Study Guide

Arrow of God Duty

By Chinua Achebe

Duty

The other man, Wright, did not really belong to the station. He was a Public Works Department man supervising the new road to Umuaro. Captain Winterbottom had already had cause to talk to him seriously about this behaviour especially with native women. It was absolutely imperative, he told him, that every European in Nigeria, particularly those in such a lonely outpost as Okperi, should not lower themselves in the eyes of the natives. In such a place the District Officer was something of a school prefect, and Captain Winterbottom was determined to do his duty. He would go as far as barring Wright from the club unless he showed a marked change. (3.15)

The British had a strong sense of duty that carried over into their colonial pursuits. Though Winterbottom recognizes that it made them not altogether likeable, we see him decide that it's absolutely necessary.

[Tony Clarke] was now reading the final chapter of The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, by George Allen, which Captain Winterbottom had lent him. From time to time he glanced at his gold watch, a present from his father when he left home for service in Nigeria or, as George Allen would have said, to answer the call. He had now had the book for over a fortnight and must finish and take it back this evening. One of the ways in which the tropics were affecting him was the speed of his reading, although in its own right the book was also pretty dull; much too smug for his taste. But he was now finding the last few paragraphs quite stirring. The chapter was headed THE CALL:

For those seeking but a comfortable living and a quiet occupation Nigeria is closed and will be closed until the earth has lost some of its deadly fertility and until the people live under something like sanitary conditions. But for those in search of a strenuous life, for those who can deal with men as others deal with material, who can grasp great situations, coax events, shape destinies and ride on the crest of the wave of time Nigeria is holding out her hands. For the men who in India have made the Briton the law-maker, the organizer, the engineer of the world this new, old land has great rewards and honorable work. I know we can find the men. Our mothers do not draw us with nervous grip back to the fireside of boyhood, back into the home circle, back to the purposeless sports of middle life; it is our greatest pride that they do – albeit tearfully – send us fearless and erect, to lead the backward races into line. "Surely we are the people!" Shall it be the Little Englander for whom the Norman fought the Saxon on his field? Was it for him the archers bled at Crecy and Poitiers, or Cromwell drilled his men? Is it only for the desk our youngsters read of Drake and Frobisher, of Nelson, Clive and men like Mungo Park? Is it for the counting-house they learn of Carthage, Greece and Rome? No, no; a thousand times no! The British race will take its place, the British blood will tell. Son after son will leave the Mersey, strong in the will of his parents today, stronger in the deed of his fathers in the past, braving the climate, taking the risks, playing his best in the game of life.

"That's rather good," said Mr. Clarke, and glanced at his watch again.

(3.17-19)

This passage calls on various British explorers and war heroes to stir up patriotism in the heart of British men in order to call them to do their duty by serving in the colonial administration. It reminds Tony Clarke of why he came to Africa in the first place.

It was therefore a very irate Ezeulu to whom Edogo told his story of what he had heard at the Nkwo market place. When he finished his father asked him curtly:

"And what did you do when you heard that?"

"What should I have done?" Edogo was surprised and a little angry at his father's tone.

"Don't you hear him?" asked Ezeulu of no one. "My first son, somebody says to your hearing that your father has committed an abomination, and you ask me what you should have done. When I was your age I would have known what to do. I would have come out and broken the man's head instead of hiding in the spirit-house."

Edogo was now really angry but he controlled his tongue. "When you were my age your father did not send one of his sons to worship the white man's god." (4.101-105)

Ezeulu suggests that Edogo's duty to his family and father was to defend him, no matter what. Edogo says times have changed and Ezeulu is doing things that have never been done – thus he isn't sure what his duty is anymore.

This short interruption made it possible for Captain Winterbottom to return to the Lieutenant Governor's memorandum with diminished anger. Instead he now felt tired and resigned. The great tragedy of British colonial administration was that what h on the spot who knew his African and knew what he was talking about found himself being constantly overruled by starry-eyed fellows at headquarters.

Three years ago they had put pressure on Captain Winterbottom to appoint a Warrant Chief for Okperi against his better judgement. After a long palaver he had chosen one James Ikedi, an intelligent fellow who had been among the very first people to receive missionary education in these parts. But what had happened? Within three months of this man receiving his warrant Captain Winterbottom began to hear rumours of his high-handedness. He had set up an illegal court and a private prison. He took any woman who caught his fancy without paying the customary bride-rice. Captain Winterbottom went into the whole business thoroughly and uncovered many more serious scandals. He decided to suspend the fellow for six months, and accordingly withdrew his warrant. But after three months the Senior Resident who had just come back from leave and had no first-hand knowledge of the matter ruled that the rascal be reinstated. And no sooner was he back in power than he organized a vast system of mass extortion. (5.11-12)

Winterbottom takes his duty to uphold British standards and civilization seriously, but finds himself constantly crossed by his superiors, who don't understand what's really going on.

The young man's behavior was like a heavy load on his father's head. In a few days, Ezeulu said within himself, Obika's new bride would arrive. She would have come already if her mother had not fallen sick. When she arrived what a husband she would find! A man who could not watch his hut at night because he was dead with palm wine. Where did the manhood of such a husband lie? A man who could not protect his wife if night marauders knocked at his door. A man who was roused in the morning by the women. Tufia! spat the old priest. He could not contain his disgust. (8.23)

Drinking palm wine to excess may make Obika unfit to carry out the duties required of a husband. Ezeulu hopes that his new bride will convince him to change his behavior.

"I do not want to be Chief Priest," he heard himself saying aloud. He looked around instinctively to see if anyone had been near enough to have heard him….A strange thought seized Edogo now. Could it be that their father had deliberately sent Oduche to the religion of the white man so as to disqualify him for the priesthood of Ulu….The priesthood would then fall on his youngest and favourite son….The priest wanted to have a hand in the choice of his successor. It was what anyone who knew Ezeulu would expect him to do. But was he not presuming too much? The choice of a priest lay with the deity. Was it likely that he would let the old priest force his hand. Although Edogo and Obika did not seem attracted to the office that would not prevent the deity from choosing either of them or even Oduche, out of spite. Edogo's thinking now became confused. If Ulu should choose him to be Chief Priest what would he do?...Would he be happy if the diviner's beads fell in his favour? He could not say. Perhaps the only sure happiness it would give him was the knowledge that his father's partiality for his younger sons had been frustrated by the deity himself. (9.8)

Edogo is not sure what he'll do if duty calls and Ulu wants to make him the chief priest. On the one hand, it has never been his desire. But on the other hand, he doesn't want his father to be able to control the decision, and he wonders if the deity will allow Ezeulu to control it either.

What do you think the Captain would say, Tony, if he were to see his young Political Officer being nice and friendly to a common road maker?" His [Wright's] big red face looked almost boyish.

"I don't know and don't much care," said Clarke, and because the fume of gin was already working on his brain, he added: "I shall be happy if in all my years in Africa I succeed in building something as good as your road…." (10.8-9).

Though Clarke doesn't necessarily intend to criticize the colonial Administration here, he inadvertently reveals that its bureaucracy prevents officers from getting much done. Wright, free from the responsibilities and ideologies of his position, is able to build something tangible that is truly useful.

"One thing worries me, though," said Winterbottom without any indication that he had even heard Clarke's last piece. "You say in the report that after careful inquiry you were satisfied that there was no truth in all the stories of Wright whipping natives." Clarke's heart fell. This was the one falsehood in the entire report. In fact he completely forgot to make any inquires, even if he had known how to set about it. It was only on his return to Okperi that he found a brief, late entry Wright & natives scribbled in pencil on the second page of his touring notebook. At first he had worried about it; then he had come to the conclusion that if Wright had in fact been employing unorthodox methods he would have heard of it without making inquiries as such. But since he had heard nothing it was safe to say that the stories were untrue. In any case, how did one investigate such a thing? Did one go up to the first native one saw and ask if he had been birched by Wright? Or did one ask Wright? From what Clarke had seen of the man he would not have thought he was that sort.

"My steward is a native of Umuaro," continued Winterbottom, "and has just come back after spending two days at home; and he tells me that the whole village was in confusion because a rather important man had been whipped by Wright. But perhaps there's nothing in it."

Clarke hoped he did not betray his confusion. Anyhow he rallied quickly and said: "I heard nothing of it on the spot." The words on the spot stung Winterbottom like three wasps. The fellow's cheek! He had been there barely a week and already he was talking as though he owned the district and Winterbottom was the new boy, or some desk-ridden idiot at headquarters. On the spot indeed! (10.42-44).

Clarke's dislike for Winterbottom, and his friendliness with Wright brought on by drinking too much gin one night, led him to lie in his report. He knows he's failed in his duties – and Winterbottom realizes it, too, though mostly because he sees Clarke's impertinence.

"Leaders of Umuaro, do not say that I am treating your words with contempt; it is not my wish to do so. But you cannot say: do what is not done and we shall take the blame. I am the Chief Priest of Ulu and what I have told you is his will not mine. Do not forget that I too have yamfields and that my children, my kinsmen and my friends – yourselves among them – have also planted yams. It could not be my wish to ruin all these people. It could not be my wish to make the smallest man in Umuaro suffer. But this is not my doing. The gods sometimes use us as a whip." (18.67)

Ezeulu tells the leaders of Umuaro that he has not called the Feast of the New Yam because he must eat the twelve sacred yams first. He was delayed by the white man and now there are three yams left. Though the time for harvesting their new yams has clearly come, they can't harvest until Ulu calls them to do it. Ezeulu insists he must follow his duty to Ulu, even if the men of Umuaro say that they will take the blame for it. But Ezeulu finishes by adding that perhaps Ulu is using him as a means to punish the people of Umuaro.