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…]

10 Comments to “Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 3)”

  1. I think this angle, of Behn never doing quite what one might expect, is one of the things that’s confounded critics. Even once she was officially rediscovered… she was a woman, therefore must have been Good, therefore must have been anti-slavery, therefore that’s the reading that Oroonoko gets.

  2. Her response reminds me of some of Dicken’s novels. He treats brutality, child abuse (several children end up dead), spousal abuse, and general oppression in the sense of “Oh, isn’t it too sad, and can’t we be nicer to each other?” without any sense of “Maybe there ought to be some laws.”

  3. On the contrary, when Aphra was rediscovered the comments ranged from condeming her as bad (Ernest Bernbaum) to arguing that she had every right to be bad if she wanted (Virginia Woolf). No-one suggested she was “good”, and only Montague Summers had the radical notion that maybe we should stop worrying about her and concentrate on her writing.

    I think the reason that Oroonoko doesn’t quite seem to hang together or make sense is that none of the overt readings are actually what it’s about, at least not exclusively. As for what it is about, I’ll get to that one of these weekends, I swear.

    {sotto voce} I have some Italian zombies to worry about first, though…{/sotto voce}

  4. If your answer was to me, either I don’t understand you, or you didn’t understand me (maybe a little of both). I was comparing her description, and condemnation, of Oroonoko’s slavery and punishment to Dickens’ criticisms of social injustice – “It’s a bad thing, such a shame” rather than “maybe we ought to prevent these things”.
    If you weren’t answering me, then never mind.

  5. No, sorry, that was rather aimed at Roger’s suggestion that people read Oroonoko as an anti-slavery tract because it was written by a woman and therefore must be one. 🙂

    Your comment will probably get itself addressed in Part 4, but briefly I think it’s a matter of her looking at slavery, seeing clearly enough what’s wrong with it, but really having her mind on other things.

  6. Holy crap, check out the Wikipedia bio of Emily Hahn. This lady’s life story is something and a half. She crossed equatorial Africa alone, on foot! She took a pet gibbon to formal dinners. She smoked opium. She hung out with the leaders of the Chinese republic and saw her boyfriend imprisoned by the Japanese. She slapped a Japanese intelligence chief in the face (he slapped her back years later). She taught her granddaughters how to cuss in Swahili. Aaaaaaaaaand, she wrote a biography of Aphra Behn.

  7. Hi again. Although I am still very much a novice in terms of analysing literary texts, I have to say that I agree with your comments above about the narrator; I detested the narrator by the end of the book and If I’d been with her in Suriname, I think I would have slapped her self-righteous face!

  8. You would have had to catch her first – she’s strangely elusive when anything’s going down… 🙂

    I’ve added a few more thoughts on The Narrator in Part 4.

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