Would you have imagined a 17th century short novel to present such contemporary themes? And the questions raised remain unresolved.
Published in 1688, "Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave," is considered not only Aphra Behn's masterpiece but also a dramatic step in the evolution of the novel as a literary expression. There are several layers to the story making it exotic, intriguing, and compassionate. Readers should also be aware the writing style is more elaborate, hence, tiresome and frustrating at times. But the lasting impression will leave you thinking.
The basic story concerns star-crossed lovers who find each other, become separated through perverse schemes of others, unexpectedly reunite and move toward an inevitable, tragic end. What makes this familiar theme different is that the hero, Oroonoko, and his partner, Imoinda, are essentially African nobility from Coramantien (present day Ghana) who are enslaved and transported by British traders to Suriname, an English colony (eventually Dutch) on the northeast coast of South America.
The trail of broken promises starts first in their original village when the lovers are almost immediately separated by the lust of the old king, also Oroonoko's father, for Imoinda that pushes the old man to issue the "royal veil" for her to be one of his wives, a sort of doight de seigneur right.
Although separated, they individually endure other betrayals until they accidentally discover each other in the slave plantations of Suriname. They joyfully reunite, conceive a child and expect to return to Coramantien with the blessing of the new governor when he arrives but fails to do so.
Around this core story, Behn adds a nice level of familiarity and rich details about the exotic world within which the couple and various characters, European and native, move. Her descriptions anticipate Joseph Conrad's writing 200 years later. Additionally, she presents the female European narrator - possibly based on herself - as a dispassionate lens through which the reader can see the experiences.
This approach adds a certain acceptability to the use of slavery but also cleverly makes the lovers' anguish even more intense. It is not unlike Nelly Dean, the storyteller for the tragic romance of Heathcliff and Catherine in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" written some 150 years later.
The author touches on several issues that have a familiar, contemporary ring without reaching any judgments:
- The role of women in different societies, European versus African
- The lack of a regulated system for managing members of a group and arbitrary decisions by those in authority
- The use of slavery of individuals and families, including kidnapping
- The distinctions between Africans and South American Indians as well as intermingling of the groups
- The detachment of the European moneyed class from the managers and employees of their estates
- The morality of Christian Europeans compared to the "natural" skills and ethics of the individual
How much of this story Aphra Behn actually experienced and how much is drawn on other people's experiences will no doubt continue to be debated by literary scholars. For example, at the time of the novel, there was an on-going Palmares or Mocambo slave revolt (1605 – 1694) in neighboring Brazil led by a charismatic leader, Zumbi. A similar revolt in Surinam did not happen until much later, 1765 – 1793.
Aphra Behn remains something of a mystery. However she constructed this tale, her perceptions about human experience have an enduring ring. And that should be plenty of entertainment by itself.