The first rumblings of long histories of imperialism were kickstarted by Europeans who, under the facade of being ordinary and innocent travellers, expanded their dominance and territories by ‘helping’ out ‘barbaric’ nations. This open-ended idea of strategically acquiring colonies to their advantage in every sphere possible is arguably one of the most selfish ideologies to have ever been established in the history of mankind.
Colonisation is a concept everyone understands – be it the Commonwealth countries or French colonies like Canada. The way colonialists plundered and exploited cultures was by selling an ideology. Worse, the British assumed the responsibility to cleanse and civilise the barbaric. The binary of civilised/savage has always been the trump card of colonisers – a false justification, one which gave them a “pass” to get away with every atrocity possible against indigenous tribes and cultures.
By asserting dominance and ‘civilising’ their ‘barbaric’ subjects, colonisers tried to make ‘blurred copies’ of themselves, to the extent that they renamed colonised land as ‘New England’ or ‘New France’. They used metaphors made up of basic elements and concepts to “dumb it down” for their new subjects – such as “parent and child”, “tree and branch” to define their relationship. This implied that some day, perhaps, even the colonised could rise to the status of the coloniser – but this was only in theory, and was always meant to remain that way.
Colonialism and its false justifications reduced the history of thousands of years old traditions to mere granules. The cruel concept focused on fabricating a new history with the colonisers at the very centre of it, enjoying the best of all worlds, drowned in privilege. The idea of colonialism is entrenched in its violent, atrocious, and unjust means of “civilising” and “aiding development”, which became increasingly difficult to see through and whose roots became impossible to extirpate. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had grown into a system of ahistorical categorisation in which certain societies and cultures were perceived as intrinsically inferior.
It is also established that colonialism is a more vicious product of imperialism, as the latter stems from the idea of “implanting settlements on a distinct territory”. The poem, ‘You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed‘ by Gabriel Okara explains the ridicule the colonised black people faced, in a hurtful yet subtle way. Colonialism went beyond the pages of how to imperialise countries, and stemmed from covert dominance. They ridiculed, mocked and committed unspeakable crimes against the colonised to mentally break and subjugate them. Maybe the colonisers were drawn to the indigenous black tribes and cultures out of “exoticism” but they “laughed and laughed and laughed” at their subjects while beating them, stripping them of their culture, human rights, and identity. They laughed at their very roots of culture, with the hope of dismantling it and making it seem inferior so that they could catalyse the ghastly process.
In the context of postcolonialism, both the colonisers and the colonised are affected by ambivalence. Ambivalence, from a psychological perspective, speaks about how one opposes something while wanting it. A coloniser views the colonised as inferior but beautiful exotic creatures worthy of pursuit, while the colonised see the colonisers as superior, yet hold them to morally corrupt standards. In the very same poem, the colonisers found the traditions “exotic” and fascinating, while mocking it. When indigenous people engaged in their ritualistic practices, performed their sacred dances, and lived their way of life, colonisers laughed at them and ridiculed them to various extents. But when the need arose, they went back to the same people whom they made fun of and asked them the reasons for their healthy and pure living. This is a sign of ‘exoticism’.
The laughter elicited by white colonisers is a form of mockery and ridicule whereas the laughter from the other side of the same coin, stems from irony of cruelty. This is the metaphor of the poem that Okara constructs in a very simple yet blunt way. This poem also banks on the hybridity model of ambivalence that Charles Grant spoke about. ‘Empty elicitation’ is the product of the incorporation of the colonisers’ way of life into the colonised’s way of life, without depth.
Likewise, the laughter now elicited by the colonised is an element that is borrowed from them, yet according to the poet this laughter is essentially due to one’s union with nature and the elements that were there before colonisation. Therefore, the symbol of ambivalence is elicited through laughter, which initially, stems as a cold and cruel instrument of degrading and mocking black culture and their traditional practices while being fascinated by their longevity and finding them “exotic.”
On the other hand, as a response to their colonisers’ frozen bodies, laughter is a symbol of ambivalence in the sense of mimicry. The last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that the colonised way of life is superior to the colonisers’. Hence, it is not subject to any form of ridicule and from the postcolonial lens, the usage of ‘laughter’ is a contradictory disposition amongst awe and derision.
Ananya Ravi Shankar is a third-year student currently pursuing Bachelor’s of Arts in Psychology, Literature and Theatre at Christ (Deemed-to-be University). She originally hails from New Delhi and is actively involved in disseminating awareness as a theatre artist as well as a volunteer.