and tries to annoy her beyond endurance into fitting into his project (a la singing “Henry VIII I am to Whoopi Goldberg). So. In our last few entries we’ve met the cast of Oroonoko and subsequently explored issues of race and gender underlying Behn’s text. How, then, does this factor into my project?
Allow me to begin by reiterating the reason for my fascination with Oroonoko. It’s one of the earliest examples of a (likely fictional) text depicting the point of view of the colonizers towards the colonized. It’s laden with ambiguities, bipolar oppositions and possible interpretations upon interpretations. The title character is himself a recognizable trope (Kipling would have called him a “noble savage,” Spike Lee a “magical negro”). In a more strictly historical vein one can find echoes of the themes in Oroonoko in accounts of slavery and the slave trade.
In my commentary an entry or so ago I mention the contrast between the monarchical, “feminized” court of Coramentium and the capitalist, “masculine” colony of Suriname. During the settling of Massachusetts Bay one finds in the accounts of John Winthrop, MA’s first governor and the first occupant of Ten Hills Farm, shock at the lack of a concept of property ownership among the Native Americans. Manegold notes that, so far as Winthrop and his compatriots were concerned, the Pequot left a “vacuum domicilium” (30). They did not earn a profit from the land they inhabited, therefore they were not entitled to it. They observed the “fluid” way Native Americans moved from place to place (30) a fluidity scholars of post-colonization such as Mary Baine Campbell have equated to notions of “weakness” and “femininity.”
Either way it is clear that the lack of a return the Native Americans drew from their lands was clear evidence that they were not among the “elect.” Moore observes that they were viewed as akin to the Biblical “Amalekites,” a nomadic tribe subject to extermination by the Hebrews. Their death from smallpox and other infections was viewed by Winthrop as clearly in the course of divine events, a sure sign the early colonists were destined to reap the benefits of the land (30). Ultimately, wars would be waged against them with the clear secondary goal of enslavement. Moore observes that enslaved prisoners of war were “gainful pillage” (50). Casting enslaved Native Americans in these terms was a neat and tidy resolution to John Locke’s definition of “legitimate enslavement” as outlined in On Slavery. Note also my old friend Oroonoko’s admonishment to his fellow slaves that they have not been taken honorably in war as he incites them to rebellion. Note also the fact that he did just that by way of turning a quick profit back in Coramentium, a fact that will become salient in a few paragraphs.
John Locke’s take on slavery is — to put it mildly — complicated and worthy of an post (or 12) in its own right. I will likely revisit the subject at a later point but for now would like to draw attention to what most students of American history learn of him; his writings on government and citizenship. Most of us know that, like Hobbes, he was a proponent of social contract theory (the fundamental principle of republican governence). Must of us also know that, unlike Hobbes, the social contract was intended to safeguard individual liberty rather than unite the masses under an absolutist sovereign. Individual liberty, in accord with the ascendence of invisible capital at the time Locke was writing, frequently translated into “property.” One was entitled to one’s own block of property, to earn a livelihood from it and to rise socially thanks to the return one garnered from it.
Nowhere would the right to property become more cherished than among the Calvinist Puritans who would found MA Bay colony. I doubt that Max Weber could be cited any more frequently as an authority on the subject, but suffice to say that an “ever increasing balance sheet” became the surest sign that one was among god’s elect. Of course there was no way of knowing for certain whether one was predestined for heaven or hell but of course the allure of sussing out some clue would be irresistible. Why use money as a guide? Put succinctly it fit into the notion of laboring in a “calling.” One worked for the sake of work and industry, free from the pursuit of material concerns. The more of a surplus you garnered, the more it demonstrated your industry and lack of material concern. Investing your money wisely furthered your surplus and, by extension, proof of your elect status.
So the condemnation of Native Americans by the early Bay Staters. “You do not use this land in the way that we would; you are therefore not as entitled to it as we are.” By excluding them from the elect and therefore feminizing them — note the austerity and lack of spectacle involved in Puritan dress — it was simple to dehumanize them. They didn’t fit in this new world full of the elect carving out their divine position in a brave new world. It was therefore fitting that they become spoils of war. After all — nobody flat out stated that collecting slaves couldn’t be a reason for going to war, did they? Oroonoko’s doing just that in Coramentium, then leading a slave rebellion, underscores the uneasy tension in the text. The royal slave does not quite fit in in a monarchy, and fails to translate to a colony.
As for the New Englanders? Moore flat out espouses the opinion that Puritanism needed to die before slavery had any hope of withering away on page 71 of his Notes: Slaveowners in New England “needed to outgrow the theology of the Elizabethan Calvinists.” Leave it to a librarian to sum it up pithily. In enslaving Native Americans, slavery in New England began. In the words of Manegold, the face of slavery in the early colonies was “black and brown.”
In our next installment: The one word that legalized slavery in Massachusetts.