Places: Oroonoko

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: c. 1678

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Didactic

Time of work: Seventeenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*England

*England. OroonokoSetting of the novel’s present-time narration. In 1688 England was a nation in crisis. After issuing a series of unpopular laws and producing an heir to his Roman Catholic throne, King James II struggled to retain power. In December, he fled the country and was replaced by the Protestant prince William of Orange. Although many people feared James, Behn remained fiercely loyal to him. Her novel, which chronicles the tragic destruction of a heroic prince, reflects the sorrow she felt during James’s political struggles.

*Surinam

*Surinam. European colony on the northeastern coast of South America (now independent Suriname) to which the African prince Oroonoko is taken after he is enslaved in Africa. Behn probably visited Surinam during the early 1660’s. By the time she wrote Oroonoko, the colony had been ceded to the Dutch, a fact that would have underscored for her contemporary readers her themes of futility and loss.

Within the novel, Surinam is not only an exotic land filled with unusual wildlife, but also an edenic paradise. Behn describes the colony’s inhabitants, who live without shame or deception, as “so like our first Parents before the Fall.” They represent the “first State of Innocence, before Man knew how to sin.” In depicting Surinam as a prelapsarian world, Behn follows the satiric tradition of writers such as Michel de Montaigne, who contrasted the primitive virtue of “savages” with the corruption of European society.

By the time Behn wrote Oroonoko, Surinam was no longer an entirely primitive land. It had been colonized by the British and participated in the triangular trade of the seventeenth century that brought slaves from West Africa to the New World in order to help produce the raw products sent to European markets. At the same time that Surinam represents an unspoiled Eden, it also represents an abundance of natural resources. In contrast to many modern writers, Behn does not overtly criticize the institutions of colonization and slavery themselves. The English colonists in her novel appear entitled to both the wealth of the land and the labor of their slaves. Only near the end of the novel, when the otherwise peaceful local people threaten to attack their colonizers, does Behn acknowledge the cost of imperialism.

The colonists themselves, however, are not innocents in the novel. Although the slaves and many of the settlers recognize Oroonoko’s inherent nobility, the colonial government refuses to restore his freedom and threatens to enslave his unborn child. In this way, Surinam resembles seventeenth century England. Like Behn’s fictional Oroonoko, England’s King James II faced a nation that sought to deny both his nobility and that of his son. The fact that Behn gave Oroonoko the same nickname that King James had–“Caesar”–suggests further that she used Surinam as a representation of her own country.

Coromantien

Coromantien. West African realm from which Prince Oroonoko is taken into slavery and carried to the New World. Behn took the name from a historical slave-trading station on the coast of what is now Ghana, but her kingdom is imaginary. Because Behn does not condemn slavery, modern readers might expect her to present the inhabitants of West Africa as barbaric, that is to say, a people who might somehow benefit from being enslaved by European Christians. Behn’s imaginary Coromantien, however, is anything but uncivilized. Following the practices of popular romances, Behn creates an Africa imbued with heroic notions of honor and nobility.

Although Coromantien’s culture contains ideals that were familiar to Behn’s contemporary English readers, its social customs are distinctly different. At times Behn appears critical of these customs. Coromantien’s laws, for example, allow the king to make Imoinda his concubine in spite of his grandson Oroonoko’s love for her. At other times, Behn uses Coromantien to satirize England. For example, while its men practice polygamy, they–unlike Englishmen–never abandon their women. “Such ill Morals,” Behn notes, “are only practis’d in Christian Countries, where they prefer the bare Name of Religion.” Like Surinam, Coromantien provides Behn with an opportunity to criticize her native country while presenting her readers with a fascinating account of an exotic land.

BibliographyDuffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977. Duffy’s sympathetic biography scrutinizes the known details of Behn’s life. She also offers a comprehensive treatment of Behn’s London literary career.Hunter, Heidi, ed. Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. The book offers a selection of previously unpublished essays on aspects of Behn’s works. It includes an essay by Charlotte Sussman that centers on the character Imoinda and explores the plight of women under polygamy and slavery.Link, Frederick M. Aphra Behn. New York: Twayne, 1968. Link’s readable study offers a comprehensive account of the life and works of Behn. He provides a concise critical evaluation for each of the prose romances.Rogers, Katharine M. “Fact and Fiction in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Studies in the Novel 20 (Spring, 1988): 1-15. Rogers examines the accuracy of numerous details cited by Behn in Oroonoko. The article finds the book generally accurate in its portrayal of Africa and Suriname but mistaken in some details.Sypher, Wylie. Guinea’s Captive Kings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942. Sypher places Oroonoko within the context of eighteenth century antislavery literature. His analysis shows that, by combining the antislavery theme with that of the noble savage, Behn swayed sentiment against slavery.
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