Archive for November, 2012


Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 4)

…he no sooner came to the houses of the slaves, which are like a little town by itself, the Negroes all having left work, but they all came forth to behold him…and, from a veneration they pay to great men, especially if they know ’em, and from the surprise and awe they had at the sight of him, they all cast themselves at his feet, crying out in their language: “Live, O King, live long, O King!”, and kissing his feet, paid him even divine homage…









While there is certainly some validity to the long-standing interpretations of Oroonoko  as an anti-slavery tract and as an early example of “noble savage” literature, I have to say that, this time around, the reading that leapt off the page at me was that which places it as an allegory of the Stuarts. While I am hardly the first person to draw this conclusion, it is not, to say the least, the most popular way of “seeing” Oroonoko; nor is it the easiest one to reach, without the kind of immersion in Restoration politics and literature that I have just been through (and which I have inflicted upon you). Yet I think that it is ultimately the correct one. Furthermore, I think that without a proper understanding of when and why Oroonoko was written, the reader cannot grasp its full implications.

As we have touched upon in the previous posts, Aphra Behn published Oroonoko in the second half of 1688. She was ill and in debt; plays were not being commissioned, and her poetry and translations were not paying the bills. Needing money urgently, she understandably turned to the increasingly popular literary form, fiction, to supplement her dangerously slender income. Behn turned out a clutch of short works at this time, but Oroonoko distinguishes itself from the others in several significant ways.

Firstly, over the previous twenty years Aphra Behn apparently told the story, or versions of it, to her friends – suggesting that there was a real incident in Surinam that burned itself on her memory, however little it might have resembled what she finally put on paper. For all the later attempts to conflate Behn’s life with her fiction, this would seem to be the only point at which the two clearly crossed paths. Secondly, and further to that point, this is the only piece of Behn’s fiction to be told in the first person, in which she deliberately inserts a version of herself into her narrative. Behn’s other fictions may have been nothing more to her than an effort to raise some money in a hurry, but it seems clear enough that when it comes to Oroonoko, there was a more complex relationship between author and text.

Oroonoko was, as I say, published in the second half of 1688; we know it was, because it was advertised in the re-release of some of Aphra’s Behn’s Royalist poetry, which we examined in an earlier post. Having written one lengthy poem upon the announcement of Mary of Modena’s pregnancy early in the year, Behn followed up with another after the birth of the Prince of Wales on 10th June 1688; the two works were subsequently bundled together and reissued. Before this happened, however, one of the most significant events in English history had taken place, with the issuing of the invitation to William of Orange by the “Immortal Seven” on 18th June.

(The “seven” were: William Cavendish, then the Earl of Devonshire; Charles Talbot, then the Earl of Shrewsbury; Thomas Osborne, then the Earl of Danby; Richard Lumley, then Viscount and Baron Lumley; Henry Compton, the Bishop of London; Edward Russell; and Henry Sidney. The “thens” foreshadow the honours which the men predictably received under William and Mary, with a generous bestowal of dukedoms. Russell, a former high-ranking naval officer who was stripped of his command after his relative, Lord Russell, was executed in the wake of the Rye House Plot, became First Lord of the Admiralty and the 1st Earl of Orford; while Henry Sidney was created 1st Earl of Romney. It was Sidney who actually wrote the letter to William. Lord Lumley, later created the 1st Earl of Scarborough, was – ironically enough – the man who had captured Monmouth after his disastrous rebellion.)

By the time Aphra Behn put pen to paper to tell the story of her “royal slave”, everyone knew that William was coming; what they did not know was what would happen when he did. Would James, by some miracle (perhaps via Divine intervention), hold onto his throne?—or would he follow his father to the block?

That James would simply pack up quietly and leave was not, I imagine, very high on the list of anyone’s guesses, and least of all Aphra Behn’s.

Aphra sat down to write Oroonoko, then, in an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty; at a time when, as a Royalist and one of James’s most loyal adherents, she must have been suffering agonies of fear and doubt. What appeared on her sheets of paper was a story of the betrayal and murder of a royal prince, set against a backdrop of England ceding its territories to the Dutch.

While it is, as I say, quite easy to understand why people prefer the anti-slavery reading of Oroonoko to one that positions it as an allegory mourning the imminent downfall of the Stuarts, if we do accept Oroonoko as a literary stand-in for James, it seems to me that most of the pieces of the puzzle fall fairly easily into place. This a Royalist piece par excellence: much of its first half is devoted to the extolling the superiority of Oroonoko to his fellow slaves and his English captors alike; an innate superiority that shows itself unmistakably in his physical perfections, his mental attainments, and the beauties of his character:

Nor did the perfections of his mind come short of those of his person, for his discourse was admirable upon almost every subject, and whoever had heard him speak would have been convinced of their errors, that all fine wit is confined to the white men, especially to those of Christendom, and would have confessed that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well and of governing as wisely, had as great a soul, as politic maxims, and was as sensible of power, as any prince civilised in the most refined schools of humanity and learning, or the most illustrious courts.

James Trefry, who buys Oroonoko as a slave for the plantation belonging to Lord Willoughby, is struck at first glance by a certain  je ne sais quoi, which sets this newcomer apart from his fellow slaves:

He…no sooner came into the boat but he fixed his eyes on him, and finding something so extraordinary in his face, his shape, his mien, a greatness of look and haughtiness in his air, and finding he spoke English, had a great mind to be inquiring into his quality and fortune; which, though Oroonoko endeavoured to hide by only confessing he was above the rank of common slaves, Trefry soon found he was yet something greater than he confessed…

Not even shackles and rags can disguise Oroonoko’s royal blood, and everyone in Surinam who comes into contact with him instinctively pays him the homage due to a prince:

When he found his habit made him liable, as he thought, to be gazed at more, he begged Trefry to give him something more befitting a slave, which he did, and took off his robes. Nevertheless, he shone through all…and he had no less admirers than when he had his dazzling habit on; the royal youth appeared in spite of the slave, and people could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it. As soon as they approached him, they venerated and esteemed him; his eyes insensibly commanded respect, and his behaviour insinuated it into every soul, so that there was nothing to be talked of but this young and gallant slave, even by those who yet knew not that he was a prince…

Oroonoko’s fame spreads quickly, and the English begin to tussle amongst themselves for the privilege of this unexpected celebrity’s company:

But if the King himself (God bless him) had come ashore, there could not have been greater expectations by all the the plantation…and he was received more like a governor than a slave.

That quick “God bless him” is, by the way, the only direct reference to James to be found in the pages of Oroonoko, although his brother wanders by at certain points, as we shall see.

But Oroonoko’s very perfections breed jealousy and fear—particularly a fear that he might have the power to rouse the other slaves to violent rebellion against their captors. It is at this point that The Narrator begins her Quisling-like interaction with Oroonoko, soothing him with promises about his future liberty, if only he will be patient for just a little longer…

The carrot dangled before the increasingly frustrated prince is the arrival of Surinam’s new governor, who does not in fact arrive within the confines of the story. The previous governor—he who is summarily dismissed by the natives as “a liar”—is, we are told, later “drowned in a hurricane”. This incident prompts the appointment of The Narrator’s father, but he dies on the journey to Surinam, leading to yet another delay as news of his demise is sent back to England and a second replacement governor despatched. During this time, Surinam is necessarily without proper leadership—or, if you prefer, is a country without a king.

The deputy-governor of Surinam is one William Byam, another real historical figure, and one for whom Aphra expresses a loathing that may be personal, or may represent her feelings against those Englishmen who were plotting James’s downfall—or both:

The deputy-governor, of whom I have had no great occasion to speak, and who was the most fawning, fair-tongued fellow in the world, and one that pretended the most friendship to Caesar, was now the only violent man against him, and though he had nothing, and so need fear nothing, yet talked and looked bigger than any man. He was a fellow whose character is not fit to be mentioned with the worst of the slaves…

Ouch. It seems to me that, twenty-five years on, there’s too much venom in this lack-of-character sketch for it to be entirely a portrait of William Byam, although Aphra clearly brought no friendly memories of him back from Surinam. More likely, I think, it is mixed with her views on someone close to James, someone she considered guilty of a particularly personal betrayal.

In any event, it is Byam who is responsible for Oroonoko’s fate. Again and again, he makes promises, which Oroonoko is persuaded by his English “friends” to believe; again and again, he breaks them. The entirely honourable Oroonoko has no defence against a man who can tell such lies, and commit such dishonourable acts:

But Trefry and Byam pleaded and protested together so much, that Trefry, believing the governor to mean what he said, and speaking very cordially himself, generously put himself into Caesar’s hands, and took him aside, and persuaded him, even with tears, to live by surrendering himself, and to name his conditions. Caesar was overcome by his wit and reasons, and in consideration of Imoinda, and demanding what he desired, and that it should be ratified by their hands in writing, because he had perceived that was the common way of contract between man and man amongst the whites. All this was performed, and Tuscan’s pardon was put in, and they surrender to the governor, who walked peaceably down into the plantation with ’em… But they were no sooner arrived at the place where all the slaves receive their punishments of whipping, but they laid hands on Caesar and Tuscan, faint with heat and toil, and, surprising them, bound them to two several stakes, and whipped them in a most deplorable and inhumane manner, rending the very flesh from the bones…

Byam is supported in his governorship of Surinam, such as it is, by a council of Englishmen; and it does not take too much imagination to read into Aphra’s presentation of these “gentlemen” her opinion of the Immortal Seven:

The governor was no sooner recovered and had heard of the menaces of Caesar but he called his council who (not to disgrace them, or burlesque the government there) consisted of such notorious villains as Newgate never transported, and possibly originally were such, who understood neither the laws of God or man, and had no sort of principles to make ’em worthy the name of men…

Oroonoko is, in fact, betrayed on all sides: by Byam and his lies; by his “friends”, Trefry and The Narrator, and their empty promises; and even by his fellow-slaves, who follow him when he offers to lead them to their freedom, only to turn tail and abandon him when it comes to a confrontation with the English—“Yield and live; yield and be pardoned!”

This final betrayal is the most bitter of all for Oroonoko, who responds that:

…he was ashamed of what he had done, in endeavouring to make those free who were by nature slaves, poor, wretched rogues, fit to be used as Christians’ tools, dogs treacherous and cowardly fit for such masters, and they wanted only but to be whipped into the knowledge of the Christian gods to be the vilest of all creeping things…

And here we see the problem with trying to read Oroonoko as a simple anti-slavery pact, namely that all the other slaves – the non-royal slaves, that is – are exactly what the pro-slavery faction so often argued: cowardly, weak and stupid; inferior.

However—this should not to be taken to mean that Aphra was in fact pro-slavery, but rather that she wasn’t thinking here of real slavery, or real slaves, at all. Instead, it was simply a matter of her allegory requiring the slaves of Surinam to stand in for the English people: too stupid to realise what they had in James Stuart; too weak to rise up in his defence, as they should; too cowardly to do anything but hunker down and protect their own skins, even as seven treacherous men almost openly plotted their king’s downfall.

Betrayal is the overriding theme of Oroonoko, from the King of Coramantien’s siezing of Imoinda and his later selling of her into slavery, to the tricking of Oroonoko into slavery by the ship’s captain, to Oroonoko’s treatment at the hands of the English; but it is not the only one. This short tale also functions as a warning to the English people, as to what exactly they will be letting themselves in for should they allow the coming of William.

And in pursuit of this particular end, Aphra does something I have not seen in any other of her writings: she openly criticises Charles II.

At the time of Aphra’s visit, Surinam was an English colony. However, in 1667, under the Treaty of Breda, which brought to an end the second Anglo-Dutch War, the colony was given up to the Dutch. This surrender of a land rich in natural resources, including gold, was in Aphra’s opinion a major blunder on Charles’s part, and she says so twice—albeit tempering her complaint by referring to Charles as “his late Majesty of sacred memory”:

Though, in a word, I must say this much of it, that certainly had his late Majesty of sacred memory but seen and known what a vast and charming world he had been master of in that continent, he would never have parted so easily with it to the Dutch…

The loss of gold, discovered in the interior of Surinam not long before Aphra’s departure, was clearly a particular bug-bear:

…but we going off for England before the project was further prosecuted, and the governor being drowned in a hurricance, either the design died, or the Dutch have the advantage of it, and ’tis to be bemoaned what His Majesty lost by losing that part of America...

Of course, Aphra is being just a tad disingenous here. Under the terms of the Treaty of Breda, the English did not simply “give up” Surinam to the Dutch—they received New York in exchange for it. Then again—by the time Aphra wrote Oroonoko she had visited North as well as South America; perhaps she genuinely believed that the Dutch had got the better part of the bargain.

While Oroonoko is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a humourous work, it is hard not to smile at the number of times Aphra manages to drag the Dutch into the story—always as a grim portent of Things To Come. If the English are bad, the Dutch are infinitely worse; and Aphra, in her guise as The Narrator, takes pains to let her readers know just how rapidly Surinam went to hell in a hand-basket, once the country had changed ownership:

About this time we were in many mortal fears about some disputes the English had with the Indians, so that we could scarce trust ourselves without great numbers to go to any of the Indian towns or places where they abode, for fear they should fall upon us, as they did immediately after my coming away, and that it was in the possession of the Dutch, who used ’em not so civilly as the English…

It is even the fault of the Dutch that the telling of Oroonoko’s story is left to the feeble powers of a “female pen” (disingenuous again, Aphra!):

But his misfortune was to fall in an obscure world, that afforded only a female pen to celebrate his fame; though I doubt not but it had lived from others’ endeavours, if the Dutch who, immediately after this time, took that country, had not killed, banished and dispersed all those that were capable of giving the world this great man’s life better than I have done…

Mind you—even the Dutch have their uses. After sharing with us her opinion of the council that assisted William Byam in his misdeeds, The Narrator adds parenthetically:

Some of ’em were afterwards hanged when the Dutch took possession of the place…

Be that as it may, the subtext of Oroonoko is clear enough: Pay attention, English people—do you REALLY want the Dutch in charge??

Perhaps because she was speaking allegorically, in Oroonoko Aphra Behn allows herself to be as critical of the Stuarts as she ever was, even apart from those cracks at Charles. Oroonoko’s indecisiveness towards the end of the story, the constant gap between what he says he’s going to do, and what he actually does, is particularly telling. Recognising at last that the English are never going to let them go, Oroonoko makes another escape with Imoinda, carrying out his drastic plan so far as killing his pregnant wife so as to prevent her subsequent “despoiling” and their child being born a slave. Having done so, however, instead of carrying out the next part of his plan, a bloody revenge on William Byam, Oroonoko collapses, remaining passively by Imoinda’s rotting body until he is recaptured by his enemies.

It is suggestive, too, that there is a second layer to this criticism, inasmuch as most of Oroonoko’s problems stem from his interaction with women. It is the sexual struggle between Oroonoko and his grandfather over possession of Imoinda that starts all the trouble in the first place, after all, while once in Surinam Oroonoko’s feet are set on the road to disaster chiefly because, again and again, he allows himself to be over-persuaded by a woman. Even the slave rebellion fails because, when it comes to the crunch, the male slaves give into the pleading of their wives to save their own lives by surrendering.

Is this Aphra Behn having a dig at the notorious weakness of the Stuart men? Perhaps. She does make a point of excluding Imoinda herself from her criticism, lauding her for the way she stands by her man—as indeed, for all her faults, Mary of Modena did James. That said, Mary’s own talent for making enemies almost matched her husband’s, and in that respect she was no help to him at all.

And if we do follow this line of argument, it begs the tantalising question of who The Narrator, with her disastrous influence upon Oroonoko’s affairs, might be meant to be? I don’t think there is an easy, or even a definite, answer to that, although it’s fun to play with. It’s possible, for instance, to see her as the other Mary in James’s life, his daughter, who would finally replace him on the throne; a treacherous figure, and yet a royal Stuart. However, my own preferred reading sees The Narrator not as any contemporary woman, but as a kind of Henrietta Maria—constantly interfering in Stuart affairs, until she finally helps to get one of them killed.

The shadow of Charles I lies long and dark across Oroonoko; Aphra Behn’s fear that James would go the way of his father is clear throughout the text, which from the start dwells morbidly upon the various physical injuries suffered by Oroonoko, until the story reaches its climax in his grotesque execution:

…so inhumane were the justices, who stood by to see the execution, who after paid dearly enough for their insolence. They cut Caesar in quarters and sent them to several of the chief plantations. One quarter was sent to Colonel Martin, who refused it, and swore he had rather see the quarters of Banister and the governor himself, than those of Caesar, on his plantations, and that he could govern his Negroes without terrifying and grieving them with frightful spectacles of a mangled king.

When The Narrator describes Oroonoko’s re-christening as “Caesar”, she concentrates on the applicability of the name to this brave and glorious warrior (with the Roman nose), who…wanted no part of the personal courage of that Caesar, and acted things as memorable. Not for a second, however, should we forget the ultimate fate of the original Caesar – nor who was responsible for it.

Nor should we overlook the poignant significance of the fact that, at the very last, while his mangled remains are being distributed amongst the “nobility” of Surinam, The Narrator refers to Oroonoko not as he is, as a prince, but as a king. It is not hard to tell that the “frightful spectacle” of a “mangled king” was vividly before the eyes of Aphra Behn’s imagination as she was writing the closing lines of her tragedy.

Nevertheless, in the latter stages of the story there is also an unmistakeable sense of exasperation about Aphra’s handling of her hero, particularly with respect to his helpless vacillation in the aftermath of Imoinda’s death. The impression given by these passages is that Aphra couldn’t understand why James was just sitting there, when everyone knew that William was on his way. Why didn’t he summon the army?—appeal to his people?—draw his sword—anything?

It is easy to imagine that after so many years of loyal service, James’s tame surrender of his throne must have come as a bitter blow to Aphra Behn—yet in Oroonoko, she all but predicts it. Perhaps, with the end of the struggle in sight, and under cover of allegory, Aphra finally allowed herself to admit about the Stuarts everything she had been closing her eyes to for more than twenty years.




Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 3)

    And turning to the men that bound him, he said, “My friends, am I to die, or to be whipped?”, and they cried, “Whipped! No, you shall not escape so well.” And then he replied, smiling, “A blessing on thee”, and assured them, they need not tie him, for he would stand fixed like a rock, and endure death so as should encourage them to die. “But if you whip me,” said he, “be sure you tie me first.”
     My mother and sister were by him all the while, but not suffered to save him, so rude and wild were the rabble, and so inhumane were the justices, who stood by to see the execution… Thus died this great man; worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise; yet I hope the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages…







I allowed the anti-slavery aspects of Oroonoko to stand at the end of the previous post because I do think that they are remarkable, and deserve to be highlighted; but for all that I hold fast to my contention that this is not, at heart, an anti-slavery text. Certainly Aphra Behn’s approach to the subject here bears similarities to that we have already seen deployed throughout the 19th century in actual anti-slavery stories, which focus upon a single, sympathetic figure (in those later instances, usually a girl who is essentially white) rather than attempting to engage with the broader aspects of slavery; but whereas those texts use the specific to criticise the general, Behn never gets beyond the specific. Rather, it becomes increasingly evident that she has no real interest in the fate of any of the slaves but Oroonoko himself; and in fact, in the pursuit of the story she is actually telling here, she needs the rest of the slaves to be what the pro-slavery faction insisted that they were – “naturally inferior” – weak, cowardly, and untrustworthy. For all that she so bluntly exposes the degradations of slavery in Oroonoko, Behn never really contends that slavery in general is wrong, just that it is wrong with respect to Oroonoko—for reasons made evident in the subtitle of her work, where the operative word is not “slave”, but “royal”.

Before we get into that, however, we should return to the actual story. The first part of Oroonoko is, as we have seen, supposedly a transcription of events told by Oroonoko by The Narrator, who comes to prominence in the text following Oroonoko’s arrival in Surinam, and his purchase at the auction block for the estate upon which she is living. After being tricked into captivity, placed in shackles, and publicly sold, Oroonoko suffers one more profound humiliation: he has his name changed:

I ought to tell you, that the Christians never buy any slaves but they give ’em some name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous and hard to pronounce; so that Mr Trefry gave Oroonoko that of Caesar…

Robbing a subjugated people of their personal and cultural identity is a standard colonial practice, of course; and while Behn does not explicitly list this habit amongst the miseries of slavery, her use of the word “Christians” here indicates that she is fully aware of the implications.

From the very first, Oroonoko’s innate superiority is evident to his owners, who distinguish him from the other slaves and begin to grant him certain privileges. He is removed from general duties, and included in various of the settlers’ parties, where he is treated as something between a honoured guest and a pet. His prowess as a hunter is displayed when, armed only with a bow and arrow, he kills a tiger that has long terrorised the settlers. (Behn uses the word “tiger” here as a generic term for “big cat”; presumably the animal is a jaguar.) There is even a roughly comic episode when, refusing to believe that a fish could injure a man, Oroonoko insists on investigating the powers of a “numb-eel” for himself, with unfortunate consequences.

Stories are then told of a beautiful and virtuous she-slave, who has all the men in the settlement, white as well as black, mad with passion. Mr Trefry, who purchased Oroonoko for the plantation of which he is overseer and who becomes one of his main adherents, describes her in extravagant terms, and is mocked when he admits that, instead of taking his many opportunities to force his “love” upon the girl, her very modesty has compelled him to treat her with respect. We are not long in recognising in this paragon none other than Imoinda herself – now known as Clemene – and she and Oroonoko are rapturously reunited.

(John Trefry is one of Oroonoko‘s real identities: he was the agent of Lord Willoughby, who opened Surinam for colonisation in the first place.)

With the permission of the English, Oroonoko and Imoinda are formally married and allowed to live together. However, when Imoinda falls pregnant, the thought of his child being born into slavery drives Oroonoko to take increasingly desperate action. At first he tries to treat with his captors, promising them a fortune in exchange for his freedom and that of his family, but is put off with references to the imminent arrival of a new governor of Surinam. At last Oroonoko realises that the English have merely been stringing him along until they can gather their forces, and have no real intention of letting him go. In a state of anger and outraged honour, Oroonoko does indeed raise a revolt amongst the slaves…

Oroonoko is in many ways a disconcerting work of fiction, never following the expected paths (or at any rate, the paths we expect these days) but wandering off on tangents and putting its emphasis in unexpected places; and in fact it can be quite difficult to let go of those expectations and consider this short work for what it is, instead of what we feel it should be. Though it is perfectly understandable that people today would focus upon the anti-slavery aspects of Oroonoko, which certainly make it an easier “sell” for teaching purposes, I have to say that the more that I thought about it, the more that aspect of the story receded, or took on other forms, while two alternative readings emerged very clearly from the text.

The first of these concerns The Narrator. The actual narrative of Oroonoko seems to me to have received far too little attention over the years, probably because its real significance has been obscured by all the ridiculous arguments over the truth or otherwise of the story itself. As is the case with Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, we find in Oroonoko some remarkable experimentation with narrative form. In the earlier work—in addition to, to all intents and purposes, inventing the epistolary novel—Aphra Behn tried out a variety of different approaches to the telling of her tale. In the third volume, for example, which is told predominantly in the third-person, there is an abrupt switch to first-person-eyewitness for the description of a particular incident, a move which adds both urgency and intimacy – and above all, authority – to the telling.

And authority is what Oroonoko most gains from Behn’s choice to narrate in the first-person. Time and again The Narrator diverges from the actual story to question or criticise the actions of her fellow English, in a manner that powerfully suggests a real emotional response to real events; while the combination of local colour with the well-known real-life figures who populate the story creates a backdrop for the story that is dangerously convincing—“dangerously”, because to my mind what we have here is a very early example of the concept of the unreliable narrator.

Though we need to be careful to distinguish between Aphra Behn and The Narrator, it must be said that one of the more amusing aspects of Oroonoko is the way that Behn uses its pages to shore up her public image, her reinvention of herself as a person of higher birth and better breeding than was, almost certainly, actually the case. The Narrator, we learn, is in Surinam with her family, consisting of her mother, sister and brother (and a brother at least Behn did have; he later accompanied her to Antwerp), not as mere settlers, but because her father was appointed “lieutenant general of six and thirty islands, plus the continent of Surinam”—although his death during the journey meant that he never assumed the position. The family must finish their journey, of course, and are forced to stay in Surinam while they wait for transport to take them away—probably the same ship that is bringing the replacement governor, whose arrival is much anticipated throughout the story but never actually happens.

Being the teller of the tale, The Narrator is able to control its form and tone, as well to place herself carefully within the action. She is loud in her expressions of admiration and pity for Oroonoko, and of her abhorrance of the Englishmen who betray and murder him. So far, so familiar: it is a standard tactic in a certain branch of historical fiction to have this sort of story told by a white woman, who stands on the sidelines of the action wringing her hands over the immorality of it all, but (being a woman) is powerless to help or to change anything, and is therefore exonerated of blame. While at first glance Oroonoko fits this profile, something more complex is actually going on, with The Narrator using her stance of moral authority not merely to assign blame, but to evade it. By foregrounding her identification with Oroonoko, and by reiterating her condemnation of those directly responsible for his gruesome death, she almost succeeds in disguising just how self-serving her account of his life and death really is, and her own culpability in his fate.

The Narrator is quick to position herself as a person of some importance, making sure that we know that, As soon as I came into the country, the best house in it was presented me, called St John’s Hill. She is fascinated like all the English by this strangely superior slave, of whom she hears from Mr Trefry, and takes pains to befriend both him and Imoinda, and so hears the story of how they came to be in Surinam. Much of the narrative here dwells upon Oroonoko’s perfections; we hear tales of his strength, his courage, his intelligent conversation.

But there is something dark and dangerous lurking behind this surface idolatry. The settlers admire Oroonoko trememdously, but as their admiration grows, so does their fear of him. Violence is never far away in Oroonoko: stories of revolt, by the natives or by the slaves, pepper the narrative; and the English are quick to see the potential danger posed by Oroonoko in this respect. Their response is to “handle” him – and their main agent is The Narrator herself.

There is a moral elusiveness about The Narrator that grows increasingly worrying. On one hand she seems to proudly represent “the other”, setting herself apart from the white male power complex of which she is so critical, and positioning herself with the slaves in her support of Oroonoko and Imoinda, and with the natives, of whom she speaks so admiringly. She brags repeatedly about her friendship with Oroonoko, and his admiration of her, and her influence over him—but too often that vaunted influence is exerted not to help Oroonoko, as she promises (and we are given no indication that she really tries to), but to persuade him into passivity on behalf of the slave-owners:

They fed him from day to day with promises, and delayed him till the lord governor should come, so that he began to suspect them of falsehood, and that they would delay him till the time of his wife’s delivery, and make slave of that too, for all the breed is theirs to whom the parents belong. This thought made him very uneasy, and his sullenness gave them some jealousies of him, so that I was obliged by some persons who feared a mutiny (which is very fatal sometimes in these colonies, that abound so with slaves that they exceed the whites in vast numbers) to discourse with Caesar, and to give him all the satisfaction I possibly could…


We had all the liberty of speech with him, especially myself, whom he called his great mistress; and indeed my word would go a great way with him. For these reasons I had opportunity to take notice to him that he was not well pleased of late as he used to be, was more retired and thoughtful, and told him, I took it ill he should suspect we would break our words with him…


Before I parted that day with him I got, with much ado, a promise from him to rest yet a little longer with patience, and wait the coming of the lord governor, who was every day expected on our shore. He assured me he would, and this promise he desired me to know was given perfectly in complaisance to me, in whom he had entire confidence. After this, I neither thought it convenient to trust him much out of our view, nor did the country, who feared him…

(These posts are already running to untenable lengths, so I won’t make the attempt here, but if it hasn’t been done already, someone needs to sit down and analyse Behn’s use of pronouns in Oroonoko – particularly when The Narrator chooses to say “us” and “we” and when she does not.)

Finally, pushed past breaking point by the ill faith and constant lies of the English, Oroonoko does raise a revolt, leading the other slaves in an attempted escape. It ends in disaster, with a violent conflict between the slaves and the plantation-owners, who are led by William Byam, the Deputy Governor, and the betrayal of Oroonoko by the other slaves, who are promised mercy if they will desert him. Oroonoko himself, thanks to the intervention of Trefry, is finally brought to surrender after terms are made—only to learn yet again what an Englishman’s word is worth. Brutally whipped in public, Oroonoko swears vengeance on the false Byam, who takes his menaces seriously enough to pronounce sentence of death on him.

Oroonoko does not fear death, but he fears for Imoinda and his child—enough to take the final extreme step of killing Imoinda with her own consent, so that their child will not be born a slave, and so that she will not be defiled after his death. He intends also to kill himself, but the sheer shock of what he has done almost overpowers him, and he spends two days in a near stupor by her grave. There he is found by the English, who recoil in horror when they realise what he has done, but who fear to approach him even in his weakened condition. Oroonoko then tries to conclude the suicide pact, slicing off bits of his own flesh before partially disembowelling himself before his pursuers’ eyes. At this point they stop and seize him—only to perform the legal system’s most perversely cruel act, nursing him back to health so that they can execute him, in a scene even more bloody and grotesque than the attempted suicide:

The executioner came, and first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire; after that, with an ill-favoured knife, they cut his ears, and his nose, and burned them… Then they hacked off one of his arms, and still he bore up…but at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk and…he gave up the ghost without a groan or reproach… They cut Caesar into quarters and sent them to several of the plantation owners…

And where is The Narrator while all this is going on? Elsewhere. As the story she is telling moves towards its hideous climax, The Narrator discovers within herself a remarkable talent for being somewhere else just at the critical moment – all the while assuring the reader that things would have been very different, if only she had been there. We see this first when the slaves revolt:

When the news was brought on Monday morning that Caesar had betaken himself to the woods and carried with him all the Negroes, we were possessed with extreme fear which no persuasions could dissipate that he would secure himself till night, and then, that he would come down and cut all our throats. This apprehension made all the females of us fly down the river to be secured, and while we were away they acted this cruelty. For I suppose I had authority and interest enough there, had I suspected any such thing, to have prevented it…

—and then again when Oroonoko is to be executed:

…his discourse was sad and the earthly smell about him so strong that I was persuaded to leave the place for some time (being myself sickly, and very apt to fall into fits of dangerous illness upon any extraordinary melancholy), the servants and Trefry and the chirurgeons promised all to take what possible care they could of the life of Caesar, and I, taking boat, went with other company to Colonel Martin’s, about three days’ journey down the river. But no sooner was I gone…

Pulled from their context, these passages expose The Narrator as almost pathetically delusional.

When Aphra Behn published Oroonoko late in 1688, she was already seriously ill, and as it happened had only a few months more to live. It is not hard to think that she might have stopped to look back over her life and her choices—particularly as she sat down to commit to paper a story that she had, apparently, told verbally at various points in the past (or at least a version of it), and which was drawn from the experiences of her youth. In this respect the protean form of The Narrator becomes particularly interesting. Conflating authors with their characters is always a risky business, but it is nevertheless tempting to read into The Narrator, with her overt support of Oroonoko and her dreams of power, and her covert allegiance to a power structure she declaredly despises and her ultimate powerlessness, an examination by Aphra Behn of some of the contradictions of her own life; particularly her ongoing fight for personal autonomy, while she used her talents to support for a political system that would, as a matter of course, have relegated her to a subordinate, dependent role, even had she ever succeeded in getting that toe-hold on the fringes of the Stuart court for which she fought so long and so hard – and so vainly.

But whatever Behn might have intended of a personal nature in Oroonoko, in the end it is something much bigger: a story of the world that was crumbling about her ears even as she wrote it…


[Sigh. I did hope to get through this in three, but The Narrator got away from me. So—to be continued…]