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The Pen Was in Her Hands: Austen in Africa: Colonial Ambassador?

Hubristic belief in its own racial and cultural superiority led Britain for centuries to impose its rule, religion, historical viewpoint, language, and literature on the “benighted” African, Asian, Native American, Aboriginal, and other dispossessed peoples in its colonies and settlements. 

Mnthali Felix

Felix Mnthali

In the powerful poem “The Stranglehold of English Lit.,” written in 1961, three years before his country won its independence, Malawian poet Felix Mnthali (b.1933) provided a startling hypothesis regarding British colonial success in Africa:  The Empire was able to impose its Anglocentrism, brutality, and enslavement by letting “Jane Austen” loose on an unsuspecting reading public, mesmerizing it into “calf-love” with her elegant tales about the English gentry.

The Stranglehold of English Lit.
For Molare Ogundipe-Leslie)

Those questions, sister,
those questions
and gore
Too close to the center! 

For if we had asked
why Jane Austen’s people
carouse all day
and do no work

would Europe in Africa
have stood
the test of time?
and would she still maul
the flower of our youth
in the south?
Would she? 

Your elegance of deceit,
Jane Austen,
lulled the sons and daughters
of the dispossessed
into a calf-love
with irony and satire
around imaginary people.

While history went on mocking
the victims of branding irons
and sugar-plantations
that made Jane Austen’s people
wealthy beyond compare! 

Eng. Lit., my sister,
was more than a cruel joke—
it was the heart
of alien conquest. 

How could questions be asked
at Makerere and Ibadan,
Dakar and Ford Hare—
with Jane Austen
at the center?
How could they be answered?

Mnthali despairingly counted himself among the bewitched, perhaps believing that Austen’s masterful prose and the genteel, seductive world of her Regency-England characters had shaped the trajectory of his own adult life.  Graduating from Cambridge University, he became an English professor variously at universities in Ibadan (Nigeria), Malawi, and Botswana (Davis et al. 148) and an Anglophone poet to boot, ironically excluding non-English-speaking Africans from his own passionate lament and prose works. 

This unsettling question of postcolonial hybridity is faced by Anglophones of the Indian subcontinent as well, leaving both African and South Asian writers with disturbing nationalist questions regarding our literary choice of subject matter, language, and audience.  Here’s a question that further disturbs me: It is now several decades since colonized countries won our independence from European imperialism; how long are we going to keep seeing ourselves as postcolonial instead of just as Asian, African, etc. writers?  Nomenclature aside, the issue at the heart of this article is the response of hybrids to Austen.  Mnthali’s poem, its language, and its message lead one to question whether hybridity is ironic or useful, whether being Anglophone equates with being Anglophile and thereby downgrading one’s own culture, and whether enjoying canonical English literature encourages political quiescence at the expense of historical truth.  Peter Babiak, English professor at the University of British Columbia, has accurately pegged our underlying guilt as “the political consequences of academic escapism” through English literature. 

Awareness of the horrors and rapaciousness of colonial Africa, perpetrated in the name of the Christian God, Western so-called Enlightenment, and industrialization, is a well-known given.  Mnthali must have felt the pain firsthand; for the first thirty-one years of his life, he lived under British rule.  As an English major, perhaps he had even read Rudyard Kipling’s jingoistic poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), which celebrates the difference between what he sees as civilized, altruistic colonials and the “sullen,” undeserving natives, “half devil and half child” (ll. 7–8).  This Kipling was born in my hometown Mumbai, is celebrated for his Indian tales, and won the Nobel Prize in 1907. 


An engraving of 1792 by J. Cruikshank, showing “the Inhumanity of dealers in human flesh.” An engraving of 1792 by J. Cruikshank, showing “the Inhumanity of dealers in human flesh.” The Beltman Archive BBC Hulton.The Beltman Archive BBC Hulton.

Mnthali’s anger against British writers and despair under colonial rule aptly find voice in his poem’s seven unrhymed irregular verses, while Kipling’s Anglocentric self-confidence breezes through regular, facilely rhymed stanzas.  Through such absolute certainty and concomitant indoctrination, the colonizers successfully cowed a large part of dark-skinned populations into believing in their own inferiority.  No more, not for many decades.  But the guilt remains under the surface for some of us. 

Here a few questions arise regarding the importance of universities in shaping political and literary discourse on this issue.  First, were the African professors of English themselves blameless in stimulating “calf-love” of Austen’s English classics in their young students (and were they wrong in doing so)?  In “An Image of Africa,” a lecture given in February 1975 at the University of Massachusetts, Chinua Achebe conversely asserted that “it is not one day too soon” for Westerners to change their own egocentric attitude, “and where better than at a University?” (107–13).  But, Mnthali might have argued, such a challenge did not or could not take place in African universities in 1961.  (Neither could intelligent women like Austen get a university education in Britain in the late eighteenth century and well after that.)  Concerned with race rather than gender, however, Mnthali roundly blames her for charming and silencing English departments at Makarere (Uganda), Ibadan (Nigeria), Dakar (Senegal), and Fort Hare (South Africa), preventing them from discussing her works in the context of political and cultural imperialism.  From my own late-sixties undergraduate experience at Bombay University (now University of Mumbai), I assume that English departments in India, and likely in Africa too, were notoriously silent on indigenous literature, even in English, and in assessing the historical context of the canonical literature they taught us to love.  (At an American university in the seventies, my initial dissertation choice of an Indian English novelist was dismissed as “wasting time on a second-rate writer.”)  Regardless, whatever the English Departments were doing, “those questions / . . . [that] stand / stab / jab / and gore / too close to the center” were being passionately discussed before and after 1961 by African intellectuals at home and in the Caribbean and Western diaspora, notably by francophone Frantz Fanon, the brilliant Martiniquan philosopher and psychiatrist, and anglophone Chinua Achebe, the somberly riveting Nigerian novelist. 

And what about Austen herself?  Was the fictional escapism she offered her readers in Mansfield Park (1814), largely targeted in verse 6 of “Stranglehold,” entirely without a quietly questioning subtext about the evils of slavery?  Gregson Davis, African American professor emeritus of classical studies at Duke, offers historical perspective on this question.  After decades of discussion that spanned Austen’s own early years, the British Parliament finally, if initially ineffectually, banned slave ownership and purchase (although, after total abolishment in 1833, British slavers cleverly replaced it with false promises to indentured South Asians and others).  In Mansfield Park, when Fanny asks her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, newly returned from Antigua, about the slave trade, we don’t hear his response, if any, only that the indifferent family is silent (231).  Yet Sir Thomas is quite willing later to talk to Fanny’s brother William about the balls held there (292), i.e., about what Deborah Barnum calls the “life there among the colonial gentry” [emphasis added].  Is Austen obliquely challenging Sir Thomas’s reputation for uprightness, spending, as he does, two whole years in Antigua because the profit margin of his sugar plantations is threatened? 

Fanny’s explanation to cousin Edmund for not pursuing her question on the slave trade seems equally disturbing.  True, she has no experience beyond the confines of pseudo-genteel drudgery at Mansfield Park and her disordered, slovenly family home in Portsmouth.  Yet, to avoid showing up her cousins’ apathy, she denies herself the “curiosity and pleasure[?]” (232, emphasis added) of knowing more?  Why does Fanny’s question about the slave trade segue into the pleasurable activities of the colonials?  Edmund too is silent on the source of his family’s slave-labor-based comforts.  Although wanting to be a dutiful clergyman, he admits that he does not want to substantially lower his current standard of living.  He won’t have to.  When the Grants fortuitously leave the parsonage, his father gives him the comfortable living attached to Mansfield Park.  The pen was in Austen’s hand.  Her deliberate silence, however, on her three best characters’ mixed values allows discerning readers to evaluate her intent for themselves. 

Austen’s oblique satire would of course have fallen on deaf plantocratic ears.  But how can one today understand or exonerate the values of the British plantocrats of her time?  Perhaps vilification of the enslaved peoples, whether in art or life, made it mentally easier for such landlords of Caribbean plantations to enjoy their stolen fruits.  Perhaps many of them just didn’t care that their fortunes were built on the backs of “victims of branding irons / and sugar plantations”; perhaps some were indeed disturbed but ultimately reluctant to give up the leisured lifestyle that allowed them, especially male members of the British gentry, “Jane Austen’s people,” to “carouse all day / and do no work.”  Gregson Davis, however, defends Austen herself:  “Pace the late Edward Said, who brilliantly inspired a whole school of postcolonial critics to question the imperialistic mindset of the fictive [Sir Thomas] Bertram, Austen appears to have intended . . . a subtle moral critique of the British landed gentry and their presumed allegiance to the institution of slavery.” 

Davis bases this viewpoint on Austen’s sympathy for slaves, developed through reading abolitionist texts, poems, and, perhaps more personally, through the horror her naval brother Francis expressed at seeing the treatment of slaves on a Portuguese trade ship.  Another familial source was probably the information gleaned from her father’s conversations on Antiguan plantations before the abolition of the slave trade.  For the Reverend George Austen was a long-term friend of his erstwhile Oxford tutee, the wealthy plantocrat James Langford Nibbs, who acted as godfather to the oldest Austen son and named Reverend Austen a trustee in his marriage settlement, which would entail the distribution of his Antigua estate on his death (Davis; Looser).  Convinced of Jane Austen’s own values, Davis eschews offering any comment on her father’s. 

Anne Mellor and Alex Milsom offer an intriguing explanation for Fanny’s general quiescence, equating it with the well-known educationist and novelist Maria Edgeworth’s novella The Grateful Negro (1804), and, more contemporaneously, with the Stockholm Syndrome (222).  In both cases, victims are slavishly grateful to their abusers for allowing them their very lives.  In Fanny’s case, although he has been emotionally distant for eight years, Sir Thomas has educated her, transforming her from an “uncivilized” if useful niece into a “better-dressed house-slave” (229).  She is well schooled in submission at Mansfield Park.  Part of her later training includes deliberate removal to her parents’ dysfunctional home in Portsmouth when she refuses Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal.  In Portsmouth, the sharply contrasting familial lives cause eighteen-year-old Fanny to view her life in Mansfield Park through rosily distorted glasses.  When she is needed and brought back, she continues to be emotionally useful although she is accorded more respect, even affection, than before—the hitherto unaware Sir Thomas ensuring she finally has a fire in her cold attic room.  Her ultimate reward for being principled and useful is an identity change, from abject Fanny Price to a loving, bona fide gentlewoman, wife to the newly ordained Edmund Bertram, a clergyman like Austen’s own father. 

No doubt I am being unfair to Fanny, perhaps because I agree with Mellor and Milsom that “Fanny Price is an unlikeable heroine, and for good reason.  She is the very embodiment of a servile mentality, of the subjectivity of abject gratitude, which Jane Austen here displays and calls into question” (232).  In light of their awareness of the eight years of humbling emotional distancing that shape Fanny’s character, their evaluation seems harsh.  But in rereading Austen’s flawlessly written novel for this article, I found Fanny as insipid as at the first perusal, although I understood her better.  Through an unwritten indenture to Lady Bertram, she is trained at Mansfield Park to resemble Rousseau’s Sophie, entirely raised to be meet helpmate to her Émile (Émile, ou de l’éducation 1762).  Fanny is denied the character-shaping autonomy and varied familial rapport of Elizabeth, Emma, Elinor, Anne, and even young Catherine.  In spite of his justified anger at slavers, Mnthali must surely have recognized the pain felt by this second-class cousin, uprooted from home and housed from age ten in a small, cold room in the attic, the traditional lodging of servants. 

Fanny’s initial eight years in Northampton make the disparity between the haves and the have-nots clear.  But, in general, are Sir Thomas Bertram and his ilk the only ones to blame for such inequity?  In Decolonising the African Mind (1987), Nigerian author Chinweizu reminds us that responsibility for disparity in colonial Africa is not one-sided because the “old slaving elite” also played a role in the destruction by capturing victims for the Arab and European slave trade (9).  The capacity of different peoples—European, American, Australian, African, Arab, Asian—to engage in rapacious and dehumanizing brutality against The Other is obviously a human rather than just a colonial trait.  We know that power, when misused for wicked, materialistic reasons or for misguided, self-serving purposes, is the real bedeviling evil, with or without regard to racist overtones.  Reasoning, however, does not remove despair such as Mnthali’s at seeing his own people in chains. 

He therefore wields power through words.  In lamenting those wasted, silenced centuries in Africa, Mnthali targets Austen’s elegant colonial pen for deceptively charming African students of English at the costly expense of their own political identity:  “Eng. Lit. . . . / was more than a cruel joke / it was the heart / of alien conquest.”  I admit to a similar youthful “calf-love” with Austen.  As an anglophone child born in a recently freed India and an avid reader of English writers, when I progressed at age twelve to Pride and Prejudice, I was hooked for life, in spite of my fury at all that the Raj had entailed.  It is largely as a postcolonial Indian-American professor of English (now emerita), still hating the dehumanizing excesses of imperialism yet early in life submitting to Austen’s spell, that I can empathize with Mnthali’s linguistic and literary dilemma, while also ruefully acknowledging that our cultures were no slouches themselves in discrimination against our own marginalized people. 

Unlike Mnthali, however, I’m not sure we postcolonial academics, especially those teaching at Western universities, can honestly rail against the Sir Thomases of the world.  Our own lifestyles have always been as far removed from the impoverished among our own compatriots as Austen’s principal Regency characters’ lives were from the variously grim existences of colonized Africans, East-End slum dwellers, and even the Portsmouth Prices.  In his 1975 lecture at the University of Massachusetts (probably Amherst, where he taught in the 1970s), Achebe had reminded us that our educational battles can be fought through universities (“Image” 107–13).  It is my hope that our hybrid identity not only sharpens our thinking but also gives our students a firsthand look at the complex results of both colonialism and global citizenship.  But that is now.  In Malawi, in 1961, Mnthali could only blame Austen and English literature for the success of British imperialism.  Mark the heart-breaking despair in his words:  mocking, alien conquest, jab, stab, gore, maul; the victims of branding irons and sugar-plantations versus Jane Austen’s wealthy people who carouse and do no work; a cruel joke, deceit, irony, satire. 

His rage is understandable.  Concomitant with the mesmerizing power with which he credits Austen was the correlation between the religious and economic power of English itself in British colonies.  Conversion to Christianity was rewarded with education in local English-medium schools, with the probability of a secure civil-service job with the government.  Thus, it is likely that, in spite of knowing indigenous languages, English became the first language of some Africans (as it is for me).  The emerging economic power of English as a medium of discourse is seen in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), written two years before Nigerian independence.  The title is enigmatic.  Did Achebe mean that the conquerors’ jabbing and goring hit “too close to the [Nigerian] center”?  Or did it ominously foretell, as in Yeats’s “Second Coming,” that when “things fall apart / the [British] center cannot hold”? 

Even after the death of the British Empire, however, linguistic doubts remained.  Unlike Austen’s natural use of her mother tongue, the centrality of English as the literary medium was questioned in the newly independent African countries.  Should English and French, imperial languages, be used by Africans for their literary works?  Should postcolonial works be written only in indigenous languages to reclaim a national identity?  Or, since languages differ among African nations, which of its myriad tongues should pan-African writers use?  As a corollary, should Europhone writers be dismissed, as they are by the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, as neocolonial Afro-Europeans, “black skins in white linguistic masks” (“Creating Space” 153)?  A hybrid himself, in spite of having taught at Western universities like Yale, Ngugi’s disapprobation of Afro-European literature is unequivocal.  Even while acknowledging the genius of the anglophone Achebe and the francophone Léopold Senghor (Senegal), he condemns such writers for remaining committed to the colonizer’s “linguistic universe” (Moving 18) and seeks their demotion to their “proper place; as an appendage of European literature or as a footnote in African literature” (Moving 23). 

Achebe defends himself from charges such as Ngugi’s: “The English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience.  But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings” (qtd. in Ngugi, “The Language of Literature” 147).  While admitting that works by europhone writers occupy a nebulous status, the critics Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwa Madubuike agree with Achebe’s statement above, acknowledging that he has successfully bent the English language to “express Igbo experience and values in it” (13).  They realistically acknowledge that the African novel, per se, draws on both indigenous forms such as orature and the “imported literary forms of Europe.”  Yet, precisely because it is a hybrid, it must be evaluated as a separate entity, critiqued according to its own “rules and standards . . . [and not] as an overseas department of European literature” (8).  Finally, they are realistic enough to accept the truth that whether postcolonials like it or not, the contemporary literate cultures of African nations like Nigeria and Kenya cannot avoid the cultural residue of British rule and the English language. 

But it can be opposed.  In Moving the Center, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o suggests that Kiswahili be used as a world language because it is known to many Africans at home and in the diaspora, and it “has no history of oppression or domination of other cultures” (41).  He surely knew that his was a lost cause, even in Africa.  In writing Moving (as opposed to some of his other works) in English itself, Ngugi had to accept that, for better or worse, today English is the recognized lingua franca and as such the means of reaching a world-wide audience.  We global villagers need a common language to be able to communicate.  In no way does that mean that indigenous literature or languages should be devalued or allowed to die (as the English once attempted even among their own Welsh, Scots, and Irish subjects). 

Clear-eyed, non-violent rebellion on behalf of freedom and personal dignity for all is a survivalist must against the new imperialism of today’s world.  Contemporary empire-builders are not Jane Austen and her “imaginary people,” although they are as rapacious as their colonial forebears; instead, Ngugi sardonically blames neocolonial “transnationals [like] ‘Messrs Coca Cola and McDonalds,’” citing their weapons as the industrialization, financial institutions, transportation, and media that control the global village (“Creating Space” 151).  In the face of this imperialism, Ngugi invites Africans to emulate the example of China and Japan, which have industrialized without surrendering their national identities to the West, and to reject Western cultural imperialism in favor of a global cross-fertilization based on “mutual respect” for all “human creativity” (“Creating Space” 151).  He might have extended that argument to literature itself.  Indigenous genres can be grafted onto Western ones to create multicultural literature, neither losing identity in the process.  Today, Western classics share the center with the works of Nigerian Chinua Achebe, Chilean Pablo Neruda (Nobel Prize), Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, Indo-British-American Salman Rushdie, Japanese Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Native American Leslie Marmon Silko, to name only a few.  Mnthali need no longer lay the burden of imperial guilt on Jane Austen. 

In fact, as a woman writer two centuries ago, in spite of her race and genteel birth, Austen too was marginalized as The Other:  She was reluctant to acknowledge her authorship on title pages; like her literary sisters, lacking unlimited reams, she sometimes wrote right side up as well as upside down to save paper; she had the luxury neither of a writing study nor Virginia Woolf’s suggested independence of £500 a year (then an astronomical sum for women writers).  Today, although a lauded literary giant, she is no longer the sole commodity of Britain and English departments, or, to use Simon Gikandi’s words, of a “homogeneous Eurocentric narrative” (608).  “Europe in Africa” has not “stood / the test of time,” but Austen certainly has, the world over.  Her metaphoric Anglo copyright, if it ever existed, has long run out; she and her wonderful novels belong to a global readership. 

It is now 2021, exactly sixty years after Mnthali wrote his poem; he is 85 years old.  The poem has shown that English majors like those of us who lived under colonial rule or were born soon after it will always remain hybrids, with a foot in each culture, never fully belonging to either.  But, as others have also realized, perhaps the luxury of hybridity is that if we choose, we can enjoy both worlds and the literature of both/all cultures as ours too.  Today, “Eng. Lit.” is no longer allowed to “strangle” us.  Mnthali and others have challenged it to expand and enrich itself through the experiences and imaginations of African writers themselves, as well as diasporic Blacks in the Caribbean, the States, and worldwide.  Africans can adopt Frantz Fanon’s resolution in Black Skins, White Masks:  “I am not a prisoner of history. . . . I am not a slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors. . . . In the world through which I travel I am endlessly recreating myself” (763).  For Mnthali and me, Jane Austen will always be a part of that world.

Works Cited
  • Achebe, Chinua.  “An Image of Africa.”  The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900–the Present.  Ed. Paul Davis et al.  Boston: Bedford, 2003.  107–17.
  • _____.  Things Fall Apart The Bedford Anthology.  Ed. Paul Davis.  Boston: Bedford, 2003.  1022–112.
  • Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.
  • Babiak, Peter.  “The Torture of Articulation: Teaching Slow Reading in the Postcolonial Literature Classroom.”  Jouvert 3.3 (1999).  Web.
  • Barnum, Deborah.  “Jane Austen’s ‘Dead Silence,’ or, How Guilty is Sir Thomas Bertram?”  Sarah Emsley—Writer and Editor.  29 Aug. 2014.  https://sarahemsley.com/2014/08/29/jane-austens-dead-silence
  • Chinweizu.  Decolonising the African Mind.  Nigeria: Pero, 1987.
  • Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwa Madubuike.  Toward the Decolonization of African Literature: African Fiction and Poetry and their Critics.  Vol. 1.  Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1983.
  • Davis, Gregson.  “Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: The Antigua Connection.”  Antigua and Barbuda Country Conference.  Nov. 2003.  University of the West Indies, 2004.  https://www.open.uwi.edu/sites/default/files/bnccde/antigua/conference/papers/davis.html
  • Davis, Paul, et al., eds.  The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900–the Present.  Boston: Bedford, 2003.
  • Desai, Gaurav, and Supriya Nair, eds.  Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism.  New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2005.
  • Fanon, Frantz.  From Black Skins, White Masks.  Trans. Charles Lam Markmann.  The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900–the Present.  Ed. Paul Davis et al.  Boston: Bedford, 2003.  760–64.
  • _____.  From The Wretched of the Earth.  Trans. Constance Farrington.  The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900–the Present.  Ed. Paul Davis et al. Boston: Bedford, 2003.  129–35.
  • Gikandi, Simon.  “Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality.”  Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism.  Ed. Gaurav Desai and Supriya Nair.  New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2005.  608–34.
  • Kipling, Rudyard.  “The White Man’s Burden.”  The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900–the Present.  Ed. Paul Davis et al.  Boston: Bedford, 2003.  104–106.
  • Lazarus, Neil, ed.  The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies.  Cambridge: CUP, 2007.
  • Looser, Devoney.  “Breaking the Silence: Exploring the Austen Family’s Complex Entanglements with Slavery.”  Times Literary Supplement 21 May 2021.  www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/jane-austen-family-slavery-essay-devoney-looser/
  • Mellor, Anne K., and Alex L. Milsom.  “Austen’s Fanny Price, Grateful Negroes, and the Stockholm Syndrome.”  Persuasions 34 (2012): 222–35.
  • Mnthali, Felix.  “The Stranglehold of English Lit.”  The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900–the Present.  Ed. Paul Davis et al.  Boston: Bedford, 2003.  148–49.
  • Ngugi, Wa Thiong’o.  “Creating Space for a Hundred Flowers to Bloom.”  The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900–the Present.  Ed. Paul Davis et al.  Boston: Bedford, 2003.  150–57.
  • _____.  “The Language of African Literature.”  Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism.  Ed. Gaurav Desai and Supriya Nair.  New Brunkswick: Rutgers UP, 2005.  143–68.
  • _____.  Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms.  London: Curry, 1993.
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