Oroonoko is a short work of prose fiction by Aphra Behn (1640–1689), published in 1688, concerning the love of its hero, an enslaved African inSurinam in the 1660s, and the author’s own experiences in the new South American colony. Behn worked for Charles II as a spy during the outset of the Second Dutch War, ending up destitute when she returned to England, and even spending time in a debtors’ prison, because Charles failed to pay her properly, or at all. She turned her hand to writing in order to survive, with remarkable success.
She wrote poetry that sold well, and had a number of plays staged, which established her fame in her own lifetime. In the 1670s, only John Dryden had plays staged more often than Behn. She began to write extended narrative prose toward the end of her career. Published less than a year before she died, Oroonoko is one of the earliest English novels. Interest in it has increased since the 1970s, critics arguing that Behn is the foremother of British women writers, and that Oroonoko is a crucial text in the history of the novel.
Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave is a relatively short novel concerning the Coromantin grandson of an African king, Prince Oroonoko, who falls in love with Imoinda, the daughter of that king’s top general. “Coromantee people” were Akan slaves brought from present-day Ghana, a polyglot band known for their rebellious nature. the sacred veil, thus commanding her to become one of his wives, even though she was already married to Oroonoko.
After unwillingly spending time in the king’s harem (the Otan), Imoinda and Oroonoko plan a tryst with the help of the sympathetic Onahal and Aboan. They are eventually discovered, and because she has lost her virginity, Imoinda is sold as a slave. The king’s guilt, however, leads him to falsely inform Oroonoko that she has been executed, since death was thought to be better than slavery. Later, after winning another tribal war, Oroonoko is betrayed and captured by an English captain, who planned to sell him and his men as slaves.
Both Imoinda and Oroonoko were carried to Surinam, at that time an English colony based on sugarcane plantation in the West Indies. The two lovers are reunited there, under the new Christian names of Caesar and Clemene, even though Imoinda’s beauty has attracted the unwanted desires of other slaves and of the Cornish gentleman, Trefry. Upon Imoinda’s pregnancy, Oroonoko petitions for their return to the homeland. But after being continuously ignored, he organizes a slave revolt. The slaves are hunted down by the military forces and compelled to surrender on deputy governor Byam’s promise of amnesty.
Yet, when the slaves surrender, Oroonoko and the others are punished and whipped. To avenge his honor, and to express his natural worth, Oroonoko decides to kill Byam. But to protect Imoinda from violation and subjugation after his death, he decides to kill her. The two lovers discuss the plan, and with a smile on her face, Imoinda willingly dies by his hand. A few days later, Oroonoko is found mourning by her decapitated body and is kept from killing himself, only to be publicly executed. During his death by dismemberment, Oroonoko calmly smokes a pipe and stoically withstands all the pain without crying out. The novel is written in a mixture of first and third person, as the narrator relates actions in Africa and portrays herself as a witness of the actions that take place in Surinam.
In the novel, the narrator presents herself as a lady who has come to Surinam with her unnamed father, a man intended to be a new lieutenant-general of the colony. He, however, dies on the voyage from England. The narrator and her family are put up in the finest house in the settlement, in accord with their station, and the narrator’s experiences of meeting the indigenous peoples and slaves are intermixed with the main plot of the love of Oroonoko and Imoinda. At the conclusion of the love story, the narrator leaves Surinam for London. Structurally, there are three significant pieces to the narrative, which does not flow in a strictly biographical manner.
The novel opens with a statement of veracity, where the author claims to be writing no fiction and no pedantic history. She claims to be an eyewitness and to be writing without any embellishment or theme, relying solely upon reality. What follows is a description of Surinam itself and the South American Indians there. She regards the locals as simple and living in a golden age (the presence of gold in the land being indicative of the epoch of the people themselves). It is only afterwards that the narrator provides the history of Oroonoko himself and the intrigues of both his grandfather and the slave captain, the captivity of Imoinda, and his own betrayal. The next section is in the narrator’s present; Oroonoko and Imoinda are reunited, and Oroonoko and Imoinda meet the narrator and Trefry. The third section contains Oroonoko’s rebellion and its aftermath.
Oroonoko is now the most studied of Aphra Behn’s novels, but it was not immediately successful in her own lifetime. It sold well, but the adaptation for the stage by Thomas Southerne (see below) made the story as popular as it became. Soon after her death, the novel began to be read again, and from that time onward the factual claims made by the novel’s narrator, and the factuality of the whole plot of the novel, have been accepted and questioned with greater and lesser credulity. Because Mrs. Behn was not available to correct or confirm any information, early biographers assumed the first-person narrator was Aphra Behn speaking for herself and incorporated the novel’s claims into their accounts of her life. It is important, however, to recognize thatOroonoko is a work of fiction and that its first-person narrator—the protagonist—need be no more factual than Jonathan Swift’s first-person narrator, ostensibly Gulliver, in Gulliver’s Travels, Daniel Defoe’s shipwrecked narrator in Robinson Crusoe, or the first-person narrator of A Tale of a Tub.
Researchers today cannot say whether or not the narrator of Oroonoko represents Aphra Behn and, if so, tells the truth. Scholars have argued for over a century about whether or not Behn even visited Surinam and, if so, when. On the one hand, the narrator reports that she “saw” sheep in the colony, when the settlement had to import meat from Virginia, as sheep, in particular, could not survive there. Also, as Ernest Bernbaum argues in “Mrs. Behn’s ‘Oroonoko'”, everything substantive in Oroonoko could have come from accounts by William Byam and George Warren that were circulating in London in the 1660s. However, as J.A. Ramsaran and Bernard Dhuiq catalog, Behn provides a great deal of precise local color and physical description of the colony. Topographical and culturalverisimilitude were not a criterion for readers of novels and plays in Behn’s day any more than in Thomas Kyd’s, and Behn generally did not bother with attempting to be accurate in her locations in other stories. Her plays have quite indistinct settings, and she rarely spends time with topographical description in her stories.
Secondly, all the Europeans mentioned in Oroonoko were really present in Surinam in the 1660s. It is interesting, if the entire account is fictional and based on reportage, that Behn takes no liberties of invention to create European settlers she might need. Finally, the characterization of the real-life people in the novel does follow Behn’s own politics. Behn was a lifelong and militant royalist, and her fictions are quite consistent in portraying virtuous royalists and put-upon nobles who are opposed by petty and evil republicans/Parliamentarians. Had Behn not known the individuals she fictionalizes in Oroonoko, it is extremely unlikely that any of the real royalists would have become fictional villains or any of the real republicans fictional heroes, and yet Byam and James Bannister, both actual royalists in the Interregnum, are malicious, licentious, and sadistic, while George Marten, a Cromwellian republican, is reasonable, open-minded, and fair. On balance, it appears that Behn truly did travel to Surinam. The fictional narrator, however, cannot be the real Aphra Behn.
For one thing, the narrator says that her father was set to become the deputy governor of the colony and died at sea en route. This did not happen to Bartholomew Johnson (Behn’s father), although he did die between 1660 and 1664. There is no indication at all of anyone except William Byam being Deputy Governor of the settlement, and the only major figure to die en route at sea was Francis, Lord Willoughby, the colonial patent holder for Barbados and “Suriname.” Further, the narrator’s father’s death explains her antipathy toward Byam, for he is her father’s usurper as Deputy Governor of Surinam. This fictionalized father thereby gives the narrator a motive for her unflattering portrait of Byam, a motive that might cover for the real Aphra Behn’s motive in going to Surinam and for the real Behn’s antipathy toward the real Byam. It is also unlikely that Behn went to Surinam with her husband, although she may have met and married in Surinam or on the journey back to England.
A socially creditable single woman in good standing would not have gone unaccompanied to Surinam. Therefore, it is most likely that Behn and her family went to the colony in the company of alady. As for her purpose in going, Janet Todd presents a strong case for its being spying. At the time of the events of the novel, the deputy governor Byam had taken absolute control of the settlement and was being opposed not only by the formerly republican Colonel George Marten, but also by royalists within the settlement. Byam’s abilities were suspect, and it is possible that either Lord Willoughby or Charles II would be interested in an investigation of the administration there.
Beyond these facts, there is little known. The earliest biographers of Aphra Behn not only accepted the novel’s narrator’s claims as true, but Charles Gildon even invented a romantic liaison between the author and the title character, while the anonymous Memoirs of Aphra Behn, Written by One of the Fair Sex (both 1698) insisted that the author was too young to be romantically available at the time of the novel’s events. Later biographers have contended with these claims, either to prove or deny them. However, it is profitable to look at the novel’s events as part of the observations of an investigator, as illustrations of government, rather than autobiography.
There were numerous slave revolts in English colonies led by Coromantin slaves. Oroonoko was described as being from “Coromantien” and was likely modeled after Coromantin slaves who were known for causing several rebellions in the Caribbean. One figure who matches aspects of Oroonoko is the white John Allin, a settler in Surinam. Allin was disillusioned and miserable in Surinam, and he was taken to alcoholism and wild, lavish blasphemies so shocking that Governor Byam believed that the repetition of them at Allin’s trial cracked the foundation of the courthouse. In the novel, Oroonoko plans to kill Byam and then himself, and this matches a plot that Allin had to kill Lord Willoughby and then commit suicide, for, he said, it was impossible to “possess my own life, when I cannot enjoy it with freedom and honour”. He wounded Willoughby and was taken to prison, where he killed himself with an overdose. His body was taken to a pillory, “where a Barbicue was erected; his Members cut off, and flung in his face, they had his Bowels burnt under the Barbicue… his Head to be cut off, and his Body to be quartered, and when dry-barbicued or dry roasted… his Head to be stuck on a pole at Parham (Willoughby’s residence in Surinam), and his Quarters to be put up at the most eminent places of the Colony.”
Allin, it must be stressed, was a planter, and neither an indentured nor enslaved worker, and the “freedom and honour” he sought was independence rather than manumission. Neither was Allin of noble blood, nor was his cause against Willoughby based on love. Therefore, the extent to which he provides a model for Oroonoko is limited more to his crime and punishment than to his plight. However, if Behn left Surinam in 1663, then she could have kept up with matters in the colony by reading the Exact Relation that Willoughby had printed in London in 1666, and seen in the extraordinary execution a barbarity to graft onto her villain, Byam, from the man who might have been her real employer, Willoughby. While Behn was in Surinam (1663), she would have seen a slave ship arrive with 130 “freight,” 54 having been “lost” in transit.
Although the African slaves were not treated differently from the indentured servants coming from England (and were, in fact, more highly valued), their cases were hopeless, and both slaves, indentured servants, and local inhabitants attacked the settlement. There was no single rebellion, however, that matched what is related in Oroonoko. Further, the character of Oroonoko is physically different from the other slaves by being blacker skinned, having a Roman nose, and having straight hair. The lack of historical record of a mass rebellion, the unlikeliness of the physical description of the character (when Europeans at the time had no clear idea of race or an inheritable set of “racial” characteristics), and the European courtliness of the character suggests that he is most likely invented wholesale. Additionally, the character’s name is artificial. There are names in the Yoruba language that are similar, but the African slaves of Surinam were from Ghana.
Instead of from life, the character seems to come from literature, for his name is reminiscent of Oroondates, a character in La Calprenède’s Cassandra,which Behn had read. Oroondates is a prince of Scythia whose desired bride is snatched away by an elder king. Previous to this, there is an Oroondates who is the satrap of Memphis in theÆthiopica, a novel from late antiquity by Heliodorus of Emesa. Many of the plot elements in Behn’s novel are reminiscent of those in the Æthiopica and other Greek romances of the period. There is a particular similarity to the story of Juba in La Calprenède’s romance Cléopâtre, who becomes a slave in Rome and is given a Roman name—Coriolanus—by his captors, as Oroonoko is given the Roman name of Caesar. Alternatively, it could be argued that “Oroonoko” is a homophone for the Orinoco River, along which the English settled, and it is possible to see the character as an allegorical figure for the mismanaged territory itself. Oroonoko, and the crisis of values of aristocracy, slavery, and worth he represents to the colonists, is emblematic of the new world and colonization itself: a person like Oroonoko is symptomatic of a place like the Orinoco.