Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: The Royal Slave Analysis and Summary
“…Caesar replied that honor was the first principle in Nature, that was to be obeyed…”
Aphra Behn (1640-1689) wrote the novel Oroonoko in 1688 and based it on her trip to what many researchers believe is Surinam. Behn begins the story with a statement of her legitimacy as an author. Immediately, she breaks the form of classic Aristotelian fiction, which Aristotle describes as an imitation of nature as a whole. Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) believed that fiction told what could happen instead of what did, making it superior to history, which is random and may not have a beginning, end, cause or effect. Behn makes it clear in the beginning of the novel that she is “an eye-witness,” that this story is not heresy. Because she states that she is writing about true events, she begins her novel with this statement defending the legitimacy in order to make it believable to the reader: “…and it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues…without the addition of invention” (1). Throughout the novel, she gives extraneous detail, producing the experience of truth.
Oroonoko is often interpreted as an anti-slavery novel because of the way the narrator describes the struggle and injustices of a Coromantin slave from the Gold Coast, what is present-day Ghana. Behn’s work is highly contradictory in the sense that although she breaks the Aristotelian models of writing fiction, she promotes Aristotle’s idea of hierarchy in defense of an absolute monarchy. Oroonoko as a whole shows Behn’s contradictory stance on what is legitimate authority. This paper aims to examine these contradicting messages in order to understand this novel’s historical and societal significance.
In 1649, England’s King Charles I was captured and beheaded because of his resistance to instituting a constitutional monarchy. After his death, several theories about the need of a centralized government came into play, including Hobbes’ Leviathan written in 1651. In 1660, the monarchy in England was restored. Behn lived through what has been called the most conflict-ridden period in British history. During this time, there were major debates on how the British government should be structured.
Aristotle believed that equality in politics is illogical because society exists by nature like a family and therefore must have hierarchy. During this time period, two major philosophers wrote about democracy and the structure of government. Hobbes (1588-1675) introduced the idea that a strong centralized government should exist, as long as it is made up of those that are governed. Locke (1632-1704) took this idea further and proposed that the consent of those that are governed is needed to have an effective centralized government. In Aphra Behn’s novel, she profoundly rejects the idea of democratic society. For example, when Prince Oroonoko is amongst the slaves, dawning the same clothing as them, he is still treated like a figure of authority:
He begged Trefry to give him something more befitting a slave, which he did, and took off his robes: nevertheless he shone through all, and his osenbrigs…could not conceal the graces of his looks and mein; he had no less admirers than when he had his dazzling habit on: the royal youth appeared in spite of the slave, the people could not help treating him in a different manner, without designing it. As soon as they approached him, they venerated and insinuated it into every soul. So that there was nothing talked of but this young and gallant slave, even by those who yet knew not that he was a prince. (28)
Behn is illustrating to her reader that people with authority are given the power to rule even when dressed like a person with no authority. This is a rejection of democratic society, where authority is given to everyone equally. Behn’s novel blatantly promotes the idea of an absolute monarchy. She refers to “the deplorable death of our great monarch” (7). Through the character, Oroonoko, she shows that some people are meant to be in power.
Behn consciously separates Oroonoko from the other slaves in his character description. She shows an obvious stigma against the other slaves and their races, yet, Oroonoko is described in a way that makes him powerful and unique compared to the others:
His face was not of that brown rusty black which most of that nation are, but perfect ebony, polished jet…His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome. (7)
Behn describes Oroonoko as completely Roman, except for his skin color. He represents a figure of authority, one that despite his race will have power over others. Similarly, his slave name alludes to a reincarnation of all that is Rome, the model of civilization: “Mr. Trefry gave Oroonoko that of Cesear; which name will live in that country as long as that (scarce more) glorious one of the great Roman” (28). Although she seems to have sympathy for slaves, she only has sympathy for those that are noble like Oroonoko. This shows that Behn must have contradicting ideals like her novel. Later, Cesear defends the conditions that the slaves live in:
…we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools and cowards; and the support of rogues and runagates, that have abandoned their own countries for rapine, murders, theft, and villainies…And shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no human virtue left, to distinguish them from the vilest of creatures? (42).
Though these quotes seem to promote an anti-slavery narrative, Behn’s novel remains contradictory.
In this time period, the Coromanti people were not uncivilized barbarians like the Africans described in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The Coromanti people were multilingual, involved in trade, and far from primitive. They were not colonized or overtaken. Rather, slaves from the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) were only obtained through war. Because of the slave trade, people that are taken were reduced to being treated as animals. If these individuals were not taken in war, it would be immoral to treat them this way.
If this were an anti-slavery narrative, Aphra Behn should have ended it with the death of slavery. Instead, she concludes her novel with the graphic death of Oroonoko: “They cut Caesar in quarters, and sent them to…the governor himself, that those of Caesar, on his plantations; and that he could govern his negroes without terrifying and grieving them with frightful spectacles of a mangled king” (53). Although the governor learns to rid of the distressing conditions of the slaves’ lives, he does not agree to rid of slavery entirely.
In conclusion, Behn’s novel is highly contradictory and has themes of obtaining an absolute monarchy contrasted with a sympathetic view on Oroonoko, a noble slave. While breaking Aristotelian models of fiction, Behn encourages the philosopher’s ideas on democracy and hierarchy. Her novel is neither pro- nor anti-slavery as some suggest. It is simply a historical narrative meant to capture the complications of societal structures.
Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave. A True History. By Mrs. A. Behn. London: Printed for William Canning, 1688.