Oroonoko Summary and Analysis of Section Four--Revolt in Surinam

The diversions appease and entertain Caesar for a while, but he becomes increasingly despondent. So does Clemene as the pregnancy progresses. He realizes that while it is difficult to free two slaves, it will become even more so after the baby is born. He decides he has had enough waiting and chooses to take action. One Sunday, while the whites who watch Caesar are "overtaken in drink"--they are dead drunk--he visits the slave village where he gives a rousing speech to the people. About 150 can fight. The rest are women and children who will need protection. He tells them he has observed that the English have only rusty knives and guns because they fail to clean them. They are ill-prepared to fight. Then, to incite the slaves, he summarizes their miserable life. Such "miseries and ignominies of slavery...under such loads, burdens and drudgeries as were fitter for beasts than men" (60). They have lost the "divine quality of men" and have become fit only to work like animals and suffer the whip. They are whipped even when they do not deserve it "till their blood trickled from all parts of their body," blood "whose every drop ought to be revenged with the life of some of those tyrants that impose it" (61). In the same speech, he asks if the whites have taken them as slaves in "honorable battle," whether they are to be "bought and sold like apes and monkeys," and then questions if they should take orders "from such a degenerate race." Finally he asks if they will "suffer the lash from such hands," to which they reply in unison, "no, no, no." In short, "Caesar has spoken like a true king" (61).

Caesar is then interrupted by another slave, Tuscan, who bows before him and asks him how they can escape and travel through the jungle, mountains and rivers when they have women and children to protect--to which Caesar replies, "honor is the first principle in nature," and if there were a woman among them who would choose slavery over the "pursuit of her husband...to share with him in his fortunes...such a one ought to be abandoned, and left as a prey to the common enemy" (62). To this they all rapturously agree and bow, and he continues to motivate them by telling them of the exploits of Hannibal, the general who cut his way through mountains of rock. Their plan of escape involves cutting or burning through the brush to the sea and then to "plant a new colony," find a ship, seize it if need be, and transport themselves back to Africa where they will once more be free. Dying, Caesar insists, is better than living in "perpetual slavery." And at this "they bowed and kissed his feet" and swear to follow him even if it means their death (62). They set that evening for their departure.

When the overseers come to call the slaves to work on Monday morning, they find them all missing and in response muster up whatever weapons they have and call out the so-called militia of about 600 men from neighboring plantations. But never was there a "more comical army that marched off to war" (63). Besides, the plantation owners have great respect for Caesar and understand that he has been ill-treated; they do not want to hunt him down. Indeed, the only one who does is the deputy governor, Byam, who once pretended friendship toward Caesar: "he was a fellow, whose character was not fit to be mentioned" (64). Trefry goes along as a mediator, apparently, realizing that "if they put the Negroes into despair...they would drown or kill themselves before they would yield" (64). The fugitive slaves are not difficult to find, because all their pursuers have to do is follow the burning brush or their cut path. When Caesar realizes the danger, he takes up a defensive posture, placing women and children to the rear, and stands with Tuscan to fight to the death. The English pounce on them, kill some, and wound others, and at this point the women and children jump into the melee yelling "yield, yield," to their men--who eventually submit to the English.

Meanwhile, the nearly full-term pregnant Imoinda takes up a bow and wounds deputy-governor Byam in the shoulder. Quickly, his native woman sucks out the venom and saves his life. When Byam learns that Caesar, along with Imoinda and Tuscan, plan to fight to the death, he attempts to persuade him to surrender by promising him once again that he will be paid the greatest respect-after all, his attempt at revolt could be seen as a rash and youthful but noble deed-and that he will be set free with his wife and child. Caesar responds that he has no faith in the words of the white man. He adds that his actions were hardly rash, and he feels no shame.

With tears in his eyes, Trefry pleads with Caesar to name his conditions of surrender, and Caesar demands that Byam put his promises in writing, to which the deputy general acquiesces. But almost immediately, Caesar and Tuscan are captured and bound to two whipping stakes. Imoninda is taken away so as not to view the spectacle and miscarry. The young prince is beyond indignation, and he makes every attempt to free himself from his fetters: "revenge from his eyes that darted fire...was once both terrible and awful to behold." In time they free him, totally brutalized and weak from "the loss of blood from a thousand wounds all over his body" (67).

The narrator interjects that when she had heard of the uprising she had immediately left Parham plantation for the safety of Colonel Martin's plantation, three days upriver. Martin, she insists, is a good man and true friend of Caesar's. When she returns to Parham she finds Caesar "in a very miserable condition." She begged and pleaded until he understood she had no part in his "ill-treatment" (68). Trefry also, Oroonoko tells her, felt deep regret. But Byam was the one he could never forgive, and upon this man he will one day seek revenge.

When Byam recovers from his shoulder wound, he calls together a group of plantation owners and other whites who conclude that "Caesar should be hanged" as an example to intimidate other slaves against revolt. Trefry, however, tells Byam that he has no such jurisdiction at Parham plantation and that they must continue to wait for the Lord-governor, who acts under the auspices of the King of England. Meanwhile, the deeply depressed Caesar plots revenge on "Byam and all those who had sought to enrage him" even though he knows such an act will surely mean death (71). Then he realizes that if he dies, Imoinda "may be ravished first by every brute, exposed to their nasty lusts, and then a shameful death." (He apparently does not remember that she had done well on her own before his arrival.) He devises a plan to kill her first, take his revenge on Byam, and then kill himself. Taking Imoinda with him into the woods, he tells her "of the necessity of dying," explains the impossibility of escape, and then reveals his plan. Being a dutiful, loving wife, she falls at his feet in gratitude for arranging such an honorable way for her spirit to return home. He draws his knife while "tears trickle down his cheeks," and he gives to her the "fatal stroke, first cutting her throat, and then severing her smiling face from that delicate body" (72).

But after tragically killing Imoinda, Caesar finds himself paralyzed by grief and cannot carry out the second part of his plan to take revenge by killing Byam. Two days pass, and he is still in the woods deeply mourning his beloved Imoinda, "the idol of his heart," whom he has buried under some leaves (72). Six more days pass, and despite his repeated attempts to rise and go after Byam, he becomes increasingly lethargic from lack of food. On the eighth day, a search party drawn by the stench finds the couple. Caesar is greatly weakened. "Oh monster, thou hast murdered thy wife," the shocked group cries out. Seeking to avoid the shameful whip at all costs, Caesar takes out his knife and "rips up his own belly," after which his intestines fall out (75). Tuscan, who runs up to him and takes a blow from Caesar's knife in his arm, vows to help him.

They take him to Parham plantation and call in a doctor who sews up and dresses his wounds, and he continues to live, in deep melancholy, for another week. The narrator stays with him throughout, trying to comfort him and talking to him about Imoinda. Finally a man named Bannister, one of Byam's cohorts, who has no comprehension of the "laws of God or man," arrives and forcibly takes Caesar to the same post where he was whipped. Bannister tells him he will "die like a dog," to which Caesar replies that he finally has met a white man who tells the truth. When Caesar realizes he is about to die, he asks for a pipe of tobacco.

First the executioner cuts off his genitals and throws them into the fire, and then they cut off his ears and his nose and throw them likewise into the fire. All the while, he continues to smoke his pipe, even when they cut off one of his arms. After they cut off his second arm, his head sinks, his pipe drops, "and he gave up the ghost with a groan" (77).

The narrator, meanwhile, is missing. She explains that her mother and sister were by his side when Caesar died but that they could not save him from the rabble, who finally cut Caesar's body into quarters and offered pieces to the owners of the nearby plantations so that they might horrify and intimidate their slaves. Finally, the narrator says, "thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise." She hopes she has been a good enough writer to help his name survive, as well as that of the brave, beautiful, and faithful Imoinda, for all the ages (77).


Oroonoko's speech to his enslaved people is worthy of a king. His rhetoric is inspiring in its proposal of a solution to the evils facing the people. Furthermore, he speaks the political truth that slavery is a feature of tyranny and adds that slavery is such an affront to liberty that people should risk their own lives to escape from it when the time is right.

Behn, like other Restoration writers, saw barbarism as an evil lurking in the hearts of the English people. She was outranged by England's inability to tolerate the late king Charles I, who was beheaded on the order of Parliament after it took over the government in 1649. She also looked upon with horror the recent countless assassination attempts on his son, the restored king Charles II. In this context, Behn saw the British (if not all humanity) as possessing a collective predisposition towards violence, greed, and restless disobedience.

Thus, almost every white character in the text is either positively evil or, at least, weak-willed and passive. (It should be noted that Willoughby, Byam, Trefry and Colonel Martin were real people.) For instance, at the beginning, the British slave-trading captain first befriends and then betrays Oroonoko by asking him to be his guest on his ship--but after getting him drunk, he shackles him into irons. The captain lies to the prince again and assures him he will set him free upon their first sight of land. But he does this only to ensure that his cargo of slaves will arrive in a somewhat healthy condition after they refuse to eat. Hardly surprising, the captain betrays Oroonoko once more when he sells him to Trefry, overseer for Lord Willoughby, the lord-governor of Surinam and the owner of Parham Plantation--who never arrives. Byam, the deputy-governor, also pretends friendship with the African prince and similarly assures him of his freedom. But later he hunts him down, whips him, and orders him killed. Behn scathingly refers to Byam's greed--"he was one who loved to live at others' expense"--and illustrates how to Oroonoko's face he was kind and friendly even while, behind Oroonoko's back, he nefariously plotted the man's death (70).

The barbarism Behn illustrates is particularly apparent in Bannister's elected council, which condemns Oroonoko to death. Bannister captures Oroonoko and tells him honestly that he will "die like a dog"--to which the condemned man replies that he has finally heard a white man tell the truth (76-77). Others are less brutal but lack in their care for him. Trefry, who has been a true friend to Oroonoko, remains blind to the plight of all the other slaves in his charge, and although he attempts to contain the situation until the arrival of the lord-governor Willoughby, he never takes action to protect Oroonoko's or Imoinda's life. Furthermore, even the British narrator, who voiced her friendship and love of Oroonoko, runs away at the first sign of trouble. Recall that, after assuring him of her undying devotion, she reflected that she "neither thought it convenient to trust him much out of our view, nor did the country who feared him" (48).

The awful scene of punishment, though, makes the white barbarism stand out most: "when they thought they were sufficiently revenged on him, they untied him almost fainting with the loss of blood, from a thousand wounds all over his body...and led him bleeding and naked as he was, and loaded him all over with irons and then rubbed his wounds, to complete their cruelty, with Indian pepper which had like to have made him raving mad" (67). Oroonoko is set up as a Christlike patient sufferer, the alternative King whom the reigning polity cannot accept.

Thus, Behn displays Oroonoko as a truly noble and honorable leader. This hero can hardly be compared with the rapacious British colonists and the monstrous mercantile slave traders who barter in human lives. In Oroonoko, then, Behn on the one hand seems to be a royalist who completely supports the ideal of a strong, stable monarchy, while on the other hand she attempts to educate her readers about the realities of the slave system, the barbarism of those involved in the trade, and the need for a more noble system, a heroic absolute monarch who will withstand the British urge toward violence and chaos.

Oroonoko figures as the royal hero who, despite everything, revolts against his life as a slave even if it means losing his beloved wife and child and his own death. Heroic to a fault--his story becomes tragic when he makes himself believe that he should kill his own wife--he would rather die and kill the one he most loves than be enslaved and give her up to others.

In contrast to most of the white characters, the African characters Aboan (Oroonoko's true friend) and Imoinda remain heroic throughout. Behn valorizes Imoinda as a warrior in her own right; the heavily pregnant heroine picks up a bow and shoots her husband's arch enemy with a poisoned arrow. She has the virtue, perhaps, of the mythological Amazon women, who were experts with the bow.

Readers should not make too much of the characterization of most of the whites as barbaric and most of the blacks and natives as noble savages. Behn is not trying to upend the social system of her time. It is important to remember that the social order is restored by the end of the story; the alternative King is put down. Behn never fully repudiates slavery--it seems to be acceptable to treat slaves like the overseer Trefry does--and while she writes of the horrors inherent in slavery, she never suggests that it should be outlawed as an institution. Although Oroonoko suffers as a slave, he never regrets taking slaves himself. He merely justifies the practice of slavery in Africa as men honorably taken in war. Indeed, this view seems to valorize slavery as honorable; after all, to be enslaved is not worse than to be killed, one may think.

Thus Oroonoko receives poetic justice, becoming a slave himself after selling slaves of war to the British for his own profit. But Oroonoko does not seem to make the connection; he never shows regret over having been complicit in selling slaves to the British.

The slaves' plan to start a colony on a beach, where they will seize a ship and return to Africa, seems all but impossible to achieve. They cut a path that anyone could follow. Perhaps it is like Moses leading his enslaved people out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, but where is the miracle that will stop the pursuers? What ship will appear, and who will navigate it? And despite the real chance of winning in the battle, the slaves (even the warrior Tuscan) desert Oroonoko almost at the first moment. The lesson seems to be that an idealistic plan for escape and revolution must be tempered by prudence and courage.

Oroonoko's last days and death are grotesquely tragic. It would be to mistake the point to historicize the details--to say merely that in Behn's era, wild tobacco was much stronger than it is today, and it was used as a soothing narcotic; that the mutilations remind us of the native generals in the village visited by Oroonoko and the narrator, a savage group who cut off parts of their body to demonstrate their heroism; and that quartering a body was a well-known form of torture used in British prisons. These points may be true, but they distract from the literary tragedy of Oroonoko's awful end. His wife has almost no choice but to accept his reasoning that he should kill her in order to save her--could she really survive safely on her own, now that Oroonoko has caused so much trouble? Oroonoko has forced himself into a position where killing his wife seems like the best choice. But he cannot follow through with the rest of the plan, and the tragedy is so severe that he cannot leave her rotten corpse for days. His sorrow foils his own plan for revenge. Readers might like to see the final killing off of Oroonoko as a story of the noble spirit surviving the dismembering of the body, but Oroonoko has broken his own spirit as an unintended consequence of his earlier noble actions.