This page last revised 4 May 1998
(Citations are from the Everyman Paperback Edition.)
The relationship between Rudbeck and Mister Johnson is extremely revealing with regards to the experience of the European administrators and the co-operation of the Nigerians in the colonial endeavour. Johnson is keenly aware that superiority for natives directly depends upon being on good terms with the coloniser. He consistently emphasises his belief that Rudbeck is his ''good friend'', and how he is ''mos' indispensable to ... His Majesty's service'' (85). It could be argued that this should not be passed off as simple native fantasy, put in for the amusement of the European reader. In many cases, Johnson is ''indispensable'' to the inexperienced Rudbeck, and throughout the novel, Johnson is constantly seen as the innovator in the relationship.
In two important and inextricably linked areas, finances and roadbuilding, it is not the colonial government which responds to the needs of Rudbeck, but Johnson. As if to push this European dependence on the native a little further, Cary suggests that Rudbeck relies on Johnson in his personal life as well. For example, while Rudbeck is working on the road, Johnson is left to entertain his wife, Celia, an act of trust that both shocks and impresses the natives. We are told that ''this greatly increases [Johnson's] prestige in Fada, where the Emir does not even trust his chief eunuch with his wives'' (87).
Concern over finances is a predominant theme throughout the novel, both for Johnson who constantly seems to be in debt, and Rudbeck who, due to the stringency of the Treasury, never has sufficient money or resources to carry out developments to the extent he would like. The reader is given the impression that, if he could , Rudbeck would be doing much more with Fada. He is a man of action, who longs to get out on the roads, working hard physically. Yet his ambitions are constantly frustrated, and he is left ''suffering'' (57) in his office, itching to get out again. On many levels - financial constraints, inexperience, communication difficult - his hands are tied.
Johnson's personal finances never seem to pose the same extent of problems to him as do Rudbeck's. When dealing with finances, Rudbeck's ''many sudden depressions'' (77) often climax, and he simply concedes that everything is ''all damn nonsense, anyhow'' (53). Rudbeck knows only too well that he can expect no leniency from the Treasury. Once his expenditure limit has been passed, he is forced to pay ''out of my own pocket'' (77). This seems to have been one of the most significant problems the administrators faced. They had been informed that their job was to play an important role in the colonisation of Africa, and that they were assured of governmental backing. Yet, to Rudbeck, the actions of the Treasury seemed to flatly contradict this. In reality, the British Government only gave minimal assistance to its employees. For this reason, Fada has been left undeveloped for the last twenty years.
Often, it is when Johnson is talking about how to improve the finances of Fada that he holds Rudbeck's attention most closely. It is interesting that when Johnson is discussing Rudbeck's finances, Rudbeck is happily tolerant of him. Yet, when Johnson begins to bewail his own financial difficulties, and to ask for an advance on his salary, Rudbeck displays no such tolerance, and instead, ''looks at Johnson as if he has committed a crime'' (59). Cary actually labels it a ''crime'' for the colonised to request extra help from the coloniser, a potent symbol of the self-centred nature of the colonial project.
Cary states that ''Rudbeck, like other juniors, had no idea when he joined what would expected of him'' (43). This inexperience is in evidence throughout the entire novel. Repeatedly, Johnson seems to understand how to use and abuse the financial system more cleverly than Rudbeck. When discussing the embezzling of the Treasury in order to improve the finances for roadbuilding, it takes a while for Rudbeck to catch on to what Johnson is suggesting. Even when he does begin to follow what Johnson is arguing, he consistently finds problems and complexities which Johnson does not concern himself with. He seems unable to simply accept that it is ''a common enough practice'' (78). This could be seen as a reflection of the cynicism and doubt that civilisation breeds, something which Johnson is not yet contaminated with. To him, these European financial systems are straightforward and unproblematic, an indication of his view of Europe in general. Only Rudbeck, who has lived in England all his life, is aware of the true extent of the duplicity and double-standards involved. It is revealing that he makes little attempt to correct Johnson's innocent viewpoint.
There are many occasions in the novel when Rudbeck is seen floundering in his roadbuilding dreams. In these, Cary presents a potent portrayal of how disastrous the colonisation of Nigeria would have been without the cooperation and assistance of the natives. A good example of this is in the dry bed of the Fada River, when Rudbeck is urging a gang of native builders in the process of building a bridge. The scene appears almost farcical, with Rudbeck ''instructing the gang in Hausa, Yoruba, and English, none of which they understand'' (55). As is common in all Cary's African novels, this humour only serves to emphasise the very real problems of communication the colonial administrators faced. Rudbeck has obviously been instructed in two native languages, Hausa and Yoruba, yet these are useless. This points directly towards the coloniser's inability to recognise the diverse cultural and linguistic spectrum Nigeria clearly possessed. In the African Trilogy, Achebe is keen to point out that even in the same clans, language can differ.
There is a second, perhaps more interesting way to read this passage, one which greatly problematises the notion of Nigerian co-operation. In all probability, the natives working with Rudbeck understood the basics of what he expected from them. However, they are intelligent enough to let Rudbeck do ''most of the work himself'' (55) in the blistering African sun. Cary is hinting that the natives are not as gullible as the coloniser would like to believe. In reality, they are much more subversive. Indeed native subversion and resistance could be seen as one the key themes throughout the novel. In other cases, for example, Cary is not so subtle. He openly portrays Waziri offering Johnson favours and bribes to keep him informed about the contents of Rudbeck's safe, which contains all the papers and information sent from Britain, communications which were essential for indirect rule - a role Johnson carries out without a second thought concerning any moral loyalty to Rudbeck.
As Cary sees it, in the colonial project, personalities and individuals are of no concern. In the imperialist longing for supremacy and the natives' response to this, people are used and discarded at will. Cary gives every indication that the problems faced by Rudbeck are universal throughout the colonial project. The plight of the colonial administrator seems doomed to a life of confusion and disillusionment.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Richard Bleakley. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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