Oroonoko – Aphra Behn
(originally published 1688)
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Oroonoko is the tale of a “royal” slave, who is taken from Africa (it never became exactly clear to me where the African part of this story was set) to Surinam. His story is narrated by a woman, who is travelling through Surinam and claims to have been an eyewitness to Oroonoko’s life there.
This is where my lack of knowledge about literature and its history is going to show. From browsing GoodReads and the information page on Girlebooks, I gather Aphra Behn was one of the first female English writers and that this book is often taught in literature classes for that reason. I, however, had never heard of Aphra Behn before. Now, I could claim living in the Netherlands as a valid reason for this gap in my knowledge. But that does not really help me in my endeavor to understand this book. While reading, I constantly felt that there is so much more to Oroonoko that I found it hard to put my finger on. I would definitely have benefitted from a class, or a good introductory article, before reading this novella.
What fascinated me most about Oroonoko, in my ignorance of its literary qualities, was its portrayal of slavery. This seems the kind of book that would be perfect to analyse in terms of post-colonial theory, hybridity, or intersectionality of class, gender, and ethnicity. Now, I do not claim to be knowledgable about those things, but there were a few things that stood out to me.
For one, Oroonoko is portrayed as the exception to the rule, when it comes to the slaves. He is constantly referred to as “royal”, “sophisticated”, and as possessing a certain class, morality, and understanding of honour that was lacking in others and seemed to be linked to his royal descent. And so it is the fact that Oroonoko is taken as a slave, that the narrator resents, while she seems okay with the treatment of the other, more “lower class” slaves. There is a definite hint of longing for the “noble savage” here, but it is reserved for Oroonoko only. Furthermore, the narrator does not criticize slavery as such. Most slave owners are described as reasonable men who treat their slaves right, it is only the one that Oroonoko deals with that is incredibly cruel. And mostly cruel because it is the prince that suffers at his hands.
It is also fascinating how the narrator retains her own innocence in the whole story. When Oroonoko is mistreated, she claims she wasn’t near, or she would have interfered. In those cases she only recounts what she was told. There are also ways in which the British at large are portrayed as innocent of any cruelty. As was said above, the slave owner who mistreats Oroonoko is portrayed as the exception. Furthermore, it is not he who performs the execution of any punishments, instead, it are other slaves (who, if you think about it, probably had little choice in the matter, but who are sometimes represented as willingly following orders). Also, the British in general are described as holding to a much better standard than the Dutch, who took over the colony. It was almost as if the author was trying to say: who dares criticise us, should take a look at the Dutch first.
On the subject of Surinam: The narrator repeatedly regrets the trade-off of Surinam for New York by the British. This is interesting to me, as a Dutch reader, since in high school this episode of trading New Amsterdam for Surinam is always portrayed in light of a loss to the Dutch, since New York soon prospered. (And, yes, I see how that is completely denigrating towards Surinam. I *shudder* to think of how easily high school children are taught that this is a laughing matter, something we should come to think of as a “stupid” trade, because “we” [the Dutch] took the “lesser” part of the bargain). Anyway, it was interesting to read criticism of the practice of the Dutch in Surinam (though of course not the hegemony of the West as such) in a book from 1688.
Oroonoko was interesting to me because of the observations above, but the story itself did very little for me. I often had trouble concentrating on the story, my mind wandered, and it took me much longer to read this short novella than stories of this length usually take.
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