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About the Author
Restoration-era author Aphra Behn (1640–89) is regarded as England's first professional female writer. Despite the considerable success of her poetry, plays, and fiction, little is known for certain about her life. Two centuries after her burial in Westminster Abbey's Poets Corner, Virginia Woolf observed, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn ... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."
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THE HISTORY OF THE ROYAL SLAVE
I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him: and it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues, there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention.
I was myself an eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down, and what I could not be witness of I received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, who gave us the whole transactions of his youth, and though I shall omit, for brevity's sake, a thousand little accidents of his life, which, however pleasant to us, where history was scarce, and adventures very rare, yet might prove tedious and heavy to my reader in a world where he finds diversions for every minute new and strange. But we who were perfectly charmed with the character of this great man were curious to gather every circumstance of his life.
The scene of the last part of his adventures lies in a colony in America called Surinam in the West Indies. But before I give you the story of this gallant slave, 'tis fit I tell you the manner of bringing them to these new colonies; for those they make use of there are not natives of the place, for those we live with in perfect amity, without daring to command 'em, but on the contrary, caress 'em with all the brotherly and friendly affection in the world; trading with 'em for their fish, venison, buffaloes' skins and little rarities, as marmosets, a sort of monkey as big as a rat or weasel, but of a marvellous and delicate shape, and has face and hands like an human creature, and cousheries, a little beast in the form and fashion of a lion, as big as a kitten, but so exactly made in all parts like that noble beast that it is it in miniature. Then for little parakeetoes, great parrots, macaws, and a thousand other birds and beasts of wonderful and surprising forms, shapes, and colours, for skins of prodigious snakes, of which there are some threescore yards in length, as is the skin of one that may be seen at His Majesty's antiquary's, where are also some rare flies, of amazing forms and colours, presented to 'em by myself, some as big as my fist, some less, and all of various excellencies, such as art cannot imitate. Then we trade for feathers, which they order into all shapes, make themselves little short habits of 'em, and glorious wreaths for their heads, necks, arms, and legs, whose tinctures are unconceivable. I had a set of these presented to me, and I gave 'em to the King's theatre, and it was the dress of the Indian Queen, infinitely admired by persons of quality, and were unimitable. Besides these, a thousand little knacks and rarities in nature, and some of art, as their baskets, weapons, aprons, etc. We dealt with 'em with beads of all colours, knives, axes, pins, and needles, which they used only as tools to drill holes with in their ears, noses, and lips, where they hang a great many little things, as long beads, bits of tin, brass, or silver, beat thin, and any shiny trinket. The beads they weave into aprons about a quarter of an ell long, and of the same breadth, working them very prettily in flowers of several colours of beads, which apron they wear just before 'em, as Adam and Eve did the fig leaves; the men wearing a long strip of linen, which they deal with us for. They thread these beads also on long cotton threads, and make girdles to tie their aprons to, which come twenty times or more about the waist and then cross, like a shoulder belt, both ways and round their necks, arms and legs. This adornment, with their long black hair and the face painted in little specks or flowers here and there, makes 'em a wonderful figure to behold. Some of the beauties, which indeed are finely shaped, as almost all are, and who have pretty features, are very charming and novel, for they have all that is called beauty, except the colour, which is a reddish yellow or, after a new oiling, which they often use to themselves, they are of the colour of a new brick, but smooth, soft, and sleek.
They are extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched. And though they are all thus naked, if one lives forever among 'em, there is not to be seen an indecent action, or glance, and being continually used to see one another unadorned, so like our first parents before the Fall, it seems as if they had no wishes, there being nothing to heighten curiosity, but all you can see, you see at once, and every moment see; and where there is no novelty, there can be no curiosity. Not but I have seen a handsome young Indian dying for love of a very beautiful young Indian maid; but all his courtship was to fold his arms, pursue her with his eyes, and sighs were all his language, while she, as if no such lover were present, or rather, as if she desired none such, carefully guarded her eyes from beholding him, and never approached him, but she looked down with all the blushing modesty I have seen in the most severe and cautious of our world. And these people represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before Man knew how to sin, and 'tis most evident and plain that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive, and virtuous mistress. 'Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of Man. Religion would here but destroy that tranquillity they possess by ignorance, and laws would but teach 'em to know offence, of which now they have no notion. They once made mourning and fasting for the death of the English governor, who had given his hand to come on such a day to 'em, and neither came, nor sent; believing, when once a man's word was passed, nothing but death could or should prevent his keeping it, and when they saw he was not dead, they asked him what name they had for a man who promised a thing he did not do. The governor told them such a man was a liar, which was a word of infamy to a gentleman. Then one of 'em replied, "Governor, you are a liar and guilty of that infamy." They have a native justice which knows no fraud, and they understand no vice, or cunning, but when they are taught by the white men. They have plurality of wives, which, when they grow old, they serve those that succeed 'em, who are young, but with a servitude easy and respected, and unless they take slaves in war, they have no other attendants.
Those on that continent where I was had no king, but the oldest war captain was obeyed with great resignation. A war captain is a man who has led them on to battle with conduct and success, of whom I shall have occasion to speak more hereafter, and of some other of their customs and manners as they fall in my way.
With these people, as I said, we live in perfect tranquillity and good understanding, as it behoves us to do, they knowing all the places where to seek the best food of the country and the means of getting it; and for very small and unvaluable trifles, supply us with what 'tis impossible for us to get, for they do not only in the wood and over the savannahs in hunting supply the parts of hounds by swiftly scouring through those almost impassable places, and by the mere activity of their feet, run down the nimblest deer, and other eatable beasts, but in the water one would think they were gods of the rivers, or fellow citizens of the deep, so rare an art they have in swimming, diving, and almost living in water, by which they command the less swift inhabitants of the floods. And then for shooting, what they cannot take or reach with their hands, they do with arrows, and have so admirable an aim, that they will split almost an hair, and at any distance that an arrow can reach they will shoot down oranges and other fruit, and only touch the stalk with the darts' points that they may not hurt the fruit. So that they being on all occasions very useful to us, we find it absolutely necessary to caress 'em as friends and not to treat 'em as slaves; nor dare we do other, their numbers so far surpassing ours in that continent. Those then whom we make use of to work in our plantations of sugar are negroes, black slaves altogether, which are transported thither in this manner.
Those who want slaves make a bargain with a master, or captain of a ship and contract to pay him so much a piece, a matter of twenty pound a head for as many as he agrees for and to pay for 'em when they shall be delivered on such a plantation. So that when there arrives a ship laden with slaves, they who have so contracted go aboard and receive their number by lot; and perhaps in one lot that may be for ten, there may happen to be three or four men, the rest, women and children. Or, be there more or less of either sex, you are obliged to be contented with your lot.
Coramantien, a country of blacks so called, was one of those places in which they found the most advantageous trading for these slaves, and thither most of our great traders in that merchandise trafficked, for that nation is very warlike and brave and, having a continual campaign, being always in hostility with one neighbouring prince or other, they had the fortune to take a great many captives, for all they took in battle were sold as slaves; at least, those common men who could not ransom themselves. Of these slaves so taken, the general only has all the profit and of these generals, our captains and masters of ships buy all their freights.
The king of Coromantien was himself a man of a hundred and odd years old, and had no son, though he had many beautiful black wives; for most certainly there are beauties that can charm of that colour. In his younger years he had had many gallant men to his sons, thirteen of which died in battle, conquering when they fell, and he had only left him for his successor one grandchild, son to one of these dead victors, who, as soon as he could bear a bow in his hand, and a quiver at his back, was sent into the field to be trained up by one of the oldest generals to war, where from his natural inclination to arms, and the occasions given him with the good conduct of the old general, he became, at the age of seventeen, one of the most expert captains and bravest soldiers that ever saw the field of Mars. So that he was adored as the wonder of all that world, and the darling of the soldiers. Besides, he was adorned with a native beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race, that he struck an awe and reverence even in those that knew not his quality, as he did in me, who beheld him with surprise and wonder when afterwards he arrived in our world.
He had scarce arrived at his seventeenth year when fighting by his side the general was killed with an arrow in his eye, which the Prince Oroonoko (for so was this gallant Moor called) very narrowly avoided; nor had he, if the general, who saw the arrow shot, and perceiving it aimed at the prince, had not bowed his head between, on purpose to receive it in his own body rather than it should touch that of the prince, and so saved him. 'Twas then, afflicted as Oroonoko was, that he was proclaimed general in the old man's place, and then it was, at the finishing of that war, which had continued for two years, that the prince came to court, where he had hardly been a month together, from the time of his fifth year to that of seventeen; and 'twas amazing to imagine where it was he learned so much humanity; or, to give his accomplishments a juster name, where 'twas he got that real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honour, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry, whose objects were almost continually fighting men, or those mangled, or dead, who heard no sounds but those of war and groans. Some part of it we may attribute to the care of a French man of wit and learning, who finding it turn to very good account to be a sort of royal tutor to this young black, and perceiving him very ready, apt, and quick of apprehension, took a great pleasure to teach him morals, language, and science, and was for it extremely beloved and valued by him. Another reason was he loved when he came from war to see all the English gentlemen that traded thither, and did not only learn their language, but that of the Spaniards also, with whom he traded afterwards for slaves.
I have often seen and conversed with this great man, and been a witness to many of his mighty actions, and do assure my reader, the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind, a judgement more solid, a wit more quick, and a conversation more sweet and diverting. He knew almost as much as if he had read much; he had heard of and admired the Romans, he had heard of the late Civil Wars in England and the deplorable death of our great monarch, and would discourse of it with all the sense, and abhorrence of the injustice imaginable. He had an extreme good and graceful mien, and all the civility of a well-bred great man. He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court.
This great and just character of Oroonoko gave me an extreme curiosity to see him, especially when I knew he spoke French and English and that I could talk with him. But though I had heard so much of him, I was as greatly surprised when I saw him as if I had heard nothing of him; so beyond all report I found him. He came into the room and addressed himself to me and some other women with the best grace in the world. He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied. The most famous statuary could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot. His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes were the most aweful that could be seen and very piercing, the white of 'em being like snow, as were his teeth. His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome. There was no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty. His hair came down to his shoulders, by the aids of art, which was by pulling it out with a quill and keeping it combed, of which he took particular care. Nor did the perfections of his mind come short of those of his person, for his discourse was admirable upon almost any subject, and whoever had heard him speak would have been convinced of their errors, that all fine wit is confined to the white men, especially to those of Christendom, and would have confessed that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well and of governing as wisely, had as great a soul, as politic maxims, and was as sensible of power, as any prince civilized in the most refined schools of humanity and learning, or the most illustrious courts.
This prince, such as I have described him, whose soul and body were so admirably adorned, was (while yet he was in the court of his grandfather), as I said, as capable of love as 'twas possible for a brave and gallant man to be; and in saying that, I have named the highest degree of love, for sure, great souls are most capable of that passion. I have already said, the old general was killed by the shot of an arrow, by the side of this prince in battle, and that Oroonoko was made general. This old dead hero had one only daughter left of his race: a beauty that to describe her truly one need say only she was female to the noble male, the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars, as charming in her person as he and of delicate virtues. I have seen an hundred white men sighing after her and making a thousand vows at her feet, all vain and unsuccessful. And she was indeed too great for any but a prince of her own nation to adore.
Oroonoko, coming from the wars, which were now ended, after he had made his court to his grandfather, he thought in honour he ought to make a visit to Imoinda, the daughter of his foster father, the dead general, and to make some excuses to her, because his preservation was the occasion of her father's death, and to present her with those slaves that had been taken in this last battle, as the trophies of her father's victories. When he came, attended by all the young soldiers of any merit, he was infinitely surprised at the beauty of this fair queen of night, whose face and person was so exceeding all he had ever beheld, that lovely modesty with which she received him, that softness in her look and sighs upon the melancholy occasion of this honour that was done by so great a man as Oroonoko, and a prince of whom she had heard such admirable things, the awefulness wherewith she received him, and the sweetness of her words and behaviour while he stayed, gained a perfect conquest over his fierce heart and made him feel the victor could be subdued. So that having made his first compliments, and presented her an hundred and fifty slaves in fetters, he told her with his eyes that he was not insensible of her charms; while Imoinda, who wished for nothing more than so glorious a conquest, was pleased to believe she understood that silent language of new-born love, and from that moment put on all her additions to beauty.
Excerpted from "Oroonoko"
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Table of Contents
- Aphra Behn
Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave: A True HistoryIn Context
- from Aphra Behn, the Dedication of Oroonoko to Lord Maitland (1688)
- The Invitation to Surinam: Lord Willoughby’s Prospectus
- from Francis Willoughby, 5th Baron Willoughby of Parham, Certain Overtures made by the Lord Willoughby of Parham unto all such as shall incline to plant in the English colony of Surinam on the continent of Guiana (c. 1655)
- On Surinam in the Seventeenth Century
- from George Warren, An Impartial Description of Surinam upon the Continent of Guiana in America (1667)
- The Restoration Monarchy and the Slave Trade
- from The Several Declarations of the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa (1667)
- Infographic: England’s Slave Trade
- Europeans on Slavery, Gold Coast to Guiana
- from William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave Trade (1734)
- from Charles de Rochefort, The History of the Carriby-Islands (1658, English translation 1666)
- from Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657)
- from Thomas Tryon, Friendly Advice to Gentleman Planters (1684)
- from Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, General History of the Antilles Inhabited by the French (1667–71)
- Black Voices on Slavery in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
- Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787)
- from Richard Price, First-Time: The Historical Vision of an African American People (1983, second edition 2002)
- Eighteenth-Century Commentaries on Aphra Behn and Oroonoko
- from Thomas Southerne, dedication to his stage adaptation of Oroonoko (1696)
- from anonymous, The History of the Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn, written by one of the Fair Sex (1698)
- from The General Dictionary, Historical and Critical (1735)