“Oroonoko” is a narrative set in the 1660s, predominantly in Suriname, a British colony in South America.
The story unfolds through the eyes of a female narrator, believed to be Aphra Behn herself. She shares her acquaintance with Oroonoko during his captivity in Suriname, painting a vivid portrait of his life and struggles.
Oroonoko hails from Coramantien, a warlike nation in Africa, likely modern-day Ghana. As the last descendant of a royal line, he is destined for greatness. Raised away from the court, he is groomed to be a formidable military leader under the tutelage of Imoinda’s father.
His prowess is proven when he takes over as the new general at just seventeen, after saving his life in a battle.
At the heart of the story is Oroonoko’s profound love for Imoinda, the daughter of his foster father. Their love, instant and deep, faces a dire challenge when the lecherous old king, Oroonoko’s grandfather, desires Imoinda for himself.
Despite a secret marriage ceremony between Oroonoko and Imoinda, the king sends her the royal veil – an irrefutable summons to his court, signifying his intention to make her his concubine.
Imoinda’s subsequent imprisonment in the Otan, the King’s harem, sets off a chain of events driven by love and betrayal. Oroonoko, prevented from seeing Imoinda, devises a plan to consummate their marriage before he leaves for war.
The plan, however, backfires, leading to Imoinda’s sale into slavery – a fact concealed from Oroonoko under the guise of her execution.
The story takes a dramatic turn when Oroonoko, known as “Caesar” in Suriname, and Imoinda, renamed “Clemene,” are unexpectedly reunited as slaves under a kind-hearted slave-owner, Trefry.
Their noble virtues and beauty win them respect among the white nobility. However, the joy of their reunion and the birth of their child is overshadowed by Caesar’s growing restlessness and desire to return home.
Caesar’s mistrust of the colonial authorities, particularly the deceitful Deputy Governor Byam, propels him to lead a slave revolt.
The rebellion, however, ends in tragedy, with most slaves abandoning them and Imoinda injuring Byam in a fight.
Despite a false promise of freedom by Byam, the couple faces severe consequences. In a harrowing climax, Caesar takes the lives of Imoinda and their child to spare them further suffering, but fails to exact revenge on Byam, succumbing to grief.
The story concludes with Caesar’s capture and brutal execution, a testament to his unwavering bravery and the tragic futility of his struggle against enslavement and betrayal.
This tale, blending romance, heroism, and tragedy, offers a profound commentary on the horrors of slavery and the complexities of human emotions and societal norms of the time.
1. The Cruelty of Slavery and Colonialism
Behn’s work is a examination of the brutal realities of slavery and the exploitative nature of colonialism.
Through Oroonoko’s journey from a respected prince in Africa to a dehumanized slave in Suriname, the novel portrays the loss of dignity, freedom, and identity that accompanies enslavement.
It also highlights the moral contradictions and hypocrisy inherent in colonial societies, where nobility and virtue are undermined by the brutal treatment of slaves.
The novel does not shy away from depicting the physical and psychological trauma inflicted upon enslaved individuals, making a strong statement against the dehumanizing institution of slavery.
2. The Clash of Cultures and Values
“Oroonoko” is also a narrative about the collision of different worlds and value systems. On one side is the African kingdom of Coramantien, with its own traditions, societal structures, and codes of honor, and on the other is the European colonial society in Suriname, driven by different principles and practices.
This clash is embodied in the character of Oroonoko, who struggles to reconcile his African heritage with the realities of life in a European colony.
The novel explores how cultural misunderstandings and prejudices can lead to tragic consequences, and it raises questions about the nature of civilization, savagery, and the subjective perception of these concepts across different societies.
3. Love and Betrayal
At its core, the book is a tragic love story set against the backdrop of a cruel and unjust world.
The passionate and steadfast love between Oroonoko and Imoinda is a central theme, showcasing the power of love to transcend the harshest circumstances. However, their love story is marred by betrayal at every turn, from the king’s betrayal of Oroonoko in taking Imoinda for himself, to the betrayal of trust by the English captain who captures Oroonoko.
These acts of betrayal serve to underscore the theme of love’s vulnerability in a world governed by power and greed.
The novel thus presents love as both a source of strength and a cause of vulnerability, exploring how it can inspire great acts of courage and, conversely, lead to despair and tragedy.
“Oroonoko” is a profoundly moving narrative that intertwines themes of love, betrayal, and the brutality of slavery.
Aphra Behn’s storytelling vividly brings to life the complexity of her characters and the tragic circumstances they endure. The novel not only provides a poignant insight into the human cost of slavery but also challenges the societal norms of its time.
It stands as a powerful testament to the enduring strength of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity.