Summary and Analysis of 'Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave' The writer of the novel, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, Aphra Behn, was believed to have worked as a political spy for Charles II. This novel is famous for many reasons. It depicts the horrifying emotions of slavery and colonization. A truly heart-rending love story, Buzzle helps you take a deeper look at it with a summary and analysis of the novel. Very little is known about the personal life of Aphra Behn (1640-1689). A female literary writer by profession, there are no records of her initial 27 years of life. There is absolutely no information about her parents, her hometown, her childhood, etc. She was referred to as Ann Behn, Mrs Bean, agent 160, and Astrea during her lifetime. The untimely death of her husband and the large amounts of debt she had incurred led Aphra Behn to take up a job at the King's Company, and later at the Duke's Company as a copyist. She has 19 plays, 4 novels, 3 short stories to her credit, and produced 2 poetry collections. Despite a successful writing career, she died in utter poverty. Aphra Behn's short prose-fiction Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave was published in 1688. It is counted as one of the earliest English novels. Though it was not a best-seller, it gained immense popularity immediately after it was published and more so after its stage adaptation by Thomas Southerne. The story in the novel is said to be true as the narrator, Behn herself, had visited Suriname in her lifetime where the story is set. However, there is no solid proof that seconds the notion. Nonetheless, the text makes for a very interesting read. Let us study deeper... he narrator of the story is a nameless English woman dwelling on Parham Plantation, and hopelessly waiting for a ship to take her back to England. In the meantime, she meets Oroonoko and his wife Imoinda and becomes friends. In the beginning, the narrator gives a detailed overview of Suriname, namely, the plantation, its residents, and the surrounding. Plot Summary ◆ The narrator changes the setting to Coromantee (present-day Ghana). This is where Oroonoko, the grandson of the king, happens to fall madly in love with Imoinda, the general's daughter. However, her beauty attracts the king's attention as well. The 100-year-old king sends a royal veil to Imoinda forcing her to become his wife. As she cannot refuse the gift from the king, she unwillingly spends some time in the royal harem. Oroonoko tries to break into the harem with his friend Aboan. When caught red-handed by the king, Oroonoko escapes from there. The king decides to sell Imoinda as a slave when he knows the relation she shares with his grandson. However, the king informs Oroonoko that Imoinda has been put to death. ◆ Meanwhile, Oroonoko gets involved in trading war captives as slaves to the newly-arrived British army. They invite him and his friends on the ship. However, Oroonoko gets caught in the trap that has been set for him. He is sold as a slave to Mr. Trefry who oversees Parham Plantation in Suriname. Oroonoko and the narrator meet again. She and Mr. Trefry assure him that he will be freed as soon as the governor, Lord Willoughby, arrives. ◆ As he was a prince, he was never sent to work on the plantation. He also resides separately, away from the other slaves. However, one day, while walking through the plantation with Mr. Trefry, he sees Imoinda. The lovers unite again and without wasting much time, they get married. Over the course of their time together, Imoinda gets pregnant. ◆ Oroonoko's does not want to let his child be born in slavery, so he comes up with an idea. He decides to run away with the other slaves. One night, they escape, but unfortunately, leave a trail that leads deputy-governor Byam to them. He negotiates with Oroonoko to surrender and promises him pardon. Again, Oroonoko is assured about his and his family's freedom. However, Oroonoko realizes that the governor's promises are shallow and conspires to take revenge on Byam. However, he knows that he may not be successful in his plans and decides to kill his wife first, so as to preserve her dignity. When he informs Imoinda about his plan, she agrees to get killed by him. Oroonoko slits her throat with his knife. He's heartbroken as he watches her breathe her last in his arms. He sinks into deep depression as he has lost his wife and unborn child. Overwhelmed by grief, he is unable to get away. A few days later, Byam's men find him near his wife's corpse. They capture him and decide to kill him by cutting his body in pieces. As the time to die draws near, Oroonoko sits smoking his pipe, as Byam's men begin chopping off his body parts. Themes ◆ Colonization vs. Anti-colonization The main theme of the novel is colonization vs. anti-colonization. The writer is against colonists, and her novels depict the same. Behn sheds light on the treacherous ways adopted by the colonizers, and the horrors of slavery. The colonists, Mr. Trefry, Byam, etc., are shown to be greedy, dishonest, and brutal rulers. Trefry, the British captain, befriends Oroonoko only to betray him in the end. Likewise, Byam feigns friendship with the African prince only to brutally kill him. Even the narrator behaves in the same manner as the colonists. She calls herself a friend of Oroonoko; however, runs away when a fight breaks out between the colonists and the slaves. ◆ Slavery The novel depicts a terrifying picture of slavery that existed in the British colonies. Behn describes the treatment meted out by the colonists towards their slaves. For example, Oroonoko was beaten up cruelly, and pepper was put on his wounds. The slaves were forced to change their names, thus losing their identity, and then compelled to leave their family and friends behind. The theme influences the native social system as well. Though Oroonoko craves to be free from slavery during his captivity, but during his reign as a prince, he does not mind selling the war captives as slaves. He believes it is the fate that befalls men who lose the war. ◆ Superiority The hand of superiority is another theme running all through the story. The picture Behn portrays is one of unity and peace between the British colonists and the natives. However, the superiority of the British colonists over the natives is clearly seen. The notion that Western culture is far superior in standards and values, is enforced by the colonizers on the slaves. For example, the story has the narrator reading out to Oroonoko and Imoinda, the stories of the lives of Romans and nuns, as also the riddles of the trinity. Characters ◆ Oroonoko Oroonoko, an African prince, is the protagonist of the story. He possesses all the qualities of a prince as he is well-built with dashing good looks and an education from a French tutor. Behn describes him as having European features and mentions that "his nose was rising and Roman". Oroonoko's princely upbringing enables him to see through the colonial system. He admires the Western values as he is influenced by a French tutor; however, the truth of what it means to be a slave hits him hard when he himself is taken as one. Oroonoko's status, hunting skills, and the way in which he carries himself makes him an obvious candidate to lead the slaves in revolt. Oroonoko maintains his composure and dignity in the entire story. Even in the end, he faces death bravely, showing no signs of agitation. ◆ Imoinda Imoinda is the main female character of the story. As a woman and a slave, she is very timid. She accepts her new name "Clemene" willingly when thrown into slavery. She is described as beautiful with a dignified presence, which draws the attention of men to her instantly. Her beauty poses to be a great obstacle as Oroonoko's grandfather, the king, decides to marry her. However, she longs to be with Oroonoko whom she deeply loves. The only time she decides her fate is when she gracefully agrees to Oroonoko's proposal of killing her. ◆ The other characters in the story are: Aboan, Oroonoko's friend, the king, the colonists: Bannister, Byam, Trefry , and so on. The story bring outs the underlying dormant trait in men to overpower almost every living thing. However, here it is one man's authority over the other who is weak enough to give in to the tyrant. Slavery is a condition that the men in authority unleash, thus restricting the freedom of the one who submits to them. The saga of a true love between Oroonoko and Imoinda is also beautifully presented by the writer. Behn writes: "He made her vows she should be the only woman he would possess while he lived; that no age or wrinkles should incline him to change; for her soul would be always fine, and always young; and he should have an eternal idea in his mind of the charms she now bore; and should look into his heart for that idea, when he could find it no longer in her face." . Thus, depicting the way a man beholds his woman, when he is truly and deeply in love with her. Hope this story touches your heart, and you too will take a stand against slavery which is still actively practiced around the globe.
Table of contents
2. Overview on the Transatlantic African slavery and its portray in early modern literature
3. Slavery in Oroonoko
3.1 Representation of slavery
3.2 Depiction of the royal slave
4. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: The tragic hero
Aphra Behn’s narrative Oroonoko or the Royal Slave was published one year before her death in 1688 at a time where the Atlantic Slave Trade and African Slavery were in full blossom as a result of European Colonialism. The story is about the curious case of the gallant prince Oroonoko who got pulled into slavery and was deported to the British colony of Surinam in the 1660’s. Behn’s work combines different genres of texts such as the travel narrative, the romance but most importantly social criticism.
Although Oroonoko is regarded as a literary work by many scholars that has advanced and supported the cause for the abolition of slavery in Britain as well as in it’s colonies, it is in fact a non anti-slavery text. The author does not touch the pressing issue of slavery as such because she presents us with a rare and exceptional kind of slave. Nevertheless, the book clearly illustrates through the depiction of its hero the injustice, cruelty and arbitrariness of slavery that has been brought upon the African peoples by European Colonialism.
In this paper I am going to show Behn’s unusual presentation of a royal slave in order to criticize British Colonialism, first, by giving a brief overview on Transatlantic African slavery that is portrayed in early modern literature, second, by analyzing the depiction of slaves in Behn’s narrative with a special focus on Oroonoko the royal slave, and finally by illustrating Behn’s necessity for choosing a tragic hero, who could have never been protected from the depths of slavery by his royal status.
1. Transatlantic African slavery in early modern literature
1.2 Role of the British and the Triangular Trade
“Where there was hard work to be done, there we find black slaves. And where there were thriving exports of tropical staples, there again we find slaves: in tobacco and rice, in sugar, rum and coffee.” (Walvin, “A Short History of Slavery” 54)
A lot of former slaves published autobiographies or narratives of their lives in early modern literature. Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass or Harriet A. Jacobs portrayed the sufferings and humiliations of slaves during the time of transatlantic slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean and North America. These reports served as abolitionist texts and supported the movement greatly in European countries as well as in the New World. All authors wrote either in their pretexts or within the narrative that they present the truth in their published books just as Jacobs does in her preface: “READER, be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts” (1). The presentation of their lives sheds a light on the institution of slavery that was failed to see in most reports, narratives or travel accounts of the white European and colonial society.
Although the British had neither part in the origins nor in the development of the African slave trade they most certainly helped a great deal in its transformation right from the beginning of the 17th century. Britain possessed several islands in the West Indies as well as colonies on the North American continent that needed to be economically managed and cultivated. For the first years of settlement the British planters focused their efforts exclusively on the cultivation of tobacco but learned from the experience of the Portuguese and the Dutch that the cultivation of sugar cane was a more lucrative and profitable commodity. So after sugar plantations were cultivated on most of the British West Indian islands such as Barbados, Nevis, Antigua and St Kitts for better revenue, Britain reached supremacy in the African slave trade in 1645. Since the output of the crops as well as the need for the product increased each year more slaves were shipped to the Americas and the continental colonies in order to meet the demand of British population. African slaves were “relatively cheap, easily replaceable and found in abundance” (Walvin, “Slaves and Slavery” 26) which led Barbados to become the richest and most thriving of the British colonial islands.
After 1660 the British Crown shifted from using privateer slave traders to monopoly companies through which the Royal African Company (RAC) was founded in 1672 and established the British monopoly in slave trade. The English trade with African humanity was an economic institution with a system that was entirely ruled by law. The RAC was very successful and had managed to transform the trade insofar that each member involved, except for the slaves, benefited from it’s outcome. Unfortunately though, the English could never fully satisfy the enormous demand for enslaved workers and therefore private interlopers were still illegally trading slaves. They sailed up and down the African West coast in order to find opportunities to purchase or trade for new slaves. They did not care about costly punishments or the dangers of slave trade because the trade was simply too lucrative. “Slave trading was uncomfortable, dangerous and often lethal. But the fact that it persisted over such a huge span of time, stretched along so vast a stretch of African coastline and involved so many millions of Africans is, in itself, a clue to its commercial appeal and its potential profitability“ (Walvin, “A Short History of Slavery” 56).
The well-established maritime pattern and the experience that traders gained over the time were based on the Triangular Trade. Traders sailed from the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol to the west coast of Africa where they bought slaves in exchange for goods like weapons and iron. From there they took the Middle Passage by crossing the Atlantic to reach the Americas. The voyage took between six to eight weeks always depending on weather conditions, the state of the ship and the health of the slaves and the crew. Although “the aim was not to damage or harm - and certainly not to kill - the slaves, but to transport them swiftly in order to sell then at a profit” (Walvin, “A Short History of Slavery” 71) they were transported under cruel and humiliating conditions due to which many of them died either of sickness or suicide. Equiano vividly describes in his book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano the devastating conditions on the slave ship. He not only tells the reader about the “keeping” of the slaves under deck but also about the cruel treatment and punishment they had to endure:
The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any length of time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspiration, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness amongst the slaves, of which many died (Equiano 22).
As soon as the ship had reached the Islands of the West Indies the slaves were cleaned up, shaved and fed as good as possibly manageable, they were sold on auctions and slave markets by plantation owners. Either they were shipped off again to plantations on other Islands or to the North American mainland. Afterwards the slave ships that were now loaded with sugar, coffee, tobacco and other tropical goods set off for England again. The triangular trade combined all the necessary goods to supply the European market (National Museum Liverpool).
“I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision ... to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man” (Douglass 85). On the plantations the new owners immediately tried to sever the slaves from their former life. Families and bonds that have been formed on the slave ships were already broken at the slave auction or the market when the slaves were sold to different masters. But nonetheless to cut off all ties and to break their will owners gave their new commodities a different name. This act of renaming is displayed in Aphra Behn’s narrative Oroonoko or the Royal Slave when Oroonoko and Imoinda are named Caesar and Clemene when they as soon as they arrival in Surinam. Also, Olaudah Equiano received the new name Gustavus Vassa from his captain on board of the slave ship. Furthermore, slaves were given new accommodations, clothing and they had to adapt to unknown customs and a foreign language.
“The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes” (Jacobs 142)
and had to deal with the fact that from that time on they were chattel slaves. Chattel slaves are slaves for life; their children will be born slaves and are as well the property of their master (National Museum Liverpool). The process of will breaking was called ‘seasoning’ and lasted about two to three years during which a lot of Africans died either by trauma and disease or by committing suicide. Frederick Douglass described this phenomenon as the most horrible and cruel time as a slave during the first half-year of his stay with his master Mr.