Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Chapter 23
Okonkwo is pleased about the destruction of the church and feels that daily life is beginning to seem normal again. For once, the clan listened to his advice and acted like warriors, though they didn't kill the missionary or drive the Christians out of Umuofia as he had urged.
When the District Commissioner returns from a trip and learns about the destruction of the church, he asks six leaders of the village, including Okonkwo, to meet with him in his government office. The six men agree but go to the meeting armed with their machetes.
The District Commissioner asks the village leaders, who have set their weapons aside, to explain their actions at the church to him and twelve other government men. As one of the leaders begins to tell about Enoch's unmasking of an egwugwu, the twelve government men surprise the clan leaders by handcuffing them and taking them into a guardroom.
The Commissioner reminds them that he and his government promote peace and want to help them be happy. When they treat others wrongly, they must be judged in the government court of law — the law of the Commissioner's "great queen." The leaders were wrong to hurt others and burn Enoch's house and the church. As a consequence, he says that they will be kept in prison, where they will be treated well and set free only after paying a fine of two hundred bags of cowries.
In prison, the guards repeatedly mistreat the six leaders, including shaving the men's heads. The prisoners sit in silence for two days without food, water, or toilet facilities. On the third day, in desperation, they finally talk among themselves about paying the fine. Okonkwo reminds them that they should have followed his advice and killed the white man when they had the chance. A guard hears him and hits them all with his stick.
As soon as the leaders were locked up, court messengers went around the village telling everyone that the prisoners would be released only after the village paid a fine of two hundred and fifty bags of cowries — fifty of which the messengers would keep for themselves. Rumors circulated about possible hangings and shootings that occurred in Abame, including the families of the prisoners. At a town meeting, the Umuofians decide to collect the money immediately.
This chapter describes the oppressive yet naive approach that the British took to ensure colonial justice. Although the District Commissioner says that he wants to hear both sides of the clan leaders' story, he doesn't trust the leaders and imprisons them while he collects a fine from the village. The Commissioner informs them that the British "have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy." He may sincerely believe this statement, and he may also believe that the British control the court messengers when he assigns them as guards and as fine collectors. The court messengers (or kotma), however, not only abuse the prisoners, but they collect a fine considerably larger than what the Commissioner asks for so they can keep a sizable portion for themselves.
The District Commissioner's statements and personal actions are ironic in light of what is actually taking place: The British have decided that they know what is best for the Igbo and will go to violent and repressive lengths to bring their decision about. They justify their actions in the name of their great sovereign, Queen Victoria, "the most powerful ruler in the world."
A recurring theme underlying the occupation by the British is that the Africans are divided among themselves — an illustration of "divide and conquer." To help enforce their policies, the British employ other Africans to help them carry out their occupation and rule. The white colonialists apparently assume that their black subordinates would gain the confidence of the black natives. The British may not be aware that their court messengers, apparently Igbo, believe in customs, language, and values different from the Umuofians, and they already possess traditional antagonisms toward the Umuofian Igbo. Clearly, they do not understand Umuofian culture when they joke about so many Umuofians holding titles. They abuse their power by physically abusing their prisoners and asking the clan for an extra fifty bags of cowries for themselves. Because the court messengers are also the translators between the British and the Igbo, their opportunity for corruption is great. The British who are aware of the brutality and corruption of their court messengers probably take refuge in the rationalization that the end — the ultimate civilizing of the natives — justifies the means.
The other method by which the British divide the Igbo is through the introduction of Christianity which, as one can see, results in the division of a community into opposing groups of citizens. Remember that the destruction of the church was triggered by the actions not of a white man, but of Enoch, a converted clansman — the ultimate irony.
palaver a conference or discussion, as originally between African natives and European explorers or traders.
a great queen Queen Victoria, reigning head of the British Empire for sixty-four years (1837-1901).
Who is the chief among you? The kotma (court messenger) guards see by the anklets that all six leaders own titles and joke that they must not be worth much.