British Literature II
Dr. Ann McClellan
February 25, 2017
The Art of Persuasion: Colonization and the Follies of Slavery
Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave, was originally published in 1688 by Aphra Behn, one of the most successful female writers during the restoration period, and also one of the first women to have a lucrative career writing. Her style was true to the times common genre’s that included the rise of nature writing, cultural exploration, and histories. Aphra Behn was a very intelligent, and worldly woman of the times. This allowed her to judge the potential reactions from the audience to this piece, and her internalized message which was quite radical during this time period. The message she wished to convey is that colonization ruins the native culture, people, and environment, and that slavery will lead to the downfall of all mankind. In 1688 the intended audience for this piece would have consisted of the nobility, and upper middles class of society. Most of the literate members of society during this time were benefiting greatly from both colonization, and the slave trade industry. Behn’s awareness of this forced her to mask her intended message behind seemingly innocent descriptions of nature, and repeatedly saying that everything in this story is factual; and not just her opinion or agenda.
Behn begins this tale by addressing the fact that she witnessed parts of this story first hand, and that the rest of it was acquired directly from Oroonoko himself, “I was myself an eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down; and what I could not be witness of, I received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself” (Behn 96). Whether or not Behn was actually in Surinam during this time period is not actually known. Most historians agree that she was a spy for Charles II, and she was certainly sent to various places around the globe. She may have picked this story up during her travels, or possibly combined multiple true events into one compilation that ended up becoming Oroonoko. Behn begins this piece by introducing us to a land known as Surinam; a Dutch colony in the west Indies (South America), before she mentions Oroonoko or anything regarding slavery she toys with the minds of her readers by giving them pretty playthings to flit about their minds, “we trade for feathers, which they order into shapes, make themselves little short habits of ‘em and glorious wreaths for their heads…a thousand little knacks and rarities in nature; and some of art, as their baskets, weapons aprons, etc.” (Behn 96). The imagery Behn uses is not that clear in terms of colors or how the items she mentions feel. This in part leads me to believe that she is putting on a display for us, and wishes only to entrance us with our own imaginings of what the beautiful items look like. The purpose behind this is too appear like a normal lady of the noble class who is completely captured by the precious, and delicately beautiful trinkets that can be traded for with ease from the savages. Behn is pulling the reader in with a pretty picture so that we unwittingly follow her very deliberate; although well hidden, machinations.
She begins Oroonoko’s story when he is seventeen, and already a mighty captain in his grandfather’s; the King of Coramantien, war band. The very first scene with Oroonoko is when his mentor the General dies by throwing himself in the way of an arrow that is meant for his protégé. This immediately imbues Oroonoko’s character with a quality of worth. If the ruling man on the field of battle will sacrifice himself in defense of this mere boy, then he must truly be the most noble of men. Oroonoko is described as having all of the best qualities of a high born white man, except for the darker skin tone that he was born with. Except for this one distinction this warrior boy is extremely relatable in nature, and the love story that unfolds is enough to warm the heart of almost any reader of this tragically twisted story. Behn addresses Oroonoko as if she greatly admires, perhaps even loves him (possibly the idea of him),
“I have often seen and conversed with this great man, and been a witness to many of his mighty actions; and do assure my reader, the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind, a judgement more solid, a wit more quick, and a conversation more sweet and diverting” (Behn 99).
The use of such grandiose language in describing someone of African descent during this time is certainly unheard of before this passage was written. We are immediately drawn to Oroonoko for the beauty we believe he must possess and the strength, and wisdom that exists in someone so young. There is a purity that Behn pours into the very soul of her Hero, and this shows the reader the true depth of humanity, and how stunning human beings are.
The contrast between how we first see Oroonoko, and the way he exists towards the end of his life is an example of how colonization can cause ruinous damage not only to the individual, but to entire nations. “He remained in this deplorable condition for two days, and never rose from the ground where he had made her sad sacrifice; at last rousing from her side, and accusing himself of living too long” (Behn 133). The downfall of Oroonoko does not just signify the death of a single great man, it signifies the death of humanity itself. Someone so proud, and with such fierceness of spirit is driven to a calamitous state that ends in the sacrifice of his one true love, and their unborn child. The death of Oroonoko leaves us all with the bitterest of vile in our mouths, and not only do we turn away from the animal that our hero has become we also turn away from the joy we thought we saw in humanity itself. We can now accept the flaws of humanity that are constantly being hushed up all around us, and yet keep unraveling before our blind eyes.
“BBC – History – Aphra Behn.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.
Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko: or The Royal Slave”. 95-135. eBooks@Adelaide. 2009. Course Packet.
“Coramantien.” “Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave” A Critical Exploration. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.
Damon. “Aphra Behn Quotes.” Rugusavay. N.p., 05 June 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.