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Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave. A True History.
First edition cover of Oroonoko
First edition cover
Author Aphra Behn (1640–1689)
Country England
Language English
Genre Prose fiction
Publisher Will. Canning
Publication date
Media type Print
OCLC 53261683

Oroonoko 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.

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 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.

She began to write extended narrative prose toward the end of her career. Published less than a year before she died, Oroonoko is sometimes described as 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, and that Oroonoko is a crucial text in the history of the novel.[1]


  • Plot summary and analysis 1
  • Biographical and historical background 2
    • Fact and fiction in the narrator 2.1
    • Models for Oroonoko 2.2
    • Slavery and Behn's attitudes 2.3
  • Historical significance 3
  • Literary significance 4
  • The New World setting 5
  • Character analysis 6
  • Women in Oroonoko 7
  • Adaptation 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Plot summary and analysis

Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave is a relatively short novel concerning the Coromantin grandson of an 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, a polyglot band known for their rebellious nature.

Dark portrait of woman with should length curly black hair and pearl necklace
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 organises 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 Tuscan, his second-in-command, are punished and whipped, by their former allies, at the command of Byam. To avenge his honour, and to express his natural worth, Oroonoko decides to kill Byam. But to protect Imoinda from subjugation and rape after his death, he decides to kill her. The two lovers discuss the plan, Imoinda willingly dies by his hand. Oroonoko "sever[s]...her smiling face from her body" and mourns for several days, growing weaker. When he is discovered, to show his fearlessness in the face of death, he cuts off a piece of his own throat, disembowels himself, and stabs the first man who tries to capture him. Once captured, he is publicly ridiculed, and executed. Resigned to his death, Oroonoko smokes a pipe and silently withstands all the pain of dismemberment.

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.

Biographical and historical background

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 (see below) 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 recognise 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.

Fact and fiction in the narrator

Image of Anne Bracegirdle in a feather headdress possibly received from Aphra Behn.
Anne Bracegirdle appearing in John Dryden's The Indian Queen in a headdress of feathers purportedly given by Aphra Behn to Thomas Killigrew. Scholars speculate that Behn had this headdress from her time in Surinam.

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 Cromwellian republican, is reasonable, open-minded, and fair.[2]

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.[3] There is no indication at all of anyone except William Byam being Deputy Governor of the settlement, and the only major figure to die en route at sea was Francis, Lord Willoughby, the colonial patent holder for Barbados and "Suriname." Further, the narrator's father's death explains her antipathy toward Byam, for he is her father's usurper as Deputy Governor of Surinam. This fictionalised father thereby gives the narrator a motive for her unflattering portrait of Byam, a motive that might cover for the real Aphra Behn's motive in going to Surinam and for the real Behn's antipathy toward the real Byam.

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. As for her purpose in going, Janet Todd presents a strong case for its being spying. At the time of the events of the novel, the deputy governor Byam had taken absolute control of the settlement and was being opposed not only by the formerly republican Colonel George Marten, but also by royalists within the settlement. Byam's abilities were suspect, and it is possible that either Lord Willoughby or Charles II would be interested in an investigation of the administration there.

Beyond these facts, there is little known. The earliest biographers of Aphra Behn not only accepted the novel's narrator's claims as true, but Charles Gildon even invented a romantic liaison between the author and the title character, while the anonymous Memoirs of Aphra Behn, Written by One of the Fair Sex (both 1698) insisted that the author was too young to be romantically available at the time of the novel's events. Later biographers have contended with these claims, either to prove or deny them. However, it is profitable to look at the novel's events as part of the observations of an investigator, as illustrations of government, rather than autobiography.

Models for Oroonoko

Drawing of a hanged negro
An engraving by William Blake illustrating "A negro hung by his ribs from a gallows," opposite page 116 in Captain John Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, 1792. The hanging took place in the then-Dutch ruled Surinam, an example of the barbarity of punishments of slaves, and the reputation of Surinam.

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.[4] 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".[5] 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."[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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 attitudes

The 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.

Diagram of a slave ship
Diagram of a slave ship. New World Slavery began in Surinam in the 1650s. The trade went from London to Ghana to Barbados to Virginia.

According to biographer Janet Todd, Behn did not oppose slavery per se. She accepted the idea that powerful groups would enslave the powerless, and she would have grown up with Oriental tales of "The Turk" taking European slaves.[8] Although it has never been proven that Behn was actually married, the most likely candidate for her husband is Johan Behn, who sailed on The King David from the German imperial free city of Hamburg.[9] This Johan Behn was a slaver whose residence in London later was probably a result of acting as a mercantile cover for Dutch trade with the English colonies under a false flag. One could argue that if Aphra Behn had been opposed to slavery as an institution, it is not very likely that she would have married a slave trader. At the same time, it is fairly clear that she was not happy in marriage, and Oroonoko, written twenty years after the death of her husband, has, among its cast of characters, no one more evil than the slave ship captain who tricks and captures Oroonoko.

Todd is probably correct in saying that Aphra Behn did not set out to protest slavery, but however tepid her feelings about slavery, there is no doubt about her feelings on the subject of natural kingship. The final words of the novel are a slight expiation of the narrator's guilt, but it is for the individual man she mourns and for the individual that she writes a tribute, and she lodges no protest over slavery itself. A natural king could not be enslaved, and, as in the play Behn wrote while in Surinam, The Young King, no land could prosper without a king. Her fictional Surinam is a headless body. Without a true and natural leader (a king) the feeble and corrupt men of position abuse their power. What was missing was Lord Willoughby, or the narrator's father: a true lord. In the absence of such leadership, a true king, Oroonoko, is misjudged, mistreated, and killed.

One potential motive for the novel, or at least one political inspiration, was Behn's view that Surinam was a fruitful and potentially wealthy settlement that needed only a true noble to lead it. Like others sent to investigate the colony, she felt that Charles was not properly informed of the place's potential. When Charles gave up Surinam in 1667 with the Treaty of Breda, Behn was dismayed. This dismay is enacted in the novel in a graphic fashion: if the English, with their aristocracy, mismanaged the colony and the slaves by having an insufficiently noble ruler there, then the democratic and mercantile Dutch would be far worse. Accordingly, the passionate misrule of Byam is replaced by the efficient and immoral management of the Dutch. Charles had a strategy for a united North American presence, however, and his gaining of New Amsterdam for Surinam was part of that larger vision. Neither Charles II nor Aphra Behn could have known how correct Charles's bargain was, but Oroonoko can be seen as a royalist's demurral.

Historical significance

Behn was a political writer of fiction and for the stage, and though not didactic in purpose, most of her works have distinct political content. The timing of Oroonoko's publication must be seen in its own context as well as in the larger literary tradition (see below). According to Charles Gildon, Aphra Behn wrote Oroonoko even with company present, and Behn's own account suggests that she wrote the novel in a single sitting, with her pen scarcely rising from the paper. If Behn travelled to Surinam in 1663–64, she felt no need for twenty-four years to write her "American story" and then felt a sudden and acute passion for telling it in 1688. It is therefore wise to consider what changes were in the air in that year that could account for the novel.

The year 1688 was a time of massive anxiety in English politics. Charles II had died in February 1685, and James II came to the throne later in the same year. James's purported Roman Catholicism and his marriage to an avowedly Roman Catholic bride roused the old Parliamentarian forces to speak of rebellion again. This is the atmosphere for the writing of Oroonoko. One of the most notable features of the novel is that Oroonoko insists, over and over again, that a king's word is sacred, that a king must never betray his oaths, and that a measure of a person's worth is the keeping of vows. Given that men who had sworn fealty to James were now casting about for a way of getting a new king, this insistence on fidelity must have struck a chord. Additionally, the novel is fanatically anti-Dutch and anti-democratic, even if it does, as noted above, praise faithful former republicans like Trefry over faithless former royalists like Byam. In as much as the candidate preferred by the Whig Party for the throne was William of Orange, the novel's stern reminders of Dutch atrocities in Surinam and powerful insistence on the divine and emanate nature of royalty were likely designed to awaken Tory objections.

Behn's side would lose the contest, and the Glorious Revolution would end with the Act of Settlement 1701, whereby Protestantism would take precedence over sanguinity in the choice of English monarch ever after. Indeed, so thoroughly did the Stuart cause fail that readers of Oroonoko may miss the topicality of the novel.

Literary significance

Claims for Oroonoko's being the "first English novel" are difficult to sustain. In addition to the usual problems of defining the novel as a genre, Aphra Behn had written at least one epistolary novel prior to Oroonoko. The Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister predates Oroonoko by more than five years. However, Oroonoko is one of the very early novels in English of the particular sort that possesses a linear plot and follows a biographical model. It is a mixture of theatrical drama, reportage, and biography that is easy to recognise as a novel.

Oroonoko is the first English novel to show Black Africans in a sympathetic manner. At the same time, this novel, even more than William Shakespeare's Othello, is as much about the nature of kingship as it is about the nature of race. Oroonoko is a king, and he is a king whether African or European, and the novel's regicide is devastating to the colony. The theatrical nature of the plot follows from Behn's previous experience as a dramatist. The language she uses in Oroonoko is far more straightforward than in her other novels, and she dispenses with a great deal of the emotional content of her earlier works. Further, the novel is unusual in Behn's fictions by having a very clear love story without complications of gender roles.

Critical response to the novel has been coloured by the struggle over the enslavement of black Africans and the struggle for women's equality. In the 18th century, audiences for Southerne's theatrical adaptation and readers of the novel responded to the love triangle in the plot. Oroonoko on the stage was regarded as a great tragedy and a highly romantic and moving story, and on the page as well the tragic love between Oroonoko and Imoinda, and the menace of Byam, captivated audiences. As the British and American disquiet with slavery grew, Oroonoko was increasingly seen as protest to slavery. Wilbur L. Cross wrote, in 1899, that "Oroonoko is the first humanitarian novel in English." He credits Aphra Behn with having opposed slavery and mourns the fact that her novel was written too early to succeed in what he sees as its purpose (Moulton 408). Indeed, Behn was regarded explicitly as a precursor of Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the 20th century, Oroonoko has been viewed as an important marker in the development of the "noble savage" theme, a precursor of Rousseau and a furtherance of Montaigne, as well as a proto-feminist work.[10] Most recently, Oroonoko has been examined in terms of colonialism and experiences of the alien and exotic.[11]

Recently (and sporadically in the 20th century) the novel has been seen in the context of 17th-century politics and 16th-century literature. Janet Todd argues that Behn deeply admired Othello, and identified elements of Othello in the novel. In Behn's longer career, her works center on questions of kingship quite frequently, and Behn herself took a radical philosophical position. Her works question the virtues of noble blood as they assert, repeatedly, the mystical strength of kingship and of great leaders. The character of Oroonoko solves Behn's questions by being a natural king and a natural leader, a man who is anointed and personally strong, and he is poised against nobles who have birth but no actual strength.

The New World setting

Blending literary elements is always a difficult task; Aphra Behn took on the challenge with Oroonoko. Restoration literature had three common elements: the New World setting, courtly romance, and the concept of heroic tragedy. John Dryden, a prominent playwright in 1663, co-wrote The Indian Queen and wrote the sequel The Indian Emperour. Both plays have the three aspects of Restoration literature, and "Behn was certainly familiar with both plays",[12] influencing her writing as seen in the opening of the tale. Behn takes the Restoration themes and recreates them, bringing originality. One reason Behn may have changed the elements is because Oroonoko was written near the end of the Restoration period. Readers were aware of the theme, so Behn wanted to give them something fresh. Behn changed the New World setting, creating one that readers were unfamiliar with. Challenging her literary abilities even further, Behn recreates the Old World setting. Behn gives readers an exotic world, filling their heads with descriptive details. Behn was the first person to blend new elements with the old Restoration essentials. The New World was set in the contemporary British Caribbean, not in Mexico as previous centuries were accustomed to. With a new setting came a new villain, the British and their practice of Colonialism. The New World gave readers knowledge of a foreign place, “a colony in America called Surinam, in the West Indies”.[13] Behn paints a picture-perfect New World unspoiled by natives—one that contrasts with Dryden's previous work. Unlike Dryden, she does not blame cruelty on distant tyrant leaders; instead, she places the blame on Colonialism. Behn's New World seems almost utopian as she describes how the people get along: “with these People, … we live in perfect Tranquility, and good Understanding, as it behooves us to do.”[14] This New World is unique during this period; it is "simultaneously a marvelous prelapsarian paradise and the thoroughly commercialised crossroads of international trade”.[15] It seems hard to believe that in such a romantic setting Behn can blend heroic tragedy, yet she accomplishes this effect through the character of Oroonoko. The Old World changes as Behn recreates the trade route back across the Atlantic to Africa, instead of Europe, becoming “the first European author who attempted to render the life lived by sub-Saharan African characters on their own continent.”[16] There were few accounts of coastal African kingdoms at that time. Oroonoko is truly an original play blending three important elements in completely original ways, with her vision of the New World constituting a strong example of the change.

Although Behn assures that she is not looking to entertain her reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, she does exactly this to enhance and romanticize the stories of Oroonoko. Ramesh Mallipeddi stresses that spectacle was the main mediator for the representation of alien cultures in Restoration England.[17] Therefore, Behn describes Oroonoko’s native beauty as a spectacle of 'beauty so transcending' that surpassed 'all those of his gloomy race'.[18] She completely romanticizes Oroonoko’s figure by portraying him as an ideal handsome hero; however due to the color of his skin, his body is still constricted within the limits of exoticism. Oroonoko has all the qualities of an English royal, but his ebony skin and country of origin prevent him from being a reputable European citizen. Due to these foreign qualities, his Englishness is incomplete. He has the English-like education and air, but lacks the skin color and legal status. Behn uses this conflicting description of Oroonoko to infuse some European familiarity into his figure while still remaining exotic enough. She compares Oroonoko to well-known historical figures like Hannibal and Alexander and describes Oroonoko’s running, wrestling and killing of tigers and snakes. Albert J. Rivero states that this comparison to great Western conquerors and kings translates and naturalizes Oroonoko’s foreignness into familiar European narratives.[19] These historical allusions and romantic gallant feats allowed English readers to relate this exotic character with their own Western history and narrative tradition.

Character analysis

From the beginning of the novel, Oroonoko possesses a magnificence that surpasses the character of any man or woman within the novel. Even while he is subjected to a gruesome death, he never loses his composure and dignity. In addition to the content of his character, the speaker demonstrates the prince’s greatness through his physical characteristics. In her text, Laura Brown elaborates on the speaker's analysis of Oroonoko's physical characteristics. The speaker describes Oroonoko as having European features “by which the native ‘other’ is naturalized as a European aristocrat… [and] in physical appearance, the narrator can barely distinguish her native prince from those of England”.[20] Instead of identifying Oroonoko with physical features that are native to Africa, the speaker associates Oroonoko as a great man who looks and acts like a European-English aristocrat. He is respected as a decisive leader among his people, which is especially seen when he and his people are captured into slavery and the other slaves refuse to eat while Oroonoko is chained. Furthermore, his leadership is reinforced when the slaves support him in rebellions.

Women in Oroonoko

Through Oroonoko and other male characters, the speaker shows men as dominant leaders who are accompanied by strong female companions. In her text, The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves, Laura Brown emphasises the significance of female characters. Although men are obviously important in the novel, Brown states that “female figures—either Imoinda or the narrator and her surrogates—appear as incentives or witnesses for almost all of Oroonoko’s exploits”.[21] Throughout the novel, Imoinda supports Oroonoko in all of his decisions, even when he suggests that he kill her to escape their slavery. Furthermore, Brown claims that Oroonoko is not alone during his execution because “[the narrator’s] mother and Sister were by him”.[22]

In addition to Brown, Stephanie Athey and Daniel Cooper Alarcon also examine the influence of women throughout the novel. In their text, Oroonoko's Gendered Economies of Honor/Horror: Reframing Colonial Discourse Studies in the Americas, Athey and Alarcon state that to better understand the novel, the reader should “first see the white and black women who mediate the exchange between male antagonists".[23] Furthermore, they illustrate Imoinda’s strength because she “fights at Oroonoko’s side, while other slave wives urge their men to surrender”.[24]

Although Athey and Alarcon focus on the greatness of Imoinda’s character, they also illustrate the importance of the narrator as a white woman. Because the novel is mediated by a white woman and Imoinda is portrayed as having European features, the text “uses slavery, rape, and dismemberment to foreground an economic competition for the black female body and to outline an implicit competition between black, white, and indigenous females”.[25] The authors believe that the narrator attempts to illustrate competition between the women in the novel and the significant role that Imoinda plays throughout the novel. Similarly to Athey and Alarcon, Margaret W. Ferguson illustrates the competition amongst females in the novel. In Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Ferguson states that Behn creates “a textual staging of the implicit competition between the white English female author and the black African female slave-wife-mother-to-be”.[26] Ferguson explains that the competition between the narrator and Imoinda arises out of the desire for Oroonoko’s body and its ability to produce something extraordinary.[26]


Illustration of a 1776 performance of Oroonoko
Oroonoko kills Imoinda in a 1776 performance of Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko.

Oroonoko was not a very substantial success at first. The stand-alone edition, according to the English Short Title Catalog online, was not followed by a new edition until 1696. Behn, who had hoped to recoup a significant amount of money from the book, was disappointed. Sales picked up in the second year after her death, and the novel then went through three printings. The story was used by Thomas Southerne for a tragedy entitled Oroonoko: A Tragedy. Southerne's play was staged in 1695 and published in 1696, with a foreword in which Southerne expresses his gratitude to Behn and praises her work. The play was a great success. After the play was staged, a new edition of the novel appeared, and it was never out of print in the 18th century afterward. The adaptation is generally faithful to the novel, with one significant exception: it makes Imoinda white instead of black (see Macdonald), and therefore, like Othello, the male lead would perform in blackface to a white heroine. As the taste of the 1690s demanded, Southerne emphasises scenes of pathos, especially those involving the tragic heroine, such as the scene where Oroonoko kills Imoinda. At the same time, in standard Restoration theatre rollercoaster manner, the play intersperses these scenes with a comic and sexually explicit subplot. The subplot was soon cut from stage representations with the changing taste of the 18th century, but the tragic tale of Oroonoko and Imoinda remained popular on the stage.

Through the 18th century, Southerne's version of the story was more popular than Behn's, and in the 19th century, when Behn was considered too indecent to be read, the story of Oroonoko continued in the highly pathetic and touching Southerne adaptation. The killing of Imoinda, in particular, was a popular scene. It is the play's emphasis on, and adaptation to, tragedy that is partly responsible for the shift in interpretation of the novel from Tory political writing to prescient "novel of compassion." When Roy Porter writes of Oroonoko, "the question became pressing: what should be done with noble savages? Since they shared a universal human nature, was not civilization their entitlement," he is speaking of the way that the novel was cited by anti-slavery forces in the 1760s, not the 1690s, and Southerne's dramatic adaptation is significantly responsible for this change of focus.[27]


  1. ^ Hutner 1993, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Todd, 38
  3. ^ Todd, 40
  4. ^ Todd, 54
  5. ^ a b Exact Relation, quoted in Todd, 55
  6. ^ Todd, 61
  7. ^
  8. ^ Todd, 61–63
  9. ^ Todd, 70
  10. ^ Todd, 3
  11. ^ See, for example, the online course on Oroonoko from the University of California Santa Barbara, below
  12. ^ Behn, Gallagher, and Stern, 13
  13. ^ Behn, 38
  14. ^ Behn, 40
  15. ^ Behn, Gallagher, and Stern, 14
  16. ^ Behn, Gallagher, and Stern, 15
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ Brown, 186.
  21. ^ Brown, 189
  22. ^ Anthology of British Literature, Concise Edition Vol. A. Broadview Press, 2007: 1180.
  23. ^ Athey and Alarcon, 28
  24. ^ Athey and Alarcon, 35
  25. ^ Athey and Alarcon, 36
  26. ^ a b Ferguson, 221
  27. ^ Porter 361


  • Alarcon, Daniel Cooper and Athey, Stephanie (1995). Oroonoko's Gendered Economies of Honor/Horror: Reframing Colonial Discourse Studies in the Americas. Duke University Press.
  • An Exact Relation of The Most Execrable Attempts of John Allin, Committed on the Person of His Excellency Francis Lord Willoughby of Parham. . . . (1665), quoted in Todd 2000.
  • Behn, Aphra. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 19 March 2005
  • Behn, A., Gallagher, C., & Stern, S. (2000). Oroonoko, or, The royal slave. Bedford cultural editions. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.
  • Bernbaum, Ernest (1913). "Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko" in George Lyman Kittredge Papers. Boston, pp. 419–33.
  • Brown, Laura (1990). Romance of empire: Oroonoko and the trade in slaves. St. Martin's Press, Scholarly and Reference Division, New York.
  • Dhuicq, Bernard (1979). "Additional Notes on Oroonoko", Notes & Queries, pp. 524–26.
  • Ferguson, Margaret W. (1999). Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. St. Martin's Press, Scholarly and Reference Division, New York.
  • Hughes, Derek (2007). Versions of Blackness: Key Texts on Slavery from the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-68956-4
  • Hutner, Heidi (1993). Rereading Aphra Behn: history, theory, and criticism. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 0-8139-1443-4
  • Klein, Martin A. (1983). Women and Slavery in Africa. University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Macdonald, Joyce Green (1998). "Race, Women, and the Sentimental in Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko", Criticism 40.
  • Moulton, Charles Wells, ed. (1959). The Library of Literary Criticism. Volume II 1639–1729. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.
  • Porter, Roy (2000). The Creation of the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-32268-8
  • Ramsaran, J. A. (1960). "Notes on Oroonoko". Notes & Queries, p. 144.
  • Stassaert, Lucienne (2000). De lichtvoetige Amazone. Het geheime leven van Aphra Behn. Leuven: Davidsfonds/Literair. ISBN 90-6306-418-7
  • Todd, Janet (2000). The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. London: Pandora Press.

External links

  • Oroonoko, HTML formatted e-text from Adelaide University, Australia, spelling modernised.
  • Oroonoko, scanned pages of a seventeenth-century edition of the theatrical adaptation by Thomas Southerne.
  • Oroonoko at LibriVox (audiobook)
  • : ethnography, romance and historyOroonokoLecture: Behn's , by professor William Warner at the University of California Santa Barbara.
  • OroonokoAn Annotated Bibliography on Aphra Behn's , by Jack Lynch, 1997.

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