Oroonoko

Oroonoko This week, we are leaving behind the temperate, often dismal climes of England and heading to the steaming tropical jungles of Surinam, a short-lived English colony on South America’s Caribbean coast. It may seem like an odd shift, but it is crucial to the development of English culture and literature in the 18th and 19th centuries, because it reflects the move toward colonial enterprise in the 17th century–a move which ultimately resulted in the widespread British Empire, on which the sun supposedly never set. Surinam was not the only English colony in the 17th century–there were Caribbean islands, bits of India, and, of course, a collection of colonies in Eastern North America–but it serves as a kind of melting pot where English values contend with established practices and economic demands. England was a relative latecomer to New World colonialism, and extractive economies, and the African slave trade on which it was based, were well established in the region by the time the English gained a solid foothold. The English later became major figures in both the slave trade and in slave-based colonial economics, but in the early days, as evidenced by Oroonoko, the idea of chattel slavery was somewhat confusing to the English who were to serve as slave-masters. The story itself, told by a white female narrator (who is, perhaps, a stand-in for Behn herself), is a fairly typical heroic romance, with a larger-than-life hero and his beautiful true love. Here, however, both hero and love are here cast as noble Africans, who fall in love and endure separation on their own continent before being sold as slaves and brought across the Atlantic to labor for English masters. The narrator herself is something of an objective observer, in that she has no direct interest in the proceeding: she is a temporary resident of Surinam, cast there by fortune and economically independent of the colonial enterprise, so while she is directly engaged in the story in Surinam (and is familiar with the African portion), she is not particularly predisposed to partiality based upon her own circumstances. Thus, while this isn’t exactly an overtly abolitionist text, neither does it accept outright the professed justifications for chattel slavery. And chattel slavery, particularly, is the issue here, and features in much of the drama. Here, both slave masters and slaves find themselves wrestling with the ideas and implications of outright ownership, which is itself ultimately quite different from both the feudal model imagined by many of the English and the conquest model imagined by many Africans (most notably Oroonoko himself). In terms of English literature, this is an excellent example of early novel, and offers some taste of the colonial/exotic themes which appear in later 17th century literature and drama. Further, it introduces the problem of slavery itself–an institution which is held at arms length in England, but which is crucial to the prosperity of the colonial enterprise, and thus to the prosperity of England as a nation.