Oronoko is a short work of prose fiction by Aphra Behn (1640–1689), published in 1688, concerning the love of its hero, an enslaved African in Surinam in the 1660s, and the author's own experiences in the new South American colony. Oronoko: or, the Royal Slave is a relatively short novel concerning the grandson of a Coromantin African king, Prince Oronoko, who falls in love with Imoinda, the daughter of that king's top general.
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 has already married Oronoko. 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, Oronoko is betrayed and captured by an English captain, who plans to sell him and his men as slaves. Both Imoinda and Oronoko are 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.
Models for Oroonoko
There were numerous slave revolts in English colonies led by Coromantin slaves. Oroonoko was described as being from "Coromantien" and was likely modelled after Coromantin slaves who were known for causing several rebellions in the Caribbean.
One figure who matches aspects of Oroonoko is the white John Allin, a settler in Surinam. Allin was disillusioned and miserable in Surinam, and he was taken to alcoholism and wild, lavish blasphemies so shocking that Governor Byam believed that the repetition of them at Allin's trial cracked the foundation of the courthouse. In the novel, Oroonoko plans to kill Byam and then himself, and this matches a plot that Allin had to kill Lord Willoughby and then commit suicide, for, he said, it was impossible to "possess my own life, when I cannot enjoy it with freedom and honour". He wounded Willoughby and was taken to prison, where he killed himself with an overdose. His body was taken to a pillory,
"where a Barbicue was erected; his Members cut off, and flung in his face, they had his Bowels burnt under the Barbicue… his Head to be cut off, and his Body to be quartered, and when dry-barbicued or dry roasted… his Head to be stuck on a pole at Parham (Willoughby's residence in Surinam), and his Quarters to be put up at the most eminent places of the Colony."
Allin, it must be stressed, was a planter, and neither an indentured nor enslaved worker, and the "freedom and honour" he sought was independence rather than manumission. Neither was Allin of noble blood, nor was his cause against Willoughby based on love. Therefore, the extent to which he provides a model for Oroonoko is limited more to his crime and punishment than to his plight. However, if Behn left Surinam in 1663, then she could have kept up with matters in the colony by reading the Exact Relation that Willoughby had printed in London in 1666, and seen in the extraordinary execution a barbarity to graft onto her villain, Byam, from the man who might have been her real employer, Willoughby.
While Behn was in Surinam (1663), she would have seen a slave ship arrive with 130 "freight," 54 having been "lost" in transit. Although the African slaves were not treated differently from the indentured servants coming from England (and were, in fact, more highly valued), their cases were hopeless, and both slaves, indentured servants, and local inhabitants attacked the settlement. There was no single rebellion, however, that matched what is related in Oroonoko. Further, the character of Oroonoko is physically different from the other slaves by being blacker skinned, having a Roman nose, and having straight hair. The lack of historical record of a mass rebellion, the unlikeliness of the physical description of the character (when Europeans at the time had no clear idea of race or an inheritable set of "racial" characteristics), and the European courtliness of the character suggests that he is most likely invented wholesale. Additionally, the character's name is artificial. There are names in the Yoruba language that are similar, but the African slaves of Surinam were from Ghana.
Instead of from life, the character seems to come from literature, for his name is reminiscent of Oroondates, a character in La Calprenède's Cassandra, which Behn had read. Oroondates is a prince of Scythia whose desired bride is snatched away by an elder king. Previous to this, there is an Oroondates who is the satrap of Memphis in the Æthiopica, a novel from late antiquity by Heliodorus of Emesa. Many of the plot elements in Behn's novel are reminiscent of those in the Æthiopica and other Greek romances of the period. There is a particular similarity to the story of Juba in La Calprenède's romance Cléopâtre, who becomes a slave in Rome and is given a Roman name—Coriolanus—by his captors, as Oroonoko is given the Roman name of Caesar.
Alternatively, it could be argued that "Oroonoko" is a homophone for the Orinoco River, along which the English settled, and it is possible to see the character as an allegorical figure for the mismanaged territory itself. Oroonoko, and the crisis of values of aristocracy, slavery, and worth he represents to the colonists, is emblematic of the new world and colonisation itself: a person like Oroonoko is symptomatic of a place like the Orinoco.
Slavery and Behn's attitudesThe colony of Surinam began importing slaves in the 1650s, since there were not enough indentured servants coming from England for the labour-intensive sugar cane production. In 1662, the Duke of York got a commission to supply 3,000 slaves to the Caribbean, and Lord Willoughby was also a slave trader. For the most part, English slavers dealt with slave-takers in Africa and rarely captured slaves themselves. The story of Oroonoko's abduction is plausible, for such raids did take place, but English slave traders avoided them where possible for fear of accidentally capturing a person who would anger the friendly groups on the coast. Most of the slaves came from the Gold Coast, and in particular from modern-day Ghana.