Dr. Arun Singh

Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Rajasthan


The paper explores the newly emerging structures of the ‘Empire’: the insidious forms of neo-imperialism seeping into a ‘primitive’ society. Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Rape of Shavi deals with the accidental intrusion of a group of Western people into an indigenous African society deeply-anchored in the desert of Sahara. The European visitors manipulate the bounteousness of the native Shavians and leave the whole society devastated with its nature and culture. The capitalist, neocolonial West rapes the native Shavi of its natural wealth and sacred dignity by harnessing it. However, the illusion of Eurocentric superiority also collapses when the Europeans are faced with the indigenous knowledge-system. The colossal idea of Western modernity collapses and is rendered shattered, but with this ‘ambivalence’ the camouflaged enemy has ambushed and turned the indigenous structures upside down.

Keywords : Empire, native, primitive, Eurocentric, neocolonial, neo-imperial, culture, bounteousness.

In colonial times, the imperial systems of domination would rather be conspicuous and centered, and they often employed duress to retain power. They waged wars to co-opt territories into their ambits of colonial rule. “Imperialism’s culture was not invisible, nor did it conceal its worldly affiliations and interests” (Said XXI). But, in the wake of political decolonization, it has emerged as the “imperialism without colonies” (Young 63). It has mutated into an amorphous mammoth to monitor the baseless and formless power-structures through indistinct trajectories. Imperialism, now, has resurfaced as a new form of domination. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri observe in Empire:

The passage to Empire emerges from the twilight of modern sovereignty. In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers” (XII).

Consequently, Postcolonial studies, in the recent decades, have taken up the imperatives of ‘beyond’ (Ania Loomba et al.) and ‘rerouting’ (Janet Wilson et al.) consecutively “to redress the lost histories of colonialism obscured in the scramble for globalization’s patina of universal progress” (Loomba et al. 10) and to cope with the “neocolonial imbalances in the postcolonial present” (Wilson et al. 1). As the discipline is incessantly going through interpolation and backlashes, scholars are extrapolating ‘cross-examination’ “to push the field in different directions” (Albrecht 1). In this exhaustive discussion, the tenet of ‘resistance’ should be the sinew of the theory, according to Patrick Williams. He avers: “Of more general importance is the fact that postcolonialism has historically been both an analysis of, and hopefully a mode of, resistance: consequently, any shift away from resistant discourses or politicized critique represents the abandonment of one of the major justifications for postcolonial studies” (Williams 88). Bill Ashcroft notes the characteristics of porosity, ‘argumentativeness’ and ‘utopianism’ as positive signs for the future of postcolonial theory.  He argues: “As a way of reading, postcolonialism now extends into various realms of contemporary social politics and refuses to be confined. Clearly postcolonial studies is too dynamic and unruly to police. It has become a field with rich pasture and few fences” (“Postcolonial Futures” 5).

Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Rape of Shavi invites a new foray into a ‘decentered’, cultural and economic domination of an imaginary African territory and exhibits consequential ravages incurred by an outflanked ‘Other’. This is a sheer irony that the primitive people of Shavi, who are absolutely estranged from the outside world, are democratic and benevolent in their way of life even without an access to Western modernity and globalization. Their intentions regarding the European visitors are ingenuous and selfless. The crash of the aircraft is outlandishly unexpected to the Shavi people. The king Patayon does not harm the white Europeans, instead he asks his people to fete and inhabit them gracefully, because it is the cultural tradition of Shavi to accommodate and assimilate “the people who are immigrant in [their] society”. Shavi is “a close-knit society” in fact, a nation that exists as a cohesive unit in social, cultural, economic and political terms. It does not need to be defined by the Western rubrics of knowledge-production. The natives also fear to be snarled up into enslavement “for [they] want to be [their] own maters and protectors” (Emecheta 36, 14, 17). Rapacity for power and prosperity does not affect them. They are complacent with their poverty-ridden, mediocre life-style. Even, they do not believe in ‘colonising’ others; they are non-violent people as the king, his wise minister and friend, Egbongbele and the priestess Iyalode defy Anoku’s suggestion to sacrifice the visitors. Emecheta narrates with a mordant tinge: “On the whole, the Shavi council regarded the visitors as humans, whose only difference was their pigmentation. So, one by one, each council member promised to make the visitors feel at home” (39).

The Shavians realise their racial ‘difference’ from the Albino visitors, but they do not make them [Europeans] feel alienated. The skin-colour does not induce the natives to alienate the white visitors. In fact, the novel is Emecheta’s “writing back” (Bill Ashcroft et al.) strategy to contradict the Western discourse of racial superiority and capitalist mindset. The novelist reviles and ‘mimics’ (Bhabha) the Eurocentric ideology, but she is also aware of the neo-imperial proclivity of the West. Nevertheless, she reveals a stark irony that the so-called aeronautical scientists of the West have to “seek a refuge” (Emecheta 29) in the desert of Sahara, when they feel that the so-called developed West may wipe itself out by the impending nuclear war. The stupendous ideology of development and progress begins to wreck and gives way to a so-called primitive way of life. The Eurocentric modernity does not belong to the Shavi people. They believe that all human beings are “refugees, immigrant strangers on this earth” (Emecheta 13). This is the Shavian cosmopolitanism. Bill Ashcroft reveals the deep-seated elitism and sophistication implied in the term ‘cosmopolitanism’ and questions its Eurocentric ethics. He posits: “Clearly, Cosmopolitans are not defined by a particular subject position but by an orientation to the Other and to diversity” (“Transnation” 77). Even without a trickle of knowledge about the so-called modernity and globalization, the Shavians are inherently democratic and humanitarian in their so-called primitive stage; they conform to the ethical virtues of equality, human rights and freedom of speech. Emecheta narrates:

The king and his men had sworn with their life blood that no one should oppress or use his position to treat the other subhumanly. . . . Shavi prided herself on being the only place in the whole of the Sahara, where a child was free to tell the king where it was that he had gone wrong. And the child knew that not only would he not be punished but also that he would be listened to and his suggestion might even be incorporated into the workings of the kingdom. (3)

The natives intend to learn the culture of the albino people, but Ronje, one of the visitors, wants to impose his [European] culture upon the natives. He detests and devalues natives’ convivial ways of social behavior. The Shavi people are “rootless savages” (Emecheta 50) to him. He does not consider them to be human. Discussing Rudyard Kipling’s life and work, Edward Said, too, reveals this geopolitical and discursive ideology about the West and East:

On one side of the colonial divide was a white Christian Europe whose various countries, principally Britain and France, but also Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Russia, Portugal, and Spain, controlled most of the earth’s surface. On the other side of the divide, there were an immense variety of territories and races, all of them considered lesser, inferior, dependent subject (Culture and Imperialsim134).

Flip, the supposed leader of the visitors, expresses his sympathy for the natives, but Ronje flouts him, because his racial prejudice and Orientalist superciliousness do not allow him to befriend the Shavians. “Flip and his illusion of the noble savage” seem to be risible to Ronje. “A thought occurred to Flip at this stage: that they must have sounded barbaric to these gentle [Shavi] people” (Emecheta 105, 54). Both Flip and Ista are greatly impressed by the bounteousness of the natives, but Ronje and Andria nurture suspicions about them. Ista exposes the “convincing demonstration” (Said, Orientalism 233) of European discourse and contends that Europeans “. . . simply find it difficult to accept kindness”. She explodes the edifice of Eurocentric superiority and discloses the self-destructive clout of the “over-civilised society” of the West. In Ista’s view, Shavian way of life is surpassingly noble. “Maybe if she could understand that way of living, she could teach her own people that there was another way to live” (Emecheta 60, 64, 169). Biodun Jefiyo argues “. . . that the moral of the failure of the “civilizing mission” outside Europe is that there are more ways to being “civilized” and “modern” than the unitary, homogenized way touted by the European or Western project” (609). Ista speaks unflinchingly: “We ran away from our over-civilised society because we were about to destroy ourselves. We landed here among people who haven’t got the faintest idea about the bomb, who are perfectly happy and sure enough of themselves to trust and welcome us into their midst [. . .]” (Emecheta 64). The primitivism of the native people is feted by Ista “as a corrective to the malaise of Western modernity, a redemptive alternative that supplies what is missing in modernity” (Li 985). The novelist juxtaposes the inherent bounteousness of the Shavians with the volatile and selfish incredulity of the European visitors. Actually, the Shavi people pose a challenge to the prodigious knowledge-system constructed by the West, as they (Shavians) are absolutely unaware of the Orientalist discourse until Asogba gets harnessed by the ‘resurfacing of Empire’. It irks Ronje that Flip confers importance on the natives. Ronje contends: “They [Shavians] didn’t even know of the existence of other races, except those distant tribes that bought their cattle” (Emecheta 105). This ignorance of the natives, in fact, embodies resistance to the meta-power of knowledge.

Ista signals the perpetual, insidious working of the Empire by appertaining to the history of colonialism, slavery and religious conversion in Africa and the contemporary neo-imperial, capitalist hegemony of the West: “We took Christianity to them in West Africa, then we encouraged them to sell their brothers and sisters, and we’re now buying up all their mineral deposits . . .” (Emecheta 74). Ania Loomba takes up the issue of neocolonial hegemony as very significantly prevalent in the globalized structure of the world. It is redolent of the old racial/cultural dichotomies. She states that “If the earlier period of colonial globalization simultaneously integrated the world into a single economic system, and divided it more sharply into the haves and the have-nots, so the new empire both facilitates global connections and creates new opportunities, and entrenches disparities and new divisions” (Colonialism/Postcolonialism 219-220; emphasis in original). A similar view about colonial and neocolonial interconnectedness and difference, in the context of globalization, is put forward by Ali Behdad:

The colonial model of center and periphery, for example, may not be at work today, but the geographical division of developed and underdeveloped worlds continues to persist. Every world-system rests on the ruins of the previous one, and because of this, world-systems are interrelated, albeit that the new system always expands and transforms the elements that it borrows from the previous one. (69)

Ayoko’s rape by Ronje is a metaphorical symbol of the coercive subjugation of the blacks by the white colonialists. And Asogba’s hegemonic manipulation by Mendoza, the most rapacious of the visitors, by virtue of the Shavi stones, represents a neo-imperial exploitation of the Orient. Ronje’s ingrained racial prejudice abets him to rape the dignity of Shavi. Emecheta seems to foreground that the ‘binaries’ have not been effaced, instead they are looming large in new shapes. She narrates: “Ronje fell on her and, in less than ten minutes, took from the future Queen of Shavi what the whole Shavi stood for. To him, the Shavians were savages and Ayoko was just a serving girl” (94). The anti-essentialist, cosmopolitan and undefended attitude of the natives brings havoc and ravages to them.

Rebutting lecherous Ronje’s intention of marrying Ayoko, Flip adjures him not “. . . to introduce corrupt ways to this [Shavi] people”. He warns Ronje imparting it to him that raping Ayoko would be raping Shavi. But for the chauvinistic Ronje, Ayoko was “. . . an object of use for any white male wanderer. He had only done what generations of his race had done before” (Emecheta 104, 106). In fact, the ‘sacred’ of the indigenous society, which, in Ashcroft’s view, is of utmost significance in post-colonial study, is defiled by Ronje (The Empire Writes Back 212). In a violent retaliation, his Eurocentric arrogance is trampled down by the female version of native resistance.

Although the grand- narrative of Western superiority is rejected by Flip when he feels disgusted with the “instruments of physical and moral destruction” (Emecheta 102) and seeks recourse to the African (primitive) way of life. The “discourses of colonial power” are rendered “ambivalent” (Bhabha 153) in Flip’s compunction. In his view, Shavi turns a pure, genuine, eco-friendly and truly democratic world and the West is a “polluted world, where the acquisition of money reigns supreme” (Emecheta 103). But his way of knowing Shavi is a part of the ‘Orientalising’ (Said) project unknowingly. He is an ‘ambivalent’ neo-colonial. His sympathy and respect for the Shavians turn out to be superficial when he reaches England back and becomes complacent about his life. “Flip didn’t feel guilty at all that he had in a way disturbed the Shavians’ quiet life” (Emecheta 167).

The bounteous Asogba faces sheer slight and racial discrimination in England. His desire “to learn their [albinos’] tricks” inveigles him into the vortex of capitalism and desire for power. The Europeans send him back equipped with “arms and ammunition” (Emecheta 134, 156) only to wipe out his own peaceful world of Shavi. He attacks the neighbouring kingdoms to emulate the Europeans, but leaves the whole human and animal world ransacked and devastated “under the disapproving gaze of a hypocritical West” (Ashcroft, The Empire Writes Back 213).  The “new ideas and strange ways” betoken the resurfacing of Empire in Shavi. His returning “great and powerful” (Emecheta 121, 141) from England is actually a signal of being “outflanked” (Hardt and Negri 138) by the Empire. Nevertheless, he becomes aware of the reality and warns his people: “They carry weapons of death in their speech and in their bodies. They’re not the friends we think they are. They’re dangerous” . But Asogba’s resistance to the dupes of the albinos fails and he proves to be an emblem of blight for his own people. The “power-drunk Asogba” is ambushed by his unseen enemy with his own weapons. Mendoza goes back to Shavi to exploit its natural resources (Shavi stones) and render the natives shorn of their Shavian wealth and dignity. Asobga gets snarled up into his capitalist luring and orders his people to cease food-production and lean upon the Europeans for it. “He wanted his people to be as great as these white people” (Emecheta 152, 156, 149). Frantz Fanon notes the psychological corollary of such experience:

When the Negro makes contact with the white world, a certain sensitizing action takes      place. If his psychic structure is weak, one observes a collapse of the ego. The black man        stops behaving as an actional person. The goal of his behaviour will be The Other (in the     guise of the white), for The Other alone can give him worth. That is on the ethical level: self-esteem. But there is something else. (Black Skin, White Masks 154; emphasis in original)

Apart from being a liberal cosmopolitan, the king Patayon is also a cultural nationalist. He always seeks to maintain the dignity of his cultural value-system, the sacred and the environment of Shavi. He flouts the mammoth of Empire. His ‘slowness’ indicates his wisdom, sangfroid and rootedness. He states his principle: “ “We stand for independence, we stand for freedom. If we allow ourselves to be completely dependent on the albinos, and don’t prepare ourselves for the worst, I hate to think what will happen to us if for any reason they fail to bring food.” ”.  His son, Asogba deviates from this parapet and gets entrapped into Mendoza’s perfidious ruses. This process of unseen and unheeded subjugation of culture and resources leads to an economic famine in Shavi. The culture of sheer capitalism and neo-imperialism divests the prince of his intrinsic culture of bounteousness and emanates a marauding, ravaging and self-destructive Asogba. As Viyon, Asogba’s step-brother expresses it with pride that they have best of civilization, but the “. . . adventure into the desert, and the Ogene stones, were a dream and a temptation” (Emecheta 159, 178).

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Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.