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Arts and Literature

The Sub-Human, the Human, and the Human Potential: The Colonized in Shakespeare, Behn, and Conrad

There are several notions about what it means to be colonized and whether colonization is a positive or a negative practice. Objectively speaking, one would have to argue that the positive or negative aspects of colonization are an issue that can only be resolved at the individual level and is highly influenced by the images and texts to which one is exposed to during their formation. Some have argued that colonialism is a positive thing. Certainly, during the eras of slavery and colonization this was the general notion. There are some today that would still argue that colonialism should be encouraged, as it means survival of the fittest and is, essentially speaking, an evolution of humanity as a whole. Others will claim that colonialism should not be encouraged as it eradicates entire cultures and allows for the practice of economic slavery and abuse. These two points of view are not notions that can be developed overnight after reading a chapter in Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks. Notions of the positive or negative aspects of colonialism are more heavily influenced by the media and texts one is exposed to. It is no surprise, then, that from the early days of slavery to the early 1900s colonialism and abuse of the colonized became an increasingly popular notion, since as time progressed the image of the colonized “savage” became more dehumanized. It is this dehumanization of entire races that allowed for the inhumane practices of slavers and plantation owners, who in the name of progress, oppressed millions of people. In order to evidence how the image of the colonized savage became more dehumanized, this essay will look at how Shakespeare, Aphra Behn, and Joseph Conrad portrayed the colonized in The Tempest, Oroonoko, and Heart of Darkness.

The portrayal of colonization in The Tempest is one that represents the colonizer as a dominating, almost supernatural, force, and the colonized as deformed, almost demonic, beings whose station is beneath that of the human, or as beings who, due to the circumstances into which they were born or due to bad negotiation on their part, end up being subservient to the colonizer. This second breed of colonized, however, has a chance to redeem itself.

The two figures of ‘the colonized’ in The Tempest are Caliban and Ariel. Calibann is the demonic child of a demonic earth goddess-witch, a being for whom language is useless, who has little cognitive faculties, and who is willing to engage in betray and deceit to obtain what he wants. Many critics have commented on Caliban as being the stereotypical notions of Shakespearean England’s idea of what a native African is like. Ariel, on the other hand, is described as “an airy spirit” whose gender isn’t identified. Although some have argued that Ariel is a male spirit, the gentle way in which Prospero converses with it and calls it “my spirit” might suggest that Ariel is a female. When one takes into consideration the traditional mythology of England, where female nymphs are the air spirits, it would be hard to imagine that Ariel the nymph is male. This female spirit of air has been read by critics as the Caribbean Creole elite who are willing to bargain with the colonizer and engage in subservience in order to obtain their freedom.

Africans, as represented by Caliban, are represented as a naïve race born of sin. Their mother, a demon-witch, whom presumably can be read as the African continent, was destroyed by Prospero, the English nobility, and thus Prospero was able to enslave them. According to the western vision this would be a far better fate than being lost to their sub-human ways. Still, regardless of the sub-human status of Calibann, he is still given some degree of humanity. In The Tempest Caliban is made out to be someone who can learn the colonizer’s language and who can use his limited cognitive faculties to be able to formulate the criticism that the only good thing he can do now that he knows the colonizer’s language is curse. Furthermore, Shakespeare allowed Caliban the ability to criticize how the colonizer came, killed his mother, and enslaved him, and to thirst for freedom. However, in his writing Shakespeare did not allow Caliban an independent thinking faculty or the ability to conspire to obtain his freedom on his own. It is only through his association with one of Prospero’s enemies that Calibann can strive for freedom. By doing this Shakespeare has successfully conveyed the (wrong) message that Africans may want freedom, or claim that they want freedom, but are too docile and dependent to look for it on their own; that they need to look to someone else to help them be free. Full of defects, lacking basic human-level cognition, and  being considered as less than human, in The Tempest we see that Africans are not the featureless shadows lurking in Conrad’s forests, but simply an inferior, sub-human race of homo-sapiens.

Ariel, on the other hand, is a Creole with enough common sense to realize that Prospero is her master and that it is only by doing Prospero’s will that she will obtain her freedom, and this is exactly what happens in the play. Ariel, after playing various tricks on Prospero’s enemies and following Prospero’s instructions, is ultimately granted her freedom. This can be taken as Shakespeare’s commentary on the nature of peoples – he portrayed England as the dominating country, Africans as a sub-human species, and the offspring of both as an inferior race with the potential of earning their freedom. Here, the notion that colonized people should be slaves but that there should be some exceptions is prominently argued for.

This same notion is shared by Aphra Behn. Being the wife of a slave trader, it would be hard to argue that Aphra Behn was against slavery. Her novel Oroonoko, considered by many as the second novel in the English language (the first being Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister), is a story that revolves around the young African prince Oroonoko and his lover Imoenda, the daughter of the king’s foremost general. In this novel Caliban’s people, the Africans, are shown as a race of people with a culture and hierarchical system of their own. However, as the plot shifts away from Africa Oroonoko becomes more and more an exception to the rule, and Africans in general are relegated to being silent background shapes. Oroonoko is described from the begning of the novel as a regal figure, a majestic being. His being betrayed by the ship captain leads him to become a slave – however, even as a slave he is favored. All the other slaves look up to Oroonoko, and when he decides to starve himself to death all the other slaves follow. This is an indication of his right to what some critics have called “natural kingship”. Aphra believed that a land needed to have its natural kings, and that without those kings the land would be taken over by lesser, corrupt men. European-featured Oroonoko was one such king.

As Oroonoko kept being betrayed by people he grew more and more hesitant to trust the white man, until he finally leads the slaves into rebellion. In another act of betrayal, Oroonoko is asked to stop the slave revolt in exchange for amnesty, which he does only to later be whipped as punishment. Enraged by yet another betrayal Oroonoko and Imoenda decide to take their own lives in an act distinctly close to the Japanese Harakiri where a warrior, instead of being dishonored, decides to take his own life and that of his wife. Oroonoko, however, is prevented from taking his own life and is instead cut up into pieces which are then scattered, as were William Wallace’s remains, across the earth.

As evidenced by her own life, Aphra Behn was not against slavery. She believed that the naturally powerful nations should enslave the naturally powerless, never mind that, as Conrad argues, a nation’s power is nothing more than an accident of fate. However, in portraying noble Oroonoko as an almost celestial figure, Aphra argued for the right of Kings and against the notion that all of the colonized Africans should be enslaved, as kings are kings no matter where they are born. The featureless shadows that make up the background of Africa, however, are inconsequential and can, therefore, be enslaved.

In both Shakespeare’s and Behn’s works the colonized has been given some degree of human characteristic. Caliban is allowed some small degree of reason, and Oroonoko is allowed his royal status. However, in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness almost all trace of humanity is wiped from the colonized. Despite Conrad’s many instances where he forcefully states that he African is not an enemy or a criminal, and that the African is indeed human, his stereotypical, almost cartoon-ish depictions of Africans might suggest to the reader that these natives had no culture.

In Heart of Darkness Conrad’s avatar, Marlow, travels into the heart of the Belgium Congo, where he decides to become acquaintances with an almost mythical Kutz, an universal genius. During his travels he describes scenes of horror and death where the non-slave but colonized African “goes off to die”. Conrad’s depictions of the colonized is an image of a people who have no language beyond grunts, and whose only use for language is to ask the colonial power, Marlow, if they can eat someone else. These savages with bloodshot eyes and death hanging around them will appear as nothing more than shadows and flame. In addition, the fact that prolonged exposure to these savage natives might turn one into something worse than a native, perhaps into something sitting high in the pantheon of their cannibal heathen gods, as Conrad suggests, makes the accusation against the colonized victim even stronger. This idea of “going native” is exemplified in the novel by Kutz, a universal genius whose mother was half-French and whose father was half-English. He was someone to whom all of Europe had given something to make. This great explorer delved into the heart of darkness to hunt for Ivory, and during his stay he started using the natives as raiding and hunting parties. He began to kill and abuse everything for the sake of Ivory, and in this hunt the colonized native is portrayed as yet another shadow with bloodshot eyes following the command of the colonizer. While in Shakespeare and Behn the colonized was given some form of outlet to allow for the possibility of an eventual freedom, even if it was a freedom only allowed to a very specific section of the colonized (in Shakespeare to the Caribbean Creole and in Behn to African royalty), in Conrad the native was given no option of freedom except death. Finally, literary representations of colonized natives arrived at the image of a few shadows of blood and fire; the image of the colonized had become completely distorted.

This short essay followed the transition of the image of the colonized through three distinct works of literature. In Shakespeare the colonized is seen as a sub-human demon with some cognitive ability and some language faculty. Furthermore, this colonized is complimented with the figure of a second colonized, one who has complete language and cognitive faculties and is only colonized because of her circumstance. This second colonized had a chance of being redeemed and earning its freedom, while the sub-human demon had some human characteristics. In Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko the second, more human, figure of the colonized is discarded and replaced with a figure that represents the elite of the sub-human demons. Although this elite has European features and, Behn argues, should not be subject to slavery, the “regular” sub-human people of Africa should be enslaved, as, Behn argues, it is only natural for the powerful to enslave the powerless. By the time Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness the elite colonized figure has been discarded, and all that is left is shadow and flame, bloodlust, cannibalism, and death in the image of the colonized. With no voice, no cognition ability of any kind, and nothing but a drive to eat each other, the image of the colonized had hit the worst of its days. It would take a miracle of counter-rhetoric to undo what nearly five hundred years of negative media propaganda had done to the image of the colonized, and it was Achebe who valiantly took up the task…

… however that is a topic to be discussed in an essay dealing with the post-colonial.

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