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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
The History of The Royal Slave,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Aphra Behn's Oroonoko is theorized in style and format to possibly be one of the first novels in English, connecting the worlds of Europe, Africa, and America in a tale that is common in plot but uncommon in character. Written by the so-called "bad girl" of her time, Behn's novel explores firs the foreign world of Coramantien and its royalty. The title character of the Royal Prince then finds himself with soldiers and war captains with the natives of Surinam, and then with its colonists. Separated in different social classes, the main character, who is black, is deemed royalty in one world, and slave in another. This is just one the main dualities presented in this text. Race, social class, gender, age, life and death all play a part in this manuscript. The interesting story makes definite commentary on the role of women and of religion as shown by the contrast in cultures. Oroonoko, while not an immediately likable character in his stoicism, is given the effect of reader appeal through the other characters in the text. His love interest, Imoinda, shines. Dismissed during its publishing as vulgar and sensational because of the author's "warm" attitude toward sexuality and violence, Oroonoko is now placed among the treasures of British literature. Its value as a story, a novel, and a commentary of social life and slavery is highly valuable.Oroonoko is one of the only known novels written by this author, who has yet to be fully discovered and publicized. For a long while, Behn was negatively criticized for both her work and her social life outside of her writing. She was also notorious for her torrid relationships with other well-known people of her time, and for working a provocative job as a spy. She changed the definition of feminine in presenting works where women are objects subjugated to male carnal desire, and punished for going outside this subjugated sphere. She champions the female as a deliberately sexual being who is punished for being so. Other works of hers include a large work of poetry that is slowly finding its way into mainstream literature anthologies. Her contributions to both prose and poetry have contributed greatly to feminism and to literature.
¿Oroonoko¿ by Aphra Behn, is an interesting case mixing two oppressed types of people. The narrative is told by a woman with some social standing; however, women of this time are not included in any decision making or influential places of power. They are considered property of their husbands or caretakers, even if the family is well off and the female may be allowed to travel with companions. The narrator often states that she tries to help the main character and sympathizes with his plight, but has no chance of saving him from the punishments placed down upon him. She also is sent away whenever there may be trouble. Oroonoko is also oppressed. He is a black male, which regardless of his royal status, is still considered a lesser being during this time period. The story may indulge in his heroic activities, his beauty, his strength as a leader and a fighter, but it also does not seem to state that he being enslaved is an offence against nature. In fact, even from the words of Oroonoko, he seems to be content with his situation until he finds out that Imoinda is pregnant. He is never happy being a slave, but he does not set up an opposition against it outright until the thought of his children in slavery changes him. Polk points out that at first he was not in favor of relating to Oroonoko because of the narrators description of him being a black male that had many white features. Polk found that to be distasteful because it encourages the distinguishing of a lighter black man being more attractive and having a higher status in life than a darker black man. However, after reading an article, Polk begins to look at Oroonoko differently. He begins to see Oroonoko through stages of identity development. The first stage shows that Oroonoko is influenced by the wit of white men. He sees them as being more intelligent and more powerful than a black man. He perpetuates the oppression of black men by fancying the intellect of a white man more than a black man. This is shown by his friendships with the man that captures him into slavery and the Frenchman that he defeats in battle. The next step in the development of his identity is brought about by a huge change in his life. This change is the promise of a child. When Oroonoko thinks that his child will be born into slavery, a change in his thoughts occurs and he no longer thinks as kindly towards his oppressors. The next stage comes when Oroonoko embraces being a black man. He shows this by his speeches to first encourage the other slaves to rise in rebellion and then in his fighting for freedom. Even through his speech when the other slaves abandon him and he calls them names, he is still accepting himself as a black individual. He dies before moving into the next step of his development. However, Polk finds that the smoking of a pipe even as he is being cut into pieces symbolizes a rise above those that torment him. He supplies that smoking the pipe is hiding a smile or smirk.
Aphra Behn's enchanting story of movements, encounters and the uneasy existence of parallel worlds may not be "the first novel in English", but it is haunting and magisterial. The mythic world, the dreamy nobility and nightmarish cruelty of Oroonoko's own, almost entirely fictitious, Africa; the grim politics of put-money-in-thy-purse Europe, ruining everything it touches, and the ignoble Europeans, creatures of vicious cunning; the clear-lit paradise of Suriname, full of doomed children, the natives, and novel little creatures of all sorts that make as good eating for real as the people and their land will in metaphor (meatphor).
Things get out of control when those worlds start bleeding into each other--Oroonoko and Imoinda too noble for plantation slavery, the Indians too naive to resist it, the Europeans too venal to do honour to their religious ideals, the remnants of their ancient, noble, savage selves. And the stigmata thereof appear everywhere--on the self-mutilation of the native generals, on the piece of flesh that Oroonoko cuts from his throat and flings at the slavers, but also on the beautiful scarification that his people inflict on one another, that stark and redblooded art. In the deadly vengeance the Europeans take, certainly, but also in the ambiguous fecundity of Imoinda's body, the pregnancy that turns slavery into war and self-destruction, the nobility of cutting off your nose to spite your face. The promise of the future and birth and growth that all these men fight over, the fear of losing possession of it and in it losing oneself. The eternal last word of negative capability, of self-hurt, and the sad nobility therein. We destroy ourselves to show the world who we are.
Certainly not an anti-slavery story as such, then, but an anti-degradation story, anti-besmirching of that delicate inner rightness we call human dignity. Economic systems and political systems have a logic, and it will win out over truth and beauty. But Prince Oroonoko doesn't need to die to prove it any more than Charles I did. It's a story that exalts the aristocrat, but it exalts him as amore fully developed human. And as such, of course, it's unavoidably an anti-slavery story too, whatever Behn would have said.
A telling portrayal of European fetishization and exoticization of Africa and the East, the melodrama definitely dates this work. Still, it's interesting the context of Behn's life and times, and is a worthy read for the sake of historicity.
I read this in a Women's Lit. class I was taking, and this story is so moving. I was in tears when I finished the story. This story gives you insight on how a Black man was robbed of his freedom and fell into the chains of slavery. His death along with his wife is moving. It is a Romantic/ Tragedy novel.