This is an essay that is written to analyze Aphra Behn’s most momentous work towards deliverance of humanity from slavery during her lifetime, through her short novel based on her visit to Oroonoko, or the royal slave. The story is about the Negroes, slave trade and colonialism. The novel looks at the relationships among the natives, slaves and the colonialist. It also explores the influence of colonialism on the people’s life, culture and mental state. In addition, this essay investigates Aphra’s ideals and the level of her independence from ordinary view of her society.
This is a story which entails a young African prince and his companions. Together they are abducted and taken away from their homeland into slavery in a foreign country. They become slaves and work for the colonists who had settled there. His capture and passage into the new lands, the act of becoming a slave, in going into slave villages and finally his rebellion against the whites in the new land are some of the borders he crosses. These borders contribute towards the destruction of self identity by the slaves.
It also comprises of sections which form standpoints from which her fights for humanity as a woman are seen in the novel. Colonialism and slavery constitute the first section which focuses on the aspect of the British view of imperialism and studies the colonialists themselves as presented in the book. Moreover, it studies the slaves and their living conditions in different British colonies.
The second considers one of the brutal features of slavery. It entails the destruction of one’s identity as it runs into the problem of taking slaves away from their homeland resulting into the separation of many families. Their belongings were taken away too.
The third explores the validity of Aphra Behn’s stay in Suriname. It centers on the relationship between the indigenous people and the colonists. It also brings out the ideal to fight slavery as it is against human rights. These sections enable us to examine how Aphra Behn fought for the rights of humanity by women and at long last earned them the right to speak their minds (Virginia Woolf).
Aphra Behn’s Bibliography
Aphra Behn was born in the reign of Charles I the year of her birth is not well known. She became one of the major predecessors of the women writers of the generations that followed. Aphra was the first writer to earn a living through writing. During this period, very important changes took place such as in the political ways of governance and the social connections. There were also different views attributed to the women writers.
In the past, status of women was very poor in comparison with the recent days. They were considered inferior in comparison to men or the boy child. The only career available for women was marriage. This shows how it was hard for a woman with the minds of Behn’s to fit in such a society. Most of the women could end as into starvation or turn to prostitution for their survival.
Oroonoko is a name of a character in the story. It is a name of a black hero who falls in love with a girl called Imoinda. A conflict arises between Oroonoko and his grandfather, and Imoinda is sold as a slave. Ignorant of this fact, he suffers depression as he assumes that the girl is dead. In due time, he is deceived and taken as a slave to Guyana. While there, he decides to seek freedom by rebelling against the colonists. However, he is caught and beaten by their captors. At the end, he is executed for murder after killing his wife with an unborn baby.
Colonialism and slavery
In her book, she addressed the problem of the slave trade brought by the Europeans. Aphra brings out this theme and shows its impact to both sides. By then, England was one of the European nations that had started colonizing different parts of the new continent. Lots of European investors were particularly interested with the quick profits of sugar cultivation in the West Indies. This had made Suriname attract many English colonizers. Aphra opens the story with an explanation of a sugar plantation and the daily activities done by the slaves who worked there.
Oroonoko resolves to kill himself rather than being sold into slavery despite being a fierce warrior. Oroonoko being the proud man that he is, “who may be best resembled a lion taken in a toil; he resolves to perish for want of food” so that he would not be made into a slave (2296-7). The author, Behn, compares Oroonoko with a lion by saying that he resembles a lion that is taken in toil, to convey that he is as wild as a lion and cannot give his humanity freely without a fight. Oroonoko resolves to die a free man rather than to die in the hands of the Europeans as a slave by refusing to eat.
Despite of having all those character traits of a warrior, after a battle he sold the captives to the Europeans. He was among the generals who were trafficking with the traders and enjoyed it. Through his interactions with the English traders, he learnt some of their languages. He had no trepidation of the traders and thus was always relaxed in their company.
According to Behn’s purpose, involvement of Oroonoko in the trading activities was a dirty spot on his warrior’s character. Behn argues that he had to be a virtuous and conscious man. The author refers Oroonoko as an educated man, which is one of the qualities that the Europeans highly appreciated. Oroonoko appears unordinary man because it seems unlikely that an African would be so experienced like him. He was very civil in his manners. One could likely suppose that Oroonoko was of European descent if he did not know that he was of an African origin.
Male man’s power is normally known to be greater than the women’s or children’s, the reason why the slave owners valued men more than women. They could do a lot of work in comparison to women. This explains the fact why Aphra decides to use a male character as her hero and why Imoinda as female is not very significant as such.
Oroonoko is tricked and betrayed by an English captain who sells him among the other slaves. When on the ship, “Oroonoko was first seized and sold to an overseer…whose name was Trefry, a man of great wit and fine learning”(2298-9). Trefry does not treat Oroonoko as a slave, he, “loved him as his dearest brother and showed him all the civilities due to so great a man” (2299). He promises Oroonoko to take him back to his homeland.
Finally, we find that Oroonoko’s story plays a key role to support abolitionist movement in different ways and also prepared people’s minds for a change on humanitarian justification. The story also criticizes all forms of slavery that the natives were facing.
Destruction of Identity
This theme examines the impact of the colonist’s cruel behavior towards the slaves in this story by Aphra Behn. The main aim of it was to wash away African ways from the slaves and attach to them the ways of their colonies. Like the other slaves, Oroonoko also found himself in the same situation though he was treated as a prince and his charming personality was respected. However, at the end, he turns into a being whose character the settlers judged as evil, wild and barbarous. In the beginning, the process might not have been seen clearly, but as time went on, he was hit by the hidden agenda of the slave owners and was not ready to destroy his identity as a free man.
At the age of seventeen, Oroonoko became one of the best captains as well as the bravest soldiers of his time. This made him be adored as the wonder of that time, and the darling of the soldiers. With this, Aphra emphasizes that not only the female members charmed the viewers with their beauty, but the male part too. This makes Mrs. Behn to celebrate his deeds as a warrior hence showing his strength and intelligence which are the characters that man adores from other men. Through Oroonoko’s character, Aphra wishes that he could appeal to all the social classes in the restoration of England. No bad deeds could stain his character since he knew no vice and his flame aimed at nothing but honor.
From the story, it is evident that Oroonoko’s identity was built by his society. One’s family is the first to form ones identity. However, Oroonoko, being an orphan, did not grow up with the love of a family. His life was not easy as he started training to a soldier at an early age. His grandfather played a major role in forming his identity. His grandfather also let the people mold his character. Separation of members of the same tribe as in this case led to destruction of their identities. The slave owners prevented them from practicing their cultural forms because it would unite them again leading to resistance. Handling money by the slaves was illegal.
By refusing to eat, Oroonoko encouraged those captured with him also not to eat, also, “it was concluded that nothing, but Oroonoko’s liberty would encourage any of the rest to eat” (2298). This shows that he was not ready to destroy his identity by accepting the state of being a slave rather he would die of hunger. Moreover, once they entered into the new world, Africans became commodities of their slave owners. Their names were stripped off them and replaced with new names that fit their owners. This ensured they lost their identity. For instance, Oroonoko’s name is taken from him and replaced with, “that of Caesar, which name will live in that country as long as glorious one of the great Roman” (2300).
In her story, Aphra tries to show her hatred towards slave trade and sees the slaves as human beings who feel pain, hate, love and think just like normal beings. Her view of the world as a woman of the European descent perhaps captured her and hence could not reject her feeling of otherness.
Suriname is the name of a quite an unknown country. This section is based on the relationship between the indigenous people and the colonists. It also tries to bring out some ideals to fight slavery as it is against human rights. Aphra, as the narrator, is allured by the beauty of the landscape of Suriname. The narrator says that on her arrival:
“She was given the best house which stood on a vast rock of the white marble, at the foot of which the river ran vast depth down, and not to be descended on that side; the little waves, still dashing and washing the foot of this rock, made the softest murmurs and purling in the world, and the opposite bank was adorned with such vast quantities of different flowers externally blowing, and every day and hour new, fenced behind em lofty trees of a thousand rate forms and colors that the prospect was the most raving that sands can create.” (2280)
The story is taking place when Suriname is a colony of the British. Despite of the tough consequences they could put themselves in; people in the colonies entertained themselves in different ways. They thought it was a good way to spend their leisure time; hence they could deliberately put their lives in danger. Not only did Behn know about the beauty of Suriname, but she also knew things that natives were passing through and the existing internal disputes between them and the colonists. In his speech, Oroonoko asks his people, “shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, which have no one human virtue left to distinguish them from the vilest creatures?” (2312). Oroonoko decides to lead his people either from slavery, or to a noble death after realizing what he put them to. He does not what to die as a slave but a free man. The only way to achieve this is by revolting against their captors. This could lead to a death sentence if caught.
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Aphra is giving a new view of slavery to her European readers contrary to what they are used to. She tries to make the Europeans to identify Oroonoko’s character by describing him in a way that puts him above the rest of his race. She tries to argue that slavery dehumanizes the enslaved in such a way that they can never return to their former lives. She puts a lot of heroism to Oroonoko and says that he wants to be their fearless and a noble leader. This shows that, she as a desire to see the people brought out of slavery.
It is almost impossible to differentiate between the narrator and the author because the author knows a lot of information and operates with enormous knowledge of Suriname, and there is a high probability that the narrator and the author are one person. Her stay in Suriname makes Behn feel a lot towards what the slaves were going through. This explains why she decides to rise as a woman writer and through the use of a pen and paper to fight for the rights of the slaves. She uses Oroonoko as her hero to advocate for the rights of the people. Despite Oroonoko almost betraying his people, he finally makes a decision and gets determined to lead his people out of slavery. If caught trying to revolt against their masters, the punishment was a death sentence. However, this does not scare him, but, motivates him more. He is determined that the only way out of slavery is death, either by fighting for their rights or dying at an old age. Through him, we are able to learn the mind of the author and her view of slavery.
This essay revolves around one of the first books written by Aphra Behn. She used Oroonoko, an African warrior as her great hero who leads his people in the fight for humanity. It also explores the relationship between the natives and the colonizers. The first section is about the biography of Aphra Behn and illustrates her position in her society. Also, she is introduces as a person whose life is surrounded by many mysteries. The section that follows, provides overall information about colonialism and slavery, destruction of identity and Suriname which is the place in which the story takes place.
Colonialism and slavery explores on the life and experience that the slaves undergo under their owners. It reveals the narrators feelings towards slavery. Through Behn’s writing, she provoked the leaders and greatly supported the growth of the anti-slavery movements which later led to the abolition of slavery. The second section studies the effects of slavery on the individuality. At the start of the story, Oroonoko was highly praised by his people as a hero, but at the end he changed and was denounced as a barbarian.
The third section about Suriname offers complex views of a country that is colonized by the Europeans. It offers the description of the place and relationship between the natives and their colonizers. Finally, we are able to see the big role played by Aphra, as a woman writer, in negotiating for humanity in a lifetime through her writings.
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