In order to understand the concerns of post colonial literature, some knowledge of the history of colonialism is necessary. British Colonialism is associated mainly with the massive influence of the British Empire, which developed and reached its zenith during the nineteenth century. The Empire declined as many countries regained their independence during the twentieth century. In many cases, though, colonialism started far earlier, as European explorers discovered the riches of distant lands. The role and effects of colonialism vary considerably according to geography, so that the histories of India and Australia, for example, are very different, which in turn creates differences in these countries’ post colonial concerns.
The main areas where we will concern ourselves will be the Caribbean, Africa, India and the settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand. We will also consider writing which deals with the migration of people after colonisation, which is central, of course, to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
The Caribbean is of particular significance in post colonial study, in that its original indigenous population, the Caribs after whom the islands are named, were reduced to extinction by sixteenth century colonialism. The population of the West Indies, therefore, all trace their roots from other areas of the world, mainly Europe, Africa and Asia. Caribbean society is still indelibly marked by the effects of the slave trade. Slaves, captured in Africa, were shipped to the Caribbean from the mid sixteenth century until the abolition of slavery in 1833 to work on the sugar plantations. It is estimated that up to 12 million people were transported in this way, though only about half survived the journey. (For a disturbing and powerful novel about the life of slaves in America, including a nightmarish account of the ship passage, read Toni Morrison’s Beloved.) The descendants of the original white settlers were separated from their parents’ homelands, and became known as Creoles. This is not to be confused with Creole languages, which developed in the Caribbean to allow the slaves and their masters to communicate, a mixture of English and elements of African dialects.
• What would you expect of the consciousness of a society formed largely by the descendants of people forcibly taken from their roots to work as slaves thousands of miles from home?
• In what ways would you expect the Creole consciousness to be similar to, and differ from, the concerns of the descendants of slaves?
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
The poetry of Derek Walcott
There is a strong political interest in Africa at the moment, with arguments about the national debt of African countries, fair trade and the elimination of poverty. There is a very strong argument that the problems of Africa are the bequest of colonisation. Even the separate countries of Africa are the result of colonial decisions, although some of the countries have renamed themselves following independence. Recognising the wealth and potential of Africa, the continent was divided between the European powers at the Berlin Conference in 1855. There was considerable resistance in some areas, resulting in military conflicts. European weaponry was far more advanced, and by the end of the century virtually the whole of Africa was controlled by European countries. The European understanding of Africans was that they were savage and uncivilised, and in some ways represented the uncivilised past of the Europeans. As well as the opportunity to extract wealth, Africa also presented an opportunity to redeem souls for God, and the Christian missionaries became very active. With the missionaries came education and some healthcare, which are often presented as part of the benefits of colonisation. While this is in part true, it should also be recognised that imposing European culture and learning was a useful way of making the population more compliant. Of formerly British colonies, Kenya gained its independence after a bloody guerilla campaign in 1963, Nigeria in 1960, Uganda in 1962. Tanzania was formed from a unification of British Zanzibar with German Tanganyika in 1963.
• What might you expect of African views of the poverty and turmoil of African countries following their longed-for independence?
• How much of African culture can remain in countries long dominated by Christianity and European education?
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)
The Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (Extracts from the novel)
An Image of Africa: Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Heart of Darknes as a racist text
An interesting response to this by Caryl Phillips can be found here.
Crime of the Congo: the opening of Arthur Conan Doyle’s account of atrocities in the Belgian Congo.
The Scramble for Africa on the BBC’s pages.
The particular history of South Africa means that it needs to be considered separately from the rest of the continent. Any thinking about South Africa is dominated by Apartheid, the system of government following the colonial era, which strictly segregated society along colour and race grounds between 1948 and 1994, when South Africa’s first fully democratic constitution came into being and Nelson Mandela was elected as the country’s first black president. While inhabitants of other African countries felt that they had lost power and control over their homelands, in South Africa, black citizens were a despised underclass, whose labour was used, but were treated otherwise as unwanted and alien. Public facilities had to be separate, black and white relationships were banned as immoral, blacks had little education and black citizens had to carry a pass at all times to identify them and qualify them for work. A protest about the Pass Laws led to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when 69 people were killed by police. Prominent protestors and members of the African National Congress were imprisoned and maltreated: Steve Biko died in police detention; Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 25 years. Students came out on strike in 1976, and in the ensuing unrest, over a period of months, nearly 600 people were killed by police.
• In what ways do you think the South African situation makes post colonial concerns differ from the rest of Africa?
• Why do you think it is that some of the most well-known literary voices of South Africa, all anti-apartheid, are white?
Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
The Township Plays by Athol Fugard
The East India Company was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 to trade with India. That trade flourished, but British rule began in 1757, with Clive of India’s victory over the Nawab Siraj-ud-Dowla at Plassey. However, British control over the rest of India was limited at this stage. The aspirations of the East India Company were extensive, and among the employees were scholars with an interest in oriental art and culture, and with the help of Indian scholars, they were able to develop a very broad knowledge of Indian customs, traditions and culture. Such was the influence of the Company that in the course of the eighteenth century it came, in effect, to rule much of India. There was some resistance, which led the Company to enlist military help from England in order to protect its concerns. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the East India Company was disbanded and Britain assumed direct rule over India. Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India. The twentieth century saw the growth of Indian nationalism and Mahatma Gandhi became the central figure of the campaign for independence. He argued for non-violence and sought unity between the Muslim and Hindu populations of India. He was imprisoned by the British, and it has recently been revealed that Winston Churchill wanted to let him die when he was on hunger strike, but was dissuaded by the rest of the cabinet. India gained its independence in 1947, though Gandhi’s wish for complete unity was disappointed, as with Indian independence, the Muslim-dominated areas in the west and east of the subcontinent became independent Pakistan. East Pakistan, 1000 miles separate from the rest of the country, became independent Bangladesh in 1972.
• In what ways do you think the East India Company’s cultural interests helped it to achieve its domination of the continent?
• Why do you think that India still very much shows the marks of British influence, in its attitudes, education and language?
Kanthapura by Raja Rao (though written pre-independence)
The Guide by R.K. Narayan
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Passage to India by E.M. Forster
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
Indian history on the Victorian Web
The other countries we have looked at were colonised at some point in their histories by invasion. Other parts of the world were colonised by settlement, and the first major settlement in Australia was a penal colony. The land was first observed by European sailors in 1606, but Cook landed on the east coast and named it New South Wales in 1770. The first fleets of settlers arrived in 1788 and 1790, encountering problems both on the journey and after their arrival, but the area where they first established themselves is now Sydney. This early colony was a penal colony from 1788 until 1823, though voluntary settlers began to arrive in 1793. This meant that the early settlers comprised largely convicts, penal and administrative staff, sailors and wives. There were a number of treaties between the settlers and the indigenous Aboriginal peoples, but the Bourke proclamation declared that the land was not in the possession of anyone prior to the arrival of the British. Land arguments were always based in some measure on this proclamation until the Mabo Case of 1992,which established the land rights of native peoples. Australia has remained part of the British Commonwealth as an independent nation, rejecting cutting its ties with the Crown in a referendum in 1999.
• Most post colonial literature is written by formerly colonised peoples or their descendants. How would you expect the concerns of the settler colonists to differ in their literature?
• How would you expect the literature of settler colonists to differ from English literature?
Remembering Babylon by David Malouf
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
The poetry of Les Murray
New Zealand is a country full of migrating peoples. The Maoris are descendants of Polynesian migrants who arrived from the Pacific Islands at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Tasman was the first European to discover New Zealand in 1642, while Cook first visited in 1769. Whalers began to visit at the end of the eighteenth century, and the fist Anglican mission was established in 1814. Whaling stations began to be established in 1831 and British sovereignty was declared in 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by the British and 50 Maori chiefs. The treaty allowed Queen Victoria to claim land in return for the Maoris being granted the rights of British subjects. This was not the end of dissent and protest, but four Maoris entered parliament in 1867. Democratically, New Zealand has always been advanced: every male over 21 was granted the vote in 1879, and it became the first country in the world to grant the vote to women in 1893. There were active campaigns for British citizens to settle in New Zealand in the early part of the twentieth century, which caused a massive increase in the population.
• New Zealand is as far as you can get from Britain, but the links with Britain have remained very strong. Why do you think this is?
• What happens to an essentially British culture when it is isolated on the other side of the world?
The short stories of Katherine Mansfield
Playing Waterloo by Peter Hawes
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Not to be forgotten, as English involvement in Ireland goes back centuries and of course still fuels resentment, particularly in British Northern Ireland. For a full discussion, visit the pages on Brian Friel’s play Translations.