As the first British Empire began to expand from 1583 until 1783, the popularity of colonialism and slave trade began to grow as well. Many Europeans felt that exploiting the natives of areas such as the West Indies and Africa was an intelligent approach, as they could utilize these tactics to make labor cheap. However, not all members of the British Empire were on board with slavery, one such example being Aphra Behn, an influential female writer of the Restoration period. In Oroonoko, Behn’s true story of an African prince who became a slave of the colony of Suriname, Behn utilizes the noble savage ideal as well as constantly insisting on the validity of her story with the purpose of invoking powerful emotions into her audience. These emotions function to subtly persuade her audience to see slave trade and exploitation colonialism from her more critical point of view.
Before analyzing Behn’s text in detail, it is important to first understand the background of her life, and how she had come to meet Oroonoko, an African prince who was tricked into slavery. As a child, Behn’s father had been appointed governor of Suriname, an exploitation colony located in South America. On their voyage to the colony, Behn’s father passed away, making her visit to Suriname much shorter than anticipated. Throughout her narrative, Behn consistently insists on the validity and honesty of the tale, making the claim right from the start, “I do not pretend… to entertain my reader with adventures of a feigned hero… it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues.” (Behn 95). The purpose of these constant assurances of Behn’s “eye-witness” (Behn 95) accounts, although obnoxious, is to create a rapport within the audience, drawing them into the tale to provide a much more powerful emotional impact later on. As her plot progresses towards its climax, Behn’s utilizes the validity of her tale to instill horror in her audience at the conditions in which Oroonoko and his family were treated. At the end of her tale, Behn describes the atrocity of Oroonoko’s execution in horrific detail, describing how the executioner “… first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire; and after that… they cut off his ears and his nose… then they hacked off one of his arms.” (Behn 134). These grisly details creates feelings of disgust, horror, and astonishment, thus serving Behn’s intent of persuading her audience against the idea of slavery.
The noble savage ideal is a literary term attributed to a type of stock literary character, and romanticizes the idea of supposed innocence within native, primitive societies, and their belief that all human beings are essentially good. This naïve belief is due to a lack of exposure to more civilized, advanced, and corrupt societies. Behn’s account was one of the first literary materials attributed to this term, which she utilizes in her tale to invoke empathy within the audience towards the challenges that Oroonoko undergoes and the betrayal he faces. Behn begins her narrative by describing the slaves of the Suriname colony as people that “… represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew hot to sin… Religion here would but destroy that tranquility they possess by innocence; and laws would teach ‘em to know offence, of which now they have no notion.” (Behn 96). Due to a lack of interaction with the more civilized societies, such as that of England, Oroonoko and his native people are accustomed to a much more simpler way of living. This innocence instills almost a protective-like feeling within the audience- due to this lack of experience of the evils of humankind, the audience almost wants to reach out to these native people and warn them of their impending doom in order to maintain the peaceful tranquility among their society.
Although one may argue that Alpha Behn’s narrative would not be an anti-slavery text based on the evidence that Behn is a white settler re-telling the tale of a diseased African slave, as well as on the evidence that Behn does not make any direct critiques against slavery itself, this is not the case. “She never criticizes slavery directly, but the perspective of the victimized hero promotes a critique of slavery nonetheless.” (Nestvold). Having published her account around 1688, slave trade’s popularity had been at its peak, and it would still be well over a hundred years before slave trade would be abolished. To paint the native slaves in her account with such human qualities, Behn is essentially making the subtle statement to her past and much more narrow-minded audience that slaves are just as much of humans as the settlers that captured, sold, and possessed them were. By painting slaves in this light, Behn helps for her audience to feel for the protagonist of her story, emphasizing with him and wanting to take action against the atrocities and betrayals that he had faced by so many of European settlers. For example, the captain that had captured Oroonoko had tricked him into slavery, “The day being come, the captain… rowed to shore to receive the prince… with which Oroonoko was extremely delighted.” (Behn 111), and then later intoxicates Oroonoko and his people, placing iron cuffs on them, and sells them into slavery. This constant process of Oroonoko being treated with admiration and respect by the European settlers is constantly repeated throughout the tale, and with Oroonoko as the protagonist of the entire narrative, it is not difficult for the audience to feel sympathy for the hero’s constant demise due to the disloyalty of the settlers.
Although it is debatable of whether or not Behn’s purpose in writing this “history” was to criticize slavery itself, Behn’s narrative truly speaks for itself. By describing the noble lives of the slaves that she had met and the struggles that they had endured, casting a humanized light upon her subject, Behn creates a relation between her audience and Oroonoko, which thus creates feelings of empathy and sympathy within the audience. By invoking these emotions, Behn is discreetly persuading her audience to see slavery in a much more sinister light. Although she is not direct and to the point in her critique, the time period in which Behn published this text was a time in which female authors had not yet risen to the level and popularity of their male counterparts, nor was slavery anywhere near the point of even being considered abolished. By making her persuasion subtle, Behn is able to create a narrative that would still have the potential to become popular within her audience, while at the same time, would slip the notion of slavery being wrong within the psyche of the reader. By utilizing the noble savage ideal to create feelings of empathy within the reader, Behn achieves her purpose in creating a text that critiques against the slave trade of the Restoration Period itself.
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. South Australia: The U of Adelaide Library, 2009.
Nestvold, Ruth. “The White Mistress and the Black Slave: Aphra Behn, Racism and the Beginnings of Novelistic Discourse.” Art-Lit.net. The Aphra Behn Page, 1995. Web. 10 <http://www.lit-arts.net/Behn/begin-ab.htmMar. 2017>