity. Joseph says to Pilkings, “Master is white man. And good Christian. Black man juju can’t touch master” (29). Here, Joseph demonstrates Eurocentric thinking, the idea that European culture and values are the standard, and anything else is “other.” Although both Western and African cultures are part of Joseph’s identity, he views his own indigenous roots as inferior to the colonizing culture, as depicted in his relationship with Pilkings.
The character of Pilkings represents the cultural imperialism that infiltrates Joseph’s indigenous identity. Colonizers, such as Pilkings, convert native people to their way of life because they believe this is the correct way to live. Jane chides Pilkings for his disrespectful speech regarding Joseph’s baptism: “It isn’t my preaching you have to worry about, it’s the preaching of the missionaries who preceded you here. When they make converts they really convert them” (30). Joseph has not only been fully converted to Christianity, but to the same Eurocentric mindset that Pilkings brought with him to Africa. Jane also says to Pilkings, “He’s going to hand in his notice tomorrow you mark my word” (30), insinuating that her concern is not for Joseph’s security in his faith, but how she and Pilkings can benefit from his conversion. Despite being of a lower social and economic status, colonial subjects are often exploited by colonizers. Although Joseph converted to Pilkings way of life, he is not seen as equal to Pilkings due to his identity as a colonial subject.
Joseph, as a colonial subject, will never be fully accepted as a member of the colonizing culture. As a colonizer, Pilkings does not view Joseph as a full member of the dominant culture nor of Christianity. While trying to learn more about the upcoming ritual, Pilkings says to Joseph, “Don’t tell me all that holy water nonsense also wiped out your tribal memory” (24), insinuating that he expects Joseph’s faith to consist of syncretism, infiltrated by the inferior beliefs of tribal animism. An “other” is seen as “less than” compared to those of the dominant culture. It’s not another “right” way of thinking, but something strange and distant. Due to Joseph’s indigenous roots, he will never be fully accepted as a full member of Western culture by his colonizers. Despite his efforts to mimic colonial culture as a cultural and religious convert, he will always be considered an “other,” inferior to those who are not colonial subjects. It is not only Pilkings (the colonizer) who sees Joseph (the colonized) as inferior; Joseph has been taught to believe in British superiority and even sees himself as inferior to his colonizers.
In Death and The King’s Horseman, Soyinka focuses on the struggle between a Colonial member of the intellectual elite and the horseman of the late Yoruba king. Through the primary plot, the reader considers the ethics of one culture intervening in another, and to what extent the characters should accept differences in culture and morality. However, examining the minor characters, such as Joseph, provides a unique post-colonial reading that depicts the effect of colonialism on the average colonial subject. Joseph is influential in neither his indigenous or colonial identity. As a colonial subject, he is used as a pawn in colonialization. By attempting to understand the character of Joseph, the reader can gain greater empathy for the colonial subjects who have been stripped of their indigenous identity by colonialism, which sees them not as full members of their converted culture, but as a less-than “savage other,” neither fully African nor Western.