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Preface to Colonialism, Law, and Religion in Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart

The next essay was written for an IDS or Interdisciplinary 300-level course entitled The
Empire Writes Back. Taught by Dr. Roy, the class examined various texts from a postcolonialist perspective. Heart of Darkness, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice were just a few
of the texts covered in this course. It was a challenging course for me because I was intimidated
by the professor and I struggled to see and understand some of my favorite novels (Jane Eyre
and Pride and Prejudice) through a post-colonial lens. However, after reading Things Fall
Apart, I became very interested in the clash of Igbo culture and imperial law. Achebes writing
fascinates me still, and this essay reflects my interest in the intersection of religion, Western law,
and colonialism.
There were several prompts given for this assignment. However, Dr. Roy also gave the
class the choice to create a different topic altogether, one that aligned with our favorite text from
the course. I knew I wanted to analyze religious beliefs in Things Fall Apart because I was very
disconcerted and unsettled by the missionary figure, Mr. Brown. Having grown up in a very
strict Protestant church, I felt the depiction of Mr. Brown was incredibly accurate and frankly
quite troubling. In my analysis, I examine the laws that were in place at the peak of the British
Empire. I use these laws to contrast with the religious customs of the Igbo and their very
separate, distinct legal system, which is overthrown by the white missionaries and British
officials. I received positive feedback on this essay, and only had to make a few adjustments to
the content.

Colonialism, Law, and Religion in Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart


In Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart, the Igbo are bound to Western law and Western
ideas of justice this is demonstrated when the District Commissioner fines the Igbo men for
burning Mr. Browns church yet the Igbo are also regarded as outsiders to the Western world
and therefore not under the full protection of the Western law. This contradictory attitude to the
law is how the imperialist European world forced its standards upon other counties; any country
that did not abide by the Western standards of law and justice was thought to be uncivilized and
therefore in need of Western domination. The Western law system became a means of
acquisition for the imperial powers. By exposing the clash between Western law and customary
law, Achebe exposes the British view of the Igbo as lesser creatures. In this way, Achebes novel
challenges the Western law system, which claims to bring civilization and order, but instead
brings destruction and violence. In his novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe contrasts the
customary law of the Igbo with Western law to show the destructive effects of colonization and
imperial international law. Furthermore, Achebe critiques the western justice system, based on
Christian values, because Christianity destroys the Igbo culture instead of furthering it.
At the peak of British imperialism and the development of the British colonies in the
nineteenth century, the European worlds belief in naturalism, which claims that all European
and non-European peoples are ruled by a basic, natural law, was abandoned in favor of
positivism (Anghie 743). While naturalism argues for the accountability of all states to a higher
universal law, positivism claims that there are very specific cultural and racial conditions that
determine whether or not a state can be considered civilized and consequently sovereign
(Anghie 745). Under the terms of positivism, only the sovereign state can create and enforce
law, but the sovereign state cannot be bound by any law unless it has consented to it (Anghie

745). Britain and other European imperial powers sought to impose their own Western laws onto
the conquered lands with an attitude of positivism and superiority. This desire to establish a
universal European law is also an attempt to bring order and Western ideas of justice to the
non-European world, which has been perceived as chaotic, barbaric, and unjust. Because the
people of these conquered lands did not fit the racial and cultural European standard, their land
was not sovereign; therefore, by positivist logic, these people could not be considered civilized
or capable of upholding their own system of law.
In order to establish a Western law system in the colonies, the colonizers had to first
determine the humanity of the natives. Western law can only be applied to human subjects.
Because the colonized people were thought to be bestial and, in many cases, sub-human, the
colonizers could easily justify a law system that would privilege the white majority and place the
natives at a disadvantage. The law was an essential part of the imperial powers belief in their
right to civilize the inhuman world. The classical concept of sovereignty, based on the Treaty
of Westphalia in 1648, stated that all sovereigns are equal and sovereign states have absolute
power over their own territory (Anghie 740). This principle was used to justify a colonizing
countrys right to rule over their colony and to introduce Western law as a means of civilizing the
barbaric world. Once the colonizers arrived in their colonies, a Western law system was
established as part of the indoctrination. Of course, if the native members of the colonies failed
to adhere to the Western law system, they were deemed primitive and worthy of defeat (Anghie
745). Thus the non-European worlds inability to uphold the Western standard of law was
interpreted as a chance for the European world to bestow a sort of judicial salvation to the
undeserving, dark places of the globe.

Although the sovereignty doctrine dismisses the non-European world as illegitimate, it


also justifies the very imperialism that made it possible for the non-European world to be subject
to Western law (Anghie 741). The most obvious example of the sovereignty doctrine at work in
Things Fall Apart is the haughty District Commissioners decision to fine and arrest Okonkwo
and his men. Under the guise of a peaceful administration, the Commissioner announces that
the white men have come so that you [the Igbo] may be happy (Achebe 194). He continues to
tell the men that We have a court of law where we judge cases and administer justice, as if to
imply that the Western definition of justice is superior to any laws that the Igbo have already
established in their community (Achebe 194). Not only is the District Commissioner ignorant of
and insensitive to any concept of law other than that of his home country, he also implies that
Western law should make the Igbo happy which presumes that they were unhappy with their
own traditions in the first place.
In a condescending tone, as if he were speaking to a small child, the District
Commissioner addresses the Igbo men as inferiors, and speaks of the queen of England: I have
brought you here because you joined together to molest others, to burn peoples houses and their
place of worship. That must not happen in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in
the world (Achebe 194). The concept of positivism is heavily instilled in the Commissioners
mind, and the queen symbolizes the sovereign state. Her power as a monarch overrides any
existing barbaric system in the non-European countries. The queen is the personification of
civilization, the embodiment of nineteenth century English government. As Antony Anghie
argues, the distinction between the civilized and the uncivilized, the animating distinction of
imperialism, is crucial to the formation of sovereignty doctrine (742). The establishment of a
queen with absolute dominion is essential to the concept of positivism because it justifies the

subversion of the native culture and it fuels British imperialism, neatly disguising it as a mission
to bring justice and judicial order to the dangerous and primeval areas of the world.
According to John L. Comaroff, a scholar of African Studies and Anthropology at
Harvard University, law was used by nineteenth century British imperialists and is still used by
imperial powers today as a weapon against other cultures (306). Comaroff defines the use of
law as a weapon, or what he terms lawfare, as the effort to conquer and control indigenous
peoples by the coercive use of legal means (306). For the sake of universal progress, imperial
nations were intent on spreading European law in the name of civilization (Comaroff 306).
Because non-Europeans are often criminalized by the imperial nations, the imperial nations
laws become an expression of dominance and power used to justify the rule of non-European
spaces. Achebe incorporates this concept of lawfare into his novel and uses it to highlight the
power struggle prompted by the British imposing their laws onto the Igbos without justification.
Achebe spends the majority of his novel developing the customs and traditions of the Igbo so
that when the white missionaries and government officials impose their laws at the end of the
novel, the reader cannot possibly understand why this is allowed.
The Igbos clearly have their own established traditions, such as the breaking of the kola nut and
the egwugwu gods, which serve the needs of their lifestyle. By detailing these rituals and
traditions, Achebe demonstrates that the Igbo conception of law is very different from Western
law, but that does not make it inferior. Western law is simply not pracitcal for the Igbos. The
Igbos participate in a sort of village self-government in which there is no specific monarchy or
system (Manji 641). When Okonkwo expresses his anxiety about the white mans government,
he claims that the District Commissioner judged cases in ignorance (Achebe 174). Further
emphasizing the point, Achebe highlights the injustice of the District Commissioners

punishment for the leaders of Umuofia: I have decided that you will pay a fine of two hundred
cowries. You will be released as soon as you agree to this (Achebe 194).
The rationale for this very specific punishment with an exact fine is not made clear to the
reader. It is clear, however, that the Igbos are criminalized by Western law precisely because
they are viewed as lesser creatures that need a rigid system of rules to govern their barbaric
lifestyle. Achebe purposely makes the passage confusing and irrational. The District
Commissioner does not provide any sort of rationale for this harsh punishment, making it
impossible for the reader to side with the white mans law and the ignorant judgment of the
District Commissioner. Here, Achebe is not critiquing Western law itself; rather, he is critiquing
the enforcement of Western law in a preexisting system that simply does not support Western
ideas of justice.
The District Commissioner is an extremely important figure in Achebes novel because
this character represents an imperial official who enforces European law in a non-European
environment. Okonkwo repeatedly refers to the District Commissioners judicial system as the
white mans law and it is under the District Commissioners rule that the prisoners who break
the white mans law are beaten and made to fetch wood and clean the government compound
(Achebe 175). Not only does the District Commissioner use European law as a tool for
unfounded authority, he also uses a web of laws to manipulate the Igbo men and lie to them.
Initially, he acts as if he respects the Igbo and he expresses a desire to discuss the church
burning with Okonkwo and the other men like friends (Achebe 194). However, the District
Commissioner ultimately has the men handcuffed and imprisoned (Achebe 194). He claims to
know all about the Igbo customs and then dehumanizes and criminalizes them. This display of
power justified by legal means is the colonizers attempt to conceal their weaknesses, to invest

themselves with an aura of power (Comaroff 309). The District Commissioners enforcement
of the law is manipulative and only serves to further criminalize the Igbos.
While the Western law system is indeed used as a vehicle for control and power, it is also
linked to religion and issues of cultural tradition. Four times in Achebes novel, the white mans
government and the white mans religion are mentioned together. As Mr. Brown states, The
head of my church is in England (Achebe 180). The interpreter clarifies They have a
queen (Achebe 180). English government and religion are united. This indicates Achebes
awareness of the complete indoctrination that had to occur in order for the colonizers to establish
their law system. In the late nineteenth century, an international legal scholar claimed that
International Comity, like International Law, can only exist in the lowest degree among
independent States; in its next degree among Independent Civilized States, and in its highest
degree among Independent Christian States (Sylvest 407). Thus the idea of ethical progress and
the notion of furthering Gods kingdom are linked to the issue of civilizing the barbaric
through legal means.
Christianity was seen as a sign of civilization, sophistication, and prosperity. And
Christian European society was viewed as a symbol of the best way of organizing human life at
the national and international level (Sylvest 407). Because the Western legal system is based on
Christian values and Christian ideas of justice (i.e. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth
Deuteronomy 19:21), the British colonizers were often accompanied by missionaries to
indoctrinate the colonized people. Whether or not these missionaries were genuinely set on
getting converts is up for debate. The point, however, is that the imperial powers established a
Western church along with a Western legal system in an effort to completely subvert the native
religious tradition and culture.

The white missionaries set up a church in Things Fall Apart which ultimately destroys
the Igbo culture instead of furthering it. The Christians disturb the social order of Igbo culture
and causes a rift in the tribe. For example, the osu, the social outcasts, are welcomed into the
white mans church. Instead of remaining in exclusion, these outcasts are taught that they can
cut their hair and become part of this new religion. This disruption of the Igbo social order is in
part what interferes with the culture. Furthermore, the older generation of Igbos notices a shift in
the attitudes of the younger generation, and they believe this shift is due to Christianity:
But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of
kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An
abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers
(Achebe 167)
The loss of traditional values is attributed to the white mans arrival, and along with his
arrival, his religion and government. As Okonkwo tells Obierika, [the white man] says that
our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that
our customs bad (Achebe 155). Eventually, this creates a rift in the culture that is extremely
difficult to overcome without violence. Insults are exchanged, beatings occur, and the church is
burned down. Christianity, the very system that promised to bring civilization and peace and
order, ultimately brings destruction and violence to the Igbos. This failure to create a Christian
civilization amongst the Igbos is a critique of the way the European legal system is forced onto
the Igbos. This Western justice system, mired in Judeo-Christian values, is very different from
the established Igbo tradition.

Christianity is depicted as a very narrow and confining faith for the Igbos to embrace. In
contrast with the many Igbo gods, who are associated with the ancestors and with nature,
Christianity has only one god. This Christian god seems distant and irrelevant to the lives the of
the Igbo people. Achebes description of Christianity portrays it as a vengeful and unforgiving
way of life. Mr. Smith especially is very harsh and militant in getting converts. He saw things
as black and white. And black was evil and he is filled with wrath (Achebe 185). The typical
fire and brimstone preacher, Mr. Smith firmly believes his religion is the only path to
salvation. Instead of speaking with the Igbo about their religion, like Mr. Brown attempts before
him, Mr. Smith is disrespectful of Igbo custom. He uses his position in the church to give
himself a position of authority among a people that he does not know, or desire to know. In this
way, Mr. Smith claims possession over the Igbos, as if it is only a matter of time before they all
convert to Christianity. Eventually, Umuofia is divided by this intruding religion.
Because the white missionaries Christianity separates the Igbos and causes serious
conflict and violence, Achebe is writing back to the white missionaries who claimed that their
legal system and, consequently, their god, would civilize Nigeria. Achebes biting critique of the
Western worlds legal system and religion highlights the complexities of Igbo customs:
weddings, funerals, harvest and planting seasons, and other events that each have a particular
ritual. These traditions are not accidental or uncivilized simply because they are not founded
on Western law or Christianity values. The effects of positivism, imperialism, and the Britishers
general air of superiority are destructive to the detailed and customary aspects of Igbo culture.
Achebes novel presents the arrival of the white man as the sole reason for the ruin of Umoufias
customs.

Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Print.
Anghie, Antony. The Evolution of International Law: Colonial and Postcolonial Realities.
Third World Quarterly 27.5 (2006): 739 753. Web. 26 May 2014.
Comaroff, John L. Symposium Introduction: Colonialism, Culture, and the Law: A
Foreward. Law and Social Inquiry 26.2 (2001): 305 314. Web. 29 May 2014.
Manji, Ambreena. Like a Mask Dancing: Law and Colonialism in Chinua Achebes Arrow
of God. Journal of Law and Society 27.4 (2000): 626 642. Web. 29 May 2014.
Sylvest, Casper. Our Passion for Legality: International Law and Imperialism in Late
Nineteenth-Century Britain. Review of International Studies 34.3 (2008): 403 423.
Web. 29 May 2014.