Beyond racism in Mister Johnson : Joyce Cary's love for the colonized Nigerian, and critique of the British empire.
Ong, Herrick Wee Siong.
Date of Issue2013
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939) is named after the protagonist, a young and lively Nigerian clerk who, we are told in the preface to the novel, “turns his life into a romance[;] he is a poet who creates for himself a glorious destiny.” (Cary 5). Johnson, about seventeen years of age and awkwardly-physiqued, hails from the Nigerian south where he received a mission school education and subsequently finds employment as a clerk in the district office of Fada. District Officer Rudbeck, who has a child-like obsession with completing the Fada road being constructed to generate trade and wealth for the region as part of his belief in the colonial system, is faced with insufficient funds from limited Treasury budgets. Johnson inspires him with the idea of embezzling funds so as to complete the road— even Rudbeck’s superior, Blore hints at this being normal practice. Johnson, whose welfare is largely ignored by his superiors, experiences a repetition of successes and setbacks in life while being given to petty thievery and bribe-taking so as to maintain his lifestyle. On one of his many trips to the colonial store owned by the former soldier Gollup, he accidentally murders the latter upon being discovered, thus sealing his own fate at the hands of colonial justice, administered by none other than Rudbeck himself. While admittedly, a reader might find some of the portrayals of the natives distasteful today, Cary, who spent some years in Nigeria being a colonial administrator, seemed to have exhibited to some degree, similar prejudices as those which his colleagues had of the subject peoples. The Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe was the first to seriously undermine what he had come to fear most- the novel’s authority. He tells us, “At the university I read some appalling European novels about Africa (like Joyce Cary's much praised Mister Johnson) and realized that our story could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well-intentioned” (Hopes and Impediments 38). All of his classmates expressed disgust at the “bumbling idiot of a character whom Joyce Cary and [their] teacher were so assiduously passing off as a poet when he was nothing but an embarrassing nitwit” (Home and Exile 23). In the his seminal critique, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’” (1975), Achebe wrote of the “thoroughgoing racist” Joseph Conrad, which was the first of its kind to emerge from the colonized peoples, to call attention, and awaken the literary world, to the hitherto unproblematic yet racist portrayal of Africa as a whole. Cary, writing exactly 40 years after Conrad was also not to be spared. Mister Johnson had been one of the treasured novels of the English imperial literary canon, and was highly recommended as a text for Achebe’s class at college, to which his classmate “told an astounded teacher point-blank that the only moment he had enjoyed in the entire book was when the Nigerian hero, Johnson, was shot to death by his British master, Mr Rudbeck” (Home and Exile 22). Achebe’s call for justice, in effect, succeeded. Perhaps then, a new wave of scholarship answered Achebe’s call to arms to take Mister Johnson to task. Achebe’s much-explicated distaste for Mister Johnson has dictated the way in which much of the reception of Cary’s novel is concerned with pointing out its racist ideologies embedded within.
Final Year Project (FYP)
Nanyang Technological University