The first word of Oronooko: or The History of the Royal Slave is "I"--the narrator--who claims to be "an eyewitness" to the true history of an intriguing hero. Whatever she did not personally observe, she maintains, was given to her as firsthand accounts by others who were there. While she will not bore her readers with all the details concerning this amazing noble hero, she will nevertheless tell them everything about him that she, and her group of curious European friends, found fascinating about this prince before and after he arrived in Surinam ("in the West-Indies"). But, before she tells the story of how this "gallant slave" came to be in this region of the world, she will provide an account of the people, the natives with whom the British live in "perfect peace," and will give a highly detailed description of this wondrous place (1).
She describes a multitude of exotic tropical birds: "parakeets, great parrots, macaws, and a throusand other birds and beasts of wonderful and surprising forms, shapes and colors," as well as a wide variety of insects (2). The native people with whom the Europeans trade, she says, are creative: "we dealt with them with beads of all colors, knives, axes, pins and needles." They wear beaded aprons "as Adam and Eve did the fig leaves." The people, she continues, are beautiful, their skin color a reddish yellow. "They are very modest and shy and despite living practically naked, there is never seen among them any improper or indecent behavior" (3). Of course a man might be attracted to a woman, but he will only touch her with his eyes while his hands remain folded. He sighs with love but never talks to her. The young woman, on the other hand, modestly guards her eyes and keeps them lowered. In short, the narrator reiterates again, the native people are very like the first biblical parents in the Garden of Eden living in "the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin" (3).
Indeed, she insists they do not even understand the concept of sin. Once, they performed a mourning ceremony for the English governor, whom they assumed to be dead because he failed to attend a meeting that he had earlier with a handshake consented to attend. Nothing else but death, they believed, could have kept him from attending the agreed meeting. Later on, when they ask the Governor the English word for a man who fails to keep a promise, he responds "a liar," at which point they accuse the Governor himself of being just such a character. They do not understand vice or cunning, the narrator further insists, except that which they have been taught by the white man. The men take many wives, the younger of whom serve the older respectfully. Unless they have slaves, they keep no servants.
The British live with the native population, the narrator continues, in the "greatest tranquility and good understanding," an arrangement that works well because the natives know the location of all the food in the forest and climb the trees to get delicious fruit. Also, they swim like fish and run as fast as deer when they hunt. They supply great delicacies to the British that the colonists would not be able to get for themselves. They are very useful to us, she insists, so the British treat the natives very well. The British see them as friends and do not "treat them as slaves," and they could not do so even if they wanted to, because "their number[s] so far surpass ... ours in that continent" (5). Instead, those who are made to work in "plantations of sugar are Negroes. Black slaves all together, who are transported" (5). A plantation owner in need of slaves simply orders, like any merchandise, the number of slaves required and pays for them when they are delivered to Surinam by ship. Coramantien, a country on the west coast of Africa, in particular, was utilized because the country was always engaged in wars that resulted in great numbers of captives. The general of the army makes a great profit selling these captives as slaves, especially the poorer ones who cannot afford the ransom.
In this era, drama and poetry were the predominant literary forms. For instance, Shakespeare (1564-1616) became famous for writing poetry and drama, but he never wrote a novel. Oroonoko influenced the origin of the British novel. Readers will notice that common features of novels such as chapters or other breaks are in short supply, which points up the newness of the form. If we consider the work a novella, we might be less surprised by the lack of chapter breaks (short stories, which are even shorter, frequently have no chapter breaks). This ClassicNote is broken into four sections centered on different locales or events.
Behn herself spent time in Surinam, a British colony founded in 1640, as a young woman. The narrator, who seems to have much in common with Aphra Behn, is a reporter, most of the time as an eye-witness herself. Thus Behn adds verisimilitude, or the approximation of truth, to the narrative. First she describes the Surinam setting--given as located in the West Indies, the group of islands discovered by Columbus in 1492. Today, what we call Surinam is located on the north coast of South America, bordering Brazil on the south, Guiana on the west, and French Guiana to the east. The focus on details-the kinds of birds and insects, for instance-contributes to the idea that we are dealing with a true story. The vivid descriptions help us trust the narrator when she goes on to present the story of the African prince.
Readers of this early modern literature should remember that some of the terms Behn uses are particular to her era. For instance, she uses the term "tyger" for a small cat, but we should not think she is referring to a tiger.
Behn refers to three different types of people who live in Surinam. The narrator is a European, a young white British woman visiting the British colony. She uses the pronouns "we" and "us" to differentiate Europeans from the two other groups of people, generally "them." One group consists of what some today call Native Americans, the natives, people who are indigenous to that region of South America. She insists that both groups tend to live peacefully together and that the natives are as innocent as Adam and Eve before the fall. With these people in mind, Behn considers the philosophical antithesis of nature versus civilization. She tends to idealize the natives and imbue them with a kind of natural nobility. Indeed, she refers to them as living as early man did during the "Golden Age," before the corruptions of civilization. For this reason, Behn's work might be considered a philosophical one, despite its non-philosophical features. Furthermore, the Noble Savage trope might have later influenced the French philosopher Rousseau (1712-1778). Nevertheless, tensions remain between the Europeans and the natives, beyond the simple identification of the former with culture and the latter with nature. These tensions will become clearer as the novel progresses. In this section, it is enough to note that the British are forced, more or less, to be good to these people and not "treat them as slaves," because they "so far surpass" the British in numbers and in ability to supply natural resources.
Thus, if the British are to make money from their Caribbean colonies, who is going to cut and refine the sugar, harvest the cotton and tobacco, and so on? This issue gave rise to African slavery in all of the Americas. African slaves, the third group of residents in Surinam, were first introduced into Surinam in 1650 by Lord Willoughby, the governor mentioned in Oroonoko who never arrives. Soon the slaves vastly outnumered whites, and fears of rebellion increased.
The fictive story of the African prince Oroonoko emerges from this historical, economic, social and cultural background. European plantation owners in need of slave labor contracted for a number of African slaves to be transported. Coramantien, today Ghana on the west coast of Africa, was in particular very lucrative because it seemed to be always at war and able to produce prisoners for slave traders. It is important to point out that according to Behn, "of these slaves so taken, the general only has all the profit," and Oroonoko is the African general in question who profits from the sale of African slaves (6).