Shifting Power and the Evasion of Responsibility in Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave

A hypertextual essay by Helen Ibbotson
  1. Introduction - Aphra Behn
  2. Power Groups
        Colonisers - Surinam Indians - Slaves - Superiority (i)& (ii)
  3. Oroonoko
       Prince and Slave - Slave and Slave-master
  4. Women
       Native Women - Imoinda
  5. The Narrator
       Retreating Eyewitness - Woman and Poet - 'Helpless' Woman
  6. Shallow Promises - Death
  7. Conclusion




    Aphra Behn's Oroonoko is presented as an amalgamation of three narrative forms: memoir, biography and travel narrative, narrated by an English woman visiting the colony in Surinam.(1) In this essay I will examine the ways in which power groups are presented within the text and in particular the ways in which the narrator and the hero are able to transcend them. I will argue that Oroonoko's contradictory status as both a prince and a slave causes his death, while the narrator's ability to identify herself with either the powerful or the marginalised sectors of society allows her to avoid responsibility for his death whilst taking credit for immortalising his story. The effect of this is to highlight contradictions in the ideologies of European culture.

    Aphra Behn
    Aphra Behn is thought to have been in Surinam with her family between 1663 and 1664. She writes Protrait of Aphra Behnas if she herself is the narrator telling of her own experiences while abroad. The 'I' of the narrative is an educated woman whose father, the lieutenant Governor of 'six and thirty islands, besides the continent of Surinam' (2) died on the ship on the way there. Although Behn almost certainly inflates her own social status in order to create this narrator, it is clear that much of her description of Surinam comes from a detailed knowledge of the place, which suggests that at least some of what she says is true. Exactly how much is fact and what is fiction is impossible to say. Whether or not the narrator should be taken to be synonymous with the author is uncertain, but by having a narrator who claims to have been an eyewitness or have spoken to an eyewitness to the whole story ends the tale a certain authority.

    Power Groups
    There are three power groups in the hierarchy of the colony and by emphasising her high social status the narrator aligns herself immediately with the dominant power in the colony: the British colonials. However within these three groups: British, natives and slaves, lurks the subdivision of gender which deprives the narrator of power, but also allows her to disassociate herself from the actions of 'the men' when necessary.




    The colony is officially run by the Governor and his council acting on behalf of the British Government. Having once aligned herself with them, and emphasised the power she has over them, Behn later describes these men as 'such notorious villains as Newgate never transported' saying that they 'possibly originally were such, who understood neither the laws of God or man, and had no sort of principles to make them worthy the name of men.'(3) There are others within the colony (such as Trefry) to whom Behn grants more respect, but in the end they are as powerless to stop Byam from killing Oroonoko as the narrator herself. In other words, the colony is being run by those who would be accorded neither power, nor respect if they had remained in England.

    Surinam Indians
    The colonisers' relationship with the native Indians is presented as a precarious one. Whilst the narrator clearly admires them, she is quite blatant about the possibility of treating them as slaves. She describes them as too powerful to be turned into slaves and too important to be made into enemies as they are 'on all occasions, very useful to us, we find it absolutely necessary to caress them as friends, and not to treat them as slaves; nor dare we do other, their numbers so far surpassing ours in that continent.'(4) More than once we are reminded of the horrific acts of violence perpetrated by the natives on the white settlers and their slaves, that occurred once the Dutch took control of Surinam. In contrast to this, most of Behn's descriptions of the Surinam Indians suggest an unspoilt utopia. She describes them as having 'a native justice which knows no fraud, and they understand no vice or cunning, but when they are taught by the white men.'(5)




    Slaves being sold in Surinam

    The slaves are kept in order by a mixture of brute force and threats of whipping and punishments. Also as soon as slaves arrive they are given different clothes, a different name and presumably spoken to in English. On arrival Oroonoko is dressed in "a sort of brown holland suit"(6) and renamed Caesar by his new 'owners'. The reason Behn gives for renaming slaves is that their native ones are "likely very barbarous, and hard to pronounce."(7)


    Superiority (i)
    The whites' treatment of Oroonoko demonstrates that although they are the dominant power in the colony they recognise his potential to lead others and to disrupt their world. Even the narrator, who praises him, promises his freedom and is writing his story, took measures to curb his freedom and keep him watched. The way that the Europeans treat slaves and savages alike stems from two concepts: the first of these is their fear; both of what is different and its power as a threat to their own, and the second is the assumption that Europeans are superior and that they have the right to force their culture on to those whom they regard as savages.

    Superiority (ii)
    The notion that Western culture is superior and should be appreciated by the slaves is not only enforced by violence. When the narrator describes how she entertains Oroonoko with the lives of the Romans and Imoinda with stories of nuns and Christianity she too is forcing her own culture onto them. Behn appreciates Oroonoko's integrity and accepts that he does not like the riddles of the Trinity, but teaches it instead to Imoinda who, as a female slave is lower in terms of power and is not given the chance to make her own choice.


    Oroonoko arrives as an outsider to the colonial system. He is accorded some respect because of his high position of power in his native country where he was a prince and great war leader, but he is nevertheless a slave and as such has the rules of the colony enforced upon him as well as the indignity of not being a free man. As an outsider from a different culture, Oroonoko can see the truth of a system that he is not truly part of. Long before going to Surinam, he had learned to admire the values of the West from his French tutor, but he is disappointed to discover that the high notions of justice and honour that he had heard about did not exist in reality. In Surinam justice and honour were no more than a front that covered the white men's lies.

    Prince and Slave
    Oroonoko has the respect of other slaves and colonists, both as a Prince and for his skill in battle and his principles of honour. He is known to be very strong and skilled both at fighting and intellectual pursuits as he has learnt many languages. He is not treated as a common slave, and Behn tells us "he endured no more of the slave but the name"(8), being allowed to spend his time talking to curious visitors such as the narrator rather than work on the plantation. This gives him a considerable amount of power despite the fact that he is in name (as a slave) a member of the oppressed. This means that when he tries to organise rebellion amongst the slaves, they are willing to follow him and he is able to instil real fear in the colonists.

    Slave and Slave Master
    Many critics have commented on the ambiguous stance that Behn takes on slavery in this text, and Oroonoko's shifting power position compounds this ambiguity. While Oroonoko is a slave he is clearly meant as a proof that slaves can be as noble as free men, but he is also an educated nobleman who himself kept slaves and sold men into slavery when he was in a position of power in Coramantien. Far from resenting this fact, the men whom he sold welcome him as a king when he arrives at the plantation in Surinam.


    Women, both black and white, have less power than the men in Oroonoko, but the female slaves have least power of all. When Oroonoko leads the slaves to freedom their women are not consulted, but are expected to follow wherever they are led. The white women, represented by the narrator, her mother and her sister, have some influence, but when important decisions are made they are not consulted, particularly if it is felt their opinions will be different from the men's. This is obvious from the number of times that decisions to punish Oroonoko are made without the narrator's knowledge or while she has gone away.

    Native Women
    The native women are 'extreme[ly] modest and bashful, very shy and nice of being touched'(9). Each man has lots of wives and they are his only servants. The narrator is ambivalent towards polygamy as she is towards many of the differences she finds in Surinam. She commends Oroonoko for choosing to love only Imoinda, rather than take many wives as his own culture expects, but she also recognises, the fact that polygamy almost guarantees a place for life for women whereas in Christian countries, she observes, it is acceptable to turn a woman 'off, abandon her to want, shame and misery'(10) as long as it is in the name of religion.


    As a woman and a slave Imoinda has little power in her own right. She is a member of two repressed groups and so has very little power to fight for what she wants. Behn praises her much for her beauty and her constancy, and it is these qualities which give her the little influence she has over her own future. Her beauty makes men fall in love with her, whether she wishes it or not and her constancy to Oroonoko leads Behn to see Imoinda's desires as synonymous with those of Oroonoko. The most positive effect Imoinda ever has on her own destiny is when she begs her husband to kill her before he asks her to die. However, this is a very limited amount of control as it is clear that Oroonoko was about to suggest it himself, and that Imoinda would have consented.


    The Narrator
    The narrator goes to great lengths to inform the reader both of her influential position in the A house in SurinamColony, and also as a friend of Oroonoko's. She tells us that her house is the most beautiful: "As soon as I came into the country, the best house in it was presented me, called St John's Hill."(11), her father the most important man, who was to have been "the lieutenant-general of six and thirty islands, besides the continent of Surinam"(12). She also claims Oroonoko referred to her as "his Great whom he had entire confidence"(13) and tells us several times that she was able to calm him as her words had great sway with him.


    The Retreating Eyewitness
    The power structures of Surinam and Coramantien appear fixed, but Behn shows deference to different powers and cultures in order to keep the reader on the narrator's side. The narrator aligns herself with Oroonoko when that gives her importance and adds credibility to her narrative as someone who heard and saw events first hand. However, when Oroonoko himself is on the loose in the jungle and has become a threat the narrator tells us she withdrew with the rest of the ladies. Again when the colonists harm Oroonoko, she is careful to distance herself from the action.

    Woman and Poet
    As a female writer, Behn has a special power of her own; she chooses her position according to how it will reflect on her at the time. Behn knew her sex was an obstacle to how her work was received, as she put it: 'the woman damns the poet'(14). however the poet does, to some extent free the woman. Behn uses gender to gain a flexibility of narratorial stance within the power framework of Surinam. When she wishes the narrator to be associated with what is going on she portrays her as a woman of importance, and aligns her with the "we" that governs the island. However, when she wishes to excuse her from some unpleasant action such as the whipping of Oroonoko, she blames the dominant white men and aligns her with the women, whom she excuses for escaping, because they feared for their lives. This allows the narrator to be associated with their victories without having to share in the pain of their defeats.


    'Helpless' Woman

    Despite the narrator's protestations of power and importance in the colony, it seems that she has power to stop Oroonoko from helping himself, but not to actually help him. She considers herself part of the dominant power, the white colonists, while persuading Oroonoko to stay or teaching him aspects of European culture, but when the colonists chase, punish and eventually kill Oroonoko, the narrator is a woman who can do nothing about it, while they - the white male colonists - carry out such evil actions. 


    Shallow promises
    It is not only in her relationship with the reader that the narrator is careful about how much power she admits to having. She and the rest of Oroonoko's 'friends' amongst the Colonists all persuade him he can be free and will be free and in fact is free in all but name, but must wait until the arrival of the governor General. This may or may not be the case, but it seems to me this form of avoiding responsibility is an integral part of such power structures. Those halfway up the 'hierarchical ladder' must be very careful if they do not want blame from the top for the behaviour of those below them or blame from below for the actions they are asked to perform by those in charge. Behn is careful which pronouns the narrator uses and begins by telling us that 'they fed him from day to day with promises, and delayed him, till the Lord Governor should come'(15) (my italics) but only two pages later the narrator herself goes to a lot of trouble to get from him a promise "to rest yet a little longer with patience, and wait the coming of the Lord Governor who was every day expected on our shore.'(16)

    Oroonoko chooses death for both himself and Imoinda, rather than let his child be born into slavery. In death the problems that the pair cause by being beautiful and royal are finally resolved. Oroonoko literally defaces his wife's corpse, and Oroonoko himself is cut into pieces and finally his body is quartered and nailed up as a warning to other slaves.


    Throughout the text the narrator draws attention to the fact that she is writing a book. She presents the colony as one full of contradictions: educated or untrustworthy Europeans; innocent or dangerous natives; and a 'Royal Slave'. The narrator's own evasion of responsibility and shifting allegiances reflect in microcosm the hypocracy and ambiguities of the society created by the colonists. The participation of Aphra Behn's unreliable narrator within the power structures of Surinam, when placed alongside her involvement with Oroonoko, highlight contradictions implicit within the text. Using her power as an author Behn is able to subtly raise questions about the dominant ideology. At a more conventional level she has the power to decide how the characters involved (including her 'self' as narrator) are remembered, and to make the tragic names of Oroonoko and Imoinda live on.

    Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise. Yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda.(17)

    by Helen Ibbotson