Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave was originally published in 1688, and is one of the first novels in English. It tells the tale of Oroonoko (an African prince) and his love for Imoinda, before and after the two are sold into slavery in Suriname. The novel’s story is told by a first-person narrator who listens to Oroonoko’s story and writes it. After becoming a slave in Suriname, Oroonoko impresses the hell out of everyone because he’s just so regal. Also, his name is changed to Caesar by the English, you know, in case you weren’t catching on to how regal Oroonoko is. Because someone who’s just so, uh, regal, can’t really be kept down in a life of slavery, he plots a slave revolt, but he’s caught and whipped. To save his honor, he decides to kill the deputy governor, William Byam. But then he also decides he has to kill his love, Imoinda to protect her, and also because killing wives/girlfriends is a sexy theme. After killing Imoinda, he’s found mourning, then he’s captured, tortured, and killed.
So, you know, a cheerful story, then.
Though Oroonoko is considered to be an anti-slavery novel and a progenitor of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I couldn’t help but pause at things like Behn’s description of her title character:
“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 of perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes were the most awful 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 nobly and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome.”
Oroonoko: awesome because he doesn’t look like Africans. And he would be even more awesome if, say, he weren’t black. Understandably, 17th century England wasn’t particularly known for its racial enlightenment, but that’s still pretty skeevy.
I should probably also mention that Oroonoko has definite political subtext that doesn’t really have anything to do with slavery. It was written during a period of political unrest in England, and Behn, an ardent royalist, most definitely used the character of Oroonoko to assert her beliefs that royalty is an innate, immutable characteristic.
Anyway, as you may or may not be aware, Oroonoko is one of the 1001 books you must read before you die. I’m sure you’re glad I did it for you.