Summerbook #2: Oroonoko

Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave, by Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was...well, an international woman of mystery.  She had several names besides Aphra: Ann Behn,  Agent 160 and Astrea, her pen name.   She deliberately told different stories about her youth, so it's not at all clear where she was from or who her parents were.  She may have been brought up Catholic?  She might have done some time in debtor's prison?  She definitely was hired by Charles II as a spy, and worked in Antwerp -- not that he ever paid her.  She almost certainly didn't spend time in the English colony of Willoughbyland (!) before it was sold to the Dutch (you know it as Suriname, north of Brazil), but she said she did.  She probably married Johan Behn (who may have been Dutch or German), and he maybe died, or they separated...anyway, she took the name Behn.  What her name was before is uncertain; she variously claimed Amis, Cooper, and Johnson.   She was one of the very first professional women writers in English, writing plays both tragic and comic, and this sort of proto-novel, and mixed with the well-known dramatists and writers of the day.  Quite a lady.

Oroonoko was published in 1688, just a year before her death at age 48.  It's not quite a novel, but it's pretty close, and it claims to be a sort of memoir -- a record of events that she witnessed herself 20 years previously, or heard about from the people involved.  So she's a minor character in the story, but as far as anybody can figure out, she was probably never in Surinam, as she calls it.  Oroonoko is sometimes celebrated as the first anti-slavery novel; I'm not quite sure it is that, but it's pretty close.  It's certainly interesting, and worth reading.

This is the story of a noble African prince.  Oronooko is the grandson of the king in Coromantien -- which you know as part of Ghana.  He is a paragon of courage, intelligence, handsomeness, and all good things, and he falls in love with his natural partner, Imoinda, who is not only the most beautiful maiden around, she is intelligent, accomplished, brave, and loyal.  They plan to marry, but the king throws a wrench into the works by ordering Imoinda into his harem, even though he's too old do much with her.  The star-crossed lovers eventually meet and plan to run away, but they are discovered, and the king punishes them by selling Imoinda into slavery and not killing Oronooko.

Oronooko is soon trapped into slavery himself, and taken off to Surinam, where everyone notices what a great heart he has.  He is called Caesar because of his natural nobility, and pretty soon he discovers that Imoinda has also ended up in Surinam!  So they live together in happiness, and many of the colonists like and respect them.  Oronooko impresses everyone with his hunting prowess, but he is obviously unhappy.  He encourages all the other Africans to revolt with him; they'll just run off into the jungle and settle somewhere, and live free.

Tragically, it's impossible for the large crowd to disappear completely, and after a few days, they are tracked down.  Oroonoko would be happy to fight for his freedom, but tries to negotiate an agreement.  None of the promises are kept, and he is tortured.  Knowing what lies in store for his beloved wife, he resolves to kill her before exacting revenge on his enemies.

Oroonoko and Imoinda are paragons of humanity, above everyone else they meet.   Europeans are portrayed as outwardly civilized, but barbarous and cruel; they make promises and enter into contracts, but never keep their word.  The native people of Surinam are shown as honest and in a state of primeval innocence which institutions would only destroy.  They are also unwilling to work for Europeans, and are able to avoid them; thus the importation of captured Africans to do the hard labor of the colony.   Thrown into a new and unfamiliar country, they cannot escape so easily, and become the victims of the colonists' casual cruelty. 

Since Behn was almost certainly never actually in Surinam, and probably never saw a colony or a plantation, she can't write from experience.  She gives it a pretty good shot, though, and I'd bet it was good enough for anybody who hadn't been a colonist.  As well as the social order, she describes scenery, plants, and animals: marmots, parrots, "tygers" (jaguars?), and small wildcats. 

Some quotations:
And ’tis most evident and plain, that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and vertuous Mistress. ’Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the World, than all the Inventions of Man: Religion would here but destroy that Tranquillity they possess by Ignorance; and Laws would but teach ’em to know Offences, of which now they have no Notion.

The very Wood of all these Trees has an intrinsic Value, above common Timber; for they are, when cut, of different Colours, glorious to behold, and bear a Price considerable, to inlay withal. Besides this, they yield rich Balm, and Gums; so that we make our Candles of such an aromatic Substance, as does not only give a sufficient Light, but as they burn, they cast their Perfumes all about. Cedar is the common Firing, and all the Houses are built with it. The very Meat we eat, when set on the Table, if it be native, I mean of the Country, perfumes the whole Room; especially a little Beast call’d an Armadilly, a Thing which I can liken to nothing so well as a Rhinoceros; ’tis all in white Armour, so jointed, that it moves as well in it, as if it had nothing on: This Beast is about the Bigness of a Pig of six Weeks old.

At other times he would go a Fishing; and discoursing on that Diversion, he found we had in that Country a very strange Fish, call’d a Numb-Eel, (an Eel of which I have eaten) that while it is alive, it has a Quality so cold, that those who are angling, tho’ with a Line of ever so great a Length, with a Rod at the End of it, it shall in the same Minute the Bait is touch’d by this Eel, seize him or her that holds the Rod with a Numbness, that shall deprive ’em of Sense for a While; and some have fallen into the Water, and others drop’d, as dead, on the Banks of the Rivers where they stood, as soon as this Fish touches the Bait. Cæsar us’d to laugh at this, and believ’d it impossible a Man could lose his Force at the Touch of a Fish; and could not understand that Philosophy, that a cold Quality should be of that Nature; however, he had a great Curiosity to try whether it would have the same Effect on him it had on others, and often try’d, but in vain. At last, the sought-for Fish came to the Bait, as he stood angling on the Bank; and instead of throwing away the Rod, or giving it a sudden Twitch out of the Water, whereby he might have caught both the Eel, and have dismiss’d the Rod, before it could have too much Power over him; for Experiment-sake, he grasp’d it but the harder, and fainting, fell into the River; and being still possess’d of the Rod, the Tide carry’d him, senseless as he was, a great Way, till an Indian Boat took him up; and perceiv’d, when they touch’d him, a Numbness seize them, and by that knew the Rod was in his Hand; which with a Paddle, (that is a short Oar) they struck away, and snatch’d it into the Boat, Eel and all. If Cæsar was almost dead, with the Effect of this Fish, he was more so with that of the Water, where he had remain’d the Space of going a League, and they found they had much ado to bring him back to Life; but at last they did, and brought him home, where he was in a few Hours well recover’d and refresh’d, and not a little asham’d to find he should be overcome by an Eel, and that all the People, who heard his Defiance, would laugh at him. But we chear’d him up; and he being convinc’d, we had the Eel at Supper, which was a quarter of an Ell about, and most delicate Meat; and was of the more Value, since it cost so dear as almost the Life of so gallant a Man.   [It's an electric eel!!]

Cæsar, having singled out these Men from the Women and Children, made an Harangue to ’em, of the Miseries and Ignominies of Slavery; counting up all their Toils and Sufferings, under such Loads, Burdens and Drudgeries, as were fitter for Beasts than Men; senseless Brutes, than human Souls. He told ’em, it was not for Days, Months or Years, but for Eternity; there was no End to be of their Misfortunes: They suffer’d not like Men, who might find a Glory and Fortitude in Oppression; but like Dogs, that lov’d the Whip and Bell, and fawn’d the more they were beaten: That they had lost the divine Quality of Men, and were become insensible Asses, fit only to bear: Nay, worse; an Ass, or Dog, or Horse, having done his Duty, could lie down in Retreat, and rise to work again, and while he did his Duty, endur’d no Stripes; but Men, villanous, senseless Men, such as they, toil’d on all the tedious Week ’till Black Friday; and then, whether they work’d or not, whether they were faulty or meriting, they, promiscuously, the Innocent with the Guilty, suffer’d the infamous Whip, the sordid Stripes, from their Fellow-Slaves, ’till their Blood trickled from all Parts of their Body; Blood, whose every Drop ought to be revenged with a Life of some of those Tyrants that impose it. ‘And why (said he) my dear Friends and Fellow-sufferers, should we be Slaves to an unknown People? Have they vanquished us nobly in Fight? Have they won us in Honourable Battle? And are we by the Chance of War become their Slaves? This would not anger a noble Heart; this would not animate a Soldier’s Soul: No, but we are bought and sold like Apes or Monkeys, to be the Sport of Women, Fools and Cowards; and the Support of Rogues and Runagades, that have abandoned their own Countries for Rapine, Murders, Theft and Villanies. Do you not hear every Day how they upbraid each other with Infamy of Life, below the wildest Salvages? And shall we render Obedience to such a degenerate Race, who have no one human Virtue left, to distinguish them from the vilest Creatures? Will you, I say, suffer the Lash from such Hands?’ They all reply’d with one Accord, ‘No, No, No; Cæsar has spoke like a great Captain, like a great King.’

Aphra Behn is buried at Westminster Abbey, though not in the Poets' Corner.  When I was there in 2016, I found her in the cloister.  Her tombstone says,  "Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality."


  1. I laughed out loud at that epitaph -- good heavens, that's grim! Whose idea was that?

    I read Oroonoko a long long time ago at university and my recollection of it was that I wished we were reading something about slavery by a Black author. I'm glad to have read it but didn't like super enjoy it.

  2. I know what you mean, so for that I'd say Olaudah Equiano's narrative (which is incidentally at least twice as long, and way less fictional!) as something *kind of* contemporary with Oroonoko. I don't think this book's importance really lies there though. I think it's somewhat important that one of the very first novels in English -- actually, as I called it, a proto-novel -- was about the evils of slavery, but Behn probably had even less first-hand experience with it than she claimed. Mostly it's of interest *as* a proto-novel, and one written by a professional woman writer at that. I originally read it in college for a lit class on the development of the English novel, so it was one of our first assignments.

    It probably wasn't the most appropriate pick for this moment, but I put it on my summerbook list back in May because I'd been meaning to re-read it and see what it was like.

  3. What a fascinating woman! I don't think I've heard of her before.

  4. Another note: Behn was a professional woman writer only about 50 years after Shakespeare's death. She's the closest we've got to a real live version of Virginia Woolf's theoretical Judith.


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