A Comparative Evaluation of In a Free State and Death and the King’s Horseman


The play Death and the King’s Horseman is written by Wole Soyinka and depicts true events that take place in ancient African Yoruban city of Oyo. According to the belief of that particular city’s community the King’s horseman had to commit suicide in order to maintain the tradition. The tradition said that if the king died, he should be accompanied into the next world by the horseman who had to commit suicide. However, due to British interference, the horseman fails to commit suicide. On the other hand, let us consider In a Free State written by V.S. Naipaul. It is a novel which consists of three short stories published in 1971. The last one is also titled “In a Free State” and it is the main story. The story is set in the Great Lake of Africa which had got independence only a short time before. The colonials liked the king as well since he was weak and somewhat depressed and the presidents required absolute power. Indeed, colonialism influenced most of the parts of the world that has been depicted in several works. For instance, “Shooting an Elephant” and Heart of Darkness written by George Orwell and Joseph Conrad respectively reflect on the negative impacts of colonialism.

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A Brief History of Colonialism

The British rulers often occupied several parts of the world sending their troops. Many times they used tricks to occupy the land of other nations. Several times the British people came in an independent land under the guise of businessmen and interfered in the administrative and political issues and took the control of that very country. After gaining the power over that particular country they used to loot the valuable or important things and money as well. Indeed, they used to treat the natives as their servants. The sorrowful condition of the natives, in most of the cases, was immeasurable. All the incidents took place were aimed to enable the British and Britain to reach the top when compared to other countries and nations of the world. The British rulers captured a lion’s share of the world from where they gathered many precious things and wealth. They often became very cruel and ruthless in their intention to reach the desired destination. They captured Africa, Asia, North America, and most parts of Europe. Indeed they ruled all over the world. Yet most of the world experienced the ruthlessness and cruelty and suffered from their immature decisions. These things were often portrayed in stories, dramas and novels. The oppression and suppression were very common incidents during this period. As Naipaul (1973) depicts, “they looking hard at me, like an enemy, these people who spoil my life” (p. 74) Indeed, the lives of most of the peoples whose countries had been occupied and ruled illegally were spoiled. In the novel, colonialism has been depicted as one of the co-factors of interracial conflicts. The intrigues and tension between tribes are very common. The common people “can’t wear the lovely colors” (Naipaul, 1973, p.80). The regret of not being a white is often shadowed on Zulu’s face. He (Zulu) says “if I come into the world again I want to come with your color” (Naipaul, 1973, p.80). Thus, it is apparent that the complexion becomes one of the most important and influential factors in the classification of human race. Such classification keeps one group of people isolated from another.

Issues of Post-Colonialism

There are several issues of post-colonialism depicted in these books. The authors tried to reveal the issues through narration. The sufferings of the natives in the occupied country became one of the major issues in this context. The native people have the inborn right to rule their country. The occupying forces and the rulers snatched the right and took the control over that country. In fact, during the colonial rule, the scenario was fairly reversed and the occupying forces treated the natives like aliens. In the eyes of the colonials, the natives were nothing but uncivilized creatures. Thus, it was their destiny to be treated like animals. Even though the natives had been defined as uncultured cruds, the behaviors of the colonials proved to be so. In the context of political, national or internal affairs, the natives had no independence. They had to depend on the colonial rulers for all aspects of their lives. George Orwell, the author of “Shooting an Elephant”, describes that he supported the native Burmese people mentally and opposed the oppressing conditions that imposed by the British completely. While he was doing his job, he hated such heinous suppressions against the native Burmans. He defined the work as a dirty one and elucidated that The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. (Orwell, 1992)

Post-Colonialism and Its Effects

The post-colonial effects and sufferings were enigmatic since the natives had to suffer from multidirectional tribulations. In most of the cases, the natives had to obey the rules and regulations imposed by the colonial governors or the rulers. The natives had no right to take decisions and control themselves. It is the British ruler on whom the natives had to depend in social, political, economic, and legal affairs. Moreover, in some cases, the colonial rulers and their representatives decided which crop the farmers would cultivate. The rulers paid attention to those crops that would be more profitable. Therefore, farmers were compelled to cultivate the crops that the rulers wanted in lieu of regular food grains. Thus, famine broke out in several parts of the Indian subcontinent and hundreds thousands people died due to such scarcity of food. All this happened due to the totalitarianism of the British rulers. To criticize such incidents, some authors wrote several books. ‘Hear of darkness’ is one of them. The book describes the barbarians and the civilized society, racism and colonialism which once seemed to be an essential part of the European imperialism. The following remark evidently shows what the colonials felt about the native Africans. The remark is as follows: Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass were sent into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory. (Conrad, 1990, p. 36)

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Identity and Cultural Crisis of the Natives

Identity is one of the most significant rights of a true citizen. Perhaps, the natives, whether they are Indians or Africans, had to suffer from identity crisis. Such crises frequently occurred during their ruling period. The natives of Africa abide by their own rules and regulations.

The Horseman of the society is not just a horse rider or an orderly of the king, but he is like Marshal or Prime Minister to the Alafin. Sacrificing such an honorable person is not an ordinary thing, yet his death is essential for the survival of the society in future. (Kumar, 2012, p. 3)

After the king’s death the horseman has to die so that he can accompany the king afterlife. “It is native law and custom. The king died last month. Tonight is his burial. But before they can bury him, the Elesin must die so as to accompany him to heaven” (Soyinka, 1987, p. 32) The colonial rulers protect the intentional death of Elesin. The natives regarded the protection as the threat to their cultural activity. Elesin wants to commit suicide. Indeed, he honors the cultural activities. He has a conversation with a woman as follows: “Elesin: The world I know is the bounty/ Of hives after bees have swarmed./ No goodness teems with such open hands/Even in the dreams of deities” (Soyinka, 1987, p. 156).

Further Elesin says:

Who does not seek to be remembered?/ Memory is Master of Death, the chink
In his armor of conceit. I shall leave/ That which makes my going the sheerest
Dream of an afternoon. (Soyinka, 1987, p. 159).

All this proves that the natives honor their ritual faiths and cultural activities that were driven out by the colonials. However, finally, Elesin commits suicide. Thus culture becomes one of the most significant phenomena of both the novel and the play. In the prose “Shooting an Elephant”, the author shoots the elephant not to look like a fool in the eyes of the natives. However, he could have spared the giant animal, since it was grazing calmly while he shot it. The elephant’s owner could do nothing since it was killed by the “Saheeb” (a British).

Migration of the Natives

Colonialism, in some cases, compelled many natives to migrate to a different part of the world leaving their own country. It is known to everyone that the British colonials brought people from Africa and Indian subcontinent and make them reside on the West Indian Islands. In the novel In a Free State, the natives as well as the white people had to migrate from one part to another for the betterment of their lives. In this novel a character Zulu, a young boy, had to migrate from his native land. Bobby, one of the characters of the novel In a Free State, knows “Zulu, a refugee from South Africa” (Naipaul, 1973, p. 78). In this novel lots of trips are described. Many characters are to travel and migrate from one place to another in both literary narratives. One of the philosophical Muslims, plans to migrate to Egypt in order to create violence and genocide. Linda and Bobby had to leave the land as well and they are beaten by the army at a check post. In the prose “Shooting an Elephant”, the author leaves the subcontinent and goes to England. In spite of being one of the colonials, he failed to adapt to such oppressions, beating the natives and treating them like animals. In the novel ‘Heart of Darkness’, the author was to travel from Europe to Africa at the age of 31 in 1890. The main narrator of the novel is Charles Marlow. Thus migration becomes a common theme for literary creations.

Colonialism and Globalization

Colonialism helped a lot to globalize the people and their culture. After the British occupation, the natives came into contact with new culture and so did the British. The familiarity with cultural activities among the tribes, natives and the British had played a considerable role in this process. The British had been successful in spreading their culture in the several parts of the world. People all over the world grabbed British culture minimally. They do not feel any hesitation with this regard. Furthermore, the natives regard British culture as modern and they want to follow most of cultural activities without any hesitation. Thus, the globalization of British culture becomes successful in this regard. In fact, colonialism played a vital role in intercultural communication.

Race and Gender Issues in Colonial Ruling Area

Racism and gender became commonly described issues in the literary works In a Free State, Death and the King’s Horseman, “Shooting an Elephant”, and Heart of Darkness. Racial conflict has a severe impact on the tribal people and the natives. Indeed, colonial ruling had racial impact on it. Furthermore, gender issue has been one of the problematic cases in African literature. In the novel In a Free State, the character Bobby is a homosexual who wants to have relation with Zulu but he turns Bobby down. This incident proves that sex and gender issue has been one of the problematic concerns in this literature. The colonial rulers proved to be chauvinistic with their deeds.

Historical Memory and Resistance

There are several memories available that portray the natives’ resistance during the ruling period. The resistance was aimed at keeping their cultural and ritual activities. The colonials made obstacles to commit suicide which was the tribe’s ritual performance. At last the man commits suicide denouncing the impediment created by the rulers. On the other hand, Zulu, one of the characters of In a Free State, denounces Bobby to satisfy his lust. In prose of Orwell (1992), the Burmans put several obstacles in the way of the British rulers. Orwell’s story proves that the author killed the giant animal due to psychological pressure created by the native Burmans. In addition, the natives used to make various impediments and obstacles including sneer and mocking when they saw a white passing by the road.

Some Important Characters and Their Comparison

In Soyinka’s play , the characters of Simon Pilkings and Jane Pilkings are very influential and in the Naipaul’s novel, the characters of Bobby and Linda are the same. As Simon and Jane are a husband and a wife their relations are sacred. Furthermore they love each other and care for each other. “Bobby worked as an administrative officer in one of the departments of the central government” (Naipaul, 1973, p. 77) Bobby is characteristically a homosexual. He wants to enjoy Zulu, a small young African male. Indeed, Bobby is very interested in sex. Since Bobby is characteristically a homosexual, he considers Zulu a prostitute. He (Bobby) was somewhat nervous as well. He comments on Zulu and says “you Africans are all arrogant”. Bobby was quite interested in Linda who is his colleague’s wife. Thus his lustful nature discloses in front of the readers. Linda is a type of woman who does not care for her husband and refuses to join her husband for a seminar. On the other hand, Linda is known for her appealing character. Thus, Bobby becomes interested in Linda.


After a close analysis of the works, a reader can see several negative impacts the colonial area had on society. Colonialists grabbed the areas for the sake of their own profit whereas the natives became victims of circumstances in this context. Thus, colonialism played a negative role in cultural and tribal life of the occupied areas.


Conrad, J. (1990). Heart of darkness. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, Print.
Kumar, K.N. (2012). Indigenous trading in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. International Journal of Research in Social Sciences, 2(2), 375-388. Retrieved from www.ijmra.us/project%20doc/IJRSS_MAY2012/IJMRA-RSS1122.pdf
Naipaul, V.S. (1973). In a free state. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Orwell, G. (1992). Shooting an elephant. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing.
Soyinka, W. (1987). Death and the king’s horseman. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.