“And why,” said he, “my dear friends and fellow sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people? Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honourable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves? This would not anger a noble heart, this would not animate a soldier’s soul; no, but we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools, and cowards, and the support of rogues, runagates, that have abandoned their own countries for rapine, murders, thefts, and villainies. Do you not hear every day how they upbraid each other with infamy of life, below the wildest savages, and shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left to distinguish ’em from the vilest creatures? Will you, I say, suffer the lash from such creatures?”
So, let us consider Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave—as a work of fiction. Let us also agree at the outset to refer to the in-text teller of this tale as The Narrator, so as not to fall into the trap of confusing Aphra Behn, Writer with Aphra Behn, Literary Construct; a trap that seems to have lured quite a number of otherwise intelligent individuals to their doom, or at least into making jackasses of themselves.
The consensus of recent scholarship is that Aphra Behn did in fact visit “Surinam” (the Republic of Suriname), probably in 1663. It also seems that it was there that she became acquainted with, and possibly involved with, William Scott, in pursuit of whom she was sent to Antwerp in 1666. It was during her time in Surinam that Aphra acquired the nickname (later code-name) “Astraea”. Beyond this very little is certain, although there is an amusing gap between those accounts of her that suggest that her father was (as is asserted in Oroonoko) intended for a high government post, and those that identify him as a barber from Kent. We should note here that Aphra’s birth and connections got higher and better through all of Charles Gildon’s revisions of her “biography”, upon which people who really ought to know better rely far too much. The first of these, the account of her life that prefaces the posthumous publication of The Younger Brother, is lifted straight out of Oroonoko. The most probable explanation for Aphra’s presence in Surinam is that her family (generally now believed to be “the Johnsons”) responded to the call for English colonists issued in 1662, which promised gifts of land for settlers. She was there for between eighteen months and two years, and may have left following the death of her father, although there is no extant record of the latter.
So much we know, and little enough. However, the reality is—it doesn’t matter. Whether Aphra’s “local colour” in Oroonoko is based upon her own observation, or whether she copied it all out of published accounts from the 1660s, as Ernest Bernbaum contends, makes not the slightest difference to her tale, which is anything other than a simple “travelogue” of the kind so popular during the Restoration. Indeed, given the brevity of Oroonoko – only 67 pages, as I have mentioned before – it is truly remarkable how much it has to say. It is a work that expresses a startling point of view at almost every turn.
The first thing that we might need to consider about Oroonoko is—how could anyone ever have mistaken this for anything other than a work of fiction!? It seems to me so self-evident – and not just with the benefit of hindsight – that we can only consider the selective blindness of certain parties to be the result of some kind of psychological block, a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse. Most obviously, the first section of this story – or at least the first after The Narrator’s brief description of the flora, fauna, climate and natives of Surinam – is essentially another of Aphra’s short stories, full of love and sex and intrigue and thwarted passions, which occupies 25 pages (or better than 35%) of the total text. Moreover, although this part of the story was supposedly told by Oroonoko to The Narrator, it is full of details that he could not possibly have known. We’re used to this sort of convenient omniscience in fiction; in “A True History”, it creates problems.
We hear, then, of the young Prince Oroonoko, heir to his grandfather, the King of Coromantien; of his great and innate nobility, and his glorious successes as a warrior. The other side of his nature is awakened when he meets the beautiful Imoinda, his female counterpart. He woos and wins her – not least by promising her monogamy, in a polygamous society. They observe “a certain ceremony”, but the marriage is not consummated, pending Oroonoko informing his grandfather of the step he has taken. This mark of filial respect turns out to be a fatal mistake.
The king, though “a man of a hundred and odd years old”, has any number of wives as well as an extensive harem and is always looking for something new to excite his exceedingly jaded palette. Hearing of Imoinda’s surpassing beauty, he decides that he must have her. Curiously, Behn here expresses scorn for the notion of “the divine right”, at least as exercised by kings who are also dirty old men:
…’twas past doubt that she loved Oroonoko entirely. This gave the old king some affliction, but he salved it with this: that the obedience the people pay their king was not at all inferior to what they paid their gods, and what love would not oblige Imoinda to do, duty would compel her to do.
The king sends Imoinda “the royal veil”, which is, as they say, an offer she can’t refuse; among other things, it marks her as the king’s exclusive property. Imoinda tries to argue and plead her way out, finally enraging the king by confessing her marriage. Terrified that the royal wrath will fall upon Oroonoko, she also confesses her virginity – which seals her fate. When Oroonoko hears what has happened, he is driven half out of his mind with grief and anger, but finally, upon the urging of his friends (and one argument of theirs in particular), he conceals his emotion and goes about his normal business in an attempt to convince the king that he is not still dwelling upon Imoinda, all the time plotting to steal into the Otan, where the harem is kept: an intrusive that will mean his life if he is caught.
The one thing that helps Oroonoko keep himself under control is the thought that, as his friends suggest, the king’s great age means that he is almost certainly impotent – and so it proves to be. This is another of numerous instances in Behn’s writing in which an overtly powerful man turns out to be anything but when it comes to the crunch. The king, though he forces Imoinda to “expose her lovely person” to him, is unable to do anything about his passion for her. However, when Oroonoko, with the help of his friend, Aboan, and one of the king’s discarded mistresses, manages to make his way to Imoinda’s room in the Otan, he experiences none of the same difficulties:
The prince softly wakened Imoinda, who was not a little surprised with joy to find him there, and yet she trembled with a thousand fears. I believe he omitted saying nothing to this young maid that might persuade her to suffer him to seize his own, and take the rights of love, and I believe she was not long resisting those arms, where she so longed to be; and having opportunity, night, and silence, youth, love, and desire, he soon prevailed and ravished in a moment what his old grandfather had been endeavouring for so many months.
But the lovers have been betrayed. Imoinda persuades Oroonoko to leave her and return to the army camp, where the king will not dare to assail him because of his popularity with his men, while she saves her own life by the perverse tactic of swearing that Oroonoko raped her, and that she was therefore not responsible. This lie has unforeseen consequences, however, though the king does not entirely believe it: it is a strict law that no woman who has belonged to one man may belong to another in the same family, and in his mingled rage and revulsion, the king commits the heinous crime of selling Imoinda into slavery; literally a fate worse than death:
He began to repent him extremely of the contempt he had, in his rage, put on Imoinda. Besides, he considered he ought in honour to have killed her for this offence—if it had been one. He ought to have had so much value and consideration for a maid of her quality, as to have nobly put her to death, and not to have sold her like a common slave, the greatest revenge and the most disgraceful of any, and to which they a thousand times prefer death and implore it, as Imoinda did, but could not obtain that honour.
Disgusted with himself, and frightened of Oroonoko, the king spreads a false story of Imoinda’s death. Oroonoko is so shattered by the news that he loses interest even in his military campaigns, and his people are almost overrun by a neighbouring enemy. Almost at the last, Aboan rouses Oroonoko from his stupor, and the young prince not only turns the tide of battle but wins greater glory than ever before, as well as capturing the leader of the opposing forces, with whom he subsequently forms a close friendship.
But disaster awaits. An English slave-trading ship arrives, and its captain, offering friendship, and on the pretence of feteing Oroonoko for his victories, invites him on board. Suspecting no treachery, he attends along with “about an hundred of the noblest youths of the court”. In the midst of the entertainment, the captain springs his trap—and Oroonoko finds himself in shackles, on his way to Surinam…
Though, as I say, this opening section of Oroonoko bears a superficial resemblance to a number of Aphra’s unhappy love tales, it is also full of touches that resonate later in the narrative. For one thing, it declares Oroonoko and his people to be from “Coramantien” (Ghana). The Coromantee people did have a reputation for being war-like and aggressive, and several slave revolts in the Caribbean around the time of Oroonoko‘s publication were led by people from this region. It is likely that Aphra’s readers would have understood the allusion, and been prepared for the direction taken by her story. (In fact, in the 18th century there was a push to stop taking slaves from this area, because they were more trouble than they were worth.)
Behn’s – or rather, The Narrator’s – description of Oroonoko himself is perhaps the first of the novella’s real surprises, particularly when we consider it against the attitude that we find in such more or less contemporaneous works as The Isle Of Pines and The English Rogue. The sheer revulsion expressed by the male narrators of those tales when confronted with non-Caucasians, most specifically non-Caucasian women (though of course, they grit their teeth and have sex with them anyway), is a reaction as different as it could be from The Narrator’s delighted appreciation of Oroonoko’s manifold physical attractions:
He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied. The most famous statuary could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot. His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes were the most aweful that could be seen and very piercing… The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome.
I am compelled to admit that Behn – not The Narrator – does bestow upon her black Adonis a rather improbable “Roman” nose and thinner lips than perhaps we might expect; but in view of her refusal to buy into the aesthetics that usually insist upon a lighter skin in these contexts, perhaps we can forgive that. (I’m pretty sure she thought the nose was “more royal”.)
But Oroonoko’s perfections are not merely physical. At The Narrator’s first introduction of him, she also speaks warmly of his intelligence, his generosity, his constancy, and above all his uncompromising sense of honour. Again and again the narrative measures Oroonoko against the various Europeans with whom he comes in contact, who are invariably found embarrassingly wanting in comparison.
One of the most common readings of Oroonoko is as an early example of the “noble savage” literature that proliferated in the Deist / sentimental literature of the 18th century, which argued for the natural goodness of man and the corrupting influence of so-called civilised life. Undoubtedly there are aspects of this in the novella’s presentation of the natives of Surinam, who in spite of wearing next-to-nothing:
…are extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched. And though they are all thus naked, if one lives forever among ’em, there is not to be seen an indecent action, or glance, and being continually used to see one another unadorned, so like our first parents before the Fall… ‘Tis most evident and plain that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive, and virtuous mistress. ‘Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of Man. Religion would here but destroy that tranquility they possess by ignorance, and laws would but teach ’em to know offence, of which they now have no notion.
The Narrator goes on to describe the natives’ alarm and disgust at the casual dishonesty of the English they encounter, foreshadowing the tragic interaction of her hero and her countrymen.
However, Behn’s presentation of the Africans emphasises that they are not “savages”, noble or otherwise; while Oroonoko himself is as perfect a gentleman as could be produced by any court in Europe, and a great deal better than most. Though the product of a culture with naturally high ideas of honour, and where a man’s word is his inviolable bond, he is by no means in “a state of nature”: not only is the heir to an ancient monarchy, who has been raised and trained accordingly, but he has received further education from:
…a French man of wit and learning, who…perceiving him to be very ready, apt, and quick of apprehension, took a great pleasure to teach him morals, language, and science…
Oroonoko, then, when the story opens, has been exposed to European civilisation, but not to European corruption; the theory, not the practice.
Whatever else Oroonoko is, it offers in its brief pages a stingingly contemptuous indictment of white / male / Christian / European society, which is presented as irredeemably deceitful, hypocritical and corrupt. This theme makes itself felt right from the outset, when the Surinam natives are first introduced to the concept of “lying”; a passage which also establishes the untrustworthiness of the incumbent English administration:
They once made mourning and fasting for the death of the English governor, who had given his hand to come on such a day to ’em, and neither came, nor sent; believing, when once a man’s word was passed, nothing but death could or should prevent his keeping it, and when they saw he was not dead, they asked him what name they had for a man who promised a thing he did not do. The governor told them that such a man was a liar, which was a word of infamy to a gentleman. Then one of ’em replied, “Governor, you are a liar and guilty of that infamy.”
During Oroonoko’s courtship of Imoinda, Behn again draws an explicit contrast between the conduct of her regal lovers and that of their European counterparts, declaring the African people morally superior despite their usual practice of polygamy – it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it:
Nor did he use those obligations ill that love had done him, but turned all his happy moments to the best advantage; and as he knew no vice, his flame aimed at nothing but honour, if such a distinction may be made in love, and especially in that country, where men take to themselves as many as they can maintain and where the only crime and sin with woman is to turn her off, to abandon her to want, shame, and misery. Such ill morals are only practised in Christian countries where they prefer the bare name of religion and, without virtue or morality, think that’s sufficient. But Oroonoko was none of those professors; but as he had right notions of honour, so he made her such propositions as were not only and barely such but, contrary to the custom of his country, he made her vows she should be the only woman he would possess while he lived…
It is the deceit and treachery of the English captain that dooms Oroonoko to slavery; and while we cynics may say it serves him right for trusting a slaver, to Oroonoko all that matters is that he was invited on board under professions of friendship. The betrayal that follows is so overwhelming, Oroonoko can barely grasp the implications of it, while even after this initial treachery, he knows no other way of proceeding but by trying to deal with the captain on terms of equal honour:
…the still-doubting captain, who could not resolve to trust a heathen, he said, upon his parole, a man that had no sense or notion of the god that he worshipped. Oroonoko then replied, he was very sorry to hear that the captain pretended to the knowledge and worship of any gods who had taught him no better principles than not to credit as he would be credited…
This is the beginning of a pattern of betrayal that recurs throughout the novella, with the Englishmen justifying their conduct in terms of everything from political expediency to, like the captain, the fact that Oroonoko is just a heathen, just a slave; no-one to whom “honour” is owed. In this the English are depicted as incapable of grasping what is so self-evident to “the heathens” they encounter, slave and native: that honour is something a man owes to himself.
So the Prince Oroonoko arrives in Surinam in chains, to be sold off at the auction block – and so enters the consciousness of The Narrator, who is staying at the plantation which buys him. As he is dragged off the ship, he gets the final word:
…he only beheld the captain with a look all fierce and resentful, upbrading him with eyes that forced blushes on his guilty cheeks. He only cried, in passing over the side of the ship, “Farewell, Sir. ‘Tis worth my suffering to gain so true a knowledge both of you and of your gods by whom you swear.” And desiring those that held him to forbear their pains, telling ’em he would make no resistance, he cried, “Come, my fellow slaves, let us descend and see if we can meet with more honour and honesty in the next world we shall touch upon.”
Though it was not the financial success that Aphra Behn needed it to be, Oroonoko was popular at the time of its publication and became increasingly so over the course of the 18th century. It was particularly well-received in France, where right from the beginning it was read as an explicit anti-slavery tract and remained one of the pillar works of humanitarian argument. It is probably in this context that the novella is best known today. This interpretation becomes somewhat problematic, however, when we consider that Oroonoko himself practises slavery – and never, as you might anticipate, learns to “know better”. Oroonoko is a warrior-prince; he and his people are constantly at war with one neighbouring tribe or another, with the prisoners on either side sold to the slave-traders who visit the area on a regular basis. Within the context of this tale, this is neither wrong nor despicable. When Oroonoko arrives in Surinam, he recognises amongst his fellow slaves a number of individuals who he himself captured and sold – and they have no hard feelings; these are merely the fortunes of war.
But if Oroonoko does not go quite as far as most people would prefer these days, we must not lose sight of the very real achievement of Aphra Behn, who does three remarkable things here, things perhaps unprecedented in the literature of her time: she presents slavery without disguise as both physically and spiritually degrading; she shows how slavery vitiates the moral sense of those who practise it; and above all she considers slavery from the slave’s point of view:
[Oroonoko]…made an harangue to ’em of the miseries and ignominies of slavery, counting up all their toils and sufferings under such loads, burdens, and drudgeries as were fitter for beasts than men, senseless brutes than human souls. He told ’em it was not for days, months or years, but for eternity; there was no end to be of their misfortunes. They suffered not like men who might find a glory and fortitude in oppression, but like dogs that loved the whip and bell and fawned the more they were beaten; that they had lost the divine quality of men, and were become insensible asses, fit only to bear; nay worse, an ass, or dog, or horse, having done his duty, could lie down in retreat, and rise to work again, and while he did his duty, endured no stripes, but men, villainous, senseless men such as they, toiled on the tedious week till black Friday, and then whether they worked or not, whether they were faulty or meriting, they promiscuously, the innocent with the guilty, suffered the infamous whip, the sordid stripes from their fellow slaves till their blood trickled from all parts of their body, blood whose every drop ought to be revenged with a life of some of the tyrants that impose it.
It is not the least of Oroonoko‘s virtues that its text never loses sight of Oroonoko’s overriding point here, that slaves are nevertheless men – “human souls” – and that slavery is not something done by the superior to the inferior, but something done by men to men. It is also implies that the Englishmen’s uneasy consciousness of this truth is at the root of the very cruelties that they commit.
The attitude of Oroonoko towards its English characters is one of the most intriguing things about it. Slavery itself is humiliating enough, but there is nothing, we gather, more humiliating than being enslaved by the English. Even at the end of his tether, when he is trying to rouse his fellow slaves to rebellion, Oroonoko is able to find a sort of nobility in slavery as a result of being made a prisoner of war, “honourably vanquished”; a man might endure that. But the English do not capture their slaves this way – they don’t capture their slaves at all – they pay other people to do it for them – not caring what dirty tactics are used. (Though other slaving nations are mentioned, the captain who tricks Oroonoko is of course an Englishman.) Oroonoko’s word for the English is “degenerate”. To be enslaved by such people, to be bought and sold by them like any other commodity, is uniquely, intolerably degrading.
In fact, in an oblique, muted sort of way, Oroonoko dares to question almost everything that the average Englishman of the time would have taken for granted – albeit that The Narrator carefully distances herself from this aspect of the text. Nevertheless, the respect shown to Oroonoko’s opinion throughout the story encourages us to listen when he speaks, and when he condemns the English colonisation of Surinam, and by inference the nation’s spread across the globe, as “rapine” and “theft” – when he sums up the English in terms of the manoeuvring dishonesty that characterises their interactions with other peoples – it carries weight. That Oroonoko is a daring work altogether we have already seen; yet I’m not sure that it’s single most daring touch isn’t the quiet way that Aphra Behn ties colonisation and slavery together into a single, morally untenable bundle.
[To be continued…]