The king of Coramantien is over one hundred years old and has fathered thirteen sons, all of whom were killed in battle. Consequently, the heir to the throne is his valiant adolescent grandson, Oroonoko, who has spent the last two years of his life at war. He is beautiful in stature and smart. He has learned English and Spanish from the traders to whom he sells slaves. Also, his royal tutor is a Frenchman who educates him in the European fashion. The narrator has often seen and conversed with this great man "and been a witness to many of his mighty actions...the most illustrious of courts could not have produced a a braver man...[who] in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court" (7).
During one battle, Oroonoko's mentor and general of the army was killed by an arrow in the eye, an arrow meant for the extremely popular young prince. Oroonoko has been promoted to the position and has just come to his grandfather's court. Here for the first time he sees his mentor's daughter, the beautiful and modest young Imoinda: "a beauty, that to describe her truly she was female to the noble male, the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars, as charming in her person as he, and of delicate virtues" (9). They fall instantly in love. Oroonoko asks Imoinda to marry him, and she quickly agrees. He promises her that despite the fact that his countrymen take as many wives as they can maintain, he will never take another wife, even after Imoinda is old and her beauty has fled. He will remember that her soul is young. (In this culture, their promises constitute a wedding of sorts, but they do not yet consummate their love.)
The king, Oroonoko's grandfather, hears rumors of Imoinda's beauty. He has become increasingly feeble and yearns for his physical prowess to be rekindled. Although he knows of his grandson's attachment, he finds an opportunity to clandestinely view Imoinda. The old man cannot help himself, falls instantly in love, and sends Imoinda the royal veil which marks her as one of the king's women. It is the highest of honors, which no girl is allowed to refuse. Upon her arrival in the otan, the royal seraglio (which houses the king's women and where no man but the king is allowed to visit), Imoinda pleads and tells him of her binding promise to wed Oroonoko: "she was another's and could not be so happy his." But the king is absolutely enamored and puts aside his feelings for his grandson: "what love could not oblige Imoinda to do, duty would compel her to" (12).
When Oroonoko goes to visit Imoinda, he brings her a gift of 150 slaves whom he has captured in battle. But he is shortly cast into depression when he finds her gone. He would have felt better, he tells his friends, if Imoinda had been kidnapped, because then he could rescue her instead of sitting by helplessly while the king holds the girl he considers his wife in his enfeebled arms: "Oh my friends, were she in walled cities or confined from me in fortifications of the greatest strength...I would venture through any hazard to free her, but here in arms of an old man, my youth, my violent love...avail me nothing" (14).
In time Oroonoko reckons that his premarital promise to Imoinda supersedes the king's claim. He plots to enter the otan to "learn from Imonda's own mouth" whether she still loves him (15). And the king, who has been suffering pangs of guilt over the cruel treatment of his grandson, comes to believe that the feelings between the prince and Imoinda have passed. He invites Oroonoko and his friend Aboan to dinner inside the otan. Imoinda, who has been living in misery, has been led to believe that Oroonoko has forgotten her--but when the lovers lay eyes upon each other, they realize their love is as strong as ever.
When Oroonoko views the bed where Imoinda must lie with the enfeebled king, he almost falls apart. Another senior wife of the king named Onahal, who resents being discarded, comforts Oroonoko and tells him she will tell Imoinda of his undying love.
Meanwhile, Onahal's flirting with the handsome Aboan has taken a more serious turn. Later Aboan tells Oroonoko that he believes in time she will allow both men entrance to the otan. Oroonoko is overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. His inquiry whether Aboan will be able to "caress her so, as to engage her entirely," suggests sexual activity with Ohahal. When the king invites both men again to the otan to watch his wives dance, an accident occurs and Imoinda trips into Oroonoko's arms. There can be no doubt about his feelings from his happy response, so the infuriated king, who thinks Imoinda took a false step on purpose, orders him to leave the court. Meanwhile, Onahal has aranged for them to return that evening to the otan.
While Aboan makes love with Onahal, Oroonoko wakens Imoinda, who is "surprised with joy." The couple finally consummate their relationship. Hardly surprising, Oroonoko finds that Imoinda is still a virgin: "he soon prevailed and ravished in a moment what his old grandfather had been endeavouring for many months" (23). Meanwhile, the jealous king sends his guards to check on Oroonoko and to come himself to the otan when he finds he is missing. The guards, however, allow Oroonoko to escape. He rejoins his army and, in an effort to save her life, the terrified Imoinda assures the king that she has been taken against her will. Somewhat mollified, the king spares their lives but orders Imoinda and Onahal to be secretly "sold off instead as slaves to another country, either christian or heathen, 'twas no matter where" (26).
A short while later the king begins to feel chagrin over his decision to sell Imoinda, because being sold as a slave is the greatest dishonor. He believes that he should have put her honorably to death instead. He is concerned that he will lose Oroonoko entirely if he finds out his lover was enslaved instead of being put to death with honor. The king sends a messanger to Oroonoko's camp to tell Oroonoko that Imoinda has been secretly put to death: "for he knew he should never obtain his pardon for the other" (27).
Oroonoko decides to turn over his military exploits to other men and spend the rest of his days in grieving for the woman he believes has died. He takes to his pavilion, where he sinks deeper and deeper into depression and tells his army to select another general. Oroonoko remains depressed, hoping to die, until he hears the army is actually in danger of losing a battle to Jamoan, the leader of the the opposition. This rouses him from his langor, and he dresses for battle.
When his men see him, they treat him like a deity, yet while hoping to die, Oroonoko enters the battle, takes many lives and wins the day. He captures Jamoan and does not sell him into slavery like the other captives. In fact, he treats him so well that he "retained nothing of the prisoner but the name." In time the two become such close friends that this friendship, with that of Aboan and his French tutor, saves him from sinking into "the disease of melancholy and languishment," which certainly would have killed him" (31).
Just as Oroonoko is received at court with all the joy and magnificence that could be expressed for a young victor, there arrives in Coramantien an English ship (32). Oroonoko recognizes the captain, because he has sold him many slaves before. He invites him to his home, and the captain entertains him with globes and maps. So delighted is the captain with his good treatment that he invites Oroonoko and about one hundred others to his ship, where he treats them to a banquet replete with wine in which they overindulge. Soon, to their great surprise, the treacherous captain "gave the word and seized on all his guests," including Oroonoko--"locking him down fast, secured him...[and] betrayed [him] to slavery (33). He rages in vain against the betrayal, and when he realizes he is helpless, he decides not to eat.
All the others follow suit, and the captain becomes agitated that all his cargo will starve themselves to death. For this reason, he sends word to Oroonoko that he is very sorry for his actions, that he made a great mistake, and that he will set Oroonoko and his people free when they come to land. Oroonoko asks to be unshackled, and the captain must comply so that Oroonoko will entreat his people to eat. He is treated well for the rest of the voyage but sinks once again into melancholy over his loss of Imoinda, who he still believes is dead.
The ship arrives at Surinam, where the plantation owners await their lots of slaves and where, the narrator interjects, "I chanced to be" (37).
Behn's initial endeavor upon introducing her British readers to Oroonoko is to enable them to accept him as a royal personage and a hero. With this in mind, she describes Oroonoko in European terms. For instance, he has a French tutor to educate him and teach him French manners, which were highly regarded in Restoration England ever since the British king Charles II had been restored in 1663 to the British throne after years spent in exile at the very exclusive French court. Thus, Oroonoko "in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court" (7). The author associates her dark prince with the British monarch Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649 when the Parliament took over the government--an analogy that she will pick up again in the last part of the book, when Oroonoko dies through the treachery of those he trusts.
Behn also gives the African prince European physical characteristics in distinction to the characteristics of others of his race: "his nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes." In addition, Oroonoko has a superior physical body: "the most famous statuary could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot." Overall, there "was nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome" (8). The narrator here views Oroonoko as an object not only beautiful and "exactly formed," but as an object of art that could reasonably inspire an erotic gaze.
Moreover, the narrator, "who has often seen and conversed with this great man," points out, "the most illustrious of courts could not have produced a braver man" (7). In time, we will see him in superhero mode killing tigers after seven others fail. Behn paints the prince as a hero in order to inspire her readers' imagination. Indeed, this composite of an enslaved African prince became a very popular story.
Behn also adds an aristocratic touch to Oroonoko in that he is prone to melancholy, or depression. In this era, melancholy was characterized as a disease of the wealthy, the aristocracy, or simply those who could refrain from labor. Those unlucky enough to suffer from melancholia, as it was known, were viewed as highly sensitive and intelligent people, more highly evolved, as it were, than their lesser, more physically healthy and mentally simple brethren. Indeed, in this era, a man with tears in his eyes was throught of as highly refined and thus admirable. When Oroonoko hears of Imoinda's fate, he is shortly cast into a deep depression: "he would never lift a weapon, or draw a bow but abandon the small remains of his life to sighs and tears...and continual thoughts of that innocence, that innocence and beauty" (28). While it might be thought that this depression was only natural, throughout the narrative, Behn continues to use this particular characteristic to lock in the aristocratic nature of her African hero. He sinks deeper and deeper into despair after the death of Imoinda, even coming to lose interest in his position as general: "believe this when you behold Oroonoko, the most wretched and abandoned by fortune of all creation" (29). He will return again and again to this melancholic temperament thoughout the work especially after he is enslaved. After raging in vain against the betrayal of the English captain, he expereinces a fit of depression and decides not to eat. Later, a similar episode occurs when he comes to realize he has been deceived once more by the whites and that they have no intention of granting him his freedom.
Behn later will imbue Oroonoko with many more characteristics of a truly noble hero who lives by a code of honor, in opposition to the British slave traders and plantation owners, who are highly immoral and consistently break their words of honor.
Nevertheless, Oroonoko is no pacifist. He makes war on his neighbors for whatever reason and takes captives from among the losers. He sells them to the European slave traders for profit. Indeed, he brings Imoinda not gold or diamonds but a gift of 150 slaves whom he has captured in battle. This exchange of slaves exemplifies with great historical accuracy the mercantile system of slave buying and selling on the west coast of Africa during the seventeenth century. Although later Oroonoko, when he is himself enslaved, will throw off his shackles and lead a slave revolt, it is necessary to keep in mind that while he might be viewed then as heroic, he still can justify the practice of selling humans by explaining that they are taken honorably in war. At this point in the story he is complicit in the slave trade.
Two additional characters, Aboan and Onahal, are introduced in this section. Aboan exemplifies how friendship functions in this African society. He will go to any lengths to help his friend Oroonoko recover his lost love Imoinda, even if it means making love with one of the older women whom the king has discarded from his bed. Aboan acts as a foil for the white friends Oroonoko will make later on--friends who will deceive him after he arrives as a slave in Surinam.
Onahal is a "decayed beauty," one of the "cast-off mistresses of the king," and now the caretaker of his newer and younger wives, whose job is to "teach them all the wanton arts of love" (18). Although she has been cast aside, she still smolders with passion, especially for Oroonoko's friend Aboan. There is perhaps an autobiographical element surrounding the character of Onahal, who helps the young lovers, Oroonoko and Imoinda, unite in the otan (the king's seraglio--forbidden to other men) while she makes love with the handsome Aboan. When Behn wrote Oroonoko, two years before her death in 1690, she also was whispered about as a fading beauty who was practically destitute.
In this regard Oroonoko can be viewed as particularly heroic; he swears to the young Imoinda that despite the fact that men in his country take as a many wives "as they can maintain," he will never marry another woman. Even after she is old and "her beauty has fled," he will remember that her soul is eternally beautiful. In the minds of Restoration England's readers, who were well familiar with the numerous extramarital dalliances of Charles II, Oroonoko's assertion reveals that he is a man of honor.