Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”: Slavery and Race in the Atlantic World


Aphra Behn / Public Domain

Exploring how novel Oroonoko compares to other representations of race, slavery, and colonialism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum


Introduction

Aphra Behn published Oroonoko in 1688, a time when the Atlantic slave trade and African slavery in the Americas were becoming consolidated as a transnational, economic system. The novel draws on popular forms of literature such as the aristocratic romance, the travel narrative, and social criticism. It suggests some of the ways that English people were beginning to think about racial and cultural difference and about their own role in colonization and the slave trade. The documents that follow develop the context for Behn’s narrative and, more broadly, demonstrate how European writing on race, slavery, and colonialism evolved over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Description of Colonial Surinam

An Impartial Description of Surinam Upon the Continent of Guiana in America with a History of Several Strange Beasts, Birds, Fishes, Serpents, Insects and Customs of That Colony, &c.: This seventeenth-century English account of the colony of Surinam describes the living-conditions and customs of African slaves and Caribe Indians., 1667

Oroonoko on the Stage

“Epilogue”: This epilogue to the stage adaptation of Oroonoko offers marital advice to English wives. / William Congreve. From Oroonoko: A Tragedy, by Thomas Southerne. 1699.

Thomas Southerne adapted Behn’s narrative for the stage. The English playwright and poet, William Congreve, contributed this epilogue to Southerne’s play.

The Slave Trade in West Africa

A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave Trade: William Snelgrave was an English slave trader who operated in Dahomey, a powerful West African kingdom. His defense of the slave trade influenced pro-slavery arguments throughout the eighteenth century, 1734

William Snelgrave was the captain of an English slave ship. In this book, he provides a first-hand account of two West African kingdoms, offers his observations on the slave trade, and relates his experience of being taken captive by pirates. Snelgrave devotes the first part of the book primarily to the practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism, as he allegedly observed them, in the kingdom of Dahomey. In the following excerpt from the second part, Snelgrave explains—and defends—the slave trade.

Oroonoko and Imoinda

Oronoko, ou Le Prince Négre: This image from a French translation of Oroonoko depicts Oroonoko on the verge of killing his wife Imoinda. / Pierre Antoine de La Place. 1769

This French translation of Behn’s novel includes a series of plates representing Oroonoko, Imoinda, and other characters. In Behn’s original narrative, Imoinda is African but, in Southerne’s play and de la Place’s plates, she appears white and European. In the climactic scene portrayed here, Oroonoko has concluded that escape from slavery is impossible and has resolved to kill Imoinda, then his enemies, and then himself.

Opposition to the Slave Trade

“The Slave Auction ”: In the following excerpt from his autobiographical narrative, Olaudah Equiano describes the horrors of a slave auction and condemns the slave trade. / Olaudah Equiano. From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789.

Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, was the slave of an English captain of a merchant ship in the West Indies. Equiano purchased his freedom from his master in 1766. He went on to become an English citizen and an important advocate for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1789 he published his life narrative, which describes his childhood in West Africa and his enslavement, first, by Africans and, then, by English slave traders who transported him to the West Indies. In the passage excerpted here, Equiano describes a slave auction and addresses his readers on the cruelty of the slave trade.

Images of Colonial Surinam

“Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America”: A late eighteenth-century map of Guiana, showing European possessions. / John Gabriel Stedman. From Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America, 1796.

John Gabriel Stedman published this narrative based on his experiences in the British navy, which aided the Dutch in suppressing a slave revolt in Surinam in the 1770s. Stedman’s lengthy, wide-ranging narrative includes a large number of plates portraying people (primarily African slaves) as well as indigenous plants and animals.

Selected Sources

  • Aphra Behn. Oroonoko: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Joanna Lipking. 1997
  • Biyi Bandele. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: In a New Adaptation, 1999.

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 04.24.2011, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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