|Oroonoko: or The Royal Slave|
is a short novel written by English author Aphra
Behn (1640-89) and published in 1688. A full-length e-text is available
online through EServer.org.
Oroonoko is the story of an African prince who deeply loves the beautiful
Imoinda. Unfortunately, his grandfather, the king, wants Imoinda also. Imoinda
is eventually sold as a slave and is taken to Suriname which is under British
rule. Oroonoko's tribe is a supplier for the slave trade. One day an English
ship arrives and the captain invites prince Oroonoko to come aboard for
a meal and drinks. After dinner, the captain takes advantage of Oroonoko's
trust and takes Oroonoko and his men prisoners. The ship then sets sail.
When they arrive at their destination, Prince Oroonoko is sold to a British
gentleman named Trefry who likes and admires the prince. As is the practice
with all slaves, Oroonoko is renamed. His slave name is Caesar. Oroonoko
soon finds out that Imoinda is a slave on the same plantation, but her slave
name is now Clemene. They get back together and soon Imoinda finds out that
she is pregnant. Oroonoko tries to free his family because he does not want
his children born into slavery. His request is denied. He next leads a slave
revolt but he is betrayed and is badly beaten when he is caught. Finally,
he decides that he would rather see his family die quickly from his own
hand than die the slow death of slavery so he kills Clemene and the unborn
child. He is about to kill himself but decides to first have his revenge
on those who would not give him his freedom. Eventually he is caught and
suffers a cruel and inhuman death.
About the Author
Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689) is an English novelist, poet and dramatist. As a child she was taken to live in Suriname, West Indies. It was during this period of her life that the novel Oroonoko takes place. In 1658, when England surrendered Suriname to the Dutch, she returned to England and married. She was supposedly employed by Charles II as a spy in Antwerp during the war of 1665 to 1667. After the war, Aphra took up writing as her career and some consider her the first professional female writer in England.
Oroonoko influenced the development of the English novel and is important for several reasons. "It introduces the figure of the noble savage, later developed by Jean Jacques Rousseau, foreshadows later novels on the anticolonial theme, pioneers in the effort to depict a realistic background, and may be the first English philosophical novel" (Encarta).
What if Oroonoko's Tribe Practiced Tribal Scarring?
Alpha Behn spends a lot of time discussing Oroonoko and Imoinda's beauty. Her ideal of beauty, however, is based on the Eurocentric ideals of the western world. "The most famous Statuary cou'd not form the Figure of a Man more admirably turn'd from head to foot...His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His Mouth, the finest shap'd that could be seen...The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so noble, and exactly form'd, that, bating his Colour, there cou'd be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome" (13). Of course, Behn's characterization of Oroonoko and Imoinda was necessary to convince her Eurocentric audience that these characters were worth caring about (Brown). How receptive would Behn's audience have been if Oroonoko's tribe had practiced the method of tribal scarring that Sembene Ousmane portrays in his short story "Tribal Scars" (Ousmane)?
In "Tribal Scars", Sembene Ousmane presents a theory of how tribal scarring first began. It begins with a group of men sitting around a table drinking tea and discussing current affairs. When the subject of tribal scarring comes up, the table erupts into a melee of confusion with everyone wanting to add his opinion of how the practice first started. The story that is eventually accepted by all is that African tribes began scarring themselves so they would not be taken as slaves, and ever since then, tribal scarring has been a symbol of freedom (See text page on "Tribal Scars").
If Oroonoko's tribe had practiced tribal scarring, Aphra Behn would have had trouble convincing her readers that the African's were worth saving. The practice of tribal scarring would most likely have reinforced to her readers that Africans were savages and unlike Europeans in any way. This would not have helped Behn's cause to fight slavery. For the sake of her book and her cause, Behn had to create characters with European characteristics and behaviors.
How They Treat Their Women: A Comparison of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and Achebe's Okonkwo
There has been some discussion about whether Imoinda was actually sold into slavery or if she just exchanged one form of slavery for another (See discussion question 2 below). In Imoinda's tribe, women were owned by their men. They had no rights of choice. When Oroonoko's grandfather beckoned, Imoinda's only recourse was to obey. Yet, the power she held over Oroonoko was so strong that this most powerful warrior of the land was reduced to a blubbering idiot when he lost her.
On the other hand, when Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, he created a world where women, although they have certain privileges in the tribe, hold very little influence over their men (See Things Fall Apart text page for more information). How can these two authors, writing about the same people (the Ibo), portray such different perspectives regarding gender?
Both Behn and Achebe concentrate on the qualities that make their characters most believable to their audiences. Behn was writing for a strictly European audience and Achebe was writing for an audience that consisted of Westerners and colonized Africans who had been immersed in Western ideology.
We must also consider the gender of the authors. It is evident that Behn, a woman and a romance writer, would want to create female characters who held power over their male counterparts. Achebe, on the other hand, writes from a man's point of view and could not let his character be sidetracked by foolish sentimentality. If Achebe had instilled a romantic bone in Okonkwo's character, it would have detracted from the overall message that Achebe set out to achieve. He was not writing a romance fiction. He was writing a story to make people more aware of the effects of colonization then, and the lingering effects of colonization on Africa still today.
Oroonoko: Fact or Fiction and Does it Matter?
There has been much scholarly discourse about the truthfulness of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. In one of my favorite essays, "Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Oroonoko", Robert Chibka compares the duplicity Prince Oroonoko suffers at the hands of the white man with the duplicity the readers suffer at the hand of Ms. Behn. It is obvious to even the most casual reader that the story must have at least some fictional elements because events are described that neither the narrator nor her source could possibly know. With that fact acknowledged, how much should we believe of the rest of Ms. Behn's work? I would argue that it really does not matter. What should matter to us as readers is what we can learn from the work whether it be truth or fiction.
The truth is that the story of Oroonoko most likely played itself out multitudes of times during the years of the slave trades. The places and characters changed and the happy interlude was not present for most, but the basic story line was a common plot and hundreds of thousands of would-be princes suffered a fate similar to Prince Oroonoko. It is because of these others that we must stop spending time on the truthfulness of a single account and instead concentrate on the actuality of the accounts of the hordes of African men and women who suffered through the effects of slavery (Chibka).
The Innocence of the Savages
How does an antislavery writer from a colonizing country denounce slavery but tolerate imperialism? Behn uses the concept of natural innocence which comes off as too romantic for the story but is necessary for promoting colonial ideals.
Renaming the Slaves: Destroying Identity
Slaves were renamed as soon as they arrived in the Americas. This practice served to further remove them from their homeland, as well as serving to sever any remaining identity they had with their family. The practice of renaming slaves, along with the practice of separating families, may well be two of the most inhumane features of slavery.
Recurring Themes in Stories about Slavery
The following theme pages may further develop your understanding of post colonial literature as it relates to Aphra Behn's Oroonoko.
The question of assimilation is omnipresent in post colonial literature. How has being colonized affected the colonized? The colonizer? When is someone "assimilated" into a new culture? How do they influence the culture they are assimilated into?
The audience an author has in mind for a written work inevitably influences the way in which the author writes it. Here we will start to look at how authors' intentions can be discussed in relation to the audience they address.
Books fit into the evolution and progression of a preexisting body of literature. Where do they fit? How have they been influenced by previous literature? How do they influence literature to come?
Many authors utilize written material to influence social and political currents. Here we will begin to look at different means of social change authors write about, and how they are differently portrayed.
Here we will begin to examine how authors--James, Equiano, and Zinn in particular--combine techniques of historical documentation with literary styles, and the effect this has on the interpretation and impacts of their works.
***African Voices. This is part of the Smithsonian website and has a lot of information on African in general.
***African Authors. Published by Central Oregon Community College. This link takes you directly to Achebe but you can also find links to other African authors, African Storytelling, African Literary Map, African Films, Timelines, and related links on the Ibo and Nigeria. This site can keep you busy for a long time!
***E-text of Oroonoko
***"Shifting Power and the Evasion of Responsibility in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko" Hypertext Essay by Helen Ibottson, University of Birmingham
***"Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain: An Overview" Hypertext article about slavery by the Northwestern University department of English.
***The Ibo Culture. This is a student-created website about the Ibo culture. There are links to Ibo government, social structure, religion, spiritual beliefs, funeral ceremonies, masks, drums, statues, and more. The pages seem to be well written and researched. In addition, she has some wonderful photos of Ibo culture.
***Motherland Nigeria. This is a great site and is full of information. If you are interested in learning more about the languages of Nigeria, this is the site for you. Also included are links to Nigerian information, Ibo recipes, samples of Nigerian music, current affairs, travel information, a pen-pal sign up, games, stories, etc. Another site that will keep you busy for hours!
**Aphra Behn page by Abilene Christian University
**The Aphra Behn Society
**Annotated Bibliography on Oroonoko
Teaching About Slavery
Visit our Education Theme Page for more information about teaching about slavery in general, theories of teaching history through literature and much more.
1. How does Aphra Behn, through fiction, help us to understand the lives of actual slaves?
3. Oroonoko gives a speech about acceptable and unacceptable forms of slavery. Discuss this speech considering the audience that the story was written for. How does Oroonoko's speech represent Behn's beliefs?
1. Rewrite the description of Oroonoko based on information you have researched on the physical characteristics of the Ibo people (See links above).
2. What if Aphra Behn had been pro-slavery? List at least five instances where the story line supports the antislavery movement.
Slavery in Suriname: Here is a site that tells about the History of Suriname. Click on the picture that depicts slave trading in Suriname to transfer to the entire site.
This is a syllabus for an English 211 class at Goucher College. This site includes discussion questions, slavery timeline, and a summary of the story.
Aphra Behn in Cyberspace. Study questions and other links to Aphra Behn from the Bucks County Community College.