Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe (Book Review)

Lewis Nkosi once said that Chinua Achebe has paid a “high price … for being Africa’s greatest indigenous novelist.” Achebe’s African Trilogy is certainly the “defining” literary account of the colonial encounter between British imperialism and traditional societies. Arrow of God is Achebe’s third novel after Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. Although when I started reading it I thought it was the second book in the trilogy since it chronologically occurs just after Things Fall Apart. Though the novel is written from the many perspectives, the plurality of the narration focuses on Ezeulu who is the Chief Priest of the god Ulu of the six villages of Umuaro. Like Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, Ezeulu is an indigenous elite who will be a loser of the new colonial order.[1] One reason I find Achebe’s works so compelling is by the way he balances personal tragedy and societal change. The consequences of British colonialism are clearly disastrous for Ezeulu but more nuanced for society as a whole. It reminds me of Taleb’s distinction between fragility on the individual level versus an entire system.

Unlike Okonkwo, Ezeulu is more comfortable at navigating the tensions and contradictions with British rule and his role as a traditional chief. The patriarch hedges his bets by sending one of his sons, Oduche, to receive a missionary education. The move also removes Oduche from being a possible successor to his father’s role which further underscores Ezeulu’s political deftness. There is a general consensus among the Umuaro elite that the “white man” possesses weapons of immense power. There are ominous references made to some massacre at a nearby village. Ezeulu’s interaction with British political power and Christianity are further complicated by his need to counteract hostile forces within Umuara. Being the chief priest of Ulu is no easy feat when your authority is contested by the priest of the minor god Idemili and the British District Officer Captain Winterbottom. Throughout most of the novel, Ezeulu seems to be causing rather than reacting to events. His final decline amounts to a sharp turn of events.

After Winterbottom is forced to make an appointment of Warrant Chief, he chooses Ezeulu to fill the role since he remembers his honest testimony in a previous case over a dispute with a rival village. Winterbottom is eager to prevent a rerun of the extortion and corruption of the previous Warrant Chief, but has little option but to comply with this aspect of indirect rule. Ezeulu refuses the position. As a true believer, he cannot abandon his duty to his position and representative of Ulu. Earlier the novel Ezeulu wondered what it meant to hold power as a priest if there was no variation in rituals (i.e. the same conundrum of most constitutional monarchies).

Whenever Ezeulu considered the immensity of his power over the year and the crops and, therefore, over the people he wondered if it was real. It was true he named the day for the feast of the Pumpkin Leaves and the New Yam feast; but he did not choose it. He was merely a watchman … What kind of power was it if it would never be used?

The British react to this refusal with shock, and then anger, and Ezeulu is incarcerated for what amounts to showing cheek. During his detention Winterbottom is struck with malaria and Ezeulu’s credibility rises considerably. In what amounts to an ultimatum to Ulu, the Chief Priest refuses to initiate the yam harvest until his deity reveals himself through a sign. This power play ultimately proves fatal after one of his sons dies in a ritual and the villagers switch their allegiance to the Christian god to prevent a famine. It is ironically the Christian missionary John Goodcountry who ends up coming out ahead rather than Ezeulu or the British authorities.

In the extremity many a man sent his son with a yam or two to offer to the new religion and to bring back the promised immunity. Thereafter any yam harvested in his fields was harvested in the name of the son.

I have noted before that Achebe’s works are, at best, modestly anti-colonial. Achebe does not romanticize traditional Igbo institutions or the colonial era. He seems to appreciate the poor set of incentives and governance structures that emerged from each. His books identify a range of pathologies that traditional societies have, including some horrific superstitious practices. Most readers of Things Fall Apart will remember the practice of twin murder. However, the practice of creating of Warrant Chiefs (literally by the warrant of the District Commissioner) is revealed to be a farce for the Igbo people. The principle of indirect rule was initially established by Lugard for Northern Nigeria. Which, if it worked well at all, did so because the north was a feudal and hierarchical caliphate. The Igbo were stateless, decentralized, and did not have kings.

Winterbottom explains away the petty tyranny of his previous Warrant Chief Ikedi as stemming from “elementary cruelty” of the Africans. Little thought is given into the issue of accountability or incentives. Much like the publicans of ancient Rome, it was difficult for the imperial power to get too worked up about these abuses. As long as the Warrant Chiefs provided cheap labour and kept scandals out of report, illegal courts, private prisons, and mass extortion could be seen as the cost of doing business.

The chief is the law, subject only to one higher authority, the white official stationed in his state as advisor.

Arrow of God is a short but dense book. Multiple narratives reveal the complexities of perspective and claims over truth in traditional Igbo society. There are disputes between Ezeulu and his children, rival priests, and other village leaders. There is conflict between Ezeulu’s wives over his treatment of them and their children. Within the British camp, there is antagonism over the implementation of indirect rule, class, and hierarchy. Students of the public choice school of thought believe there is no “we” or “collective” when it comes to political decisions and outcomes. Rather, there are competing interests. Early 20th century Igboland is a society whose interests included the British, Christianized Nigerians, “old” priests and village leadership, as well as women. Achebe shows that the idea of a “unified” pre-modern society is, ironically, a fiction.

  1. There is an amusing reference in the book to Things Fall Apart when we are told that the British officer John Clark has just finished the book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger and found it to be “pretty dull” and “much too smug”. The former District Commissioner described the motivation for writing his book as such: In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilisation to different parts of Africa he had learnt a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting down a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book he planned to write he would stress that point. As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. 

Written on November 28, 2020