Fascinating drama can always emerge when characters argue the truth against each other. Each has something that is undeniably correct in their position, but since neither wishes to back down, it’s up to the audience to figure out whose position is more correct in the long run. Kevin Beary has written three one-act plays which deal with the African question, and uses dialectic with expert precision.
All three plays take place in nineteenth-century Africa and deal with the fundamental differences between the African and the European, and also between Christianity and tribal African religions. The conflicts therein mostly consist of chatting, but it is the kind that will stay with the attentive reader for a long time because the arguments themselves are so relevant, well-formulated, and indeed true.
Annual Customs takes place in the mid-1860s in Abomey, which is the capital of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey – today, part of Benin. The explorer Richard Francis Burton is having a serious discussion with his missionary wife, Isabel. No blacks appear in the play, yet they loom large considering what Isabel intends to do with them if her much more level-headed husband allows her. She wishes not only to preach the gospel to them, but to alter their customs entirely to make them good Christians like herself.
Her attitude is fervent, to say the least, and to her credit, she is well-versed in the Bible. Any argument her husband presents to her she counters impeccably using Christian theology. At times, he has to resort to extra-religious arguments, which, while persuasive to modern audiences who have the benefit of a knowledge of genetics and hindsight, have little effect on the hard-headed Isabel.
At the heart of the matter is a highly civilized, and likely racial, revulsion to African ways. As a people, blacks are violent, barbaric, unhygienic, and almost completely lacking in empathy for others. Isabel simply cannot countenance that a Christian God would allow such abject savagery. She therefore takes it upon herself to reform these Africans in accordance with what are obviously higher European, Christian standards.
The following snippet of dialogue encapsulates this dispute perfectly:
ISABEL: Why did you come here, then, if not to help these people?
BURTON: My dear, did you see the King’s reaction when I conveyed to him Her Majesty’s Government’s views on human sacrifice and the slave trade? It was like talking into the wind.
ISABEL: You can’t expect him to change his customs and traditions overnight.
BURTON: You can’t expect him to change them at all. This is what I am telling you. And it is perhaps wrong to try and make him change them. This is their way of life. It is not our way. It is their way.
ISABEL: Surely you are not condoning human sacrifice?
BURTON: It disgusts and repels me, as it does any European. But it doesn’t disgust and repel them. These people take a delight in cruelty, in causing and watching suffering. It’s their nature.
ISABEL: Surely that is one aspect of their nature that can be changed.
BURTON: Why should it be changed? Do we try to teach the lion not to kill and dismember its prey?
ISABEL: A lion is not a human being made in the image of the Almighty God. We have a holy mission to these people, a civilizing mission which it is our sacred duty to fulfill. In order to receive mercy from God ourselves, we must practice mercy towards our fellow men. Do you understand, Richard? We are required to perform works of mercy when it is in our power to do so, as it is now. We must instruct the ignorant. We must admonish sinners. We cannot leave these people in the abyss of ignorance and sin in which we have found them. It would be un-Christian to do so.
How can Burton respond to such an argument without allowing the most grotesque immorality? He does, of course, in the vein described above. But in all cases, his arguments fall back on a shrug, race realism, and a strange sort of standoffish respect for his African hosts. He also exhibits a refreshing lack of arrogance that his wife would do well to emulate. Never does he presume to understand God’s way, while his wife never fails to presume to understand it. She’s armed with the Bible, after all.
This makes her a formidable villain in the play, for all her love and ardor for the plight of the African. Fortunately, Beary has contrived a suitable comeuppance for her at the play’s end. The surprise is poignant and the poetic justice is perfect.
Modern readers, especially those on the Right, will understand that Burton has the truth of the matter. Too much has transpired and so little progress has been made in Africa since the 1860s that Isabel’s tendentious and counter-productive dogma should quickly be swept aside by the breeze of reality in our time. We’re not there yet, sadly. But with Christianity continuing its descent into irrelevance, let’s hope that we will live to see the day that Christianity — or whatever replaces it — discards the kind of dangerous nonsense Isabel Burton effervescently espouses in Annual Customs.
Madam Tinubu lacks all of the restraint of Annual Customs and is a thing to behold. Tinubu is an African queen in Lagos speaking to a British consul, who spends the entire play offstage. Again, we’re in the mid-nineteenth century. In this case, however, we are treated to a vociferous defense of the African slave trade. The woman does not hide her scorn and contempt for the white man who presumes he can come to Africa, her home, and dictate the behavior of her people.
But Madam Tinubu is no ignoramus. She has a fiery intellect, and she understands her people and knows what’s best for them. She also understands enough Christianity to know that slavery is never explicitly condemned in the Bible: “Your Paul says, Slave, obey your master in everything. Paul don’t say nothing about stopping slavery.” This leads to her perfectly justified accusations of hypocrisy on the part of the whites. Slavery is an ancient and profitable practice among her people and she sees no reason whatsoever to curtail it for sake of do-gooding whites who don’t understand the fundamental differences between the races. In fact, Tinubu wishes the Muslims were in Lagos rather than the Christians, since the Muslims are good traders and never give her people trouble over slavery.
Madam Tinubu also demonstrates a powerful sense of human nature that seems to be completely absent in her unseen white counterpart. You think you can just free the slaves, eh? You think the work will then just do itself? Who will be able to control the resulting anarchy? Who will restore social order, Mr. All-Knowing White Man?
What do you think these slaves are gonna do when you free them, huh? You think they are gonna be thankful to you? You think they are gonna live in peace then and leave you alone? Lemme tell you something, Mr. Consul: When they are slaves, when they are in chains, they ask you to be free, because they know you believe in that, in freedom for everybody, that is the English idea you got, ain’t that so? So when they are slaves, they say, Master, please free me. I am a man just like you. I got rights just like you got. So you free them, and what do they do the minute you free them? They put you in chains, that is what they do, they put you in chains and they take you down to the market, to the market where they are selling all kinds of things, chickens and pigs and goats and such, and where they are selling you, too, and they will get the best price for you that you can fetch. You try asking them for your freedom then, see what they say. ‘Cause you got a belief in freedom, but they got a belief in slavery.
Beary makes it clear that Madam Tinubu does not wish to enslave whites. Like Francis Burton, she wishes the races to live and let live based on a kind of innocent, pre-literate understanding of the differences between whites and blacks:
Why do you think black people must start to think like white people? You think the color of our skin is the only difference between us? I tell you it is not the only difference. We got different heads, too, not just different skins, we got our own way of thinking.
Unlike Annual Customs, however, Madam Tinubu does more than slay Christian idols. Our Queen offers threats. Do not interfere with our folkways, white man, she says. Do not presume you can make up the rules in our homeland. We will fight. This is our way of life and we will defend it. It’s impossible not to respect Tinubu’s determination and belligerence in the face of what she knows to be an existential threat. Of course, the way of life she wishes to continue is cruel and unspeakable for Europeans, Christians or not. Reading this play as an apologia for slavery will be difficult for many, simply because modern whites have — what? Evolved past it?
Perhaps we have. But the African has not, a message carried home in almost every paragraph of Madam Tinubu.
Queen, Consul, Preacher, Slave takes up where Madam Tinubu leaves off. We find that, after having signed several anti-slavery trade treaties, our vociferous Queen is now permanently on her back foot. Throughout the entirety of the play, which contains more narrative conflict than the other two combined, Tinubu wriggles like a desperate lioness trying to stay out of a trap. She must profess all the racial-egalitarian platitudes the English expect of her. She must continually denounce the slave trade and deny any culpability in it, all the while trying to unload slaves on the few remaining unscrupulous traders before the slaves all die on her.
Of course, she has no respect for the English ways and has not turned over a new leaf. How could she? It was only the presence of British troops and bombs in her precious Lagos which had forced her hand.
Now on the defensive, she plots with her slaves Jambo and Duke to murder the British consul Campbell and shanghai an African missionary named Crowther onto a slave ship. Unfortunately for her, however, the murder plot fails, and Jambo does not have the nerve to initiate action against an educated man like Crowther.
We then find Tinubu desperately plotting to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. Jambo, however, is skeptical that any new plan she concocts will succeed. The British — and Campbell — are too careful. Further, they see through her. Campbell appears and is entirely unmoved by her protestations of innocence.
Beyond all the rumors floating around Lagos, which point to Tinubu as the villain, she is taxing her abilities as a statesman when she emphatically distances herself from this or that heinous crime while casting blame on whichever enemy is convenient for her. Her slaves offer her a chorus of support, but Campbell, who is angry that he nearly lost his life, believes none of it. He then accuses her of supplying slaves for ritual sacrifice at funerals. He leaves after promising a full investigation and rebuffing Tinubu’s offer of a mulatto girl to keep him company.
The heart of the play begins when Mr. Figg, a reformed slave trader who owes Tinubu a great deal of money, appears. This insufferable white man has the nerve to profess concern for Tinubu’s spirituality as he expresses fulsome guilt for having helped cause all of Africa’s problems through the slave trade. What is it about the white Christians that makes them think that they are at the center of everything?
FIGG: You are mocking me, Madam. The trade has effaced your moral sense, it has robbed your heart of every gentle and humane disposition. Your heart has become hardened like steel and no humane pleadings can soften it.
TINUBU: Mr. Figg, my experience is that when people start talking to me about a moral sense, they are trying to convince me to take a loss.
FIGG: I am trying to convince you not to take a spiritual loss.
TINUBU: Spiritual losses don’t figure into my account books.
FIGG: But they should. In any case, I recognize and admit that we Europeans are to blame for the trade. If not for us, the wars you Africans fight amongst yourselves in order to procure slaves would cease.
TINUBU: I would like to agree with you, Mr. Figg. I would like to say that before the white man came to Africa, all African people were living in peace and harmony. In fact I sometimes do say that. But between you and me, you don’t got no idea what you are talking about, just like most white men who come to this country and never get any farther inland than the coast. There are different tribes here, all living next to each other, and when you got tribes living next to each other like that, you got war. They were making war against each other before the white man came, they are making war against each other now the white man is here, and they will keep on making war against each other when the white man is gone. These people are warriors, they live for war. War to them is the most important thing in life. War, killing, enslavement, sacrifice — these are such noble actions for them. When they attack a neighbor tribe, they are fighting for their survival. They are attacking that tribe before it can attack them. They are not going to stop killing, they are not going to stop enslaving, they are not going to stop sacrificing just because you and some other white people like you give up the trade. They don’t give a fig about you, Mr. Figg.
Ultimately, however, the net is too close, the trap too tight. For all her machinations, Tinubu cannot escape. In the end, she does indeed perform a cruel and heinous act against innocence in defense of her kingdom. It remains to be seen whether she can personally escape blame, but she ultimately recognizes that the English have won and destroyed her beautiful country.
Although she plays the scheming villain throughout the entire play, she never lets us forget that it was British bombs and British violence which wrought all this destruction on her country to begin with. So who is the villain? No side is innocent. However, she does conclude, in a moment of insight, that there is a great difference between what is natural and what is unnatural. For her, Africa is natural:
It is funny, but the English men, with all their big ships and cannon and guns, all their fancy stuff . . . African people know more about the world than them. Africa is the natural world, and England is the unnatural world. Can the unnatural world win over the natural world? I do not believe so.
Given how the “natural world” of Africa is currently in the process of submitting the “unnatural world” of European homelands to its will, how could such a statement from this wonderful play not be considered profoundly and painfully prophetic?
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