Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko” is the tale of a “royal slave” whose ultimate “misfortune was to fall in an obscure world that afforded only a female pen to celebrate his fame” (209). After being sold into slavery, Oroonoko is forced to endure the most gruesome violence at the mercy of his captors. The depraved situation is made more regrettable because told by a woman, his tale would never receive literary recognition.
Behn is described as “England’s first professional woman writer,” but she is self-conscious of her inferior position within her homeland. She thereby sets the story in the slave-holding colony of Suriname, where she enjoys a position of authority. While other works have as their subject matter “English” problems, life or marriage, she is a validated historian because her privileged status in relation to a foreign land cannot be disputed.
It is for this reason she seems desperate to substantiate her “pioneering prose fiction” (179) in describing the slaves: their language (the way they had no “name for a man who promised a thing he did not do” (187)), their rituals (their participation in marriage ceremonies, including the use of a “royal veil” (192)) and their daily lives (how they hunted animals (214-5)). Behn’s use of everyday, documentation-type descriptions is an attempt to prove the accuracy of her writing.
Oroonoko is described as “gallant” (186), as a “noble beast” 186) and as “our black hero” (219). He is a Prince with a “great and just character” and a “nose [which] was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat” (190). In all respects, he is exalted and admired, but it appears as though Behn praises and sympathizes with him mostly because of his aristocratic, regal blood. Behn says of herself: “My stay was to be short in the country, because my father died at sea, and never arrived to possess the honor [that] was designed to him, nor the advantages he hoped to reap by them” (214). The benefits of her own birth and lineage seem to be convoluted, and the quote implies that Behn is possibly bitter because instead of enjoying the many pleasures of a royal life, she must instead struggle to write as a means of earning her own living. Consequently, she perhaps sees herself paralleled to Oroonoko: she is free but subordinate, he is royal but a slave. Furthermore, his homeland, before forced into slavery, is described as: “that first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin” (187). Then with forced captivity, these once noble creatures are now denied their birthright.
Oroonoko’s unyielding captors literally hack him apart, and his ultimate castration serves to feminize him in a way that further links him to Behn. His brutal death is an allegory for her feminine plight: she is not permitted to be whole but merely limited by her part, her gender.
For Behn, Suriname becomes a place which is both ‘othered’ and which serves as a mirror for English social values. The slaves undergo the socialization process: they learn to lie, Imoinda is taught embroidery, and Oroonoko, later renamed Caesar, is educated about great men, the Romans (212). Caesar goes on voyages to “search out and provide entertainment especially to please his dearly adored Imoinda” (220); the adventure certainly echoes English mercantile culture. These examples and references may provide a way to be critical of life in England, a way highlight practices of normalized subservience on the ‘civilized’ land.
In the end, Oroonoko and Imoinda die ‘happily’ so that their future, their heirs would not have to suffer the same devastating loss of freedom. But for Behn, the tragedy is that Oroonoko’s tale will not be absorbed in a way that is meaningful for the advancement of the female writer. English readers will instead see the characters as wholly exoticised and foreign, rather than linking the systems of subordination toward any real change for Behn or other such royal slaves.
Behn, Aphra. “Oronooko, or the Royal Slave.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. Vol 1, 3rd ed. Eds. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.