After reading the intimate meditations of Donne and Herbert or the introspective sonnets of Milton and Shakespeare, the first impression for readers of Behn’s Oroonoko is the striking scale of her novel. Not content to introduce a single setting or domestic love story, she stretches her canvas to include two continents and characters from three very different worlds.
Joanna Lipking has speculated on the seventeenth-century vogue for travel writing from the New World in her introduction to Oroonoko:
Early travelers to the Americas described lands that seemed to recover the first age of the world, the golden or innocent time of both classical and biblical tradition. . . . For those at home, the discoveries brought travels of mind: catalogs of the plant life and strange animals, collections of natural specimens and artifacts, a stage fashion for New World pageantry. (Norton Critical Edition 75)
Behn’s novel comes after a long career as a popular playwright for the Restoration stage where her success depended on gauging the fashions of public taste. For example, Lipking suggests the original appeal of the novel lay in just the catalogs of New World flora and fauna quickly skipped over by readers today. She implies that one reason to begin the novel in Surinam was to establish a cultural ideal of golden innocence, “so like our first parents before the Fall” (Norton 2184), to prepare us for the contrasts to come.
The most striking and obvious contrast in the novel appears in the juxtaposition of South America and Africa. As Lipking notes,
No such idealizing marks the reports of West Africa. . . . Like most Native American peoples, West Africans were without written language and might go unclothed, but they provided no scenes of naked innocence, no trustful, open-handed kings. On the contrary, by a reverse stereotyping passed on from book to book, the received opinion was that African women were by nature lascivious, punishments notwithstanding, and the men crafty or “thievish.” (75-6)
If the South American setting of the novel’s opening shared an untouched, golden innocence with the first age of the world, Africa represents a people that bring together duplicity and a heroic code of courage and brave deeds. New World simplicity and contentment are replaced by the sumptuous luxury and decadence we find in the “Kingdom” of Coramantien.
However, the more subtle contrast Behn introduces in the novel’s opening juxtaposes naive Americans with no concept of lying and her civilized readers. Lipking concludes in her discussion of travel writing:
Most of all, [travel books] brought accounts of “savage” people living without divine or human law, as if far back in time or out of time. For reflective writers in Europe, Montaigne, Swift, and Rousseau, among many others, the simpler New World societies could hold a mirror up to the old, letting civilized Europe view itself in all its habitual corruption and deceit, the whole sad tangle of its history. (75)
With Behn, and later with Swift, travel narratives question the foundations of cultural superiority on which European colonialism was based. The perfect example of this is the English Captain. Behn feigns objectivity over Oroonoko’s abduction but within paragraphs she has her hero questioning the Christian faith of the Englishman, whose “gods had taught him no better principles than not to credit as he would be credited.” Clearly Behn’s aims in the novel are complex and require careful consideration.
As we research the complex network of politics, religion, and commerce that fueled the triangular trade, consider how Behn’s presentation of the Middle Passage functions within the novel. Does Oroonoko’s suffering only heighten the sympathy for a tormented hero in a steamy romance novel? Or does the novel move beyond entertainment into social satire or critique with the intent of changing views of slavery if not public policy?
Middle Passage Exercise
After seeing your first piece based on Behn’s novel, your editors were skeptical about her reliability as a source. (Some critics early in the twentieth century doubted whether Behn had even been to Surinam herself though more recent scholars support her claim.) You’ve been asked by your editors to find other sources to challenge or corroborate Ms. Behn’s description of the Middle Passage.
Spend 15-20 minutes researching the motives and realities of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade using one or more of the links below. In your notes, record leads which support or challenge the truthfulness of Behn’s portrayal. Be ready to distinguish differences and similarities between the slave trade as practiced by the British in the seventeenth century and by other countries in later centuries. Your editors have asked you to consider writing either a provocative exposé revealing the conditions of the Middle Passage or a business profile recommending a promising investment opportunity, so try to find details to support both anti-slavery and pro-slavery positions from the period.
A Slave Ship Speaks – The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie
The Slave Trade in Britain – Norton Topics Online
Breaking the Silence – Learning about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
Keep in mind that the novel’s main action occurs two centuries before the American Civil War, so you’ll need to develop a definition of slavery particular to the world Behn and her readers knew. Historian Dinizulu Tinnie suggests that
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of studying a phenomenon like the Atlantic “slave trade,” as it was known, is the realization that such developments are not as monolithic and constant as even their vast scope, verifiable statistics, and widely recognized patterns might suggest. It can be easily overlooked, in examining a phenomenon that endured for more than four centuries, involving tens of millions of individuals, that it is in fact a story of individuals: each person, each voyage, each ship has a different story to tell, a different, but definite, impact on history. (“The Henrietta Marie in Perspective”)
In what ways does Behn’s novel seek to personalize the slave trade by telling the story of this “royal slave”? Is her novel ultimately about slavery, or does Oroonoko represent some other injustice, social or political, she hopes to consider through her suffering hero?