Oroonoko is a short novel, styling itself ‘a true history’, set in the English colony of Surinam in the Guianas, South America, where Aphra Behn herself is believed to have spent some time as a young woman. Oroonoko’s narrator is often seen as a version of the author.
Its hero, whose history we are given as part of an inset narrative in the main story, is Oroonoko, native to ‘Coromantee’ (the English name for an area of modern-day Ghana). A general of noble birth, famous for his valour and remarkably handsome, Oroonoko falls in love with the same young, beautiful woman, Imoinda, as his own grandfather, the king of Coramantien. Although Imoinda returns Oroonoko’s affections, and resists the advances of the king, when the young couple are finally able to steal a night together, the king, finding out, furiously banishes Imoinda to a distant colony. Oroonoko believes her dead.
Then, Oroonoko and his men are tricked into slavery by a captain of an English slave ship, who takes them away to Surinam and give them new slave-names; Oronooko’s is Caesar. By chance, Imoinda, renamed Clemene, has been taken to the same colony. She and Oroonoko are reunited and permitted to live as husband and wife in relative freedom, ‘endur[ing] no more of the slave but the name’. After Imoinda becomes pregnant, Oroonoko starts to lobby for their release, but is told he must wait until the governor arrives on the island. Frustrated, Oroonoko leads a rebellion against his masters; he fights valiantly but loses, and his story ends in tragedy and horror.
The narrator makes no secret throughout the novel of her admiration for Oroonoko, his heroism and nobility, and ends by wishing that ‘the reputation of [her] pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda’.
Oroonoko is now among the best-known of Behn’s works, remarkable for its insistence on striking a realist tone, and – while still partaking in many of the racial stereotypes and misapprehensions of Behn’s own time – also remarkable for its nuanced handling of issues such as colonialism and slavery.