White Man, Black Savage: Subjugation and White Supremacy in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo

“The colonial world is a Manichaean world…As if to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation, the colonialist turns the colonised into a quintessence of evil… The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but the negation of values… Sometimes this Manichaeanism reaches its logical conclusion and dehumanises the colonised subject.” (Frantz Fanon, “Violence”, The Wretched of the Earth)

After a childhood of reading Roald Dahl’s novels, I have finally come around to reading his autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo. The two of them are vastly different from each other. Boy depicts his childhood not unlike many of his novels– his own penchant for candy is inherited by the likes of Willy Wonka while his tyrannical teachers at school take on the shape of Miss Trunchbull, for example. On the other hand, Going Solo describes his adulthood working in Africa for the Shell company as well as his role as a fighter pilot in the war. While Boy was a pleasant read, the undertones and largely unacknowledged  themes in Going Solo had me taken aback. Going Solo‘s narrative includes war, politics and metafiction, which make for a good read. Nevertheless, it is difficult to turn a blind eye to the jarring racism, as well as psychological colonial violence, in Dahl’s interactions with the Africans during his time there.

Going Solo’s narrative tone is similar to that of Dahl’s novels– lighthearted and approachable. However, it only takes a rudimentary knowledge of postcolonial tenets and problematics to be all too painfully aware of the colonialist supremacy rampant in Dahl’s portrayal of and relationship with the Africans. The chapters depicting his stint in Africa working for Shell is presented as a fun adventure narrative through the jungle. At the same time, it is the self-glorifying narrative from the standpoint of the privileged white male colonial master-slaveowner. It is a white elephant in the room which is all too loud to be ignored.

Working for Shell in Africa grants the employee a house shared amongst the few of them. The narrative informs us that each house has its own “male native cook”, “a shamba-boy or gardener” and “a personal ‘boy’ for each of [them]”–the Shell employees are treated like princes (Dahl 208-9). Dahl then goes on to describe his own ‘boy’– a Mwanumwezi tribesman (the only tribe who once defeated the heroic Masai in battle) called Mdisho. Mdisho has a few wives and children, and Dahl confidently of Mshido that “his loyalty to me [Dahl] was absolute” (209). In the following pages and chapters, Dahl then proceeds to occasionally reinforce this positive master-boy relationship in which Dahl himself is consistently delineated as the benevolent slave owner that even helps Mdisho and the other “natives”. : “I made him my personal ‘boy’ and soon the two of us had formed a friendship that I found rather marvellous” (237). Also:”I insisted on teaching him how to read and write not only Swahili words but also their English equivalents” (238).  Outwardly, his seems like a mutually-beneficial relationship. Dahl gets a personal slave, who benefits by being treated really well (Dahl writes of other, callous, abusive slaveowners in the area), and gets the wonderful bonus of education (score!). Yet, there are so many overt, discomfiting white supremacist undertones in this deceptively simple account that it begs scrutiny.

Frantz Fanon, a postcolonial theorist, writes about the reduction, the dehumanisation of the colonised subject: “The colonial world is a Manichaean world… Sometimes this Manichaeanism reaches its logical conclusion and dehumanises the colonised subject.” (Frantz Fanon 6) The first, most obvious reduction is the terming of these slaves “boys” when they are obviously fully-grown men with families. As if finding the domestication and subjugation of a man of equal value and worth in his own right too uncomfortable, the colonial masters call them “boy”. As if to ease their own consciousness– nomenclature defining and changing the essence of the named object in the namer’s mind. Then, with full confidence, the white men assert the unwavering loyalty and servitude of the Africans towards them. The white man gets to depict the African in the manner most beneficial to himself. The slave is not only emasculated, but silenced.

It is unclear whether Dahl highlights, more than once, the barbaric nature of the Africans in order to justify colonising and subjugating them, or to enhance the “adventure” that it Africa. Dahl wants to go to Africa because of the wonderful elephants, giraffes, rhinoceros and lions. Similarly, Mdisho and the other slaves are depicted as tamed savages: after Mdisho beheads a German man, Dahl writes, “I looked at him and smiled. I refused to blame him for what he had done. He was a wild Mwanumwezi tribesman who had been moulded by us Europeans into the shape of a domestic servant, and now he had broken the mould” (Dahl 257). Written in his signature, easygoing tones, this passage looks easy to skim across, yet, it beseeches a double-take. Acting as the self-appointed bearer of  justice, Dahl pronounces this man innocent. His word is law. This emasculated, black slave is declared not guilty– only because barbarity is in his nature, therefore, who can blame him for cold-blooded murder? It is the white man’s fault for trying to take eradicate that nature in him. In a grand gesture of heroism, Dahl puts the blame of this murder squarely on the shoulders of himself and his race.”As if to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation, the colonialist turns the colonised into a quintessence of evil… The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but the negation of values…” (Fanon 6). This misleadingly simple statement– the colonial master declaring his slave innocent, this self-effacing pat on his own back– simultaneously subtly justifies colonialism (the civilisation of the barbarian) as well as outrageously declares the white man the standard and arbiter of morality. At the same time, it puts the African on equal par with the rhinos, elephants and lions– the black subject is, at his core, a quintessentially untameable savage. “In the colonial world, the colonised’s affectivity is kept on edge like a running sore flinching from a caustic agent. And the psyche retracts, is obliterated, and finds an outlet through muscular spasms that have caused many an expert to classify the colonised as hysterical” (19).

Dahl’s autobiography is doubly-edged. At one glance, it is the heroic narrative of a boy-turned-man– of his exciting career in Africa and his adventures there. But just below the surface of this benign account lies the all-too-familiar story of white supremacy and its dark underbelly– of a people subjugated, silenced and very unjustly depicted. The slaves’ stories sit, simmering beneath Going Solo’s narrative, and in the year 2018, this, and other such suppressions have developed into a roar that can no longer be ignored.

Perhaps to one seeking the simple pleasure of reading a childhood story, the discomfort of such apparent racism in it is a shame.

To conclude, I shall cite Jean-Paul Satre, who writes in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth: “But you will say, once again, that you disapprove of such extremes. It’s true, you are not colonists, but you are not much better. They were your pioneers, you sent them overseas, they made you rich… You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name” (Satre xlviii- xlix). Going Solo was an eye-opening, very uncomfortable read. Yet, after reading so many postcolonial novels written from the standpoint of the colonised, it was curious to see the phenomenon of colonialism– whose influence continues to shape global interactions all over– from the privileged white man’s point of view: self-assured about the unquestionable nature of the white man-black slave relationship. About the “natural” state of this outrageous system.

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