Elesin Oba (ay-LAY-sihn OH-bah), the chief horseman of the recently deceased king of a Nigerian village. Full of vitality, Elesin enjoys women, singing, and dancing. Despite his great thirst for life, he is a man of honor and wisdom. He must, therefore, adhere to native laws and customs that mandate that he kill himself prior to the king’s burial so as to accompany his master to heaven. Although he has an abundance of wives and is in his final hours on Earth, his eyes wander to a young woman who has been promised to another man; as a result of his stature, the girl is given to him in marriage. Regardless of having yet another reason to live, he is prompted by honor to pursue his death ceremony. When the critical rite is interrupted by the British colonial forces and his suicide is prevented, Elesin is disgraced and humiliated. His son, whom he had previously disowned for abandoning the tribe to attend school in Europe, now disowns him. Elesin is repudiated by friends and tribesmen and is held in prison by the British as a means of protecting his life. After witnessing his son’s suicide to right his wrong, he strangles himself with his own shackles.
Praise-Singer, a man who follows Elesin around only to sing praises of him. Although his love for Elesin is great, he knows that the world demands the death of his master. During the death ritual, he takes on the role of the deceased king to speak with Elesin. He, too, is disgraced by Elesin failing to complete the ceremony, thereby disrupting the order of the universe.
Iyaloja (ee-yah-LOH-jah), the “mother” of the marketplace. Despite her lofty position above the other women, she is subservient to men and is terrified of offending Elesin, a man of such prominence. Her respect of his mission is so great that she willingly gives her son’s fiancée to him in marriage. When Elesin’s death is stalled, she scorns him, even calling his seed an abomination.
Simon Pilkings, an English colonialist and district officer of the territory. He is insensitive and impatient of beliefs foreign to him, especially tribal superstition. He does not respect religion (even his own) and often offends people. By seeing things from only his vantage point, he disrupts the order of the tribe’s universe, which leads not only to the death of Elesin (whom he was attempting to save) but also to the destruction of Elesin’s honor and of his eldest son.
Jane Pilkings, Simon’s wife. Although shallow and ignorant, she has educated herself concerning the tribal customs and tries not to denigrate them. She is more compassionate than her husband and is the buffer between Simon and the people he tends to offend.
Sergeant Amusa (ah-MEW-sah), a black man absorbed into the white man’s order, including Her Majesty’s government service. He is despised by his people for denying his heritage and is considered less than an equal by the British. Although he converted to the Muslim religion, he remains superstitious regarding his own primitive beliefs. Amusa is sent to arrest Elesin to prevent his suicide. He is humiliated and chided by the native girls as a white man’s eunuch.
Joseph, Simon Pilkings’ native houseboy. He takes his conversion to Christianity seriously and is disturbed by Pilkings’ sacrilegious speech.
Bride, the young virgin desired by Elesin. Although she is promised to Iyaloja’s son, Iyaloja proudly gives her to the honored Elesin before his valiant death. The bride is impregnated by Elesin, but her unborn child is later cursed by Iyaloja after Elesin fails in his mission of death. The bride remains outside Elesin’s jail cell after his incarceration, and it is she who closes his eyes after his suicide.
The Prince of Wales
The Prince of Wales, the visiting English prince to the native colony.
The Resident, Simon Pilkings’ superior. He is an arrogant, silly, and ignorant man who is not at all in touch with the natives. His lack of substance is displayed in his fascination with surfaces such as uniforms and tassels.
Aide-de-camp, an assistant to the resident. He is rude and bigoted and much like his superior.
Olunde (oh-LEWN-day), the eldest son of Elesin. Despite his father’s renunciation of him for leaving the village, Olunde traveled to London to become a doctor. In his four years among the English, he has learned that they have no respect for what they do not understand. He returns to the village to warn Pilkings not to interfere with his father’s suicide. Olunde rejects his father when he learns of Elesin’s failed mission. To redeem his people, he takes on his father’s task and kills himself.