Aphra Behn is credited with being the first female professional writer in England. In 1688, as a well-established dramatist, Behn published Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave: A True History (also known by the shorter title Oroonoko), the story of an African prince who is forced into slavery in the South American country of Suriname, which in the late 1600s was an English colony. In her dedication to the work, Behn claims the story is true and establishes herself as the narrator in the novel. Scholars conjecture that Behn likely visited the English colony in the 1660s and based her work on her experiences there. The veracity of Behn's account is an area of modern critical debate.
In Behn's novel, the warrior prince, Oroonoko, falls in love with a young maiden, Imoinda, whom the king of their nation takes as his mistress. When the young lovers are discovered together, Imoinda is sold into slavery. Duped by an English slave trader with whom he has previously done business, Oroonoko is also captured and sold. Although he is purchased as a slave, Oroonoko impresses the plantation's overseer and is allowed to live separately from the other slaves and to do no work. After Oroonoko discovers Imoinda has been sold to the same plantation, the lovers conceive a child and attempt to bargain with their captors to return to Africa. Realizing that they will not be allowed to leave, Oroonoko leads a mass escape from the plantation. The group is quickly overtaken by the English, and Oroonoko is punished. Fearing Imoinda will be tortured, Oroonoko kills her, and he is subsequently tortured and executed. Throughout the tale, the narrator stresses Oroonoko's nobility and expresses her deep sympathy for him. At the time the work was published, Oroonoko was treated as a romance, the love between Oroonoko and Imoinda being viewed as the work's main theme. Later critics have focused on the novel as an exploration of imperialism, slavery, and true nobility.
Originally published in 1688 by William Canning, along with two other works, in the volume Three Histories: Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt, Agnes de Castro, Oroonoko is available in a 2003 Penguin Classics edition.
The Epistle Dedicatory
Oroonoko, whose full title is Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave: A True History, is prefaced by a letter of dedication, or "epistle dedicatory." In this dedication, Behn addresses the Lord Maitland, a Scottish minister under King James II, whose literary activities Behn admired. After praising Maitland's "wit and worth," Behn spends the better part of a long paragraph explaining why a man with known faults may still be praised for his virtues, and she argues that such a man's true nobility reveals itself through his written works. Behn goes on to applaud Maitland's scholarly nature, his quest for knowledge, and his writings in which he defends the Catholic Church and explicates its teachings. Maitland's personal life and marriage are also the subject of Behn's effusive compliments. Behn then turns to her story, explaining to Maitland that what he is about to read is a true story. She defends the work against being labeled romantic (depicting an idealized world in the paradisiacal country of Suriname) by pointing out that the country she describes is extremely different from England and is full of wondrous things that may be hard to imagine, although Behn has truthfully written about them. Asking Maitland to forgive any faults in the book, Behn explains that she wrote it in a few hours.
The History of the Royal Slave
As Behn opens her story, she explains that while she was an eyewitness to what the royal slave endured after he came to Suriname, the earlier part of his story, which concerns Oroonoko's youth and how he came to be captured, is based on what Oroonoko told her. Behn narrates the story in the first person, referring to herself as "I." In the dedication and in the opening paragraphs, she identifies herself as the story's narrator. For the next several pages, Behn describes the native inhabitants of Suriname, the "Indians," as she states. At length she catalogues the various items the Indians trade with English colonists, which the English in turn take back to England to sell. Behn discusses some of the life and daily habits of the Indians. The English colonists lived "in perfect tranquility and good understanding" with these native people, for, as Behn points out, it benefited the colonists to do so, as the Indians knew the land and where to hunt. The Indians also greatly outnumbered the colonists, Behn observes, so the English did not dare attempt to use them as slaves.
This statement allows Behn the opportunity to transition from a discussion of Suriname to the place where her story actually begins, in Africa, the country where the English acquired the slaves to work the Suriname sugar plantations. In the African nation of Coramantien, slaves are bought by the English and brought back to Suriname. (As Janet Todd explains in the footnotes to the 2003 Penguin edition of Oroonoko, Coramantien, or Koromantyn, was a trading post on Africa's west coast, an area that corresponds roughly with the coast of modern Ghana.)
Describing the structure of this nation, Behn characterizes it as a warrior society, ruled by an ancient king. On the battlefield, the young royal, Prince Oroonoko, who is the grandson of the old king, has earned a reputation as brave and daring. At the age of seventeen he becomes a general, when his commander is killed in battle. Behn paints a picture of the prince in which he is depicted as physically perfect and beautiful. Her description emphasizes the way his features are more European than African. Oroonoko falls in love with the daughter of his fallen commander, a girl named Imoinda, and to honor her he presents her with the slaves who have been captured in a recent battle. Imoinda returns Oroonoko's affections. The young couple make vows to one another.
The old king has, like Oroonoko, noticed Imoinda's exceptional beauty. Despite the fact that he has learned that Oroonoko and Imoinda are romantically involved, the king, who already has many wives and mistresses, desires her for himself. He sends Imoinda his royal veil, a symbol that designates Imoinda as the king's possession, his mistress. In keeping with the culture of their society, Imoinda cannot refuse the king's command. When Oroonoko learns that Imoinda has become the king's mistress, he is devastated. He knows that to rebel against the king would result in death for both himself and his beloved Imoinda.
With the help of a fellow warrior, Aboan, and one of the king's discarded mistresses, Onahal, who now tends to Imoinda, Oroonoko manages to spend a few stolen hours with Imoinda. When the king discovers that Oroonoko and Imoinda have been together, he sells Imoinda as a slave and has Oroonoko told that Imoinda has been executed. Gradually, the king begins to feel remorse for having wronged Oroonoko. Fearing that Oroonoko will plot revenge against him, he seeks Oroonoko's pardon. Oroonoko carries on, but he grieves for Imoinda.
When an English slave trader, with whom Oroonoko has previously conducted business, arrives, he invites Oroonoko and his companions aboard his ship, apparently as guests. Soon, however, Oroonoko and the others are overcome and bound, and they are destined to be sold as slaves. They are taken to Suriname, and Oroonoko is sold to a plantation owner. The overseer, named Trefry, who purchases Oroonoko is impressed by Oroonoko's regal bearing, his fine attire, his intelligence, and his ability to speak English. Trefry allows Oroonoko to live apart from the other slaves and to not work. Trefry promises that the situation is temporary and that he will endeavor to return Oroonoko to his own country. As is the custom with all the African slaves at the Suriname plantation to which Oroonoko has been taken, Oroonoko is renamed. Trefry calls him Caesar. When Oroonoko meets the other slaves at the plantation, he finds that they are people who he himself sold to the English. Knowing Oroonoko's royal status, they revere him and remain loyal to him.
Trefry tells Oroonoko about a female slave who has recently been brought to the plantation, a girl whom all the male slaves desire. The girl has been named Clemene, but when Oroonoko meets her he finds that she is none other than Imoinda. The lovers, who made their vows to one another in Africa, are allowed to live together as husband and wife, and they conceive a child. With Imoinda pregnant, Oroonoko continues to seek freedom for himself and his wife. He offers wealth and slaves in return for their passage home. As Behn points out, the slaveholders have no intention of letting Oroonoko go, but they pacify him by allowing him to hunt and to have more freedom than any of the other slaves at the plantation. Oroonoko even serves as an intermediary in disputes between the Suriname natives and the English colonists.
Oroonoko can only be appeased and distracted from thoughts of returning home for so long, and he begins to talk to the other slaves about escaping. They are loyal to him and follow him into the jungle. The deputy governor of the English colony in Suriname, named Byam, is brought in to help pursue Oroonoko and the slaves he has incited to escape. When they are surrounded by the English, the slaves initially fight by Oroonoko's side, but they are convinced by Byam to return with him to the plantation and to abandon Oroonoko. Forced to surrender, Oroonoko is brutally beaten.
As he begins to heal from his assault, Oroonoko realizes that he will probably still be executed, and if he is gone, Imoinda will be in grave danger. Both Oroonoko and Imoinda agree that she will suffer punishments worse than death at the hands of the English. The two escape into the jungle, and with Imoinda's blessing, Oroonoko kills the pregnant Imoinda. For two days he grieves by her body. When he realizes that he must go, as he has vowed to revenge himself and Imoinda on those who have captured them, Oroonoko finds that he is too weak to move. He languishes for another six days by Imoinda's body.
Another slave, named Tuscan, leads a search party to find Oroonoko and Imoinda. When Tuscan and another man from this party come upon Oroonoko, Oroonoko realizes he will not be able to carry out his revenge. Instead, he seeks to kill himself, and begins attacking his own body with his knife. Tuscan and the others are finally able to overcome him, and they return him to the plantation. There, he is operated on, his wounds closed, and he is revived, only so that his captors can execute him in their own manner. He is dismembered and finally killed.
Aboan : Aboan is a fellow soldier in the army of the Coramantien community. He fights alongside Oroonoko, under Oroonoko's leadership. Aboan is romantically involved with Onahal, the former mistress of the old king. Oroonoko establishes a chain of communication to Imoinda by passing messages to Aboan, who relates Oroonoko's feelings to Onahal, who finally delivers the messages to Imoinda.
Byam : Byam is the deputy governor of the English colony in Suriname. He is known for his brutal nature, according to Behn. It is Byam who leads the search for Oroonoko and the escaped slaves, and he who convinces the other slaves to abandon Oroonoko. At Byam's orders, Oroonoko is beaten and tortured, and later, after Oroonoko's murder of Imoinda and subsequent recapture, it is Byam who insists that Oroonoko, who has been almost fatally injured by his own hand, is healed and restored to health before he is tortured, dismembered, and executed. In Byam, Behn depicts the cruelest elements of the slaveholding system. All the evils of slavery rest almost exclusively on his shoulders, as the other whites Oroonoko encounters, save the English captain who tricks him, all treat him with a great deal of respect.
Caesar : See Oroonoko
Clemene : See Imoinda
Imoinda : Imoinda is the fifteen-year-old daughter of a fallen general, who was a man Oroonoko revered as a father. When Oroonoko presents Imoinda with slaves captured in battle as a means of honoring her and her dead father, Oroonoko is stunned by Imoinda's beauty. She becomes the object of Oroonoko's fierce passion and love. Imoinda soon confides to Oroonoko that she shares his feelings. Although Imoinda feels bound by duty and tradition--and fear of death--to accept the king's royal veil (his demand that she become his mistress), she, nevertheless, remains emotionally faithful to Oroonoko. When she allows him to visit her in her chambers and spends a romantic night with him, she is punished for disgracing the king; she is sold into slavery.
When the reader once again encounters Imoinda on the plantation to which she has been sold, she is again defined only by her beauty. Just as Oroonoko became entranced with her due to her beauty, and the king sought to possesses her because of her beauty, so do all the other slaves on the plantation desire her, according to the overseer, Trefry. Imoinda's beauty makes her an object of desire, and she is loyal to Oroonoko, gladly welcoming the fate he has decided for her--to be murdered at his hand rather than risk being tortured by the deputy governor Byam. Yet, Behn reveals little else about Imoinda beyond her physical characteristics. A sense of duty commingled with fear are the driving forces behind her actions.
The King : The king, usually referred to as "the old king," is the leader of Oroonoko's people in Coramantien, and he is the grandfather of Oroonoko. Behn describes him as over one hundred years old. He has numerous wives and mistresses. His desire is rekindled by Imoinda, and he orders her to become his mistress even though she is already committed to Oroonoko. He cares not whether Imoinda feels any affection for him, knowing that she will see it as her duty to submit to him, which she does. Nevertheless, he jealously watches any interaction Imoinda has with Oroonoko, going into a rage, for example, when Imoinda accidentally trips and falls into Oroonoko's arms during a dance she is commanded to perform for the king and his generals. When the king discovers that Oroonoko has stolen into Imoinda's chambers and has been with her, he sells Imoinda into slavery out of spite and jealously, knowing it would be more honorable to have her killed. He lies, letting it be known to Oroonoko that Imoinda has been executed. The king seeks Oroonoko's forgiveness and realizes he has wronged him, but he does so out of fear of Oroonoko's rebellion rather than out of genuine remorse.
Narrator : In the dedicatory letter and in the opening paragraphs of the novel, Behn identifies herself as the narrator of the story. She remains a significant presence throughout the novel, commenting on events from her own perspective and describing her own interaction with the other characters. While Behn asserts that the story is true and although she appears in the novel as an eyewitness, it is believed that the work is a fictionalized account of Behn's experiences. As many facts about her life are unknown, critics have been unable to verify enough of the details she gives in the novel to label it as nonfiction, despite Behn's assertions to the contrary. Yet it has been observed that many of her descriptions of Suriname in the mid-seventeenth century are accurate enough to contend that Behn likely visited the English colony at some time.
Onahal : Onahal is an older woman, who is described as still beautiful. She was once one of the king's many mistresses. Like other mistresses of whom the king has tired, Onahal now tends to the newer, younger mistresses, and she is assigned to Imoinda after Imoinda arrives. Onahal and Aboan are romantically involved, and through this couple, Imoinda and Oroonoko communicate. Onahal helps arrange the fateful night that Oroonoko and Imoinda share, the event that results in Imoinda being sold into slavery.
Oroonoko : Oroonoko is a seventeen-year-old prince in the community of African people living in Coramantien. He becomes a general when his own general dies. Behn describes the nobility of Oroonoko in glowing terms. His physical perfection is admired as much as the integrity of his soul. In Behn's accounting of Oroonoko's physical traits, he is distinguished from other Africans and described in terms of his resemblance to Europeans. His love for Imoinda is also depicted in such a way as to highlight Oroonoko's purity of affection. Behn comments that in love, Oroonoko is even more honorable than Christians. His desire for Imoinda is described in physical terms; he longs to be with her, and he risks both of their lives in order to spend the night with her. After Imoinda has been sold into slavery, Oroonoko, who has been told that Imoinda has been executed, accepts the king's apologies and vows to never raise a weapon against him in revenge. Oroonoko languishes in his tent, despite the fact that his fellow soldiers beg him to lead them in battle. He finally collects himself and fights as though he seeks death. Oroonoko's anguish is intended by Behn to be regarded as a mark of his love for Imoinda and to indicate the depths of his grief for her.
Once Oroonoko himself has been sold as a slave in Suriname, having been tricked by the English captain, his nobility, according to Behn, is apparent to all. Although he is still bought as a slave, he is set apart from the other slaves and allowed freedoms the others do not possess. Promises are made that he will be allowed to return home, but they are never fulfilled. Oroonoko's reunion with Imoinda on the plantation is viewed with wonder by the white people on the plantation. Oroonoko and Imoinda are treated as curiosities, and they are allowed to live together. While Behn notes that she spends time visiting with Oroonoko and Imoinda, in general the whites' attitude toward the couple is one of amazement that slaves could demonstrate personal nobility, beauty, and affection for one another.
After Imoinda becomes pregnant, Oroonoko's captors begin to fear that he will rebel against them, as he is persistent in his attempts to bargain for his and Imoinda's freedom. He is given various tasks and duties in order to distract him from his goal and to make him feel purposeful. Behn demonstrates, through her recounting of Oroonoko's fate after he attempts to lead the slaves in escaping from the plantation, that it is Oroonoko's difference from the other slaves that results in his torture and ultimate death. He is clearly a leader and obviously a man who is certain that he, unlike his fellow slaves, does not deserve to be made subservient to others. Although he attempts to help free the other slaves, initially he only bargains for his own and Imoinda's freedom. It is also Oroonoko himself who, while still in Africa, sold many of the slaves to the English in the first place. Behn demonstrates Oroonoko's praiseworthy qualities--his ability to love Imoinda, his leadership qualities, his sense of honor. At the same time, these qualities lead to Oroonoko's death. His love for Imoinda leads him to murder her, to protect her from a fate worse than death. His abilities as a leader result in his punishment for tempting the slaves to escape. His sense of honor leads him to seek revenge against those who would hold him against his will, and this desire to violently attack Byam and his men, although he is unsuccessful in his efforts, results in Oroonoko's torture and execution.
Trefry : Trefry is the overseer of the slaves at the plantation where Oroonoko is destined. Trefry purchases Oroonoko but is so impressed with his nobility and intelligence that he does not treat him as a slave, and he even promises to obtain Oroonoko's freedom. While it is unlikely that Trefry ever intended to keep this promise, he does treat Oroonoko with respect, and he serves as an advocate for Oroonoko throughout much of Oroonoko's time at the plantation. After Oroonoko leads the slaves in an escape attempt, it is Trefry who prevents Oroonoko from being hanged on Byam's orders. In the end, Trefry is unable to protect Oroonoko.
Tuscan : Tuscan is another slave on the plantation to which Oroonoko has been sold. When Oroonoko tries to convince the slaves to follow him and escape their life of slavery, Tuscan confirms the slaves' loyalty to Oroonoko but also questions Oroonoko. Specifically, Tuscan points to the fact that the slaves all have families, and they do not wish to jeopardize the lives of their wives and children. Oroonoko still manages to convince Tuscan and the others. Tuscan stands beside Oroonoko and refuses to yield when the escaped slaves are captured by Byam. He is whipped alongside Oroonoko. When Oroonoko and Imoinda escape together so that Oroonoko can kill her, Tuscan is with the search party sent out to look for them. He attempts to help Oroonoko, but he is injured by Oroonoko in the process.