A Tale of Two Continents—Adekeye Adebajo unpacks Dickens in Africa

For reasons technical, historical and—above all—thematic, Dickens is writ large in African literature, writes Adekeye Adebajo.

As we approach the bicentennial of the birth of British writer Charles Dickens next year—he was born on 7 February, 1812 in Portsmouth—a survey of the connections between Africa and, arguably, the world’s greatest novelist is called for. 

Several African authors have noted the influence that Dickens had on their writing: Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka; Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah; Cameroon’s Mongo Beti; and Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, among others. Ethiopia’s Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam translated Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities into Amharic, and South Africa’s Es’kia Mphalele produced a stage play of this novel—a revolutionary version of which was also performed in black townships in the nineteen-fifties. Significantly, all of these writers lived under European imperial rule and grew up reading Dickens as part of their colonial education. Soyinka noted that his father had a Dickens collection: ‘When I was a child I devoured Dickens. I think there is hardly any volume of Dickens’ work that I have not read. There was something that fascinated me about the kind of life he depicted and I remember that in school I read literally all Dickens’ novels,’ he said in Jane Wilkinson’s Talking with African Writers (1992).

Many of the themes with which Dickens dealt—poverty, class, exploitation, religion and emigration—are subjects that postcolonial African writers have grappled with, too, and that contemporary African writers and the broader society are still addressing. Dickens’s posthumously published retelling of the story of Jesus Christ to children, The Life of Our Lord (1934), meanwhile, chimes with the religious beliefs of Africa’s 631 million Christians; and his ventures into the supernatural world, through ghost stories like A Christmas Carol (1843), may strike a chord with those who follow indigenous African belief systems. 

Pax Britannica: Dickens and the imperial vanguard 

In his 1994 work Culture and Imperialism, Palestinian–American literary critic Edward Said elegantly demonstrated how ‘Empire follows Art’, showing how culture was often used —consciously and unconsciously—by Western authors in support of the imperial projects of past centuries. He made clear how great works of poetry, fiction, and philosophy were used in the service of slavery, colonialism, and racism. As Said put it, ‘Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination …’

Dickens was very much a part of the imperial world, with his four sons serving in the army in India, trading in the East, and working in Canada and the United States. As Said noted, Dickens’ 1848 novel Dombey and Son expressed well the core ideals of Pax Britannica, taken up as it was with the mercantile ethos, imperial free trade and unlimited commercial opportunities in the colonies. Dickens often sprinkled references to his country’s far-flung colonies in his novels, including, in addition to Dombey and Son, in David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop. Several of Dickens’ characters emigrate to the colonies; the mercantilists in his books often casually refer to the Caribbean and India. Bleak House’s Mrs Jellyby abandons her children to care for locals in a fictional African country, while Great Expectations Pip ends up leading a firm in Egypt. 

In Dombey and Son, the figure of Captain Cuttle reminds us of ‘Rule Britannia’ and the dominance of the Royal Navy. Symbols of imperial greatness are also frequently invoked: the Royal Exchange, East India House, the Bank of England, and so on. Another perhaps less obvious image conscripted into imperial service is the River Thames, which recalls colonial adventures and global trade—while another of the book’s characters, Walter Gay, sails to the British Caribbean colony of Barbados. Following Said, in part thanks to art like this, Britain’s Victorians believed fervently that Pax Britannica represented the greatest moral force in the world. Rudyard Kipling is undoubtedly the most culpable writer here, his notorious 1899 poem urging Western conquistadores to, ‘Take up the white man’s burden— / The savage wars of peace— / Fill full the mouth of Famine / And bid the sickness cease …’ Alongside writers, imperial mercantilists and robber barons (eg, Cecil Rhodes) and famous explorers (eg, David Livingstone) together fashioned an irresistible triple mission of Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation. Dickens, whose books arrived in Africa shortly after the European powers had set the rules for the ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the Berlin Conference of 1884/85—the proliferation of printing presses thereafter facilitating the dissemination of the European novel across the ‘Dark Continent’—fell into the vanguard.

Hard Times: Dickens as Social Reformer

It can be held as fortunate that Dickens’s ideas travelled out into the world along with those of the lesser minds of the imperial era (Kipling, Rhodes, and so on.). His zeal as a social reformer effected a new consciousness of the power relations between companies and people, and his work counts as an early, and devastating, critique of capitalism. Dickens’s father and family were imprisoned for three months, owing to the former’s indebtedness; twelve-year old Charles had to abandon school to work long hours in a boot-blacking factory for six shillings a week, experiencing first hand the brutal exploitations of the Victorian era. As Dickens later noted, ‘The never-to-be-forgotten misery of that old time bred a certain shrinking sensitiveness in a certain ill-clad, ill-fed child, that I have found come back in the never-to-be-forgotten misery of this later time.’ Dickens often felt a sense of guilt at his prosperity as a successful writer, when he observed the sea of poverty around him. He is reported to have left much of his wealth to charity and his extended family.

Dickens became famous for his social crusading through his novels, essays, journalism and speeches. He vividly described the widespread poverty of London’s East End in the 1859 travelogue The Uncommercial Traveller: ‘A squalid maze of streets, courts, and alleys of miserable houses let out in single rooms. A wilderness of dirt, rags, and hunger. A mud-desert, chiefly inhabited by a tribe from whom employment has departed, or to whom it comes but fitfully and rarely.’ This rich portrayal of Victorian London’s lower classes applies to parts of many of contemporary Africa’s greatest cities: Lagos, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Johannesburg. The suffering of destitute and homeless children depicted in such shocking detail in novels like Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit and David Copperfield —greatly inspired by Dickens’s anger at being stripped of his own childhood—would also find resonance in many of these African megapolises. 

Zimbabwean scholar Greenwell Matsika attempted to read Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times from within an African value system in an innovative 2000 essay, ‘Dickens in Africa: 

“Africanizing” Hard Times’. He noted that the key themes of the novel—sharing, solidarity, spirituality, respect, and hospitality—were similar to the African values expressed in Ubuntu, and involved the gift of discovering our shared humanity. Matsika contrasted the novel’s treatment of brutal capitalism, focused on ‘rational analysis, mathematical precision, and intelligibility in the service of profit’ with ‘a joyful humanism based on wholeness, healing, fellow-feeling and celebration’.  He noted that teachers like M’Choakumchild in Hard Times appeared to be mass produced, with the material side of humans privileged, in the novel’s power system, over the spiritual side. In Dickens’s dystopian view of industrial society, the teachers were creating machines rather than men, and the working classes lived as if imprisoned. Here was a society that had no ethical framework, in which life was dreary, monotonous and ultimately meaningless. Matsika’s framework may be extended to many other of Dickens’ books: in Oliver Twist, the writer condemned the squalid conditions and unrelenting cruelty of sadistic supervisors experienced by children in workhouses; in Bleak House he indicted the English Chancery court system (and helped advance judicial reforms); and in Little Dorrit Dickens had Amy Dorrit born and raised in the debtor’s Marshalsea prison, with the text relentlessly lampooning the incompetent British bureaucracy as the ‘Circumlocution Office’.

Bleak House: Dickens as Anti-Imperialist

Dickens was an abolitionist who spoke out consistently against slavery: ‘I accepted no public mark of respect in any place where slavery was …’ he wrote in American Notes, after a trip to the United States. ‘I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country [the USA], in its failure of its example to earth.’ In his writings on African Americans, Dickens remained steadfast in his condemnation of slavery; in short stories like ‘The Perils of Certain English Prisoners’, he exposed the racism among middle-class and lower-class British people, who put class differences aside to unite against dark-skinned rebels. He also expressed opposition to British imperialism, which he felt diverted scarce resources from social needs at home, by lampooning it. American scholar Lillian Nayder has described how Bleak House depicted British missionaries and empire-builders as irresponsible housekeepers ‘too near-sighted to notice the plight of their own children and their own poor’. Dickens himself observed in 1848, ‘the work at home must be completed thoroughly, or there is no hope abroad’.

His novels dealing with empire are thus often used as a mirror to reflect on the brutal exploitation of rapidly industrialising Britain. As Zimbabwean scholar Wendy Jacobson noted of Dickens, ‘his London is civilised centre and barbaric periphery, savages are home-grown and black, and greed is rife in the City as well as in the swamps of the New World. Glamour abroad actually scrutinizes misery at home’. Industrialisation was used to exploit and enslave workers in England; in the colonies, it was used to subdue and subjugate entire populations to alien rule.

In his 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens condemned America’s genocidal expansions and slavery-based economy as rooted in ‘Oedipal violence’ and ‘transgressive desire’. His horror at the brutality of America’s white colonists is clear. He also savagely satirised the absurdities of British colonists in the Caribbean, complaining about ‘our noble society for providing the infant negroes in the West Indies with flannel waistcoats and moral pocket handkerchiefs’, and was equally hard on Australian settlers—off on their own genocidal streak—in Great Expectations, for their mimicry of British class snobbery.

If Dickens often used the image of the exploited child as a metaphor for colonialism, through such figures as Pip in Great Expectations, for their part, imperialists widely depicted those they colonised as a legion of Peter Pans: children who never grew up and were perpetually in need of civilisation and conversion to Christianity. The greatest imperialist of the Victorian era, Cecil Rhodes, notoriously noted that ‘the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism’. Although Dickens did not live to write about South Africa’s ‘gold rush’ of the eighteen-eighties, featuring characters like Rhodes, he did describe the ‘gold rush’ of the eighteen-fifties—from Australia to California—as a kind of ‘yellow fever’. 

Despite his progressive stance on social issues, Dickens was not above embracing some of the jingoism of his Victorian peers. Several contemporary critics have accused him of racism, antisemitism and even of supporting imperialism. Dickens dismissed what he regarded as non-European ‘primitive cultures’ and insisted on their assimilation into ‘superior’ Western cultures. He referred to Indians in a private letter as ‘dogs—low, treacherous, murderous, tigerous villains’. After the 1857 Indian Rebellion, he called for their ‘extermination’, praising the ‘mutilation’ of the ‘wretched Hindoo’. Contradicting his consistent anti-abolitionist stance, in an 1868 letter, Dickens condemned ‘the melancholy absurdity of giving the people [African Americans] the vote.’ He described Native Americans as murderous, primitive, dirty, cruel and truculent. The charge of antisemitism has centred mainly on Dickens’s stereotypical portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist, referring to him as ‘the Jew’ 257 times. 

Things Fall Apart: Dickens and Chinua Achebe

And yet, the centre of Dickens’s work, which is steadfastly taken up with subalterns on the wrong end of the power equation, holds. Several African scholars have compared the works of Dickens to those of Chinua Achebe. Where Dickens exposed class stereotypes, Achebe exposed racial stereotypes. As Greenwell Matsika notes, just as Dickens showed, through the profession, by Thomas Gradgrind of Hard Times that the lower classes of Coketown had no history and were backward people in need of civilisation, Achebe revealed the same type of prejudices among British colonial administrators in Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964).  Both colonised Nigerians and the poor of Coketown needed to be ‘othered’ and dehumanised in order to be exploited.

In his 2014 essay, ‘Language and Theme in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God’, Nigerian scholar Mohammed Attai Yakubu contrasts Dickens’s use of standard English and slang with Achebe’s use of Nigerian English and Pidgin. He highlighted Dickens’s use of irony and humour to condemn the 1834 Poor Law in Oliver Twist—including the infamous reaction to Oliver’s ‘commission of the impious and profane offense of asking for more’—and compared this to Achebe’s use of Igbo proverbs to reflect similarly on prevailing power structures. These include the protagonist of Arrow of God Ezeulu’s invocation of—‘A man who brings home ant-infested faggots should not complain if he is visited by lizards’, to call out conversion to Christianity; and—‘When two brothers fight, a stranger reaps the harvest’, to show how the intrusion of British missionaries and colonial officers exploited the divisions among the people of Umuaro.  

Sudan-based scholars Ahmed Adam Abdallah and Yousif Omer Babiker also examined Dickens and Achebe comparatively, highlighting examples from Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease in their 2017 essay, ‘Analysis of Social Values through Literary Works of Chinua Achebe and Charles Dickens: A Contrastive Approach’. They looked at personal moral values dealt with by Dickens such as honesty, faithfulness and nobility, as against Achebe’s depiction of social mores like polygamy, patriotism and nationalism. The authors noted Dickens’s efforts in campaigning against a brutal industrial capitalism in which children are widely exploited, versus Achebe’s main concerns to correct many of the misrepresentations of Africa in colonial European literature, as well as to rail against the corrupt excesses of Africa’s parasitic postcolonial elite. The authors further noted that both Dickens and Achebe were greatly influenced by the social constructs of marriage and family life, with both writers stressing these themes in the four novels. Ideas around the Protestant work ethic, charity for the needy, and consideration for fellow human beings are also reflected in the works: as Pip helps Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, so also does Obierika assist Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. Further afield, Indonesian scholar M Supriyatno also offers an interesting comparison of Things Fall Apart in his 2012 piece, ‘The Mimetic Criticism in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart’, noting how Copperfield and Okonkwo share the struggle of coming to terms with difficult industrial and colonial societies in transition. Copperfield eventually adapts, of course, and succeeds in finding contentment, while Okonkwo, though already highly respected in his community, fails to adapt to his changing circumstances, and pays the ultimate price. 

Boy Called Twist: Dickens in Cape Town

Oliver Twist is one of literature’s eternal characters, whose plight might derive from any number of social contexts in the Global South, as was well illustrated by South African film director Tim Greene’s film Boy Called Twist, which adapted Oliver Twist for the big screen in 2004. The drama is set in contemporary Cape Town, depicting both the city’s great mountainous beauty and the widespread poverty of its derelict townships. The film was entirely South African funded and featured a South African cast. Moodphase5ive and other South African musicians provided an authentic soundtrack of soul, reggae and jazz. The mixed-race Twist—impressively played by Jarrid Geduld—is orphaned when his mother dies in childbirth. He is frequently maltreated as he goes from a rural orphanage, Weltevreden, in the wastes of the Swartland, to indentured child labour harvesting crops in the field, to work for a rural undertaker, before he escapes to the big city of Cape Town 180 kilometres away, hitching a ride on the back of a truck. As with Fagin’s gang of child pick-pockets, the South African Twist falls in with a gang of young crooks led by a dreadlocked Caribbean Rastafarian Fagin, and is tutored by the Artful Dodger. Other Dickensian figures from the novel, such as the gangster Bill Sykes (Bart Fouche), his prostitute-girlfriend Nancy (Kim Engelbrecht), Monks and Mr Brownlow also appear in the film. 

As with Dickens’ Oliver, Greene’s Twist is a soft, sensitive child in search of love, but often betrayed by adults. In another localisation of this timeless tale, Twist asks for more pap at his village orphanage, and Ebrahim Bassedien, a middle-class man from whom Twist’s gang tries to steal, turns out to be his sympathetic grandfather, providing him with the loving care he has been denied all his life. The periodic voice of the muezzin’s call to prayer highlights the diversity of Cape Town and the Muslim sanctuary that Twist has entered. The movie tackles many contemporary issues in post-apartheid South Africa, from street children, poverty and gangsterism to HIV/Aids and homelessness. As South African critic Jean Barker perceptively noted: ‘Boy Called Twist refuses to smugly wag a finger, make a sweeping moral judgement or idealise either the children or the adults’.

Great Expectations: Dickens’s African Heirs

Reinforcing how expansive and interconnected Britain’s empire was, a portrait of a young Charles Dickens, lost for over 130 years, was discovered in Pietermaritzburg in 2017. It had been painted by British artist Margaret Gillies in 1843, and exhibited at London’s Royal Academy of Arts a year later. The painting had apparently found its way to Africa through the relatives of Gillies’s adopted daughter who had emigrated to South Africa in the eighteen-sixties. 

Returning to Edward Said, with whom we started this survey, he once famously noted that ‘at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world,’ the victims of empire must ‘assert their own identity and the existence of their own history’. Charles Dickens was one of the pioneers of the ‘Great European Novel’ during the imperial age. His influence is evident not just in Africa but globally, as the many stage plays of A Christmas Carol and multiple readings and stagings of his work across the Americas and the Caribbean, Australasia, the Middle East and Asia demonstrate. The plain fact is that Dickens’s work often inspired colonial subjects to write narratives in which they struck back at empire.

The first generation of Africa’s postcolonial writers were true heirs of Dickens, as many of them have acknowledged. They, however, narrated their own anti-imperial stories from the place of the periphery rather than from the heart of the metropolitan, where Dickens operated. In contemporary Africa, a new generation of griots are producing a bountiful harvest of rich writing, some of which can also trace its lineage to Dickens’s genius, again underlining his timelessness. Nigeria’s Bernardine Evaristo and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Ghana’s Esi Edugyan and Ayesha Harruna Attah; Ethiopia’s Maaza Mengiste; Uganda’s Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi; Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma; Zambia’s Namwali Serpell; South Africa’s Damon Galgut; Morocco’s Laila Lalami; Egypt’s Ahdaf Soueif; and Libya’s Hisham Matar—they are all, in this critic’s opinion, part of this great storytelling tradition. In short, Africa’s talented contemporary generation of cosmopolitan global writers are producing the ‘Great African Novel’ to describe their postcolonial age of hard times and great expectations. 

  • Adekeye Adebajo is a professor and Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He is the author of The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes (2020); and editor of The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, Poets, and Philosophers (2020). He obtained his doctorate from Oxford University and is a columnist for Business Day (South Africa), the Guardian (Nigeria) and the Gleaner (Jamaica).

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