A Slave Only in Name: The Portrayal of Slavery in Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”

It’s been well over a century and a half since slavery was abolished, but there are still ongoing controversies over how to portray it. Films such as Birth of A Nation and Gone With The Wind romanticized slavery, and influenced popular opinion of the subject for decades. In the literary world, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is arguably one of the most influential anti-slavery texts. But, one of the earliest works of English Literature written about slaves was Oroonoko by Alpha Behn. Behn’s story differs from later texts condemning slavery, in that she focuses more on the suffering of her two main characters, rather than the plight of the slaves in general; and throughout the story, the narrator has a passive tone to the ethical questions behind slavery in the colonies.

The novella tells the story of Oroonoko – an African Prince – and his lover, Imoinda. A person of great physical prowess, intellect, and wit, Oroonoko is described as a handsome, dignified man by the narrator. His lover, Imoinda, is said to have possessed great beauty, a “black venus”(Behn 2141) according to the narrator. The couple experiences extreme misfortune at the beginning of the novella, when both are sold into slavery, brought to a sugar plantation in South America called Surinam, and are given new names: Caesar and Clemene. Both try to start their lives over again, but Oroonoko (who is called Caesar at this point by the narrator), slowly grows angrier at his predicament, especially when Imoinda reveals that she is pregnant. Enraged at the idea of his child being born into slavery, he rallies a group of slaves into rebelling and trying to escape; but the plan ends in failure. The novella ultimately ends in tragedy, as Oroonoko – seeing no other way to save his child – kills Imoinda, and is captured again by the plantation overseers. In his final act of rebellion – while being tortured to death – Oroonoko calmly smokes a pipe, refusing to give the overseers the sadistic satisfaction they crave.

One of the interesting things about Oroonoko is that Behn gives the reader a glimpse into British colonialism, and how slavery works. In the first couple of pages, the narrator describes how slaves are obtained by the British: “Coramantien, a country of blacks so called, was one of those places in which they found the most advantageous trading for these slaves … for that nation us very warlike and brave, and having a continual campaign, being always in hostility with one neighboring prince or other, they had the fortune to take a great many captives”(Behn 2139).  It’s an interesting passage because it helps build the idea that slavery is an institution, with its inner-workings being a complex system. The idea of white slave traders bargaining with Africans for slaves is also an image that’s foreign to me, as I haven’t read anything about this practice before reading Oroonoko.

According to Laura J. Rosenthal, “Alpha Behn’s position on slavery has been debated extensively with insight but without resolution.”(Rosental 27) This seems like a fair statement to me, because Behn’s narrator never openly questions the ethics behind the practice of slavery. One of the ways Oroonoko is different from later stories about slavery is the details given about the life of slaves; or lack of it, in comparison to later texts written on the subject. By focusing so much on the plight of Oroonoko and Imoinda, Behn creates quite a bit of sympathy for them, but at the expense, we don’t learn as much about the people around them. Oroonoko is, really, only a slave in name. According to the narrator, he is assigned a portion of land, and a house, and tasks, but he “remained some days in the house, receiving all visits that were made him, without stirring towards that part of the plantation where the Negroes were.”(Behn 2158) When he tries to rally the slaves to rebellion, Oroonoko gives a rousing speech, citing all the harm done to them by their overseers: “They suffered not like men who might find a glory and fortitude in oppression, but like dogs that loved the whip and bell, and fawned the more they were beaten.”(Behn 2169) He describes how an “ass, or dog, or horse, having done his duty endured no stripes…but men such as they toiled on all the tedious week till Black Friday”(Behn 2169). This is one of the few passages where the treatment of slaves is mentioned, but it’s not as detailed as it could be.

Behn is certainly descriptive in her prose, but information about how the slaves lived – whether their conditions were acceptable or, most likely, deplorable – is lacking. In contrast to to the descriptions of slavery in Oroonoko, the biography of Frederick Douglas – titled My Bondage & My Freedom –  provides a more detailed look into how slaves lived, which is, perhaps, to be expected; Douglas was a slave, and Behn wasn’t. In his biography, he provides accounts for how slavery could tear apart families;how slaves could be at the mercy of sadistic plantation overseers, etc. He spends an entire chapter describing the ways slaves were treated by their masters; how slaves on his plantation were given “eight pounds of pickled pork, or their equivalent in fish. The pork was tainted, and the fish was of The poorest quality”(Douglas 100). He describes the clothing the slaves wore, how the “slaves entire apparel could not have cost more than eight dollars per year.”(101); and if children’s clothes failed them, they often worked naked, even in the winter months, until they could obtain new clothes.

Some of this is certainly in Oroonoko: the brutality of Oroonoko’s execution is a grim reminder of the lengths some plantation owners would go to to keep their slaves from rebelling. We can clearly see the grief Oroonoko feels at the idea of his child being born into slavery. Douglas himself was separated from his mother after she was moved to another plantation, so – taking that in mind – it’s hard not to believe that something similar would have happened with Imoinda’s child. But, what ultimately separates Behn and Douglas’ narratives is that the latter writes with a clear argument: slavery is immoral. After Oroonoko is tortured to death, the narrator describes how “My mother and sister were by him all the while, but not suffered to save him, so rude and wild were the rabble, and so inhuman were the justices, who stood by to see the execution, who after paid dearly enough for their insolence.”(Behn 2178) Douglas would have used this as an example of how slavery corrupts men, of how it brings out the worst in people. The narrator criticizes the brutality of Oroonoko’s execution – and the behavior of the onlookers – but isn’t as vocal about the institution that supports such a barbaric act.

Oroonoko stands as one of the earliest works of English literature about slaves. The reader follows the story of Oroonoko and his lover, Imoinda, from the beginning in Africa, to the tragic end in Surinam. By spending so much time with these two characters, it’s hard not to care about their plight. However, by focusing on these two characters, we don’t learn quite as much about those around them. Behn’s narrator criticizes the barbarity of Oroonoko’s execution, but never really does question the ethics behind slavery in general. As it stands, the story isn’t the most detailed portrait of how slaves lived, but it is one of most memorable love-stories of the time, and does provide a brief glimpse into early British colonialism.


Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature Volume, 1C. Ed. Joseph Terry. New York: Pearson Education, 2010. 2137-2178. Print.

Douglas, Frederick. My Bondage & My Freedom. New York: Arno Press, 1968. Print.

I-adam-meckler.com. Web. Sep 28 2015.

Rosenthal, Laura. “Owning Oroonoko: Behn, Southerne, and The Contingencies of Property.” Renaissance Drama. Vol. 23. (1992): 25-58. JSTOR. Web. 27 Sep 2015.