”Oroonoko” is a short story from 1688 by Aphra Behn.
Already in that short sentence there is a lot to comment upon.
This is my last book from the 17th century and from now on it will be 18th century books for the next several years to come. That is, I suppose, an anniversary of sorts.
Secondly Aphra Behn was a remarkable character, apparently. A rare female writer in an age where practically all writers were men and a royalist on the Stuart side at a time when public sentiment was so strongly against the Stuarts that Britain welcomed a Dutch prince to take the throne. She was a spy in Antwerpen, she was for awhile in Surinam (where the story takes place) and even at one point in prison. A busy lady.
It is however the book itself which is the focus of this review. At a mere 77 pages this was a very easy read, made even more so by an author that generally sticks to the point and know how to move a story forward. Something her contemporaries could learn something from.
“Oroonoko” is the story of an African prince, the eponymous Oroonoko, who runs afoul of his grandfather, the king. The king is envious of the prince’ woman, Imoinda, and claims her for himself. When it becomes apparent that the brave and honorable Oroonoko will not put up with this the King sells her to a slaver and tell Oroonoko that she died. Some time later Oroonoko, who himself has sent war prisoners to slavery befriends a slaver who invites him onboard his ship only to trick him and ship him off to slavery in the New World.
Although Oroonoko is black and sold as a slave he is treated almost as royalty by his owner and his friends and in his semi-freedom he finds Imoinda and they are reunited. Oroonoko wants to return to Africa with his wife, especially as she becomes pregnant. That however is not so easy. A slave is after all a slave. Eventually Oroonoko’s patience run out and he incites the slaves to rebellion and escapes. This turns out pretty badly, mainly through white mans dishonesty.
I found this a very interesting story for many reasons. This has been seen as an antislavery story, but Behn does not seem to have a problem with slavery per se. She still classes people as some being better than others, aristocracy versus the rabble, nobility against the dishonorable. The special thing about Aphra Behn is that she is colorblind. To her skin color is not what sets people apart and being black or Indian for that matter is not an inherent flaw. Nor, interestingly, is adherence to another religion. Dishonesty, faithlessness and cruelty however makes people less and these are the flaws Behn are lashing out against. When the rebellious slaves are easily talked into giving up their rebellion and turn on Oroonoko they show themselves deserving their status as slaves, whereas the noble Oroonoko was never supposed to be a slave.
While the part of the story that takes place in Africa is largely fantasy, the second part in Surinam is very credible and bears all the marks of first hand experiences. So, here we have a woman who has actually travelled in Surinam and uses the story of the African prince to tell about the experience. She even goes so far as to place herself in the story although more as a witness than an actual participant. The result is a richness in detail that makes this a window into a world I knew nothing about.
The plot itself is also interesting though I suspect it was largely borrowed from the Greco-Roman classics. It is a heroic tragedy, but with an unlikely hero and villains that would be very familiar to Behn’s contemporaries. I bet this did not make her super popular with her readers, though others might have found some glee in having these characters exposed.
So, conclusively, this was definitely a good read and an interesting story, but also a historically important text. Definitely recommended.