I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this Royal Slave, to entertain my reader with adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure....
But punishments hereafter are suffered by one's self; and the world takes no cognizance whether this God have revenged 'em, or not, 'tis done so secretly, and deferred so long: while the man of no honour suffers every moment the scorn and contempt of the honester world, and dies every day ignominiously in his fame, which is more valuable than life.
Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise: yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda.
First great story of slavery
Aphra Behn's most famous work might disappoint a reader who has heard it's a staunchly anti-slavery, anti-colonialist or feminist work. One may find Oroonoko is none of those things, at least by modern standards.
Behn was a writer in the latter seventeenth-century period known in England as the Restoration, when monarchy had been re-established after a revolutionary interregnum. She was an ardent royalist. Note the book's subtitle: The Royal Slave. This is a clue, borne out in the novella's reading, that it's not so much slavery that is being protested but rather the enslavement of a man who should have been king of his own people.
This puts Oroonoko in the class of countless other fictions in which conspiracies or twists of fate have forced figures of noble lineage to live among the poor and oppressed, kept from their rightful places as rulers. In most such tales the climax comes when their claims are finally recognized and they are restored to riches and power. In Oroonoko's case, however, he fails to reverse the injustice and he meets a tragic end. Even the enslaved people, whom he led in rebellion as their natural leader, turn against him.
The protagonist, by the way, is described in terms that make him appear superior to others of his race, even down to having to having a higher Roman nose and finer shaped lips than "the rest of the Negroes" with their flat noses and thick lips.
Despite this fixation on nobility, it's not surprising the story was nonetheless hailed in later centuries as an abolitionist text. The picture Oroonoko paints of the slave trade is horrible, in contrast to references in novels like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814) that take slavery for granted as a source of wealth.
This commercial incentive seems to offend Behn the most. When Oroonoko makes his speech to stir his fellow slaves to join his rebellion, he asks why they should accept such undeserving overlords:
Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honourable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves? This would not anger a noble heart; this would not animate a soldier's soul: no, but we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys....
Oroonoko and his compatriots had been tricked into becoming slaves. Presumably if they had been defeated in war, indenture to their honourable captors would have been justified. Rather, he calls the colonialists who acquired them "a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left, to distinguish them from the vilest creatures?"
The colonialists, apart from a couple of exceptions, are as cruel as the traders who brought them the slaves. But does this make Oroonoko a work of anti-colonialism? The narrator goes out of her way near the beginning to point out how well the colonials treat the natives they find in the new world, not making them slaves, "for those we live with in perfect amity, without daring to command 'em; but, on the contrary, caress 'em with all the brotherly and friendly affection in the world; trading with them for their fish, venison, buffalo's skins, and little rarities...."
The strangest claim for Oroonoko, though, is that it is some kind of early feminist text. This assessment seems to be based on two figures: the author herself who is acclaimed as one of the first female professional writers in England—a tremendous achievement—and the character of Imoinda, Oroonoko's love interest in the story. But Imoinda is little more than a lightly sketched counterpart to the elaborately drawn Oroonoko. She's one of the most beautiful women in the world, "a black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her person as he". And she's quite obedient to the dominant males in her world, submitting to joining her monarch's harem when he orders it and later following Oroonoko's lead in his rebellion. When the uprising fails—in part because the female slaves entreat their spouses to surrender—she is quickly convinced by her lover that he must kill her to prevent her suffering a worse fate at the hands of the victors.
Whether you accept this argument, it makes for a moving Romeo-and-Juliet style of tragic conclusion. Or it could if, after her quick dispatching, he had met his own end. But Oroonoko's gruesome suicide attempt is foiled and his torturous death at the hands of the enemy colonialists is drawn out in awful detail. And this packs its own emotional wallop. I think Shakespeare would have approved.
Aphra Behn herself was primarily a playwright and it shows in the writing of Oroonoko. The text is mainly exposition, getting people from one scene to the next. Oroonoko is often called a novel despite its short length, possibly because it has a much longer book's worth of plot in it. The scenes themselves are quickly dealt with too, dispensing the essential action and setting the relationships with little dialogue. When people do speak, it's usually in exclamatory speeches.
The dense text can be difficult to get through, especially if you have an edition that retains the original spelling, punctuation and capitalization of every noun. But once you're into it, the unique story line is strong enough to hold the interest through to the disturbing end.
The story was retold in a play, Oroonoko: a Tragedy, by Thomas Southern in 1695, a few years after Behn's death. The drama, playing up the role of Imoinda, proved more popular than the novella. A similar shift to the female character's perspective occurred more recently in IMOINDA or She Who Will Lose Her Name (2008), a libretto by Grenadian-born author Joan Anim-Addo. The story is apparently one that bears retelling.