In his essay “Literature and Society,” Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o explores the mechanisms of imperialism. To ensure economic and political control the colonizing power tries to control the cultural environment: education, religion, language, literature, songs and other forms of artistic and cultural expression, hoping in this way to control a people’s self-image and world outlook.
One repressive strategy used by colonizers is the re-education of the native. Though the colonizing empire may indeed entrench itself in the land it occupies, the empire must also entrench itself in the minds of the people over whom it means to rule. During re-education, natives are inundated with negative images of themselves and their culture, as well as idyllic, nearly perfect images of the colonizer. For one to more wholly understand the significance of native re-education, one must look closely at the mentality of the educator. An example of the deification of the image of the colonizer is found in the history of the English colonization of India. In this case, the English colonizers presented the image of the ideal Englishman to the Indians. This ideal was conveyed for the most part through literature, for the actual Englishmen who were in India, especially those involved with the West India Trading Company, did not present the near-godly perfection which the English assumed as a basis for their right to re-educate the inferior Indians. (See Frantz Fanon)
David Cannadine gives us an insight into the mind of colonial England:
The really important category was status, and … it was ‘fundamental to all other categories.’ Hierarchy was the conventional vehicle of [the Empire]: it provided the prevailing ideology of empire, and it underpinned the prevailing spectacle of empire … It bears repeating that one aspect of this hierarchical-cum-imperial mindset was indeed the cultivation and intensification of racial differences based on post-Enlightenment attitudes of white and western superiority and of coloured and colonial inferiority (along with the cultivation and intensification of gender differences based on attitudes of white and male superiority and white and female inferiority). When, as they sometimes did, Britons thought of the inhabitants of their empire … in collective rather than in individualistic categories, they were inclined to see them, literally, in terms of crude stereotypes of black and white, and no-less crude relationships of superiority and inferiority. (Ornamentalism 122)
In The Myth of the Lazy Native, S.H. Alatas also discusses this ideology:
The negative image of the people subjugated by Western colonial powers, which dominated the colonial ideology, was drawn on the basis of cursory observations, sometimes with strong built-in prejudices, or misunderstandings and faulty methodologies. The general negative image was not the result of scholarship. Those who proclaimed the people of the area indolent, dull, treacherous, and childish, were generally not scholars. (112)
The Native as Violent Savage, Ignorant Laborer, and Sexual Deviant
Re-education drastically reduces the amount of necessary physical violence on the part of the colonizer, for the re-educated native (ideally) is submissive instead of rebellious. Ngugi describes the ideal function of re-education: “[The colonizer] would like to have a slave who not only accepts that he is a slave, but that he is a slave because he is fated to be nothing else but a slave. Hence he must love and be grateful to the master for his magnanimity in enslaving him to a higher, nobler civilisation (12).
This inferior image of the native is the primary active force in colonialist re-education. M. Daphn Kutzer lists three colonialist stereotypes of the native: “the noble savage, the bestial savage, prone to cannibalism and other unnamed ‘savage rites’; and the childlike savage” (21). Kutzer quotes Richard Burton’s description of the Africans: “The cruelty of the negro is, like that of a schoolboy, the blind impulse of rage combined with the want of sympathy. Thus he thoughtlessly tortures and slays his prisoners, as the youth of England torment and kill cats … he mentally remains a child, and is never capable of a generalization” (84).
Natives were often compared with animals and the natives often had a functional, labor-focused status in the colonizer’s hierarchy — a position similar to that of livestock, who are valued for their efficientness in labor. Alatas quotes a British Government official who writes:
From a labor point of view, there are practically three races, the Malays (including Javanese), the Chinese, and the Tamils (who are generally known as Klings). By nature, the Malay is an idler, the Chinaman is a thief, and the Kling is a drunkard, yet each, in his special class of work, is both cheap and efficient, when properly supervised. (75)
Another common form of the anti-native myth presents an image of the native as sexually deviant. In the book Nudes from Nowhere, Darby Lewes discusses the Orientalist ideology that presented “Eastern men … as paragons of effeminacy and self-indulgence; [and] Eastern women as immoral, sexually insatiable courtesans” (110). Lewes quotes a Dutch pamphlet which was published early in the sixteenth-century:
‘These folke lyven lyke bestes without any resonablenes and the wymen be also as common. And the men hath conversacy on with thewy men who that they ben or who they fyrst met is she his sister/his mother/his daughter/or any other kindred. And the wymen be very hoote and dysposed to lecherdnes.’ (108)
Lewes analyzes a British children’s story from the middle of the nineteenth-century, in which the rape of a woman is a reflection on the attitude of the colonizer to the native:
Such views of African female sexuality produced pornographic doggerel such as ‘Lady Hamilton: or Nelson’s Inamorata’ (1851) — a chilling blend of imperialism and rape fantasy. A sailor describes an oceanic encounter with a boat occupied by five black men and a woman. Although the natives are apparently peaceful (or at least sane enough to avoid provoking an armed British frigate), the British sailors ‘pops off the men, then the girl and the boat / We takes as our true lawful prize.’ Naturally, the ‘prize’ is enthusiastic about being gang raped by a boatload of sailors who have just slaughtered her countrymen. When the seamen ‘all [have] a fuck just our friendship to float,’ they, ‘[please] her right up to her eyes’ … The sailors re-create the African woman as they would like her to be. She becomes a property who recognizes that she, ‘like Africa, is something to be defined, charted, probed, exploited and overcome.’ (110)
Colonial literature, concludes Lewes, contains many images which suggest that “women raped forcefully enough will generally come to admire the manly force of their attackers. Applied to the imperial project, the lesson is that Englishmen need only vanquish native populations ruthlessly enough, and the English will be accepted — indeed, welcomed as masters” (123). The re-education of the natives is effective because of its ability to dehumanize the native not in the minds of the people of the empire, but in the minds of the natives as well. (See Gender and Nation, Third World and Third World Women)
- Alatas, S.H. The Myth of the Lazy Native. London: Routledge, 1977.
- Cannadine, David. Ornamentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Kutzer, M. Daphn. Empire’s Children: Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children’s Books. London: Routledge, 2000.
- Lewes, Darby. Nudes From Nowhere: Utopian Sexual Landscapes. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2000.
- Ngugi Wa’ Thiong’o. “Literature and Society: the Politics of the Canon.” Critical Perspectives on Ngugi. Ed. G.D. Killam. Washington D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1984. 17-45.
- Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Author: Scott Nesbit, Fall 2001
Last edited: June 2012