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The period comprising the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century is known for the European colonization and separation of Africa. European powers had been vying to expand their territories by acquiring new lands and assimilating the so-called “lesser races” ever since the discovery of the New World and advancements in sailing technology. This opened new horizons for exploration, expansion, colonization, and conquest.
These factors served as the foundation for many metropolises such as the English, French, and Spanish empires. Many indigenous populations and their cultures came into direct contact with the advanced European culture and suffered from the process of Westernization. This pattern was repeated, to various degrees, in many countries, including India, China, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, and various African territories. The process of cultural competition and gradual cultural assimilation is well-described in the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
The novel was written in 1958 and describes not only the traditional ways of life of an indigenous African tribe, but also the tribe’s first encounter with European explorers and missionaries and the gradual transformation of their culture into a Westernized imitation of itself, fully subservient to its colonial masters (Quayson, 1994). The purpose of this research is to analyze the reasons why the indigenous cultures of Africa did not fare well in direct competition with Western culture, drawing on Chinua Achebe’s novel as a case study.
The Igbo Tribe as Described By Chinua Achebe
African tribal culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is represented by the Igbo tribe, a relatively small indigenous community living on a riverbank in eastern Nigeria (Quayson, 1994). In order to understand why this tribe lost in competition with Western culture and subsequently fell apart and vanished, it is first necessary to analyze it: the tribe’s traditions, religious beliefs, relationships between different social strata, and level of technological advancement.
The Igbo tribe displays all the signs of a developed community with its own intricate culture—members of the community have their own language, their own borders, a judicial system and set of laws everyone is expected to follow, a list of traditions and rituals, its own religion, and a sense of national self-awareness. In this patriarchal society, the dominant roles are largely reserved for males: The village chiefs are all males, and they make all important decisions.
They are also the hunters and the main providers for the family. The women are largely given secondary roles revolving around housekeeping, childbearing, and medicine. While a woman holds one of the most powerful roles in the village, that of the High Priestess, the majority of women in the village do not get the same treatment. The main hero of the story, a man named Okonkwo, can be frequently seen abusing his wives and beating them for minor missteps.
On the whole, Igbo culture is presented as a violent culture, with males engaging in ritual combat to assert their dominance and win the admiration and respect of fellow villagers. Weakness is frowned upon, as can be seen through Okonkwo’s hatred toward his own father, who was not exactly the definition of an Alpha male. The religious traditions of the village resemble shamanism and are sometimes outright brutal.
In one scene, Okonkwo is called upon to murder his adopted son, Ikemefuna, in order to appease the spirits for a transgression committed against the tribe three years earlier (Achebe, 1994). Other acts of religious cruelty involve another village following the orders of their Oracle to kill a white man. The people of Igbo view twins with superstitious fear. In many cases, if twins are born, they are left in the wild to die (Achebe, 1994). Nevertheless, the majority of the population is shown to be deeply religious and spiritual, using the names of their gods and spirits in everyday life and greatly fearing the Evil Forest. The tribe is portrayed as having a set of laws as several trials are depicted throughout the novel.
During one of these trials, Okonkwo is judged for beating his wife on a sacred holiday, whereas others involve accidental killing and another case of wife-beating, this time by a different husband (Achebe, 1994). These scenes show that violence against women is generally frowned upon, despite being a frequent occurrence.
The Western Culture as Described by Chinua Achebe
Although Chinua Achebe’s writings might be expected to illustrate the plight of indigenous cultures in the face of merciless colonization and assimilation by the West, his descriptions of the representatives of Western culture are somewhat benign, if not benevolent. The first encounter with a white man is mentioned in a dialogue between Okonkwo and a tribal chief. It is said that a neighboring village was visited by a white man on a “metal horse” —an inventive description for a bicycle.
The villagers killed him and, in return, were wiped out by colonial soldiers. In this encounter, a representative of the West is shown as a victim, and the following retribution as just, since not even Okonkwo protests against the retaliation, calling the villagers foolish for killing a person they knew nothing about (Achebe, 1994). This is not surprising, considering the history of African tribes and clans is filled with wars and examples of genocide toward one another (Quayson, 1994).
Okonkwo and the Igbo tribe come into direct contact with Western culture after missionaries arrive at their village. These missionaries are met with caution but without hostility as the destruction of the neighboring tribe has taught the tribe a lesson. In order to spread Christianity among the Igbo, the missionaries accept the “challenge” of building their church on the cursed grounds within the Evil Forest. The villagers are confident that the spirits will drive the missionaries of a “False God” away, but it does not happen (Achebe, 1994). The missionaries promote their culture by teaching the natives to count, read, and write. They introduce new medicine and fine materials, allowing the village to experience a technological leap the likes of which had not been seen for many hundreds of years.
Lastly, once the population of Igbo become more accepting of Western culture, the representatives of the white race begin to encroach on Igbo’s rights as the missionaries are replaced by colonists, merchants, and mercenaries (Achebe, 1994). The local population is deprived of their rights to settle disputes on their own, and various laws are imposed upon them, many of which the population do not like. However, by that time, it is too late.
The Reasons Why the Igbo Tribe Lost the Culture War
As a rule, advanced cultures tend to influence primitive cultures during prolonged contact. When the more advanced culture is not actively seeking to transform and assimilate the more primitive culture, the transformation period may take many years, even centuries. As one example, we could look at the relationship between the Chinese culture in relation to Korea and Japan (Ziltener & Kunzler, 2013). China was known to have a very advanced culture that was the first in the Asian continent to discover writing, technology, and philosophy. As a more advanced country, China heavily influenced both Korea and Japan, but the process took time.
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This meant that each country managed to keep its national identity and sovereignty over its own land. The Chinese never planned to colonize these countries, nor did they wish to deliberately assimilate the others into their culture. Nevertheless, the imprint of Chinese culture is heavily visible in the Japanese and Korean alphabet, literature, art, philosophy, and architecture (Ziltener & Kunzler, 2013).
European cultural expansion was different, however, and this is clearly illustrated in Chinua Achebe’s novel. The missionaries deliberately come to Igbo, and purposefully share their culture, religion, and technology with the villagers. They want to transform and assimilate the more primitive culture, whereas the tribespeople are not interested in defending their own, confident that nobody will betray their gods and beliefs in favor of this new culture. They are wrong, however, in assuming that everyone has been happy with “the old ways.”
As we can see in the novel, the first white people that the Igbo community encounter are missionaries. Missionaries were often the best people in European society and had a genuine desire to help the natives and uplift them through Christian teachings, medicine, education, and technology (Ziltener & Kunzler, 2013). They would find support in all those villagers that the tribal culture rejected or abused—the women, the parents of twins, and the meek. In these areas, Western culture offer flexibility that the Igbo culture cannot provide.
The missionaries also manage to convert many of the Igbo tribespeople, including Okonkwo’s own son, to Christianity. They do so by proving the tribal gods to be nonexistent and impotent, building a church on the “cursed grounds.” The villagers expect the missionaries to die within a week. However, as weeks pass and nothing happens, their faith in the Old Gods starts to crumble (Achebe, 1994). The missionaries provide acceptance, understanding, medicine, and education to those who choose to embrace them. The poor and downtrodden are the first step in the assimilation of the Igbo culture.
Of course, the Igbo could not know that the Western colonists would ultimately have ulterior motives. As shown in the book—and as was often the case in real life—missionaries did much good for the native tribes. This has been seen across the globe. In one instance in South America, Jesuit missionaries helped the natives defeat Spanish mercenaries and slavers at the Battle of Mbororé in 1632 (Ziltener & Kunzler, 2013). The society they represented presented itself as objectively better in every aspect, in contrast to many tribal societies plagued by numerous restrictions, injustices, and cruel traditions.
Christianity was a much more developed religion when compared to shamanic myths and witchcraft, and it came with a better-furnished story of the noble sacrifice of Jesus Christ who atoned for everyone’s sins. The West was more advanced in education and offered much better medicine and more sophisticated goods and technology, which were of absolutely godlike quality when compared to the crude materials and items of the natives.
Ultimately, the West was stronger in military matters, able to wipe out primitive armies with ease (Quayson, 1994). While China and India were able to resist Western influence to a degree through the preservation of their own sophisticated culture and traditions, African tribes were not nearly as advanced and thus were unable to withstand the invasion of another culture, especially a culture that was brought to them with a purpose. The novel written by Chinua Achebe is titled Things Fall Apart for that very reason. His story is not the account of Okonkwo alone; it is a tragic tale of a culture becoming undone.
In a direct competition between a powerful and advanced culture and a native tribal culture, the former always wins. Exposure to new beliefs, new opinions, new knowledge, and new technology inevitably causes a culture to evolve. However, sometimes indigenous cultures do not survive that evolution. Instead, they are forcefully replaced with what the advanced culture considers “better.” The tragedy of Okonkwo is a tragedy of a man whose roots were forcefully ripped out of the soil.
His death marks the finale of a long struggle against change brought from the outside. His fate is shared by many people across the world, from Native Americans to the aboriginal tribes in Australia. Chinua Achebe is not the only author to write about this; the plight of indigenous people is also found in the poems of Gwen Harwood, one of Australia’s most talented poets (Harwood, 2012). While cultural change and evolution could be considered good things, a forceful change, even with good intentions, destroys the lives of many people, robbing them of their cultural identity and sense of self. That is the lesson behind the story of Okonkwo.
Achebe, C. (1994). Things fall apart. New York, NY: Anchor.
Harwood, G. (2012). Selected Poems. New York, NY: Redwood: Penguin.
Quayson, A. (1994). Realism, criticism, and the disguises of both: A reading of Chinua Achebe’s “Things fall apart” with an evaluation of the criticism relating to it. Research in African Literatures, 25(4), 117-136.
Ziltener, P., & Kunzler, D. (2013). Impacts of colonialism – A research survey. Journal of World-Systems Research, 19(2), 290-311.