Oroonoko: A Fallen God, a Slave to Honor

May 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

…’twas amazing to imagine where it was he learned so much humanity; or, to give his accomplishments a juster name, where ’twas he got that real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honour, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry…(10-11) So states the narrator of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Or, the Royal Slave. The narrator alludes in the above quotation to Oroonoko as a royal king but throughout the novella implies additional meanings to words “Royal Slave”; Oroonoko is “stately, magnificent, splendid” as well as “finely arrayed; resplendent; grand or imposing”. Oroonoko’s “stately” royalty suggests an elevation not only above other slaves because of his social status, but his “refined notions of true honour” raise him above even the most powerful white men later in the novella. Likewise, the word “slave” carries multiple meanings. Oroonoko is not a slave in the literal sense, as the narrator comments that Oroonoko suffers “only the name of a slave, and…nothing of the toil and labour of one,” but rather a slave to practicing his high ideals of honor (46). Just as it can be recognized that Oroonoko is not merely a royal slave literally sense, it can also be interpreted that the work Oroonoko is not a clear-cut anti-slavery work. In fact, Behn only really completely condemns two things: that such a high individual as Oroonoko be unfairly cast into a much lower class than himself, and that the slave traffickers deceive Africans unfairly with deplorable techniques. As a result, Behn concentrates on how enslaving the idea of someone like Oroonoko is the worst of the atrocities committed in the name of Imperialism. That someone who is literal royalty and someone who puts into practice high ideals should be forced into a dishonorable life, Behn would agree, is far worse than the practice of slavery itself, an institution the narrator never consistently renounces. The narrator’s exaltation of Oroonoko’s physical and psychological features is a key to this interpretation. The narrator describes Oroonoko’s face as “not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony or polished jet…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,” evidence that the narrator takes pains to separate Oroonoko from the rest of the African race (12). He is altogether different, and therefore it is not the enslavement of the African race that Behn protests against, but the enslavement of such a special and perfect character. Indeed, Oroonoko is also much different from his African brethren in the ways of his mind; in his formative years, Oroonoko receives the “wit and learning” of a “French man” in the form of “morals, language, and science,” (11). Behn abhors that Colonialism that Colonialism dare lay hands on such a refined specimen, not all of the slaves collectively; this is the main grievance Behn and Oroonoko’s narrator share. Not only does this language indicate that Oroonoko’s physical and psychological capabilities differ greatly from the other “negroes”, but also the treatment of Oroonoko results in an almost blind acceptance of slavery as institution by the narrator. After describing Oroonoko’s advanced learning in the sciences and wit of the white man, she tells of his uncanny ability to learn the English and Spanish languages, and utilize his deftness in each in the slave trade (11). At one point Oroonoko offers Imoinda slaves as a gift, and also tries to barter for his own freedom with “either gold or a vast quantity of slaves” (44). Also in Africa, because of frequent war and Oroonoko’s God-like strength and bravery, he has “the fortune to take a great many captives,” and as the top spoils of war in Africa are “…slaves; at least, those common men who could not ransom themselves,” Oroonoko himself becomes a type of slave master (10). Here, Behn establishes this idea as a precedent for the rest of the novella, in that only those beyond a certain threshold and above a certain level of class (i.e. if someone will pay your ransom) have an inalienable right to remain free. All people of power in Surinam, as well as those below, recognize that Oroonoko is not this type of common man, and should not be demoted to a mere slave. Exceptions to the rule are the “innocent” Surinamese, who, despite having the brand of common man, they outnumber the minority Negro and white populations as to prevent their own enslavement. Bondage in Oroonoko can be avoided so long as an individual maintains a high profile or a group retains strength in numbers, a scheme that the narrator never overtly attacks. Aside from Behn’s descriptions of Oroonoko’s capabilities and their counter effects on an abolitionist interpretation of the work, it is Oroonoko’s sense of honor that makes his fall so tragic. Oroonoko most blatantly outlines his faith in honor during his speech wherein he calls for a slave revolt: “Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honourable battle?” these methods, to Oroonoko, are the only acceptable methods by which one can honorably reduce another man to slavery (58). This part of the speech decries the white man’s methods of turning Oroonoko and the Africans to slavery, but also half-justifies the institution in following Oroonoko’s sense of honor. Only “by the chance of war” does Oroonoko believe one should become a slave, because honor is “the first principle of nature”; to die with honor is greater than to live in shame, in slavery, and in dishonor (58, 59). Slavery becomes acceptable, even just, Behn emphasizes, through an honorable approach like Oroonoko’s. Because Oroonoko practices his high sense of honor and “never had violated a word in his life himself,” Behn seems to think it allowable for slavery to occur when under the ruling power of such an elegant power structure as Oroonoko’s (35).The narrator places this system of Oroonoko’s much higher than both the other Africans and the white man explicitly. Oroonoko utilizes his military skills and through his power in speech gains the support of all slaves, who “with one accord [vow] to follow him to death,” forming a pact of honor (59). When the slaves betray Oroonoko (except for Tuscan and Imoinda), once again an honorable bond of trust breaks, just as Oroonoko experiences with the ship captain and his innumerable broken promises with the white men for his liberty. When the other Africans give up the revolt, they violate Oroonoko’s, honor system and become to him “by nature slaves, poor, wretched rogues, fit to be used as the Christian’s tool, dogs treacherous and cowardly” (62). Oroonoko continues on a diatribe that the narrator can only describe as “not fit here to be recited” (63). His fellow rebels deserting him, Oroonoko is left to fight for his honor with only Tuscan and Imoinda. While Oroonoko at this point has only scarce traces of respect for Trefry, Byam, and the other white men, they nevertheless strike a chord with Oroonoko’s innate sense of honor in offering a contract under which they would allow Oroonoko to “name his conditions” (63). Because Oroonoko perceives this as “the common way of contract between man and man amongst the whites,” the type of contract Oroonoko himself would never break, he agrees to cease the revolt (63). Trefry and Byam, though, have no plans to maintain their promises, for they are “faithless” in their Christian God and have no comparable honor system to Oroonoko’s (63). At the end of the novella the whites kill Oroonoko in crucifixion fashion; Oroonoko “still [smokes] on” while his arms and legs are chopped off, like a true martyr, and Behn suggests that Oroonoko maintains his superhuman status posthumously in labeling his dead corpse a “mangled king” (72, 73). Even in death, Oroonoko retains his royalty and his slave status; even when presented with the possibility of death, he remains a slave to honor. The real tragedy here, Behn would suggest, is that the Colonists degrade the best, most morally strong man in the entire novella to slavery and eventually death. Oroonoko’s situation has little to do with the “common man” fighting the evils of slavery, for he is the opposite of the common man. Oroonoko is a fallen God, unrecognized by the white Christians because he is in different clothing and subscribes to a different religious system predicated exclusively on a principle of honor. He is an African prince, not a common slave; the color of his skin is only a complicating factor of, and not a contributing factor to, the misfortune of his situation.

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