Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and the Price of Societal Advancement
In Oroonoko, Aphra Behn presents two very distinct civilizations: Coramantien, an African country ruled by royalty, and Surinam, an English colony in South America that is home to colonists and natives alike. However, Behn’s depictions of these two regions are products of her own Western background, which adds a third domain to the novel: seventeenth century England, or Europe as a whole. These three “worlds” stand in stark contrast with one another; while Behn’s Europe is the most advanced civilization, with laws, religion, technology, and social order, Coramantien and Surinam are lesser and lesser versions of European society. Surinam is everything Europe is not – the people are simple-minded, and the only semblance of structure in existence was set up by the colonists. Coramantien, on the other hand, falls somewhere in the middle; its royal governance is certainly reminiscent of countries like England, but the presence of practices such as polygamy and the lack of established laws suggest it is far from being equal to Western countries. While Behn certainly sees Europe as the best of the three civilizations, this superiority comes at a cost – morality; for Behn, the more advanced the society, the more corrupt the people. Behn uses this “three world” dynamic, and how the protagonist Oroonoko fits into each one, to create a complex image of seventeenth century Europe: while it is technologically, politically, and socially superior to the colonies of the New World, it lacks morally as a result of these societal advancements.
Behn begins the novel with a description of the native people of Surinam, with whom she claims the English “live…in perfect amity, without daring to command them, but on the contrary caress them with all the brotherly and friendly affection in the world” (9). Behn goes on to discuss the various items the English trade with the Surinamese people; here, Behn makes it clear that while the colonists and the natives frequently interact and are on good terms with one another, they still belong to very separate, distinct parts of Surinam. Typically, Europeans would not want to live with native people because it seems degrading; the natives are “savages,” and refined European citizens should never have to associate with people such as them. However, Behn does not view the native Surinamese in this way; in fact, she is quite fond of them, admiring their beauty and modesty: “[They are] a wonderful figure to behold… They are extreme modest and bashful, very shy and nice of being touched” (10-11). Behn actually believes the segregation of the colonists and the natives is beneficial for the natives, as opposed to being a means to preserve her delicate, cultivated European identity.
For Behn, the native Surinamese people have a certain purity about them that would only be ruined if they were to adapt a European way of life. She compares the natives to Adam and Eve: “And these people represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin” (Behn 11). Instead of viewing the natives as wild, brute savages, Behn instead sees them as innocent and uncorrupted. Instead of living by the laws of religion or the government, which Behn argues would ultimately be their downfall, the natives live by the laws of nature: “It is [Nature] alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of man; religion would here but destroy that tranquility they possess by ignorance, and laws would but teach them to know offence, of which now they have no notion” (11). They live the most moral lives because they do not know how to live immorally. Furthermore, Behn claims the only conception the natives have of sinfulness or dishonesty comes strictly from the Europeans: “They have a native justice, which knows no fraud; and they understand no vice or cunning, but when they are taught by the white men” (11). Behn’s ideas on the native-colonist relationship could not be clearer: that the Surinamese people’s pure, untainted lives are only stained and corrupted by the wickedness of Western culture.
Because of recent events such as the beheading of King Charles I, Behn believed the English had a strong disposition towards violence and evil; this view is made quite obvious in Oroonoko. The corruption of the English people is largely attributed to their government and religion, both of which not only taught people what is not acceptable in society – which, counter intuitively, often leads them to act in such ways – but, because of all the disagreements they caused, both institutions were also major sources of violence, particularly in England. The English’s tendency towards dishonesty and cruelty is seen again later in the novel through Behn’s characterization of the colonists in Surinam. Byam, the governor of Surinam, is one of the most reprehensible characters in the entire novel; he exhibits nothing but cruelty towards the slaves, especially Oroonoko, and his word means little to nothing. Towards the end of the novel, Trefry, Oroonoko’s overseer and friend, believes that Byam will allow Oroonoko and the other slaves to live if they surrender themselves. But when Oroonoko and his comrade, Tuscan, finally take Byam’s word and agree to go with the colonists, they are seized, and “whipped…in a most deplorable and inhumane manner” (Behn 67).
Trefry’s character also represents the untrustworthiness of the English, although certainly not to the degree that Byam does: from the moment Oroonoko and Trefry first meet, Behn says “Trefry soon found [Oroonoko] was yet something greater than he confessed; and from that moment began to conceive so vast an esteem for him that he ever after loved him as his dearest brother, and showed him all the civilities due to so great a man” (42). Trefry truly cared for Oroonoko and promised he would help him return to Coramantien; however, his promise proves empty, which only furthers the image Behn presents of the English as ultimately untruthful, wicked people.
This idea truly comes to summation at the very end of the novel, when Oroonoko is about to die. Banister, an Irishman who Behn describes as “a fellow of absolute barbarity,” tells Oroonoko “he should die like a dog as he was” (Behn 76). Oroonoko responds that “this was the first piece of bravery that ever Banister did, and he never spoke sense till he pronounced that word, and, if he would keep it, he would declare, in the other world, that he was the only man, of all the whites, that ever he heard speak truth” (Behn 76). Through her juxtaposition of the innocence, purity, and kindness of the native Surinamese people and the dishonesty, malevolence, and violent ways of the English characters, Behn’s belief that her fellow Englishmen live perverted, cruel lifestyles as a result of their government, religious practices, and the overall power they maintain in the world; the natives, on the other hand, have remained wholesome and virtuous through their ignorance of such Western institutions.
Contrastingly to her praise of the native people’s higher morality, Behn still believes that the Europeans are, ultimately, the superior race. When Behn begins her description of the natives, one of the first things she mentions is that the English treated them as friends and brothers; however, not long afterwards, Behn adds “we find it absolutely necessary to caress them as friends, and not to treat them as slaves; nor dare we do other, their numbers so far surpassing ours in that continent” (12). Although it never seemed as if the English treated the natives as equals, Behn certainly seemed to imply some kind of respect for them that lead to the friendliness between the groups; here, it seems the true underlying cause for the acquaintance was mostly so the natives would not turn on and attack the English. Behn’s belief in European superiority is also seen in her description of the natives’ physical appearances: “Some of the beauties which indeed are finely shaped, as almost all are, and who have pretty features, are very charming and novel, for they have all that is called beauty, except the colour, which is a reddish yellow” (10-11). Behn praises their beauty, but only to a certain extent; she implies that if the natives were white (as the Europeans are), they truly would be beautiful, but their “reddish yellow” skin diminishes their beauty.
Furthermore, the natives in the novel appear extremely simplistic and unlearned, which is particularly shown when the narrator and her brother visit where the natives live: “Taking their hair up in their hands, and spreading it wide to those they called out to, as if they would say…numberless wonders… By degrees they grew more bold, and from gazing upon us round, they touched us, laying their hands upon all the features of our faces, feeling our breasts and arms, taking up one petticoat, then wondering to see another, admiring our shoes and stockings, but more our garters…[which were] laced with silver lace at the ends, for they much esteem any shining things.” (Behn 57) In this section, the natives appear completely overcome and in awe merely at the clothes the narrator and her brother are wearing. Behn portrays them as unintelligent and simple-minded. This view is furthered by Behn’s discussion of the physical quality of all of their work – they, unlike the Europeans, have no technological innovation of any kind; all of their labor is bodily and dirty. Although Behn never explicitly says she believes the Europeans are innately superior to the natives, her discussions of their hard, earthly work, their lesser physical beauty, their friendship as a result of fear of attack, and their feeble-mindedness all imply that she ultimately views the natives as being inferior to her and her English companions in many aspects.
Behn’s views on the country of Coramantien, Oroonoko’s homeland, are not quite as straightforward as her views on Surinam. Coramantien falls somewhere in between Surinam and Europe concerning the development of its civilization. For Behn, Europe is the most advanced area in the entire world, so naturally it would supersede both Surinam and Coramantien; however, Coramantien is significantly more developed than Surinam, therefore making it a happy medium of modern, Western norms, and the primitive, undeveloped ways of the Surinamese. In Coramantien, there exists some kind of social order, but not one as developed as those of Europe; a king presides over the country, which at least establishes a concentrated source of power versus some wild (or nonexistent) power structure. However, it is unclear how the rest of Coramantien society falls underneath the king; Behn mentions there are war generals, who appear to hold a certain kind of esteem, and she also speaks of the many wives of the king, who had been bestowed the utmost honor by marrying him. The common people receive no attention from Behn, which makes it seem as if Coramantien’s social order does not extend past the royals or the soldiers. Contrastingly, Europe’s distinct social order – monarchs, aristocrats/nobles, the working class, and peasants – is significantly more structured than Coramantien’s, and, for Behn, inarguably better.
There also seems to be an ambiguity of laws in Coramantien. When Oroonoko meets Imoinda, the beautiful daughter of the deceased war general, the two immediately fall in love. Not long afterwards, Oroonoko asks Imoinda to be his wife, and Imoinda accepts: “After a thousand assurances of his lasting flame and her eternal empire over him, she condescended to receive him for her husband; or rather, received him as the greatest honour the gods could do her” (Behn 18). The two do not undergo an official wedding ceremony, the traditional way of uniting a husband and wife, but Imoinda’s acceptance of Oroonoko’s proposal seems to be enough to considered themselves married. When Oroonoko’s grandfather, the king of Coramantien, discovers Imoinda’s beauty and sends her the royal veil – an act that signifies Imoinda becoming one of his wives – Imoinda tells the king she can not be his wife because, “as by the laws he could not, and from his royal goodness would not take from any man his wedded wife, so she believed she should…tell him she was another’s and could not be so happy to be his” (Behn 19). The king, however, declares Imoinda and Oroonoko’s marriage null due to the fact that it had not been consummated yet. But later in the novel, when Oroonoko sneaks into the king’s otan and sleeps with Imoinda, Oroonoko believes he is not breaking any laws because of the promise they first made to one another, as well as the fact that the king himself had never slept with Imoinda. What actually constitutes a marriage in Coramantien is very hazy, and the vague nature of the marriages in Coramantien is reflective of the altogether lack of clearly defined laws in the country. Again, Europe’s definitive code and enforcement of laws is stiffly set against the system in place in Coramantien.
Behn’s comparison of Europe and Coramantien – as well as the unspoken conclusion of Europe’s superiority – is largely based off the countries’ political and social structures and their system of laws. However, much like with the native Surinamese people, Behn also brings up the physical beauty of the Coramantiens. Behn refers to Imoinda as the “beautiful black Venus to our young Mars” and says of Oroonoko, “bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome” (16, 15). Again, Behn focuses on the color of their skin – that is, that it is not white – as being hindrances to their true beauty. Finally, Behn’s depiction of Coramantien seems very similar to the Old Testament of the Bible; the country’s constant engagement in warfare and the king’s possession of many wives are very biblical themes. Behn’s distinction of the people of Coramantien’s appearances from the Europeans’, the indirect comparisons of the countries’ structures, and the biblical subtext of Coramantien’s society all suggest the innate superiority of the Europeans, as in the case of the Surinamese.
Finally, Oroonoko’s characterization and the ways in which he relates individually to Surinam, Coramantien, and Europe are essential components of Behn’s presentation of European superiority. Behn is particularly fond of Oroonoko, describing him as having “humanity…[a] real greatness of soul…refined notions of true honour…absolute generosity…softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry” (14). However, Behn is sure to mention that these qualities are not products of his life in Coramantien; growing up, Oroonoko’s royal tutor was a Frenchman, and he also frequently communicated with Englishmen and Spaniards. It was from these interactions with Europeans that Oroonoko’s cultivated and polished character developed. So, while Oroonoko may be from Coramantien, his personality and disposition are products of European, not African, society.
Behn also believes Oroonoko’s enslavement in Surinam is wrong because of his royal status and cultured nature. Oroonoko receives special treatment in Surinam, dressing in finer clothes and not having to do the same menial work as the other slaves. Behn believes this treatment is completely justified, because Oroonoko is a prince, and he has learned the ways of elegant, dignified European life, so to submit to the ways of slavery is the ultimate degradation for him and something he does not deserve. This belief is especially seen following Oroonoko’s death, when Behn says, “Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate” (76). Behn is not necessarily against the institution of slavery as a whole, or the cruel ends the rebellious slaves of Surinam meet; however, she is against Oroonoko’s enslavement and his atrocious death, because he was both an African prince and a man of refined, European culture, as opposed to some lowly war captive deserving to be shackled and oppressed. Behn’s characterization of Oroonoko as largely European and her grief over the end that he meets are the final capstones of her overall argument of Western superiority.
The depictions of Surinam, Coramantien, and especially the character of Oroonoko in Oroonoko ultimately present a convoluted image of European society as a whole. Behn emphasizes Coramantien’s disorderly political structure and obsolete, biblical ways of life, Surinam’s lack of technology and the simple-mindedness of its people, and Oroonoko’s heavily European-influenced persona to create an image of undeniable European supremacy. However, despite Behn’s argument that the Europeans are innately better than the Africans and colonial natives, there is an undertone in the novel that suggests the Europeans are also extremely immoral people. Behn makes it clear that Europe is the most advanced civilization, but because of its societal advancements of social order, religious practice, government, and use of technology, the European people have experienced an overall decrease in their morality. The comparisons Behn draws between the civilized countries of Europe, the primitive colonies of South America, and the quasi-developed countries of Africa ultimately argue that with each advancement a society sees, the innocence and virtue of its people grows more and more diminished.
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