Oroonoko's Slavery Problem: An Interpretation

Aphra Behn's seventeenth century tale of a noble African prince's tragic fall to slavery, Oroonoko, has often been cited as a major antislavery work. Under close examination, however, Oroonoko tells a more complex story. The volatile cultural, moral, and religious crosscurrents that Behn finds surrounding her manifest themselves in the forms of narrative equivocality and intermittent satire in Oroonoko. Throughout the text, she seemingly possesses a conflicting attitude toward the slavery institution and racism in general. On one hand, her portrayal of the protagonist Oroonoko is just, heroic, and deeply sympathetic, and she often disparages European culture and religion while portraying Europeans themselves in an unfavorable light; however, Behn perhaps unconsciously reveals her deeply rooted cultural bias and racism, fictionalizes and romanticizes the lives of slaves on the plantations, and displays an apparent noncommittal attitude towards slavery.

In selecting an African prince as her protagonist in a heroic romance, Behn not only makes an unconventional literary decision but also makes a statement on race. She shows that African Americans can be just as noble, virtuous, passionate, heroic, and just as worthy of literary praise and human compassion. Rarely before has an African American been portrayed in such a favorable light in British literature: " . . . 'Twas amazing to imagine where 'twas he got that real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honor, that absolute generosity . . . the highest passions of love and gallantry"(2155); "There [is] no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty"(2156). The manner of Oroonoko's death echoes that of tragic Christian martyrs and heroes in classic literature. His speeches compare to great leaders of antiquity, and the question he puts to his fellow slaves--"Shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left to distinguish them from the vilest creatures?"(2184)--is perhaps Behn's strongest statement against slavery. Her pen lavishes no less praise on Oroonoko's lover Imoinda, "the brave, the beautiful, and the constant"(2193). Through Oroonoko and Imoinda's suffering Behn highlights the excessive cruelty of the white man while underlining the honor and virtue of the lovers. She thus elevates two "slaves" to immortal status. She establishes what she has set out to do: to "make [Oroonoko's] glorious name survive to all ages"(2193). His name survives indeed, not as a common slave or even a mere prince, but an African American who serves as a sympathetic while revolutionary hero and a vehicle for Behn's indirect attack on the slavery institution and those who perpetrate it.

In addition, Behn shows that she is not incapable of appreciating cultures different from her own while disparaging European society and its religion. She devotes many paragraphs to descriptions of the natives of Surinam whom she portrays as "charming and novel"(2153), innocent in their ways yet skilled in war and game. A philosophical libertine, Behn conveniently utilizes these natives, along with Oroonoko's virtues, to launch a raillery against European civilization, especially religion. The natives' nakedness, she claims, "better instructs the world than all the inventions of man; religion would here but destroy that tranquility they possess by ignorance"(2153). When the captain who captures Oroonoko as a slave refuses to release his shackles, Oroonoko replies that he "[is] very sorry to hear that the captain [pretends] to the knowledge and worship of any gods who had taught him no better principles"(2170). To his death Oroonoko refuses to accept Christianity. This is no surprise since Behn all but populates her story with dishonest, villainous Christians. There is the captain who abuses Oroonoko's trusty nature and sells him as a slave; there are the pursuants of Oroonoko who torture him "in a most deplorable and inhumane manner"(2187). Indeed, the most despicable character in the story is the European deputy governor: "He [is] a fellow," Behn describes, "whose character is not fit to be mentioned with the worst of the slaves"(2186). He, too, lures Oroonoko back to captivity with cunning duplicity, and his men eventually kill Oroonoko with unimaginable cruelty. The governor's council has "no sort of principles to make them worthy the name of men"(2189). In addition, Behn comments on existing gender issues when she describes Europeans laughing at Mr. Trefry because of his "civility to a slave"(2174): in this case, Imoinda. It is apparently outrageous that a white aristocrat like Mr. Trefry treats Imoinda--a slave as well as a woman--with proper respect. Behn in effect criticizes her contemporaries for treating women, slaves or not, as property. Under Behn's pen, the Europeans indeed come off as "without virtue or morality"(2157) and form striking contrasts to the native "Indians," Oroonoko, and his countrymen.

Despite these revealing insights into the fallacies of racial discrimination, Oroonoko reveals that part of Behn still clings to her cultural biases and inveterate racism. While she is open minded enough to praise the beauty of the natives and of the Africans, for example, Behn comments that "they have all that is called beauty except the color"(2153). She indeed attributes many of Oroonoko's great qualities to "the care of a Frenchman of wit and learning" and to his constant contact with "English gentlemen that traded thither"(2155). She yet perceives African music as "barbarous"(2173) and the natives as having "extreme ignorance and simplicity"(2182) without actually knowing much about them. Albeit she claims to true friendship with Oroonoko, when she perceives that her status is in danger she takes the side of her European friends and serves as a spy and someone who keeps Oroonoko in check. When she hears that Oroonoko has escaped with all the slaves, she professes to fearing "that he would secure himself till night [and] come down and cut all [their] throats"(2188) thus revealing her inherent distrust in Oroonoko. Behn's attitude is consistent with her portrayal of Oroonoko and his countrymen as warriors and hunters of great physical prowess or, in other words, savages. Therefore, Oroonoko becomes more of a singularity than the norm, the nobility and virtue he embodies, Behn seems to insinuate, are not prevalent in the rest of the race. In this respect, she vacillates between the perspectives of European aristocrat and compassionate author.

Aside from her inherent prejudices, Behn also has the tendency to romanticize slavery and life on the plantations rather than choose to confront most of its harshness. The struggles of Oroonoko and Imoinda are made to seem heroic and beautiful instead of very real and cruel. Oroonoko's identity eventually becomes eclipsed by the heroic persona the whites give him: Caesar. He becomes not simply a wrongfully captivated slave but a sort of romanticized fantasy of Behn's associates. Not only does Behn inadvertently help usher Oroonoko towards his fate, she is effusive in her sentimentality when she comments that "the eternal leave-taking of two such lovers, so greatly born, so sensible, so beautiful, so young, and so fond, must be very moving"(2190). Her very claim at the commencement of the story--"I do not pretend . . . to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure"(2152)--seems contradictory to her technique and narrative. What is Behn doing, by elevating Oroonoko's life to the level of tragic epic and heroic romance, if not intentionally catering to--and seeking to entertain--the Restoration aristocracy? She diverts attention to Oroonoko and Imoinda's passionate love and Oroonoko's martyrdom and honor rather than to the actual practices of the slave owners and British colonizers. The slaves' lives are romanticized by Behn's description of their welcome banquet for Oroonoko; Oroonoko himself, the central focus of the story, never experiences the actual life of a slave. The contrast between Oroonoko's projected romantic identity and his actual slave status becomes, however, grotesque to the point of satire. Behn cannot help inserting appalling, if brief, illustrations of plantation life. The result--romanticization with occasional satire--reflects Behn's desire to entertain as well as her desire to tell the truth.

Most telling with regard to Oroonoko's status as an antislavery text is its almost nonchalant treatment of slavery. It neither provides any justification for enslavement nor offers any sound arguments against the institution of slavery itself. Rather, it seems that Behn indirectly supports the enslavement of African Americans because she finds the natives less troublesome, for she offers: "[The Indians] being . . . very useful to us, we find it absolutely necessary . . . not to treat them as slaves; nor dare we do other, their numbers so far surpassing ours"(2154). Her subsequent description of slave trafficking in Coramentien--Oroonoko's native country--is unemotional and dry. She even stipulates that Coramentien, being continuously at war, has the "fortune"(2154) of capturing many Africans to sell to the slave market. Behn's compassion for Oroonoko may be great, but this might only be because Oroonoko has "a native beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race"(2154), and because Oroonoko's story has satisfied her poetic fancy. She does not make any mention of the conditions the other slaves are in; she merely records Oroonoko's moving oratory on the evils of slavery and does not comment. Indeed, when the slaves who fled with Oroonoko eventually betray him and return to captivity, he comments that they are "by nature slaves . . . fit to be used as Christians' tools"(2187). Ironically, Oroonoko himself sold captive of war as slaves while yet in Africa. The man who supposedly symbolizes the spirit of antislavery supports the institution himself. Throughout the narrative, Behn frequently praises Oroonoko's nobility, laments his treatment in the hands of the whites, and lashes out against the villains who do wrong to him, yet she never once comments on the institution of slavery itself. Oroonoko may have been used as propaganda for antislavery causes, yet Behn in all probability never intended it for that purpose. There is even a hint of dejection in the text, an ultimate rejection of the age of reason. If man is reasonable and this reason elevates man to a higher status, why does Oroonoko enslave his own people? Perhaps the reason Behn offers no definite statement on slavery is because she has looked into the matter and found human nature lacking.

Those who desire to find in Oroonoko a decided antislavery statement may find themselves disappointed by Behn's apparent lack of involvement or concern in the slavery issue. However, she is not entirely insensible to the humanity, grace, and beautiful martyr hood she has found in the supposedly nonfictional Oroonoko. Behn's small triumph lies in her seeing that at least some among the enslaved deserve mention in her little novella, that there are weaknesses inherent in supposedly superior European civilization. Nonetheless, Behn still cannot shake her long-entrenched cultural bias and racism, and Oroonoko ultimately fails to make an effective and conclusive statement on the institution of slavery. This conflicting attitude can be explained if one views Oroonoko as an extremely personal story for Behn. As a compassionate woman, she feels for Oroonoko and his plight; as a libertine, she does not hesitate to attack European conventions and hypocrisy; as an honest writer, her occasional satire reflects her discontent with the idealistic image she has projected. Freshly transported from Europe, she finds herself in a strange world where new ideas and harsh reality confront her European sensibilities. Throughout its carefully constructed narrative Behn's inveterate racism, prejudice, and cynicism surface, undermining her very intent. This is where Behn's problem arises, where Oroonoko stops short of what it has presumably set out to accomplish.