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Oroonoko Research Papers

Oroonoko research papers discuss the nation of Africa or African Slavery. Paper Masters will custom write research on Oroonoko by Behn from any perspective you need.

Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn, is set in a time before the widespread African embargo on slave exportation.  Thus, the title character, his grandfather, the king, and his enemies actively engage in the slave trade.  Still, the African concept of slavery differs from that of Surinam. Behn alludes to this in terms of what she considers aberrant cruelty by some plantation managers, especially ‘wild Irish types’ like Bannister.  Implicit in her depiction of slaves in both places is their acquiescence to servitude.  While Prince Oroonoko and the rest of his expatriated countrymen might look upon their condition in terms of ill fortune, or the price of defeat in battle, Behn would have her protagonist believe that they were slaves because of their innate inferiority. She wrote that Oroonoko “...was asham’d of what he had done, in endeavoring to make those Free, who were by Nature Slaves."

What she meant by “natural slave,” stands in stark contrast to Oroonoko.  Not only did she portray him as above the common class that swelled the slave ranks, but also to the other royals.  Behn writes that his superiority resulted from his closeness to European culture and appearance.  Although quite dark, his skin-tone is much purer than the “rusty brown” faces of the others.  His facial features, consisting of a “Roman” nose, gleaming white teeth, and lips that do not poke out, are much less African.  Furthermore, his manners, knowledge of European culture, and ability to speak a number of European languages mark him as a cut above those around him.  In short, his civility and gallantry were not due to anything stemming from African culture.  As she writes, “Some parts of it [Oroonoko’s being] we may attribute to the Care of a French Man,” who served as his tutor.

Oroonoko and Race

    

OroonokoPeople tend to assess racial tolerance in terms of historic period.  Consequently, attitudes that appeared radically anti-racist centuries ago seem quite the opposite now.  Seventeenth century novelist Aphra Behn, in Oroonoko, went out of her way to say nice things about people of color.  But at the same time, she wrote from a perspective that assumed European superiority.  It has been said that despite its arcane notions of race, Behn’s most famous novel is still a “remarkable. . . critical analysis of the slave trade, and depiction of native morality and Christian hypocrisy.”  To test the validity of that statement, one would have to understand the historical context in which Behn lived.  When doing so, the reader might very well find some of her insights remarkable, for they predate some of the themes found in future literature.  Yet, critical analysis depends on the author’s willingness to stretch beyond contemporary conventional wisdom and mere observation.  It requires the writer to challenge her own basic assumptions, and subject them to reason.  Behn’s Oroonoko fails to do this in regards to the slave trade, even though it does give a significant historical overview of the ‘triangular trade’.

Behn’s description of the Americas depicts the New World as rich land, full of exotic goodies:

  • Rare animals
  • Strangely handsome people

By noting how such items came to Europe – the feathers that comprised a theatrical headdress, for example – before speaking of slavery itself, she aptly demonstrates what the triangular trade meant for someone living in Europe at the time (38-39).  The Americas represent a great resource that might potentially provide a substantial quantity of recreational, and perhaps necessary things, provided that someone is there to produce them, hence the slave trade.  Although a keen observation, she offers no analysis of what this newfound globalism actually means, and instead invites her readers to draw their own conclusions.  Furthermore, she fails to reflect on how this arrangement affected the Americas, Europe, and Africa if allowed to continue. 

Oroonoko is set in a time before the widespread African embargo on slave exportation.  Thus, the title character, his grandfather, the king, and his enemies actively engage in the trade.  Still, the African concept of slavery differs from that of Surinam.  Behn alludes to this in terms of what she considers aberrant cruelty by some plantation managers, especially ‘wild Irish types’ like Bannister.  Implicit in her depiction of slaves in both places is their acquiescence to servitude.  While Prince Oroonoko and the rest of his expatriated countrymen might look upon their condition in terms of ill fortune, or the price of defeat in battle, Behn would have her protagonist believe that they were slaves because of their innate inferiority.  She wrote that Oroonoko “. . . was asham’d of what he had done, in endeavoring to make those Free, who were by Nature Slaves (90).”

What she meant by “natural slave,” stands in stark contrast to Oroonoko.  Not only did she portray him as above the common class that swelled the slave ranks, but also to the other royals.  Behn writes that his superiority resulted from his closeness to European culture and appearance.  Although quite dark, his skin-tone is much purer than the “rusty brown” faces of the others.  His facial features, consisting of a “Roman” nose, gleaming white teeth, and lips that do not poke out, are much less African.  Furthermore, his manners, knowledge of European culture, and ability to speak a number of European languages mark him as a cut above those around him.  In short, his civility and gallantry were not due to anything stemming from African culture.  As she writes, “Some parts of it [Oroonoko’s being] we may attribute to the Care of a French Man (42),” who served as his tutor. 

To her credit, Behn acknowledges that the cruel conditions she saw in Surinam fostered a change in those who toiled under the whip, writing, “. . . that they [i.e. the slaves] had lost the Divine Quality of Men, and were become insensible Asses, fit only to bear; nay worse. . . (86).”  Seeing that this statement precedes the remark about natural slaves, the reader may deduce that while she perceives them to be inferior people, she does not see them as an inferior species unless made so by torture.  But that leads one to wonder how she could expect anything else.  In a society where the population of blacks rivaled or surpassed that of whites, how could the Europeans maintain control without some degree of repression?

In this sense, Oroonoko is not a critical analysis, but rather a rationalization after the fact.  Keeping in mind the author’s spiritual beliefs, which she makes clear throughout the narrative, the institution of slavery presented a severe (most nowadays would say insurmountable) challenge to Christian ideals.  Like other Europeans, Behn marveled at the wonders that this new land could produce.  Gaining quick and easy access to these resources, however, required the exploitation of someone.  It would therefore be convenient to imagine that there were those, who by dint of their natural inferiority deserved their subservient roles.  This not only applied to Africans, but also to the indentured European servant exported to the New World for the same purpose. 

By lavishing copious praise upon this rare example of equality in one African, Behn gives the impression that this is in some ways a compensatory measure that justifies the enslavement of the rest.  In fact, there is nothing in Oroonoko that suggests that she was anti-slavery.  Despite the fact that her observation, taking into account all three points involved, gives the reader a good deal of insight regarding the mechanics and motivation of the trade, a critical analysis of slavery would have addressed the viability of the system as a whole, given her Christian beliefs.  She does not consider the apparent conflict.  Instead, she maintains, perhaps somewhat blindly, that they are compatible if Africans and their descendants accept their servitude, and Europeans maintain the advantages of their civilization.

On the other hand, her depictions of native morality and Christian hypocrisy are quite remarkable, not necessarily because they were well considered, profound or even accurate, but because they served as an important step in the development of future humanistic philosophy.  Such concepts as the ‘noble savage’, largely associated with the works of Rousseau, are foreshadowed not only in her representation of Oroonoko, but also in the indigenous Americans that she, as narrator, encounters.  To her, they “. . . represented . . . an absolute Idea of the first State of Innocence . . . they understand no vice, or Cunning, but when they are taught by the White Men [Behn’s emphasis](40).”  Still, she considered this innocence a natural by-product of their childlike inferiority, whereby any new experience with European culture resulted in “. . . an admiration that is natural to these People, and by the extream Ignorance and Simplicity of ‘em (82).”

Likewise, the lack of spirituality, in both the controller and the controlled, deprived all of their humanity.  Like eighteenth-century poet William Blake, and the social reformers of nineteenth-century England, Behn considered hypocritical Christianity to be little more than an evil menace devoid of charity.  Using Christ as a justification for cruelty rendered one little more than animal.  For example, when Oroonoko drafts a proposal to unchain the slaves in the cargo hold in exchange for a promise not to mutiny, the request is rejected by “. . . the still doubting Captain, who could not resolve to trust a Heathen, he said, upon his Parole, a Man that had no sence or notion of the God that he worshipp’d (64).”

Behn cannot, in summary, be regarded as an analyst of the slave trade.  She was a writer with very clear and entrenched notions of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, and civility and barbarity.  She simply told her story, most likely based n her personal experience in Surinam (although there is some confusion as to whether or not she was there), and measured each character and situation by her own yardstick.  Nevertheless, as a person living during this time, her Oroonoko, yields important historical information.  Most importantly, the truly remarkable quality of this work was its influence and echo in later generations.

Sources
Behn, Aphra.  1688.  Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave.  Ed. Catherine Gallagher and Simon Stern.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

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