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 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.

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7 Responses to “Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 4)”

  1. The allegorical reading of Oroonoko as being about the Stuarts is pretty inarguable, and a good insight on your part… but I think it can be taken too far. Though the story is not an antislavery tract as we would understand it, or not primarily so, I don’t think we can dismiss that part of it completely. The scorn she expresses for how the English in Surinam treated the natives can, I think, be taken at face value, and by implication that also rubs off on how they treat slaves. The connection between outrages against slaves and an outrage against a king cuts both ways: you can’t use a slave as a way to illustrate the wrongness of something done to a king, without implying that it’s already somewhat wrong when applied to an ordinary slave.

    You guys who are putting down the crookedness of The Narrator are, I think, underweighing one significant factor: compared to the author, she is very young, innocent, and ignorant. The story can easily be read as her giving wrong advice because she simply did not know any better at the time. And since this is probably based at least partly on real memories, I don’t think The Narrator’s behavior is entirely constructed for the sake of an allegory about James vs William of Orange, but may in part just be a plain recounting of autobiographical facts.

    Can we even imagine that a real life English girl would act any differently in the circumstances, if she weren’t the bitterest and most cynical young lady in her circle? Who would expect her own social peers to behave with a complete lack of honor, prior to the decisive day when she sees it happen?

  2. so her anti-slavery rants were more about the injustice of HIM being a slave – all those others deserved it more or less (slight exaggeration).

  3. The picture I’m getting of this book is something of a combination effort – a bit of autobiography (fictionalised to perhaps quite a large degree), a bit of anti-slavery (or at least anti-noble-people-in-slavery), a bit of amatory fiction with the romance of Oroonoko and Imoinda, a bit of the paean and plea to the Stuarts… I don’t really see any reason why Behn couldn’t have been aiming to use all these effects at once, rather than concentrating on the idea of a single correct way of reading the book.

    • Oops! Crossed each other.

      I agree, there’s no one answer: this time around the Royalist allegory is what hit me over the head, but give it a couple of years and who knows? It’s a remarkably dense work considering its brevity. I chose to stop writing about it; I hadn’t run out of things to say. (So count your blessings!)

  4. There is an anti-slavery component to Oroonoko, yes, but in a way it’s more interesting for not being what the story is about – there’s almost an impatient note about it: “Well, of course slavery is brutal and degrading – everyone knows that.” She is by no means writing the story to draw attention to it, but by reporting it as it was she does anyway. However, that’s not her focus, and she only dwells on the details as they affect Oroonoko.

    The Narrator’s voice is divided but not really in a if-I’d-known-then-what-I-know-now sort of way. Mostly it’s the voice of an angry woman – yet she never gets angry over being used or exploited by the plantation owners and she never really concedes her culpability. She makes excuses, or evades the point, which suggests (to me, anyway) that she was aware of what she was doing even if she’s still not prepared to admit it.

    But if we’re mixing memory and allegory here, I don’t see any way of dissecting them apart. I won’t write another post! I won’t! 🙂

    • Yeah, the different aspects are all there.

      I think that just as we can’t apply modern expectations to the antislavery bits of the story, we also can’t apply them to how The Narrator is depicted. Just as the overall institution of slavery is in some ways treated as surprisingly irrelevant, so is the narrator’s personal experience.

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