Oroonoko is now the most studied of Aphra Behn's novels, but it was not immediately successful in her own lifetime. It sold well, but the adaptation for the stage by Thomas Southerne (see below) made the story as popular as it became. Soon after her death, the novel began to be read again, and from that time onward the factual claims made by the novel's narrator, and the factuality of the whole plot of the novel, have been accepted and questioned with greater and lesser credulity. Because Mrs. Behn was not available to correct or confirm any information, early biographers assumed the first-person narrator was Aphra Behn speaking for herself and incorporated the novel's claims into their accounts of her life. It is important, however, to recognise that Oroonoko is a work of fiction and that its first-person narrator—the protagonist—need be no more factual than Jonathan Swift's first-person narrator, ostensibly Gulliver, in Gulliver's Travels, Daniel Defoe's shipwrecked narrator in Robinson Crusoe, or the first-person narrator of A Tale of a Tub.
Fact and fiction in the narrator
Researchers today cannot say whether or not the narrator of Oroonoko represents Aphra Behn and, if so, tells the truth. Scholars have argued for over a century about whether or not Behn even visited Surinam and, if so, when. On the one hand, the narrator reports that she "saw" sheep in the colony, when the settlement had to import meat from Virginia, as sheep, in particular, could not survive there. Also, as Ernest Bernbaum argues in "Mrs. Behn's 'Oroonoko'", everything substantive in Oroonoko could have come from accounts by William Byam and George Warren that were circulating in London in the 1660s. However, as J.A. Ramsaran and Bernard Dhuiq catalogue, Behn provides a great deal of precise local color and physical description of the colony. Topographical and cultural verisimilitude were not a criterion for readers of novels and plays in Behn's day any more than in Thomas Kyd's, and Behn generally did not bother with attempting to be accurate in her locations in other stories. Her plays have quite indistinct settings, and she rarely spends time with topographical description in her stories. Secondly, all the Europeans mentioned in Oroonoko were really present in Surinam in the 1660s. It is interesting, if the entire account is fictional and based on reportage, that Behn takes no liberties of invention to create European settlers she might need. Finally, the characterisation of the real-life people in the novel does follow Behn's own politics. Behn was a lifelong and militant royalist, and her fictions are quite consistent in portraying virtuous royalists and put-upon nobles who are opposed by petty and evil republicans/Parliamentarians. Had Behn not known the individuals she fictionalises in Oroonoko, it is extremely unlikely that any of the real royalists would have become fictional villains or any of the real republicans fictional heroes, and yet Byam and James Bannister, both actual royalists in the Interregnum, are malicious, licentious, and sadistic, while George Marten, a Cromwellian republican, is reasonable, open-minded, and fair.
On balance, it appears that Behn truly did travel to Surinam. The fictional narrator, however, cannot be the real Aphra Behn. For one thing, the narrator says that her father was set to become the deputy governor of the colony and died at sea en route. This did not happen to Bartholomew Johnson (Behn's father), although he did die between 1660 and 1664. There is no indication at all of anyone except William Byam being Deputy Governor of the settlement, and the only major figure to die en route at sea was Francis, Lord Willoughby, the colonial patent holder for Barbados and "Suriname." Further, the narrator's father's death explains her antipathy toward Byam, for he is her father's usurper as Deputy Governor of Surinam. This fictionalised father thereby gives the narrator a motive for her unflattering portrait of Byam, a motive that might cover for the real Aphra Behn's motive in going to Surinam and for the real Behn's antipathy toward the real Byam.
It is also unlikely that Behn went to Surinam with her husband, although she may have met and married in Surinam or on the journey back to England. A socially creditable single woman in good standing would not have gone unaccompanied to Surinam. Therefore, it is most likely that Behn and her family went to the colony in the company of a lady. As for her purpose in going, Janet Todd presents a strong case for its being spying. At the time of the events of the novel, the deputy governor Byam had taken absolute control of the settlement and was being opposed not only by the formerly republican Colonel George Marten, but also by royalists within the settlement. Byam's abilities were suspect, and it is possible that either Lord Willoughby or Charles II would be interested in an investigation of the administration there.
Beyond these facts, there is little known. The earliest biographers of Aphra Behn not only accepted the novel's narrator's claims as true, but Charles Gildon even invented a romantic liaison between the author and the title character, while the anonymous Memoirs of Aphra Behn, Written by One of the Fair Sex (both 1698) insisted that the author was too young to be romantically available at the time of the novel's events. Later biographers have contended with these claims, either to prove or deny them. However, it is profitable to look at the novel's events as part of the observations of an investigator, as illustrations of government, rather than autobiography.
Models for Oroonoko
There were numerous slave revolts in English colonies led by Coromantin slaves. Oroonoko was described as being from "Coromantien" and was likely modelled after Coromantin slaves who were known for causing several rebellions in the Caribbean.
One figure who matches aspects of Oroonoko is the white John Allin, a settler in Surinam. Allin was disillusioned and miserable in Surinam, and he was taken to alcoholism and wild, lavish blasphemies so shocking that Governor Byam believed that the repetition of them at Allin's trial cracked the foundation of the courthouse. In the novel, Oroonoko plans to kill Byam and then himself, and this matches a plot that Allin had to kill Lord Willoughby and then commit suicide, for, he said, it was impossible to "possess my own life, when I cannot enjoy it with freedom and honour". He wounded Willoughby and was taken to prison, where he killed himself with an overdose. His body was taken to a pillory,
- "where a Barbicue was erected; his Members cut off, and flung in his face, they had his Bowels burnt under the Barbicue… his Head to be cut off, and his Body to be quartered, and when dry-barbicued or dry roasted… his Head to be stuck on a pole at Parham (Willoughby's residence in Surinam), and his Quarters to be put up at the most eminent places of the Colony."
Allin, it must be stressed, was a planter, and neither an indentured nor enslaved worker, and the "freedom and honour" he sought was independence rather than manumission. Neither was Allin of noble blood, nor was his cause against Willoughby based on love. Therefore, the extent to which he provides a model for Oroonoko is limited more to his crime and punishment than to his plight. However, if Behn left Surinam in 1663, then she could have kept up with matters in the colony by reading the Exact Relation that Willoughby had printed in London in 1666, and seen in the extraordinary execution a barbarity to graft onto her villain, Byam, from the man who might have been her real employer, Willoughby.
While Behn was in Surinam (1663), she would have seen a slave ship arrive with 130 "freight," 54 having been "lost" in transit. Although the African slaves were not treated differently from the indentured servants coming from England (and were, in fact, more highly valued), their cases were hopeless, and both slaves, indentured servants, and local inhabitants attacked the settlement. There was no single rebellion, however, that matched what is related in Oroonoko. Further, the character of Oroonoko is physically different from the other slaves by being blacker skinned, having a Roman nose, and having straight hair. The lack of historical record of a mass rebellion, the unlikeliness of the physical description of the character (when Europeans at the time had no clear idea of race or an inheritable set of "racial" characteristics), and the European courtliness of the character suggests that he is most likely invented wholesale. Additionally, the character's name is artificial. There are names in the Yoruba language that are similar, but the African slaves of Surinam were from Ghana.
Instead of from life, the character seems to come from literature, for his name is reminiscent of Oroondates, a character in La Calprenède's Cassandra, which Behn had read. Oroondates is a prince of Scythia whose desired bride is snatched away by an elder king. Previous to this, there is an Oroondates who is the satrap of Memphis in the Æthiopica, a novel from late antiquity by Heliodorus of Emesa. Many of the plot elements in Behn's novel are reminiscent of those in the Æthiopica and other Greek romances of the period. There is a particular similarity to the story of Juba in La Calprenède's romance Cléopâtre, who becomes a slave in Rome and is given a Roman name—Coriolanus—by his captors, as Oroonoko is given the Roman name of Caesar.
Alternatively, it could be argued that "Oroonoko" is a homophone for the Orinoco River, along which the English settled, and it is possible to see the character as an allegorical figure for the mismanaged territory itself. Oroonoko, and the crisis of values of aristocracy, slavery, and worth he represents to the colonists, is emblematic of the new world and colonisation itself: a person like Oroonoko is symptomatic of a place like the Orinoco.
Slavery and Behn's attitudes
The colony of Surinam began importing slaves in the 1650s, since there were not enough indentured servants coming from England for the labour-intensive sugar cane production. In 1662, the Duke of York got a commission to supply 3,000 slaves to the Caribbean, and Lord Willoughby was also a slave trader. For the most part, English slavers dealt with slave-takers in Africa and rarely captured slaves themselves. The story of Oroonoko's abduction is plausible, for such raids did take place, but English slave traders avoided them where possible for fear of accidentally capturing a person who would anger the friendly groups on the coast. Most of the slaves came from the Gold Coast, and in particular from modern-day Ghana.
According to biographer Janet Todd, Behn did not oppose slavery per se. She accepted the idea that powerful groups would enslave the powerless, and she would have grown up with Oriental tales of "The Turk" taking European slaves. Although it has never been proven that Behn was actually married, the most likely candidate for her husband is Johan Behn, who sailed on The King David from the German imperial free city of Hamburg. This Johan Behn was a slaver whose residence in London later was probably a result of acting as a mercantile cover for Dutch trade with the English colonies under a false flag. One could argue that if Aphra Behn had been opposed to slavery as an institution, it is not very likely that she would have married a slave trader. At the same time, it is fairly clear that she was not happy in marriage, and Oroonoko, written twenty years after the death of her husband, has, among its cast of characters, no one more evil than the slave ship captain who tricks and captures Oroonoko.
Todd is probably correct in saying that Aphra Behn did not set out to protest slavery, but however tepid her feelings about slavery, there is no doubt about her feelings on the subject of natural kingship. The final words of the novel are a slight expiation of the narrator's guilt, but it is for the individual man she mourns and for the individual that she writes a tribute, and she lodges no protest over slavery itself. A natural king could not be enslaved, and, as in the play Behn wrote while in Surinam, The Young King, no land could prosper without a king. Her fictional Surinam is a headless body. Without a true and natural leader (a king) the feeble and corrupt men of position abuse their power. What was missing was Lord Willoughby, or the narrator's father: a true lord. In the absence of such leadership, a true king, Oroonoko, is misjudged, mistreated, and killed.
One potential motive for the novel, or at least one political inspiration, was Behn's view that Surinam was a fruitful and potentially wealthy settlement that needed only a true noble to lead it. Like others sent to investigate the colony, she felt that Charles was not properly informed of the place's potential. When Charles gave up Surinam in 1667 with the Treaty of Breda, Behn was dismayed. This dismay is enacted in the novel in a graphic fashion: if the English, with their aristocracy, mismanaged the colony and the slaves by having an insufficiently noble ruler there, then the democratic and mercantile Dutch would be far worse. Accordingly, the passionate misrule of Byam is replaced by the efficient and immoral management of the Dutch. Charles had a strategy for a united North American presence, however, and his gaining of New Amsterdam for Surinam was part of that larger vision. Neither Charles II nor Aphra Behn could have known how correct Charles's bargain was, but Oroonoko can be seen as a royalist's demurral.