Pilkings: What the hell is the matter with you man!
Jane: Your costume darling. Our fancy dress.
Pilkings: Oh hell, I’d forgotten all about that. [Lifts the face mask over his head showing his face. His wife follows suit.]
Jane: I think you’ve shocked his big pagan heart bless him.
Pilkings: Nonsense, he’s a Moslem. Come on Amusa, you don’t believe in all this nonsense do you? I thought you were a good Moslem.
Amusa: Mista Pirinkin, I beg you sir, what you think you do with that dress? It belong to dead cult, not for human being.
Pilkings: Oh Amusa, what a let down you are. I swear by you at the club you know—thank God for Amusa, he doesn’t believe in any mumbo-jumbo. And now look at you!
From Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed.: Gikandi, Simon. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2003.
This selection from Soyinka’s play opens itself perfectly to postcolonial analysis. Pilkings’ assumptions about the supposed gap between organized, Islamic religion and African tribal religions represent a fundamental misunderstanding of cultural superiority. In this scene, Amusa is appalled by Pilkings’ and Jane’s outfits for a masked ball. On the surface, the notion of cultural superiority is evident: Pilkings and Jane mock the native African culture by wearing their deeply significant, religious garb as a costume. The party itself is a celebration of colonial conquest. On a tour of Britain’s most recent colonial acquisitions, the Prince plans to make a cameo appearance at that evening’s ball. Jane and Pilkings donning the native costumes—especially in this context—represent the ultimate expression of cultural superiority. The costumes are a hit at the party, and everyone laughs at them as an example of uncivilized African excess. But all of that is readily discernibly from the text itself. Pilkings’ comments about Amusa being a “good Moslem” are less discernible (in terms of a postcolonial reading) but more telling.
Pilkings assumes that, because “Amusa” is a Muslim, he has shrugged off all of his native traditions and has abandoned his culture. But to Amusa, the “nonsense” Pilkings speaks of and his Muslim faith are not irreconcilable entities. Indeed, they can coexist. That reading is consistent with the actual history of Africa. In 1883, Ahmadu Bamba established the Mouride order in French Africa—an example of “Islam noire” in which the tribal African could reconcile their ancestral tradition with Islam. Specific practices like Sufism were more attractive to Africans because they were more in line with their tradition of ancestral worship, etc. Magic even factored into this new Islamic order; converts wore amulets. Amusa probably followed a similar faith. Thus, this new religion actually allowed his cultural beliefs to continue to exist within the new colonial order. That continued existence subverts the colonial attitude that Pilkings asserts; indeed, it trumps the notion of colonial superiority that Pilkings exemplifies. Adebayo Williams’ critical essay “Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the King’s Horseman” that appears in our text raises a similar argument with regard to Elesin’s suicide: “The Elesin ritual, then, magically transforms death into an ally of the rulers. In death, the power and grandeur of the rulers remain. The transition of individual kinds is thus immaterial: the kingdom remains unassailable” (192-193). Here, Amusa’s religious beliefs remain unassailable too.