History: This novel was published in 1688. Researchers today cannot say whether or not the narrator of Oroonoko represents Aphra Behn and, if so, tells the truth. Scholars have argued for over a century about whether or not Behn even visited Surinam and, if so, when. On balance, it appears that Behn truly did travel to Surinam. The fictional narrator, however, cannot be the real Aphra Behn. For one thing, the narrator says that her father was set to become the deputy governor of the colony and died at sea en route. This did not happen to Bartholomew Johnson (Behn's father), although he did die between 1660 and 1664. It is also unlikely that Behn went to Surinam with her husband, although she may have met and married in Surinam or on the journey back to England. A socially creditable single woman in good standing would not have gone unaccompanied to Surinam. Therefore, it is most likely that Behn and her family went to the colony in the company of a lady.
Behn worked for Charles II as a spy during the outset of the Second Dutch War, ending up destitute when she returned to England, and even spending time in a debtors' prison, because Charles failed to pay her properly, or at all. She turned her hand to writing in order to survive, with remarkable success. She wrote poetry that sold well, and had a number of plays staged, which established her fame in her own lifetime. In the 1670s, only John Dryden had plays staged more often than Behn.
Oroonoko is now the most studied of Aphra Behn's novels, but it was not immediately successful in her own lifetime. It sold well, but the adaptation for the stage by Thomas Southerne made the story as popular as it became. Soon after her death, the novel began to be read again, and from that time onward the factual claims made by the novel's narrator, and the factuality of the whole plot of the novel, have been accepted and questioned with greater and lesser credulity. Because Mrs. Behn was not available to correct or confirm any information, early biographers assumed the first-person narrator was Aphra Behn speaking for herself and incorporated the novel's claims into their accounts of her life. It is important, however, to recognize that Oroonoko is a work of fiction and that its first-person narrator—the protagonist—need be no more factual than Jonathan Swift's first-person narrator, ostensibly Gulliver, in Gulliver's Travels, Daniel Defoe's shipwrecked narrator in Robinson Crusoe, or the first-person narrator of A Tale of a Tub.
She began to write extended narrative prose toward the end of her career. Published less than a year before she died, Oroonoko is one of the earliest English novels. Interest in it has increased since the 1970s, critics arguing that Behn is the foremother of British women writers.
Plot: Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave is a relatively short novel concerning the grandson of an Coromantin African king, Prince Oroonoko, who falls in love with Imoinda, the daughter of that king's top general. "Coromantee people" were Akan slaves brought from present-day Ghana, known for their rebellious nature.
Portrait of Aphra Behn, aged approximately 30, by Mary Beale
The king, too, falls in love with Imoinda. He gives Imoinda the sacred veil, thus commanding her to become one of his wives, even though she was already married to Oroonoko. After unwillingly spending time in the king's harem (the Otan), Imoinda and Oroonoko plan a tryst with the help of the sympathetic Onahal and Aboan. They are eventually discovered, and because she has lost her virginity, Imoinda is sold as a slave. The king’s guilt, however, leads him to falsely inform Oroonoko that she has been executed, since death was thought to be better than slavery. Later, after winning another tribal war, Oroonoko is betrayed and captured by an English captain, who planned to sell him and his men as slaves. Both Imoinda and Oroonoko were carried to Surinam, at that time an English colony based on sugarcane plantation in the West Indies. The two lovers are reunited there, under the new Christian names of Caesar and Clemene, even though Imoinda's beauty has attracted the unwanted desires of other slaves and of the Cornish gentleman, Trefry.
Upon Imoinda’s pregnancy, Oroonoko petitions for their return to the homeland. But after being continuously ignored, he organizes a slave revolt. The slaves are hunted down by the military forces and compelled to surrender on deputy governor Byam's promise of amnesty. Yet, when the slaves surrender, Oroonoko and the others are punished and whipped. To avenge his honor, and to express his natural worth, Oroonoko decides to kill Byam. But to protect Imoinda from violation and subjugation after his death, he decides to kill her. The two lovers discuss the plan, and with a smile on her face, Imoinda willingly dies by his hand. A few days later, Oroonoko is found mourning by her decapitated body and is kept from killing himself, only to be publicly executed. During his death by dismemberment, Oroonoko calmly smokes a pipe and stoically withstands all the pain without crying out.
Review: The novel is written in a mixture of first and third person, as the narrator relates actions in Africa and portrays herself as a witness of the actions that take place in Surinam. In the novel, the narrator presents herself as a lady who has come to Surinam with her unnamed father, a man intended to be a new lieutenant-general of the colony. He, however, dies on the voyage from England. The narrator and her family are put up in the finest house in the settlement, in accord with their station, and the narrator's experiences of meeting the indigenous peoples and slaves are intermixed with the main plot of the love of Oroonoko and Imoinda. At the conclusion of the love story, the narrator leaves Surinam for London.
Structurally, there are three significant pieces to the narrative, which does not flow in a strictly biographical manner. The novel opens with a statement of veracity, where the author claims to be writing no fiction and no pedantic history. She claims to be an eyewitness and to be writing without any embellishment or theme, relying solely upon reality. What follows is a description of Surinam itself and the South American Indians there. She regards the locals as simple and living in a golden age (the presence of gold in the land being indicative of the epoch of the people themselves). It is only afterwards that the narrator provides the history of Oroonoko himself and the intrigues of both his grandfather and the slave captain, the captivity of Imoinda, and his own betrayal. The next section is in the narrator's present; Oroonoko and Imoinda are reunited, and Oroonoko and Imoinda meet the narrator and Trefry. The third section contains Oroonoko's rebellion and its aftermath.
Opening Line: “I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet’s pleasures; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents but such as arrived in earnest to him.”
Closing Line: “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.”
Quotes: “I ought to tell you that the Christians never buy any slaves but they give them some name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous and hard to pronounce; so that Mr Trefry gave Oroonoko that of Caesar, which name will live in that country as long as that (scarce more) glorious one of the great Roman, for it is most evident he wanted no part of the personal courage of that Caesar, and acted things as memorable, had they been done in some part of the world replenished with people and historians that might have given him his due.”