Oroonoko; or, the Royal Slave
London: William Canning, 1688; Penguin Classics, 2003
Aphra Behn (1640–1689) was a prolific dramatist, spy, and Tory propagandist of the English Restoration. After spying for Charles II in Antwerp during the Dutch wars, she turned to literature and became a successful author—indeed, the first female literary author to earn her living entirely from her quill. It is possible nowadays to obtain her entire oeuvre in a six-volume collection (300+ pages per volume). However, her most prominent works include a comedy, such as The Rover (1677); a farce, such as The Emperor of the Moon (1687); and an amorous and political novel, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684–1687). The short novel, Oroonoko (1688), though not the first, is considered important to the development of the English novel, and perhaps the works for which she is best known today.
Putatively an exploration of slavery, race, and gender, it is easily seen why Oroonoko is studied at university; on the surface, it fits in well with the radical egalitarian agenda of feminism and postcolonial studies. Yet, I will show here that there is another reading—one that sharply contradicts egalitarian theses.
Though classed as a novel, Oroonoko blends genres, blending biography, and travel reportage; Behn’s visited the then English colony of Suriname in the 1660s, and thus provides fascinating insight into the environment and conditions in a remote tropical outpost in the new world, as experienced by the English settlers of that age.
The story begins in Africa, with Oroonoko as the young prince of Coramantien, a kingdom in the Gold Coast, or modern Ghana. Coramantien is ruled by his aged grandfather, a warrior of fame, who by this time had sacrificed all his sons to his various conquests; he is the last of his race, leaving Oroonoko as his sole heir. The Old King lives in a palace, where he maintains a well-populated harem that he replenishes from time to time with young female flesh as the older concubines lose their luster, whenceupon they become carers, charged with training their successors in the arts of love.
Oroonoko is as well versed in the art of war as he is in the art of conversation, being fluent in English and well cultivated in European history. His deportment is regal, his sense of honour exemplary. His inborn magnificence approximates Attic ideals of physical perfection more than African ones; though described as dark skinned, Behn even has him with a straight nose and non-everted lips! (Do not be tricked by modern theatrical adaptations.)
In Imoinda, who, though Black, is also given European features, desired by all, this prince finds a worthy match to his accomplishments, and they quickly fall in love. The Old King, however, was not one to be deprived of the very best the female sex could offer, and wastes no time in demanding what he deems his due and contriving to imprison Imoinda in his harem. After a short while, he also tells her that Oroonoko has already forgotten about her. Oroonoko’s distress is considerable, and in his scheme to liberate Imoinda he finds an ally in one of the Old King’s now middle-aged, former lovers, who had been put in charge of training the nubile concubine. But the Old King discovers and frustrates the scheme, following which he sells Imoinda into slavery. This rash action soon elicits regret, and the Old King, fearing Oroonoko’s rage, tells him he has executed her, this being deemed a lesser evil than the humiliation of slavery.
Upon being told, Oroonoko loses the will to live, and endangers his troops through his own indifference when faced in an attack. He, however, is before too late reinvigorated for long enough to avert a disaster—he hurls himself into the battle, and returns to court a victor.
An English captain, with whom Oroonoko had a prior relationship trafficking in slaves, and esteemed by him more than others of that ilk on account of his superior education and refinement, then arrives on business. They enjoy fine conversation, as was their custom. He invites Oroonoko and his men aboard his ship, where he treats them to a sumptuous dinner. Yet, this man proves treacherous, and, having plied his guests with wine and waited for them to let down their guard, immediately clasps them in irons and sets sail. Slaves were usually purchased from native slave-takers stationed on the harbours of collaborative African kingdoms, and the enslaved were typically enemy soldiers captured in war, traitors, opponents of the local king, psychopaths, and other undesirables, but kidnappings of this nature apparently took place on rare occasions, in hopes of obtaining a ransom. Needless to say, the practice was condemned, and avoided, since it risked capturing a person that would anger the friendly groups on the coast.
The captives are horrified, and Oroonoko is bewildered by his friend’s betrayal. Out of loyalty, the soldiers go on a hunger strike, vexing the captain, who worries about his merchandise. With voluble discourse and feigned contriteness, he pleads with Oroonoko to forgive him, and, after a verbal exchange, eventually agrees to unchain Oroonoko, offering to free the men at the next port of call. Oroonoko’s unchaining allows the soldiers to break their strike, so the captain is at ease, but the latter explains that he feels the offence he committed was so great, that he must keep Oroonoko’s men in irons while they are still at sea, as he fears they will want to avenge their king. Being the kind of man for whom his word is his bond, Oroonoko remains naïve to the captain’s designs, and only learns he has been deceived a second time once he finds himself in Suriname, sold as part of a lot to local English planters.
Oroonoko’s owner is the affable Trefry, from Cornwall, who soon divines his new slave’s regal status and takes a liking to him. He renames him Caesar. Trefry treats him well, and affords him freedoms not permitted to his other slaves in that rich colony. In turn, the slaves also recognise Oroonoko’s status, and pay him respect. It turns out that most of them are afflicted by amorous emotions, on account of a beautiful female slave who has been there for some time, but who has ignored their advances. Of course, the latter is Imoinda, and thus she is quickly reunited with her prince, glad and relieved as anyone could be to find her alive.
The euphoria makes Oroonoko not care about his servitude for a while, but once Imoinda becomes pregnant, he requests they be allowed return to their homeland. When his petition is continuously ignored, his condition becomes intolerable. In his view, it would not be so had he been captured following defeat in battle; under such circumstances, the warrior ethos dictates stoic resignation. In this case, however, he is a slave because of the treachery of a calculating man without honour. He decides he would rather die like a man in a bid for freedom, than carry on living like a dog. This resolution he communicates to his fellow slaves, who agree to join him in his escape.
When the English find their plantation deserted, a party is organised to search for the fugitives. A military party is organised by William Byam, the deputy governor. Locating them proves easy, for they have had to hack a path through the forest. Before long, Oroonoko discovers he is being pursued, and, placing the women and children behind him, he and the male slaves confront their masters. The latter are armed with a semi-comical assortment of weaponry, much of it old. They do manage to terrorise the slaves with their whips, and, eventually, through Byam’s promise of an amnesty, and at the behest of the imploring wives, they desert Oroonoko and return to their masters. Oroonoko, Imoinda, and a fellow slave called Tuscany remain then the last ones standing. They are defiant, willing to fight to the death, but Trefry is sent to parley with Oroonoko, and eventually convinces him to give up.
Byam, however, is a perfidious, licentious, cruel rake, whose support base, though rich, consists of a semi-criminal rabble. He restrains Oroonoko and Tuscany, and whips them both with a cat of nine tails until the flesh is ripped off their bones. Pepper is then rubbed into the wounds.
By this time Oroonoko has been betrayed three times, and he has had enough. He decides to kill Byam, to avenge his honour and assert his worth. Realising he is unlikely to survive the ensuing punishment, he also decides to kill Imoinda first, to protect her from the violation and ill-treatment he was sure would follow. After discussing his plan with her and with his masters, among whom is the narrator, they decide that, however horrible, the plain is just. Oroonoko takes Imoinda to the forest, and she, with a smile, dies by his hand. He removes her face, and with flowers covers the body.
Having committed this deed, however, Oroonoko is wracked by such tormenting grief, that he is paralysed, unable to leave his dead beloved. After two days, cursing himself for having lived so long after her death, he attempts to undertake the next stage of his plan, but, not having eaten, he is dizzy and too weak to move. Eight days later he is found by a search party, still grieving next to Imoinda’s decomposed body. He resists attempts to seize him, and even kills one and stabs Tuscany in the arm—Tuscany already perfectly reconciled with Byam. Oroonoko attempts to take his life by slicing open his abdomen with a knife and pulling out his entrails, but his is stopped before he can take his life and is taken back to the plantation. There, he is sewn up and looked after for a number of days, until he regains some of his strength. He demands not to be allowed to live, and he is, indeed, deemed unlikely to survive. Byam, nevertheless, decides to make an example of him and has him publicly executed. As he stoically smokes his pipe, Oroonoko has his ears and nose cut off and burnt in front of him, and is dismembered alive and without protest until, with only one arm left, he keels over and expires. Byam then quarters the body and has it sent to the various plantations. George Marten refused to accept his piece, arguing he would govern his slaves through infamy.
The novel ends with the narrator, now speaking in first person, desiring her fame to survive her long enough for Oroonoko and Imoinda to be known through the ages.
Needless to say that, though Behn’s style is convoluted, with epic sentences joined by multiple colons and semi-colons, one cannot but feel pain at this sad and horrible tragedy. Certainly, one feels Oroonoko was badly treated and was not deserving of such infamous fate.
This is clearly the sort of text that, if decontextualised, could be used in modern academia to reinforce the politically fashionable postcolonial narrative that paints Whites as guilty of deceitfulness and inhumanity in their participation in slavery, particularly since African Blacks are herein painted in a sympathetic light. Indeed, Oroonoko was the first English novel to do so.
Yet, Oroonoko is not really about race, but about kingship and nobility of spirit. What is important about Oroonoko are his superior qualities and principles; his negritude is, in fact, de-emphasised by the attribution of many European traits. Behn’s is not an indictment against slavery. She, in fact, tells us that Oroonoko also trafficked in slaves. Moreover, slavery fits in with Oroonoko’s warrior code; he resents his enslavement onlybecause it resulted not from defeat in battle, in which case his new master would have won him fairly and squarely, but from amoral commercial opportunism. What incenses him, and the reader, is not the traffic in slaves, nor the English colony’s reliance on slave labour, but the treachery of specific individuals. True, Oroonoko comes to distrust the Whites because he witnesses a number of them swearing to their Christian God only to break their oaths for commercial reasons, suggesting they are godless men of inferior quality, not worthy of anyone’s respect. Yet Oroonoko also comes to despise his fellow slaves, whom, he concludes, through their meekness and lack of pride, deserve their slavery. Time and again he stresses the importance not of universal human dignity, but of a king never to betray his oaths; the measure of a man, for him, is his ability to keep his vows.
Such an outlook is intrinsically elitist, not egalitarian, and is well in keeping with Behn’s high Tory politics. Her fiction consistently portrays royalists and ill-used nobles in a positive light, and Parliamentarian republicans as petty, small-minded, and evil. Byam may have once been a royalist, but he is contemnible because of his usurpation and venal mismanagement of the colony; it is his personal qualities, or lack thereof, that establishes his worthlessness. Conversely, George Marten may have been a Cromwellian, but his fair and noble behaviour elevates him above Byam. Trefry, a former republican, is also deemed a better man. In turn, Oroonoko is a natural king, but, because of Byam’s weakness and corruption, he ends up being outrageously mistreated and killed. And despite his gruesome and gory death, in spirit he remains a king to the last.
Imoinda’s characterisation is consistent with this line. Behn clearly rejected the idea of women having a purely domestic role: though praised for her beauty and modesty, Imoinda is no wilting lily; she takes arms voluntarily and is prepared to die fighting alongside her lord, even while pregnant. Like Oroonoko, she also embodies the warrior spirit. Accordingly, she accepts death gladly, when that is the only noble avenue left. Behn establishes a definite hierarchy here, but it is one based on loyalty and strength, not on meek submission. Male dominance does not demand here female weakness; on the contrary: female concupiscence and strength are, in fact, indicative of masculine glory, for it takes a dominant male to gain the respect and loyalty of a formidable woman. In a way, femininity obtains its power from masculinity, and masculinity from femininity. A number of trendy feminist authors have been interested in this novel, but I would argue that, to the extent that modern feminism—particularly since the second wave—has been founded on a degree of misandry, Behn presents us with an anti-feminist conception of femininity, which is assertively traditional.
It has been said that Behn wrote the novel—30,000 words—in a single sitting. Its coming into being a quarter of a century after her travels in Suriname, suggests it may have been instigated by the political developments of 1688—what would end up as the Glorious Revolution. Behn’s portrayal of royalty as emanate, natural, and divine would have placed her on the camp of Robert Filmer, also a Tory, against whom the Whigs Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and his friend James Tyrrell would pen their objections. Unsurprisingly, Oroonoko is described as fanatically anti-democratic.
Egalitarian academics have both criticised the novel for racism (by making Oroonoko’s accomplishments a function of his European traits) and praised it for being anti-slavery (though the abolitionist movement would not be created for another century). They also would have students read Oroonoko alongside Montaigne’s essay, ‘On Cannibals’, to shoehorn the idea somehow that the novel is about condemning Western civilisation as corrupt, vis-à-vis the noble savage, though the text clearly refutes this idea by Oroonoko’s being so very Western. They even would have it seem that the novel is an argument for education as the source of human worth, though Oroonoko’s education is evidently an expression or extension, not the source, of his regality, which rests on his innate ethos and physical perfection. This makes Oroonoko seem hampered by contradictions. Yet, as should by now be evident from the above, these result from attempting to read the novel through egalitarian goggles. Remove the goggles, and the contradictions disappear.