Dr. David Roberts
1 December 2017
The Role Societal Views plays in Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave
Behn’s tale of The Royal Slave is historically acclaimed for its controversial nature and stark presentation of identity of Africans as viewed by much of Europe. This tale presented conflicts for those being characterized, conflicts within sensitivity of the topics being portrayed as well as conflicts for the author, Aphra Behn. First, the significance of the main character, Oroonoko, and interpreting his possible symbolism. There is a visible divide between how the common new world writings are presented compared to the he political sympathies of the author, expressed in the book through her presentation of characters and plot. Finally, the author uses the topics of slavery and racism to make a bold statement about how Europe views African and those who are brought to live a life in servitude. Aphra Behn, the first Englishwoman to earn her living by writing, was noted for many of her works, among them Oroonoko, “an important precursor to the novel” (Abrams) . For Behn, this tale was “true history” as many collections had been published around the late 1600s popularizing travelling to the new world and discovering the savages that lived there (Spurr).
Behn presents herself as an objective and reliable female narrator, in a rather ‘salesman like matter’. Behn’s character befriends, Oroonoko, an African prince of a people who were not uncivilized barbarians like the Africans as commonly described from previous travelers. The Coromanti people were highly intelligent, multilingual, involved in trade, and far from the ape like savages they were thought to be (W. W. Norton & Company). Slaves from the coast were only obtained through war, which provides a sympathetic cover for the topic of slavery making it much easier for the reader to humanize the enslaved, as well as the slavers (Brown).
Oroonoko is quickly enamored with the goddess like Imoinda – whom he marries and then is separated from at his grandfather’s hand. His grandfather, the king of Cromanti and uses his power to take on his grandson’s beloved on as his own concubine. After torridly consummating their marriage, Imoinda and Oroonoko are given a consequence for going against the king. Imoinda is sold into slavery. Oroonoko “loses his freedom because he naively accepts the invitation of an English sea captain – with whom Oroonoko has engaged in slave trading – to dine aboard ship” (Ferguson, The Authorial Ciphers of Aphra Behn). Behn provides a subtle critique about the `treachery’ that reaches Oroonoko at the hands of the captain who entraps the “too-credulous prince and transports Oroonoko to Surinam” (Ferguson, The Authorial Ciphers of Aphra Behn). In the end, Oroonoko leads a slave revolt which concludes in failure as it leads to death.
“The hero learns too late that the `good’ Christians … have repeatedly if perhaps not fully consciously deceived him” (Ferguson, Juggling the categories of race, class and gender: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko). Prince Oronooko is portrayed as noble, honest, educated, “yet extraordinary and ultimately just another savage” (Ferguson, Juggling the categories of race, class and gender: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko). Behn describes Oroonoko as completely Roman, except for his skin color. He represents a figure of authority, one that outside of his race will have power over others. Similarly, his slave name suggests a reincarnation of all that is Rome, the model of civilization: “Mr. Trefry gave Oroonoko that of Caesar; which name will live in that country as long as that (scarce more) glorious one of the great Roman” (W. W. Norton & Company). Although she seems to have sympathy for slaves, she only has sympathy for those that are noble like Oroonoko, which reflects a conflict in the idea of identity as it encompasses people of color during the Restoration era. This shows that Behn must have some contradicting ideals like her novel. Later, ‘Caesar’ defends the conditions that the slaves live in:
“…we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools and cowards; and the support of rogues and runagates, that have abandoned their own countries for rapine, murders, theft, and villainies…And shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no human virtue left, to distinguish them from the vilest of creatures?” (W. W. Norton & Company).
For instance in the killing of his wife, as he chooses to end her life for the freedom of their unborn child, Oroonoko willing pulls the life force that is left in her with his bare hands. As is custom in their native land, “wives have a respect for their husbands equal to what any other people pay a deity, and when a man finds any occasion to quit his wife, if he love her, she dies by his hand, if not, he sells her or suffers some other to kill her” (W. W. Norton & Company). Ending this tragic tale, Behn provides the reader an image of Indians in Surinam, living in a kind of “golden age”, harmless, unspoiled and respectable, “they understood no vice, or cunning, but when they are taught by white men” (W. W. Norton & Company). Oroonoko, just as white people, was not always claimed to have possessed such innocence.
“Aphra Behn was a political writer and a Royalist, very decidedly on the Tory side supporting the king” (Jones). In Oroonoko, the narrator mirrors Behn’s own ideals, as well. Behn adds traits within her characters that she most likely was able to identity in people she had meet along her travels (Pearson). As many similarities as one can find between the narrator and Behn, the narrator is not Behn, herself. Certain choices that were made in terms of the true meaning Behn was attempting to convey versus what many readers interpret, ultimately depends on what perspective one decides to take on the work.
There is several times in which the author’s political views potentially interrupt the established ideals of the novella. One is the issue of slavery and slave trade – beyond the politics to the actual root and moral compass that the reader utilizes to read this novel and analyze its meaning. One would benefit in recalling that this tale is often categorized under anti-slavery. According to Brown in the staged version by Thomas Southerne, making Imoinda white had a strong anti-slavery tone, which contributed to the perception of the original story (Brown). This also added a conflict pertaining to power within the female position and overall powerlessness. The choice in making Imoinda a white woman, as she was a slave (realistically in indentured servant), was viewed as providing her more privileged than Oroonoko and her character also gained more sympathy.
Another conflict occurs at the fact that the black main character is only allowed to speak or be spoken of through a white female, who in her own right in unreliable in traits, as well as in recalling the events that occurred. The narrator links herself and Oroonoko together by virtue of their positions in the world. For our protagonist, the oppression is conducted through his race and not his gender, but the narrator being a woman this is not the same for her, exhibited through her interactions with the men within the colony. “Though she is more privileged then the slaves, because she is white, she is still powerless to prevent violence and change the course of events, despite her claims of authority” (Chenialk). The complexities of power are deeply intertwined to that of the monarchy and absolutism within that held crown (Chenialk).
Another possible reading of this tale is that Oroonoko might be seen as a symbol of kings and their fate: “the black prince has sometimes been read as a composite symbol for monarchs such as the `martyred’ Charles I; the Stuarts’ color was black, and there is no doubt that the novella attaches complex… meanings to the `ebony’ color of Oroonoko and his wife Imoinda’s skin” (Ferguson, The Authorial Ciphers of Aphra Behn). According to Brown, “the colonies stage an historical anachronism, the repetition of the English revolution, and the political endpoint of Behn’s narrative is the re-enactment of … the execution of Charles I”. Brown also recalls Oronokko’s given name Caesar – was used by Behn to refer to the monarchs such as Charles II and James II, in her poems (Graham). The most prominent connections between Oroonoko and royalty was his use as a sacrifice for the crown, like Charles I, dying “without a groan or reproach” (W. W. Norton & Company). For critics and researchers of this period, the pure design of Oroonoko’s death would lead one to believe that the execution of Charles was mean to be illuded to (Ferguson, The Authorial Ciphers of Aphra Behn). This could also be debated because of the differentiating circumstances in what lead up to their deaths.
Taking a wider view, “Oroonoko’s death stands as a reminder of the massive historical shift that destroyed Charles Stuart and made England a modern imperialist power”, related to the fall of dictatorship, increased colonization and mass movements when it came to trading (Brown). This way, Oroonoko maybe seen as a warning leading up to the large explosion that forever changed history. The image of tyranny completely eradicates what Behn had been implying throughout her tale. As seen through her royalist perspectives, Behn discussions many of the historical examples of Royalists in a very uncomplimentary (to say the least) tone. William Byam, “deputy-governor of Surinam” of the execution of Oroonoko, was loyal to the monarchy (W. W. Norton & Company). He was the stand-in for the narrator’s father, the governor, but died midst his travels (Ferguson, The Authorial Ciphers of Aphra Behn). Byam, who is an actual historical figure, is painted as a brutal villain. Behn’s narrator from the very start seems to be in competition with him, in a letter to a supporter: “I had none above me in that country” (and notably “wanted power to preserve this great man”) (p.5).
While Byam was performing the functions of the governor, the real governor, Lord Willoughby, is absent throughout the story. Another historical person, Colonel George Martin, “brother to Harry Martin, the great Oliverian” (p.49), “a man of great gallantry, wit and goodness” (p.64), after Oroonoko’s execution “swore he had rather see the quarters of Banister and the governor himself, than those of Caesar, on his plantations, and that he could govern the Negroes without terrifying … them with frightful spectacles of a mangled king” (p.73). Behn calls this Parliamentarian a “great man.”
Laura Brown gives a more detailed account on party quarrels in Surinam in her essay “The Romance of Empire”, but the fact remains that Behn drew her inspiration from real people and experiences, as well as the political situation of the times, and her (or the narrator’s) views are by no means coherent politically. For the most part, she focuses on the personality and certain traits of character in her heroes, rather than their political allegiances, as can be seen from the descriptions of Colonel Martin and Byam. Had she wished to paint all Royalists in favourable colours she would have to exclude these characters from the story or at least omit phrases such as `the great Oliverian’.
There are some quite straightforward passages in the book on kings, authorities and their subjects, closely related to the theme of slavery and oppression. The fate of Imoinda in Coramantien, where the old king takes her as a concubine from the arms of her husband is similar to her and her husband’s objectified status in the New World. As Margaret Ferguson points out, Behn’s sympathies are on the side of Oroonoko and Imoinda, when they are oppressed by an absolutist ruler, and by the corrupt representatives of the English king in Surinam . The novel does not present a coherent, unbending Royalist view, on the contrary, Behn expresses a certain discomfort with some contemporary values. It is seen, first of all, in the religious hypocrisy of several characters, in the way colonies are portrayed as potentially explosive places where slave revolts can happen any time, as well as in the way Behn presents her narrator. She struck me as a woman who was on equal terms with men in her society, with a great sense of self-worth, yet I could not help wondering whether this was (at least partly) wishful thinking rather than the narrator’s real position.
“The narrator identifies with Oroonoko when he is powerless, `feminised’ by virtue of his exclusion from and opposition to the dominant culture” . The narrator thus seems to sympathise on the level of feeling and emotion with the oppressed, with the marginal, which hardly makes her a political propagandist. Had she been one, she would have had a much clearer platform for her opinions. Not only does she sympathise, she also searches for some shared qualities with those she sees as oppressed.
Oroonoko’s description, for example, registers him not as essentially African, but as essentially different from other Africans. His skin is “polished jet” and “perfect ebony” instead of “brown, rusty black”; his nose is “rising and Roman, instead of African and flat”; his lips are narrower than those of the other Africans (p.12). Not only his looks are made classically European, but his personality and education are more like those of a noble European prince rather than some `African savage’: “He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points adress’d himself as if his education had seen in some European court.” Among other things, “he had heard of the late Civil Wars in England and the deplorable death of our great monarch, and would discourse of it with all the… abhorrence of the injustice imaginable” (p.11). This makes Oroonoko an African Royalist. Judging from the narrator’s praise of his education and his “greatness of mind”, this confirms not only her Royalist sympathies, but also her wish to identify with him in some way as a member of the inferior race.
The abolitionist side of the novella is equally controversial. There is no evidence in the text that Behn opposed slavery as an institution. She distinguishes between those of the royal birth and those who were born to be slaves. The tragedy of Oroonoko’s fate lies in his royal blood, not in the mere fact of slavery. After all, the prince engaged in slave trade himself before he was captured. The hypocrisy of the `Christians’ and their cruelty are depicted as unacceptable, but Behn’s belief seems to be that those of noble birth can never be `real’ slaves by virtue of their blood while the others are `born slaves’. But the criticism of slavery appears in the accounts on the treachery of the English sea-captain, the cruel treatment of Oroonoko, in whose mouth the author puts an anti-slavery speech: “And why should we be slaves to an unknown people?.. Have they won us in honourable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves?.. no, but we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys” (p.58). By implication, there is nothing wrong with prisoners of war being sold as slaves. However, it is rather through her underlying identification with the oppressed that the narrator expresses any objections against slavery, rather than through a direct abolitionist position.
We can thus see that the novella does not present a one-sided position on any of the matters discussed above. It challenges cruelty and hypocrisy on some occasions, yet at other times finds deceit or murder quite appropriate. Behn explores issues of race and slavery, absolutism and power, as presented through a female narrator. The book gives an accurate picture of the times Behn lived in through the fictional account of the tragic story of the black prince.
There are no straightforward ways in which Oroonoko may be considered a political novel. It reflects the political attitudes of the author, but those attitudes are often inconsistent, and the critical interpretation has been incredibly varied. Oroonoko, the black prince and the main character, is a royal martyr, which inevitably links him to the Stuarts, especially Charles I, executed comparatively recently in relation to the time Oroonoko was written, just 40 years ago. However, the Royalist sympathies which Behn puts in Oroonoko’s mouth, are not universal, and in some cases the Royalists and their cause are presented as offensive, as in the case of Byam. In the same way, there is no clear-cut critique of slavery. Behn, as a woman, has sympathy for those who have no legal power and social standing, but she never openly criticises the institution of slavery in the novella, neither does she criticise any other social institutions of the patriarchal world she lived in.
Behn’s story of “The Royal Slave” is verifiably acclaimed for its questionable nature and stark introduction of character of Africans as saw by a lot of Europe. The political ramifications . To begin with, the hugeness of the primary character, Oroonoko, and deciphering his conceivable imagery. Second, how the political sensitivities of the writer, were communicated in the book through her introduction of characters and plot. Furthermore, third, the treatment by the writer of bondage and racial issues, as found in the political context.Aphra Behn, the primary Englishwoman to win her living by composing, was noted for a significant number of her works, among them Oroonoko, which Abrams calls “an imperative forerunner to the novel” . Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave, is a novella from the Restoration time frame, distributed in 1688, and exhibited by creator as “a genuine history.”
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