Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663
After two centuries of Arab rule, the expansion of European imperialistic ambitions into East Africa at the end of the nineteenth century precipitated a series of conflicts in which Amurath, formerly Commander-in-Chief of the Sultan’s forces, led his Wanda tribesmen to victory over their hated rivals the Sakuyu and then to victory over the Arabs themselves. Proclaiming himself Emperor, for nearly two decades he presided over an uneasy truce between the two tribes while representatives of the major imperial powers maintained legations in hopes of winning some influence in the region. During this time, exploiters, adventurers, opportunists, and missionaries from everywhere immigrated to the country pursuing various schemes, plans, and dreams. As the novel begins, Amurath’s grandson Seth has returned from his studies in England after news of Amurath’s death has been made public, the courtiers no longer able to cover up the Emperor’s absence from view. Seth is anxious to bring the benefits of his education to his country, but he has confused the diverse manifestations of modern thought to which he was exposed at Oxford into an incoherent “philosophy” of isolated buzzwords, trendy concepts, and catchphrases. Preposterously ill-equipped to administer a land torn by ancient tribal blood feuds, conspiring colonial powers, and a polyglot population rife with corruption and indifference, Seth attempts to impress upon Azania a bizarre mixture of social reforms and civic projects which he calls the New Age.
While Seth tries by fiat and decree to rearrange local society, his efforts at control are paralleled by the plots and intrigues of the French and British governments and the various Church fiefdoms to gain power behind whatever native sect is ostensibly in charge. The disparity between the grandiose proclamations for the general welfare by all the competing factions and the meager level of their accomplishments is a measure of the greediness and cupidity of everyone involved in a colonial enterprise—all expressing concern for the country, all acting entirely in terms of self-interest.
Although Seth’s position is very precarious upon his return, the unexpected triumph of his forces under the shrewd direction of General Connolly, a no-nonsense veteran of many colonial expeditions, encourages his most ambitious ideas. He accelerates his plans for modernization, focusing everything on a Pageant of Birth Control, complete with posters, pageants, festivities, and assumptions about the inhabitants of Azania not based on any knowledge of their behavior or inclinations. He is assisted in his campaign by a sardonic, relatively young English upper-class semiwastrel who has grown tired of scrounging, sponging, and posturing around London and has voyaged to Azania because he vaguely knew Seth at Oxford.
In spite of Basil Seal’s generally practical and progressively idealistic handling of reforms, Seth’s nearly total separation from reality and the increasingly aggressive strategies of the foreigners to gain power lead to civil war and the attempted installation of a French-supported figurehead as the new Emperor. When he dies at the moment of coronation, a random sequence of events culminates in the destruction of most of the country’s infrastructure and Seth’s death, probably by his own hand. Seal essentially redeems his past excesses by his almost heroic endeavor amid the chaos and by his genuinely stirring tribute to Seth in the form of a legend-creating eulogy designed to give the country some foundation for future self-determination. The British community is evacuated, but Seal’s mistress is captured when her plane is forced down, and the funeral feast for Seth has some horrifying, unexpected ingredients.
At the conclusion of the novel, a new group of British colonialists has arrived, apparently even more obtuse and racist than their predecessors, appropriate emblems of an empire in decline. Seal is back in London, possibly deepened and refined by his experience, and the land of Azania remains a raw and uncivilized field for barbarism, where egoists, petty tyrants, and other operators clash by day and night, indifferent to the beleaguered citizens of a stricken land.