In the introduction to the play, Soyinka says outright that it's inappropriate and reductive to consider Death and the King's Horseman only as a play about a "clash of cultures" and the role of colonialism in Nigeria. Instead, he encourages readers and prospective directors to focus on the conflict that Elesin experiences as he fails to follow through with his suicide for a host of other reasons not related to Pilkings's attempts to stop him. Despite this warning, the fact remains that colonialism, racism, and prejudice loom large over the story, if only because it takes place in colonial Nigeria during World War Two. When considered in terms of colonialism, the action of Death and the King's Horseman becomes less about one man's failure to uphold his society's traditions and maintain cosmic order—instead, Elesin and Olunde's deaths come to symbolize the death of the Yoruba society as a whole under colonial rule.
It becomes clear in the side comments and observations of all characters, Yoruba and English alike, that the city of Oyo has a long and tragic history of European occupation that, even in the play's present, influences all the characters. When Pilkings arrests and imprisons Elesin, for example, Elesin is chained in a cellar where slaves bound for North America were once held. Though he's not taken to North America like his forebears, Elesin suffers at the hands of white invaders who wish to maintain control over African bodies and customs by imprisoning them and denying them dignity and agency. In the same vein, much of Pilkings's distress when he learns about Elesin's upcoming suicide has to do with the fact that the prince is visiting the colony and, as far as the prince is aware, Nigeria is a rare calm and safe colonial state amidst the horrors of World War Two. In other words, it's absolutely essential for Pilkings to suppress local customs that might not go over well with the colony's prince in order to maintain the illusion that after nearly a century of occupation, the locals are subdued and are no longer a threat to their occupiers—even when those "threats" don't threaten Pilkings directly or, for that matter, the presence or ruling power of the English as a group.
There are indicators, however, that despite the generations of English occupation in Nigeria, the English are only barely suppressing what Pilkings, at least, sees as an even greater threat than violence, revolt, or losing administrative power: the local culture and belief system. Though Amusa, a Nigerian man, converted to Islam and is now a sergeant serving under Pilkings, he cannot bear to look at Pilkings and Jane when he finds them wearing the egungun in preparation for the costume ball to be held that night in the prince's honor. He attempts to explain to Pilkings that it's wildly inappropriate for them to wear the egungun and, further, that it's disrespectful even for Amusa to touch or look at the costumes when discussing a matter related to death. What's most galling for Pilkings in this situation is that, as far as he's concerned, Amusa was supposed to have left his respect and belief for "any mumbo-jumbo" behind when he converted to Islam. This reveals that Pilkings's true goal is to stamp out the local culture and belief systems.
While Elesin and Pilkings seem to represent two ends of a spectrum, Elesin's son Olunde, who is in the process of training to be a doctor in England, represents the potential for a middle ground. When Olunde arrives, Pilkings is initially thrilled, as he thinks that Olunde will be a "voice of reason" who can "talk sense" into Elesin and stop his ritual suicide. Despite four years of life and training in England, however, Olunde calmly explains that he only returned to Nigeria to bury his father. He explains that the ritual will go on, no matter what anyone says to the contrary, and furthermore, that it's essential that it happen. This suggests that, like Amusa, Olunde still respects and understands the belief system he grew up with, even as he steps firmly into the Western world by training as a doctor. His time in England doesn't compromise his knowledge that upon his father's death, he needs to bury his father and perform rituals reserved for a firstborn son. Olunde's suicide after Elesin's failure then becomes indicative of Olunde's belief in the importance of maintaining these traditions and making sure that, at least in the cosmic realm, the culture persists properly. The fact that both Olunde and Elesin die, however (and especially that Olunde dies without ever becoming the king's horseman in an official capacity, and without leaving behind children of his own), makes it so that the custom cannot continue into the next generation. Through Olunde's insights into both Yoruba and English culture, the play suggests that there's massive potential for cross-cultural understanding through education and a desire to learn—while through his death, the play drives home the massive human and cultural consequences of elevating the beliefs of the colonizers over those of the colonized, a cost that harms everyone in the long run.
Colonialism Quotes in Death and the King’s Horseman
Pilkings: Nonsense, he's a Moslem. Come on, Amusa, you don't believe in all this nonsense do you? I thought you were a good Moslem.
Amusa: Mista Pirinkin, I beg you sir, what you think you do with that dress? It belong to dead cult, not for human being.
Pilkings: Oh Amusa, what a let down you are. I swear by you at the club you know—thank God for Amusa, he doesn't believe in any mumbo-jumbo. And now look at you!
Jane: But Simon, do they really give anything away? I mean, anything that really counts. This affair for instance, we didn't know they still practised the custom did we?
Pilkings: Ye-e-es, I suppose you're right there. Sly, devious bastards.
Jane: Simon, you really must watch your language. Bastard isn't just a simple swear-word in these parts, you know.
Pilkings: Look, just when did you become a social anthropologist, that's what I'd like to know.
Jane: I'm not claiming to know anything. I just happen to have overheard quarrels among the servants. That's how I know they consider it a smear.
Amusa: The chief who call himself Elesin Oba.
Woman: You ignorant man. It is not he who calls himself Elesin Oba, it is his blood that says it. As it called out to his father before him and will to his son after him. And that is in spite of everything your white man can do.
- One might even say, difficult?
- Indeed one might be tempted to say, difficult.
- But you do manage to cope?
- Yes indeed I do. I have a rather faithful ox called Amusa.
- He's loyal?
- Lay down his life for you what?
- Without a moment's thought.
- Had one like that once. Trust him with my life.
- Mostly of course they are liars.
- Never known a native to tell the truth.
Resident: You should have kept me informed Pilkings. You realise how disastrous it would have been if things had erupted while His Highness was here.
Pilkings: I wasn't aware of the whole business until tonight sir.
Resident: Nose to the ground Pilkings, nose to the ground. If we all let these little things slip past us where would the empire be eh? Tell me that. Where would we all be?
Olunde (mildly): And that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask?
Jane: Oh, so you are shocked after all. How disappointing.
Olunde: No I am not shocked Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.
How can I make you understand? He has protection. No one can undertake what he does tonight without the deepest protection the mind can conceive. What can you offer him in place of his peace of mind, in place of the honour and veneration of his own people? What you think of your Prince if he had refused to accept the risk of losing his life on this voyage? This...showing-the-flag tour of colonial possessions.
How can you be so callous! So unfeeling! You announce your father's own death like a surgeon looking down on some strange... stranger's body! You're a savage like all the rest.
Elesin: You did not save my life District Officer. You destroyed it.
Pilkings: Now come on...
Elesin: And not merely my life but the lives of many. The end of the night's work is not over. Neither this year nor the next will see it. If I wished you well, I would pray that you do not stay long enough on our land to see the disaster you have brought upon us.
Pilkings: Well, I did my duty as I saw fit. I have no regrets.
You did not fail in the main thing ghostly one. We know the roof covers the rafters, the cloth covers blemishes; who would have known that the white skin covered our future, preventing us from seeing the death our enemies had prepared for us. The world is set adrift and its inhabitants are lost. Around them, there is nothing but emptiness.
It is when the alien hand pollutes the source of will, when a stranger force of violence shatters the mind's calm resolution, this is when a man is made to commit the awful treachery of relief, commit in his thought the unspeakable blasphemy of seeing the hand of the gods in this alien rupture of his world. I know it was this thought that killed me, sapped my powers and turned me into an infant in the hands of unnamable strangers.
No child, it is what you brought to be, you who play with strangers' lives, who even usurp the vestments of our dead, yet believe that the stain of death will not cling to you. The gods demanded only the old expired plantain but you cut down the sap-laden shoot to feed your pride. There is your board, filled to overflowing. Feast on it.