Oroonoko or the Royal Slave was the first novel to be published in the U.K by a woman. Aphra Behn was one of only three known female playwright’s at the time it was written in the 16th Century. Little is known of her life, but it is believed she travelled to Suriname in South America, with her family as a young woman, where the novel is set.
Oroonoko is an African prince who is betrayed by his grandfather and sold into slavery, ironically a trade he commenced in himself before his capture. The book is considered a pre-cursor to the fiction novel as it was written as a biography with no dialogue. Behn probably did take many of the incidences in the novel from her own experiences, but like all novels she probably developed and embellished those experiences to make the story more dramatic. A technique I am sure all fiction writers do.
This is a small book, more a novella really. In its time it would have been considered quite revolutionary in its depiction of the negative implications to the slave trade. At the same time Behn does not strictly condemn slavery as an institution, so engraved is the idea of the importance of slavery to the economy in those days. The prince Oroonoko and his love, Imoinda are described as beautiful with immense integrity. Their beauty however is always in comparison to white people, but the racism of the story must be understood within the time it was written.
The ending of Oroonoko in Suriname is so shocking that I doubt it would ever be written today (spoiler alert). Oroonoko realises that they will never be set free and his unborn child will be born into slavery. He therefore makes the decision to kill his heavily pregnant wife, who agrees to her own murder, believing her death by her husband’s hands to be a cultural sign of his devotion. His attempts at revenge and eventual suicide fails as he weakens from eight days by his wife’s corpse. Instead, Oroonoko is strung up and his nose chopped off, then both of his ears and arm is sliced off too, while he quietly smokes a pipe. A form of passive resistance and pride. Until his smoking arm is cut off and he promptly dies!