Title: Oroonoko and Other Writings
Author: Aphra Behn
Date: 1688 (Oroonoko); collection reprinted 1994
Length: 289 pages including commentary
Quote: “With these people...we live in perfect tranquillity and good understanding, as it behoves us to do, they knowing all the places where to seek the best food of [Surinam]...”
The writer known as Aphra Behn was a spy; her background is still a mystery. A British subject, she was called Mrs. Behn in honor of a reported (undocumented) Dutch husband, and also published some things as “Astraea” or “Astree.” This Latin name meant “goddess of the stars,” and Behn's stage plays certainly “starred” in London in the 1670s and 1680s. They drew on her life experience; exactly when and where she was born will never be known, but she travelled widely in the 1660s. She died, believed to be only about fifty years old or even younger, in 1689.
Oroonoko is a melodrama. To what extent it was based on fact, also, will never be known. While most slaves taken from Africa were debtors or the dependent relatives of debtors, some were aristocrats, kidnapped and sold for ransom or as part of a political intrigue. In some parts of Africa ethnic distinctions between typically taller tribes (like the Tutsi) and shorter ones (like the Hutu) were associated with wealth and status; the Tutsi type came closer to European standards of beauty, so Behn's rhapsodies about Oroonoko's being ever so much better looking than other African slaves, his Roman nose, etc., etc., may reflect historical facts rather than racism. And many slaves, sometimes the ones who had lost most, really did kill themselves and their loved ones rather than live in slavery—sometimes after having worked and waited for a few years, and lost all hope. Oroonoko, the tall, dark, and handsome prince enslaved by a jealous older man, and Imoinda, his dutiful and beautiful bride, might have been merely a fantasy the British projected onto the un-British. Since their romance is tragic it would be pleasant if it were fantasy, but it may not even be fiction. The international slave trade systematically destroyed all records of slaves' backgrounds and connections.
During Behn's lifetime there was no active abolition movement. Most of the slaves in Europe were Europeans, with reasonable prospects of paying off their debts and recovering some degree of social status. For Behn the disgraceful part of Oroonoko's and Imoinda's story was not that they were enslaved, or even enslaved because they were “in love,” but that they were given no chance to earn their freedom. Slavery was thought to be justified because it taught hard work and frugality to people who had failed to learn those habits on their own. Oroonoko accepted his slavery on that understanding but, because he was foreign and friendless, was not allowed to earn his freedom as an enslaved European might have done. Oroonoko was kept alive as an anti-slavery piece but there's little evidence that it was written as one; it may have been more of an anti-racist document for its author and original audience.
Behn wrote many other plays, also on the melodramatic side, and not included in the collection I have. She also wrote other short fictional stories and occasional poems, some (not all) of which are included in this collection. If they suffer by any comparison with Shakespeare, they bear comparison with Marlowe and Jonson. They share that tendency to try to tie themselves back into ancient Greek and Roman tradition, rather than boldly affirming whatever England had in the way of literary or rhetorical tradition at that time. Despite this each poem is a tidy little exercise in form that uses those “classicisms” to make one or more nice, witty observations.
The Oxford course in English Literature is famously comprehensive; Behn is one of the authors on Oxford's long list who tend to be cut from other schools' shorter lists of “classics.” Funnily enough most of the women on the long list tended to be cut from shorter lists until the 1990s, when a surge of interest in Women's Studies attracted more interest to these women than to the male authors whose works are on every university's reading list. I think the entire Oxford list is worth reading, at leisure; as C.S. Lewis observed, it's not so very long ago that no work of English Literature was required reading for a degree or job--the books on the Oxford list remained in print just because people liked them. People who don't have to read them for school credit still do like them. Behn's language is of course quaint, and her melodramas and pseudo-Roman poetic forms are out of fashion. They may still amuse you. At the very least they'll show you the level above which Jane Austen and the Brontes resolved to rise.