Oroonoko was a ground-breaking prose fiction piece published by Aphra Behn at the end of her career. It achieved remarkable public success and is to this day one of Behn’s best-known works.
Genre and adaptation
Oroonoko is an important early example of the novel genre. Not only does it employ a first person narrative from a female perspective, but it also tackles some of the most controversial of the emerging political, social and economic issues of the late 17th century. The injustices of the transatlantic slave trade are exposed through Behn’s graphic and emotive account of the cruel realities of life in English colonial settlements. Oroonoko, the eponymous hero, is an African Prince who is captured, enslaved and transported by an English captain from his home in Kormantse, West Africa, to the English colony of Surinam, South America.
This short fiction is recognised as an originator of the ‘noble savage’ tradition, which was a central literary concept in the campaign for the abolition of slavery during the latter half of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th. The story itself was kept at the forefront of public consciousness throughout the 18th century by a succession of adaptations, of which Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko: A Tragedy, first published in 1696, was the most enduring.
In the ‘epistle dedicatory’ of the first edition, Southerne commented on Behn’s innovative, if somewhat puzzling, choice of genre: ‘She [Behn] had a great command of the stage; and I have often wonder’d that she would bury her favourite hero in a Novel, when she might have reviv’d him in the Scene’ (sig. A2v).
Truth and fiction in Oroonoko
The title page boldly states that Oroonoko is ‘A True History’. Within the first pages the narrator explicitly expresses that her story is ‘recommended by its own proper merits, and natural intrigues; there being enough of Reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention’ (p. 2). The claim of truth in this work, which was likely a narrative devised to enrich the emotional impact of the story, has confused biographers, critics and even Behn’s contemporaries regarding the particulars of her life and relationship to both colonial Surinam and her hero, Oroonoko.
One near contemporary biographer, ‘a Gentlewoman of her Acquaintance’, incorporated the entire narrative of Oroonoko into her ‘Memoirs on the Life of Mrs. Behn’ in The Histories and Novels of the Late Mrs Behn (1696), and went to great pains to ‘assure the World, that there was no Affair between that Prince and Astrea [Behn’s penname], but what the whole plantation were witness of’ (sig. B1r). Modern scholars are less willing to accept Oroonoko as a comprehensive source for Behn’s life, though many do speculate that she may have spent time in Surinam because of her detailed knowledge of the colony and its native inhabitants (see p. 9).
Behn’s narrative is further grounded in fact by its use of real colonial figures. Lieutenant-General William Byam, ‘the most fawning fair-tongu’d fellow in the world, and one that pretended the most friendship to Caesar [Oroonoko]’ (p. 196), was in fact the deputy governor of English Surinam before it was taken by the Dutch in 1677. Lord Willoughby of Parham was also the absentee proprietor of the colony in real life. Other colonists such as Trefry, Marten and Bannister were also based on real people. There is, however, no historical parallel for Oroonoko or Imoinda.