And still isn’t 100% sure how Aphra Behn’s first name is pronounced (short a or long a?). Anyways, who is this lady, and why am I interested in her? Also, what the hell does she have to do with slavery?
Oh yeah; if you haven’t read Oroonoko, spoiler alerts. Although do they count as spoilers if the source text is over 300 years old?
The trouble with “searching” for Aphra Behn is that not too much is known about her. Historians have a vague idea of who her parents might have been, who her husband likely was (Johann Behn, a sailor) and that she moved in the libertine circles of John Wilmot (better known as the Earl of Rochester, and possibly even better known than that as Johnny Depp in that incredibly mediocre movie). There is some vaguely supported speculation that some events in her life may have mirrored the events portrayed in Oroonoko, one of her better-known novellas. Which is as good a segue as any for me, so here goes.
Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave was the first widely read book in the English language penned by a female author (published in 1688), and the second widely read English language text by a white author featuring a sympathetic black protagonist (counting Othello as the first). Written in the first person perspective by a narrator claiming to be the orphaned daughter of the colony of Surinam, it primarily concerns the tragic love of the title character for the “black Venus” Imoinda. The story begins in Africa, most likely West Africa, in the absolutist hierarchy of Coramentium of which Oroonoko is prince. His grandfather, the king, decides to take Imoinda (the daughter of his top general, who committed a battlefield sacrifice in order to save the prince) as his wife despite knowing the love between her and Oroonoko. A secret romance results between Oroonoko and Imoinda with shades of Tristan is Isolde. When the lovers are discovered the king sells Imoinda into slavery. Shortly thereafter Oroonoko is tricked into slavery by a European. The attitudes of both lovers make clear that death would have been a preferred alternative.
The action then shifts to Surinam in the New World. Oroonoko impresses one and all with his regal bearing, intelligence, and physical prowess. He can sing, orate, dance, slay tigers with his bare hands, help broker peace with potentially hostile natives, and type 95 WPM. Oroonoko is also reunited with his beloved who — conveniently — works with him on the same plantation and becomes his common-law wife. It is that point that the title character, along with Imoinda, meets the narrator who serves as a sort of confidant/tutor/grievance board for them. Oroonoko refers to the narrator as his “great mistress.” It is left open to interpretation as to whether this title is solely administrative or has echoes of the romantic.
The primary grievance the narrator hears is that Oroonoko’s promises of manumission on the part of his masters are repeatedly fobbed off. It’s clear that the title character is tilting at windmills in that regard because the narrative pretty much flat out states that nobody has any intention of freeing him. The stakes are raised when Imoinda discovers that she’s pregnant and Oroonoko decides that docile servitude is no longer the way to go. After all, in the “old country” his child would be born into an illustrious line of kings while here it is destined for a life of bondage. He therefore — along with Imoinda — rallies a slave revolt with the slogan (and I’m shamelessly paraphrasing here) “have we been lawfully taken bondage in war . . . are we to be made like dogs?”
The rebellion is quelled when the wives of the slaves talk their men into abandoning Oroonoko. Imoinda for her part is the only person to inflict injury upon the acting colonial governor — who has by now become the chief antagonist — by shooting him with a poisoned arrow (the poison is sucked out by the governor’s “Indian mistress”). Afterward, in order to prevent his child from being born into slavery and Imoinda from being “slave to the nasty lusts” of the colonists — who Oroonoko now openly despises — the enslaved prince slits Imoinda’s throat, an action that utterly saps his vitality. He is apprehended, convicted after a kangaroo trial, and dismembered. All while smoking a pipe, to show how absolutely heroic he is, even in death.
It’s a compelling and yet problematic narrative. I am fascinated by it because of the fact that, amidst all its problems, it sheds some light on the attitudes of Europeans — in various time periods — towards the slave trade. It has been used, depending on the time period, to condone the “peculiar institution” as well as decry it. Oroonoko is, depending on your point of view, a “noble savage” or a Spartacus. He is most definitely, at the very least, a European aristocrat in blackface.
In our next installment I will go further in my commentary on Oroonoko with a particular eye on why the text is relevant to this project. Why am I not just going on with it in this entry? Well, because the summary took up way more space and time than I thought it would and because I’m basically a lazy person who used that fact to escape doing the hard and fast work.