I first heard about Oroonoko by Aphra Behn from my wife. She’s a British Literature guru and recommended this work to me when I asked for a piece that was from the Restoration period and written by a woman. I’ve picked it up a few times over the summer, but I just didn’t think I’d like it. I was wrong.
The opening was slow, but then it all hits the fan. Oroonoko is a prince in what is today Ghana and he falls in love with Imoinda. They get married but he hasn’t told his grandfather, the king that they are married. The King is a spiteful man and he wants Imoinda for himself so he calls her to his harem and basically takes Imoinda for himself. Then there’s whole plot where Oroonoko’s doing what he can to just see Imoinda. Finally, the King realizes what’s going on and sends Oroonoko to the battle field. On his last night in the palace, Oroonoko sneaks into the harem and “ravishes” Imoinda (Behn’s words not mine). And while this ravishing is going on, his buddy Aboan is getting “caresses in bed” from another woman of the harem.
While the language isn’t graphic, it’s shocking to me that Behn is not hiding what’s going in this harem. And maybe I’ve been too influenced by the Victorians but I didn’t think the 1600’s was a time where they talked so openly about sex. Maybe it’s also because Shakespeare uses innuendos rather than direct statements that lead to my being comically shocked by the “ravishing” and “caressing” that happens in this scene.
The story then gets to the meat of what Behn is writing, Imoinda is sold as a slave by the King and later Oroonoko is kidnapped and sold into slavery. They both end up in Suriname (how convenient) and this is where Behn describes the evils of slavery and the clash of what the Europeans consider “civilised” and what civilized actually means.
Apparently Behn had actually lived and traveled in Suriname so she’s using this experience to speak about racial injustice and the evils of slavery. Just like the more popular American slave narratives by Solomon Northup, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass, slavery corrodes not only the slave but the slave master.
The fact that Behn is writing this in the mid to late 1600’s is shocking! It makes me even more disgusted that slavery continued even after this when clearly this work was being published and passed around. It’s not like people didn’t know about the evils of slavery. And this work just shows that even back then people where questioning the role of slavery in society.
What’s further interesting about this work is that she makes a brief mention of the indentured servants who were housed with the slaves. I was interested in this fact because this same mixing of slaves and indentured servants occurred in the U.S. Originally, slaves weren’t determined by race, but by whether they had been concurred in war in Africa and sold into slavery by their conquerors or whether they indentured themselves to a plantation owner as a means of coming to the New World. It wasn’t until later that Black meant slave and White meant free.
I’m saddened that even back in the 1600’s people were speaking out about the evils of slavery but no one did anything. I just hope that as we continue on in this journey called life that we will seriously consider what people are speaking about against because I’d hate for someone to read something from 2014 and think, they were still doing that way back then?!? History should be a lesson to correct our errors, not reminding us of how much work we still have to do. I’m grateful for reading this work and being inspired to share it with my students. Hopefully even some of my indignation will be contagious.