Table of contents
2. Overview on the Transatlantic African slavery and its portray in early modern literature
3. Slavery in Oroonoko
3.1 Representation of slavery
3.2 Depiction of the royal slave
4. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: The tragic hero
Aphra Behn’s narrative Oroonoko or the Royal Slave was published one year before her death in 1688 at a time where the Atlantic Slave Trade and African Slavery were in full blossom as a result of European Colonialism. The story is about the curious case of the gallant prince Oroonoko who got pulled into slavery and was deported to the British colony of Surinam in the 1660’s. Behn’s work combines different genres of texts such as the travel narrative, the romance but most importantly social criticism.
Although Oroonoko is regarded as a literary work by many scholars that has advanced and supported the cause for the abolition of slavery in Britain as well as in it’s colonies, it is in fact a non anti-slavery text. The author does not touch the pressing issue of slavery as such because she presents us with a rare and exceptional kind of slave. Nevertheless, the book clearly illustrates through the depiction of its hero the injustice, cruelty and arbitrariness of slavery that has been brought upon the African peoples by European Colonialism.
In this paper I am going to show Behn’s unusual presentation of a royal slave in order to criticize British Colonialism, first, by giving a brief overview on Transatlantic African slavery that is portrayed in early modern literature, second, by analyzing the depiction of slaves in Behn’s narrative with a special focus on Oroonoko the royal slave, and finally by illustrating Behn’s necessity for choosing a tragic hero, who could have never been protected from the depths of slavery by his royal status.
1. Transatlantic African slavery in early modern literature
1.2 Role of the British and the Triangular Trade
“Where there was hard work to be done, there we find black slaves. And where there were thriving exports of tropical staples, there again we find slaves: in tobacco and rice, in sugar, rum and coffee.” (Walvin, “A Short History of Slavery” 54)
A lot of former slaves published autobiographies or narratives of their lives in early modern literature. Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass or Harriet A. Jacobs portrayed the sufferings and humiliations of slaves during the time of transatlantic slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean and North America. These reports served as abolitionist texts and supported the movement greatly in European countries as well as in the New World. All authors wrote either in their pretexts or within the narrative that they present the truth in their published books just as Jacobs does in her preface: “READER, be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts” (1). The presentation of their lives sheds a light on the institution of slavery that was failed to see in most reports, narratives or travel accounts of the white European and colonial society.
Although the British had neither part in the origins nor in the development of the African slave trade they most certainly helped a great deal in its transformation right from the beginning of the 17th century. Britain possessed several islands in the West Indies as well as colonies on the North American continent that needed to be economically managed and cultivated. For the first years of settlement the British planters focused their efforts exclusively on the cultivation of tobacco but learned from the experience of the Portuguese and the Dutch that the cultivation of sugar cane was a more lucrative and profitable commodity. So after sugar plantations were cultivated on most of the British West Indian islands such as Barbados, Nevis, Antigua and St Kitts for better revenue, Britain reached supremacy in the African slave trade in 1645. Since the output of the crops as well as the need for the product increased each year more slaves were shipped to the Americas and the continental colonies in order to meet the demand of British population. African slaves were “relatively cheap, easily replaceable and found in abundance” (Walvin, “Slaves and Slavery” 26) which led Barbados to become the richest and most thriving of the British colonial islands.
After 1660 the British Crown shifted from using privateer slave traders to monopoly companies through which the Royal African Company (RAC) was founded in 1672 and established the British monopoly in slave trade. The English trade with African humanity was an economic institution with a system that was entirely ruled by law. The RAC was very successful and had managed to transform the trade insofar that each member involved, except for the slaves, benefited from it’s outcome. Unfortunately though, the English could never fully satisfy the enormous demand for enslaved workers and therefore private interlopers were still illegally trading slaves. They sailed up and down the African West coast in order to find opportunities to purchase or trade for new slaves. They did not care about costly punishments or the dangers of slave trade because the trade was simply too lucrative. “Slave trading was uncomfortable, dangerous and often lethal. But the fact that it persisted over such a huge span of time, stretched along so vast a stretch of African coastline and involved so many millions of Africans is, in itself, a clue to its commercial appeal and its potential profitability“ (Walvin, “A Short History of Slavery” 56).
The well-established maritime pattern and the experience that traders gained over the time were based on the Triangular Trade. Traders sailed from the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol to the west coast of Africa where they bought slaves in exchange for goods like weapons and iron. From there they took the Middle Passage by crossing the Atlantic to reach the Americas. The voyage took between six to eight weeks always depending on weather conditions, the state of the ship and the health of the slaves and the crew. Although “the aim was not to damage or harm - and certainly not to kill - the slaves, but to transport them swiftly in order to sell then at a profit” (Walvin, “A Short History of Slavery” 71) they were transported under cruel and humiliating conditions due to which many of them died either of sickness or suicide. Equiano vividly describes in his book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano the devastating conditions on the slave ship. He not only tells the reader about the “keeping” of the slaves under deck but also about the cruel treatment and punishment they had to endure:
The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any length of time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspiration, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness amongst the slaves, of which many died (Equiano 22).
As soon as the ship had reached the Islands of the West Indies the slaves were cleaned up, shaved and fed as good as possibly manageable, they were sold on auctions and slave markets by plantation owners. Either they were shipped off again to plantations on other Islands or to the North American mainland. Afterwards the slave ships that were now loaded with sugar, coffee, tobacco and other tropical goods set off for England again. The triangular trade combined all the necessary goods to supply the European market (National Museum Liverpool).
“I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision ... to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man” (Douglass 85). On the plantations the new owners immediately tried to sever the slaves from their former life. Families and bonds that have been formed on the slave ships were already broken at the slave auction or the market when the slaves were sold to different masters. But nonetheless to cut off all ties and to break their will owners gave their new commodities a different name. This act of renaming is displayed in Aphra Behn’s narrative Oroonoko or the Royal Slave when Oroonoko and Imoinda are named Caesar and Clemene when they as soon as they arrival in Surinam. Also, Olaudah Equiano received the new name Gustavus Vassa from his captain on board of the slave ship. Furthermore, slaves were given new accommodations, clothing and they had to adapt to unknown customs and a foreign language.
“The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes” (Jacobs 142)
and had to deal with the fact that from that time on they were chattel slaves. Chattel slaves are slaves for life; their children will be born slaves and are as well the property of their master (National Museum Liverpool). The process of will breaking was called ‘seasoning’ and lasted about two to three years during which a lot of Africans died either by trauma and disease or by committing suicide. Frederick Douglass described this phenomenon as the most horrible and cruel time as a slave during the first half-year of his stay with his master Mr.