Banner

Oroonoko: Historical and political contexts

As a young woman, Aphra Behn was a spy for Charles II's government in Antwerp and probably in South America. Two decades later, she used these experiences to write Oroonoko, the story of a prince kidnapped from West Africa, enslaved and taken to a British colony in South America. Janet Todd explains how this extraordinary novella was shaped by the historical and political contexts and beliefs of Behn's time.

Aphra Behn’s tragic novella Oroonoko was published in 1688, shortly before her death. It was admired in its own time, but its grotesque violence did not suit 18th-century tastes and the story was quickly reworked into a romantic play and a sentimental anti-slavery tale. In the 20th century it became Behn’s most famous work, seen as a powerful, original story of slavery, a ‘True History’ with shifting points of view and startling episodes from both real life and heroic romance. Today, it can still startle readers with its equivocal treatment of gender, race and class.

Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, 1688

Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, 1688

The first edition of Oroonoko.

View images from this item  (23)

Usage terms Public Domain

Setting, characters and narrative

At the end of a remarkable playwriting career, when revenue from the theatre diminished, Aphra Behn turned to prose writing. In this new genre, she used her experiences from the 1660s when she had been a young ‘shee-spy’ for Charles II’s government: in Antwerp and probably also in Surinam, South America, the colonial setting of Oroonoko. The main European characters mentioned in the story are historical figures: the deputy governor William Byam, made into the villain; James Banister; the cultured Cornishman, John Trefry; the ex-parliamentarian George Marten. The artefacts that travel from Surinam to England underline the authenticity of the story: the dried butterflies and snakeskins ‘that may be seen at his Majesty’s Antiquary’s’, as well a Native American set of feathers later used in the Restoration theatre.

Maps of the Americas, c. 1687

Maps of The Americas, c. 1687

This map, made in the late 17th century, depicts Central America. Colonial Surinam is located on the coast of South America in the bottom right-hand corner of the map.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms Public Domain

William Byam's colonial diary, and a ‘Brief Description of the Guianas’

William Byam's Colonial Diary, and a Brief Description of the Guianas

The first page of Major John Scott’s history and description of the Guianas (the wider area in which Surinam was located).

View images from this item  (33)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The Surinam in Oroonoko is a British colony, soon to fall to the Dutch. Far from central royal authority in London, it is disordered and mismanaged. As land, it is both adapted to European eyes – its strange animals are compared to English ones – and mythical, an ‘Arcadia’ where it is ‘constant summer’. At the centre of the story is a princely black hero, kidnapped from West Africa, enslaved and taken to Surinam. There he meets again his beloved, the beautiful Imoinda. After being treated in a manner that is markedly different to other slaves, he is tricked into a gruesome death by the dishonourable governors. The narrator of the story would like to save him, but she is absent at crucial moments, while, as a woman and onlooker, she can do little except tell his tale to the world. Throughout the story she claims to be his friend and companion, but there is a troubling sense that she is also, to some extent, his keeper.

To the narrator, Oroonoko tells of his life in Africa. This account forms part of the story. The depiction of sub-Saharan Africa is the first by an English creative writer; yet where her description of the society of Surinam has the ring of eye-witness truth, the Africa she portrays has little in common with what was seen by genuine French and English travellers and traders. Rather it draws on the genre of the romantic oriental tale set in Muslim countries, especially Turkey.

John Ogilby's Africa, 1670

John Ogilby's Africa, 1670

Decorative frontispiece to Ogilby’s Africa, a huge book providing narrative descriptions of the countries, provinces, peoples and customs of the African continent.

View images from this item  (26)

Usage terms Public Domain

Unlike Trefry and Byam, the character of Oroonoko is an imaginary fusion, not an historical figure. Although the physical beauty of the ‘gloomy race’ was rarely stressed by European writers, blackness could be represented as a glamorous concept. Oroonoko has extreme blackness (‘His Face was not of that brown rusty Black which most of that Nation are, but a perfect Ebony, or polished Jet’), as well as a Roman nose and straightened hair. His African heritage is combined with European ideas of masculine beauty and nobility. He even has a French education, which gives him the scepticism with which to judge other cultures, both Christian and Native American. But he also has a natural honesty and guilelessness that the narrator perceives as distinguishing him both from the Africans he has left behind and from the corrupt colonists of Surinam. Like other heroes in 17th-century plays and romances, he speaks with the rhetoric of ancient Roman nobility and has the civility and courtliness of the best London society. Although supposedly a slave, he never works and he recalls the 17th-century notion of the untamed ‘noble savage’. His royal status is accepted by the other enslaved Africans – many of whom he himself has sold into slavery – and he lives among the white colonists in a strange captivity which includes polite visits, hunts and expeditions. If his daring feats connect him with heroes of popular romance, from another angle their encouragement might appear a method of keeping a dangerous man under control.

When the delicate social balance in the colony breaks down, Oroonoko tries to lead a slave rebellion against the European masters. He is disgusted by his lack of support and concludes that some people are simply servile and too ignoble for freedom. His only way out is heroic suicide, taking with him Imoinda, pregnant with his child, who would, if born, be a slave. All goes awry. He kills his beloved, and her body becomes a stinking corpse; he himself is captured and subjected to mutilation and torture. His death is described in gruesome physical detail: he smokes a pipe while his ‘Members’, ear, nose and arms are hacked off and thrown on the fire. Only ‘at the cutting of this other Arm, his Head Sunk, and his Pipe drop'd’. In one of his expeditions, Oroonoko had recoiled from the self-mutilation of the strange Native Americans. Through mutilation by others, he himself is made strange.

The tale of Oroonoko is told by a narrator, who is usually identified with the author Aphra Behn. This narrator writes as a colonist, mourning the fact that after she left Surinam the colony fell to the Dutch, and King Charles II thereby lost a rich land to exploit. She is frank in her admiration and compassion for the 'royal slave' Oroonoko; she is also aware of the threat he poses to the corrupt community to which ultimately she belongs. His companion is not the outspoken Englishwoman who will control his tale, but the decorous romance figure of Imoinda, who the narrator makes exotic through the description of the elaborate patterning on her body and submissive death at her husband’s hands.

William Byam's colonial diary, and a ‘Brief Description of the Guianas’

William Byam's Colonial Diary, and a Brief Description of the Guianas

Deputy governor General William Byam’s diary account of the decline and eventual loss of Surinam to the Dutch in 1667.

View images from this item  (33)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Slavery and colonialism

In the 17th century the English did not always consider Africans as ‘natural’ slaves. The English had white slaves in Barbados and treated many European indentured servants as virtual ones; Catholics felt it reasonable to enslave Protestants and vice versa; Turks enslaved Christians. Like almost all of her contemporaries, Behn accepted slavery for most of the enslaved; Oroonoko’s first present to Imoinda is a group of enslaved Africans, and he later bargains for his freedom by offering to send enslaved Africans to Surinam. But the enslaving of someone born noble was anathema to Behn and the later sense that a whole race of people could, without distinctions, be traded and treated quite unlike any other would have appalled her. If Behn lacks the modern concept of slavery, she does anticipate the modern sense that human beings should not be commodities, seen solely in terms of money. She made her anti-mercantile point in plays throughout her professional life; the slave trade is the most extreme version of commodification.

Charter granted to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Relating to Trade in Africa, 1663

Charter Granted to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England etc

This legal charter, issued by King Charles II, represents the moment in which the transatlantic slave trade officially began, with royal approval, in the English (later British) Empire.

View images from this item  (20)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Outside of the European colonists and the enslaved Africans are the initial inhabitants of Surinam, the ‘Indians’ or Native Americans. Most Europeans saw this ‘primitive’ group either as happy innocents to be taught, or cannibalistic savages to be suppressed. Here they are a little like Oroonoko himself in being essentially honest and therefore easily dominated by the devious and greedy colonists, who use them to discover and exploit the resources of the land, especially gold. Their strange customs intrigue the narrator. At the same time, wonderful cross-cultural moments occur, as when scantily clothed but richly ornamented Native Americans face elaborately dressed Europeans – in tropical heat. Both groups are amazed.

Intellectually, Behn accepts both slavery and colonialism. Yet in Oroonoko she does succeed in giving the reader a sense of the horror of slavery and the instability of colonisation. Her work is so multi-faceted and unstable that both can be considered and probed by a careful reader. It is a feature of Behn’s best fictions that they may reveal subtexts or be understood against the grain.

Political background

Throughout her life Behn was a political writer, steeped in the controversies and day-to-day politics of her age. Her works are royalist, fiercely supporting the regimes of Charles II and his Catholic brother and heir, James. To the latter, in particular, she was devoted. He had greatly appreciated her most popular play The Rover, and she had dedicated a sequel, The Second Part of The Rover, to him. After he became King James II in 1685, she worked tirelessly for him as a propagandist in a series of public poems and, less overtly, in her fictions. As an inflexible ruler and a Catholic in a primarily Protestant country, James was soon tottering on his throne, and many of his subjects were looking to his Dutch nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, to rescue the country. Matters came to a head in 1688 when the queen became pregnant, thus potentially ensuring a Catholic succession. Oroonoko was probably written after the announcement of the pregnancy, when rumours were rife that William had been invited by many nobles to invade England. It was printed just after the birth, which Behn celebrated in a long poem. It would be hard for any contemporary reader not to associate the fictional family group of Oroonoko, Imoinda and unborn child with the threatened royal family of James II.

There is much to link Oroonoko with King James. Both were called Caesar, and the dark-complexioned Stuarts were referred to as ‘black’. Both believed in the oath and word of honour. Surinam, where Oroonoko is killed, was, like England, threatened by the Dutch. There was no precedent for royal deposition without death: James’s father, Charles I, had been executed. Oroonoko is defeated by the cruelty of his opponents and by his own naïveté and dread. At the end of the story Behn presents ‘frightful Spectacles of a mangl’d King’. Perhaps her work was a warning to James, or a depiction of what she feared would come about. In Behn’s understanding, James II’s simple and heroic personality was out of kilter with the debased modern and complex world of England, as Oroonoko’s was in debased Surinam. In fact, shortly after Oroonoko was published James II fled to France. He was deposed without much immediate strife, and the Dutch William became king.

Fame

A richly evocative tale, Oroonoko is not, of course, straight political allegory, and the fictional character of the slave prince is far more than a portrayal of King James II. As a text, Oroonoko is complex, clashing in styles and full of tensions and contradictions. How much can we trust the narrator? How ‘true’ is her point of view? What is her agenda? Is it ‘feminist’, progressive or reactionary? Genres mix in this slippery text: romance and fantasy collide with violent episodes; reality and heroics jostle; and tragedy can veer suddenly into farce.

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

Portrait of Aphra Behn at the beginning of her literary career.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain
Held by © Yale Center for British Art

At the beginning of her career, when attacked by critics as an uneducated woman, Behn had claimed that writing plays was not especially difficult and that she was as fully capable of doing so as any man. By the end of her theatrical career, she had a keen sense of her abilities and wanted her work to last. In the preface to a play staged in 1686 she wrote ‘I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero’. Oroonoko was written just before her death in 1689, when she was at the height of her powers. She ended it with the boast, ‘I hope the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages’. She would have relished the fame that Oroonoko is bringing her in the 21st century.

  • Janet Todd
  • Janet Todd is a former President of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, and Emerita Professor of English Literature at the University of Aberdeen. For many years she taught in Ghana, the US and India, before settling in the UK. She is now an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. She has edited works of early women writers and published biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughters Mary Shelley and Fanny (Death and the Maidens), and her aristocratic Irish pupil, Lady Mount Cashell (Daughters of Ireland). Her revised biography of Aphra Behn was published in 2017. Janet Todd has written three novels: Lady Susan Plays the Game, a Jane Austen spinoff; A Man of Genius, set in Regency London and Venice (2016); and Don’t You Know There’s a War On? (forthcoming 2019). Her memoir Radiation Diaries: Cancer, Memory and Fragments of a Life in Words came out in 2018.
    www.janettodd.co.uk
    www.facebook.com/authorJanetTodd/
    @Jan_Todd

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.