Historically, the methods included both conversion and coercion. Many of the first European settlers were missionaries, offering education and converting large numbers of tribespeople who were powerless or outcasts under the tribal order. Achebe echoes this as the early converts are characters like Nwoye, or the efulefu. As the missions expanded, divisions arose in the clans and conflicts broke out; the white government would often intervene rather than allowing villagers to settle the disputes themselves. In the novel, the court messengers, called 'Ashy Buttocks' because of their pale-coloured shorts, are used to administer the European laws. With their corrupt and malicious practices, they are the most hated figures in the novel.
Control was also exercised through violent reprisals. If conflicts gave rise to casualties among the white missionaries or bureaucrats, British soldiers would often slaughter whole villages instead of seeking and punishing the perpetrators of the crimes. In an uprising in 1915, British troops killed more than forty natives in retaliation for one dead and one wounded British soldier.