Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave: A True History

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Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave: A True History

by Aphra Behn


A short novel set in Africa and South America in 1663-64; published in London in 1688.


Oroonoko, a young African prince, is enslaved and transported from West Africa to an English plantation in Surinam. Captured after leading a slave revolt, he nobly endures torture and mutilation before being executed.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Little is known about the enigmatic Aphra Behn other than the fact that she was the first Englishwoman to write professionally. She is believed to have been born Aphra Johnson in a small town near Canterbury, England, in July 1640. In the 1660s she may (as she claims in Oroonoko) have traveled to Surinam, a British plantation colony on the Atlantic coast of South America. Later in that same decade, she acted as a spy in the Netherlands on behalf of the newly restored King Charles II. Returning penniless to London and having failed to persuade the government to reimburse her for the money she had spent on gathering intelligence, she seems to have served some time in debtors’ prison. She began writing to pay her debts, in the end producing from 15 to 20 plays that enjoyed notable success on the London stage. The best known is The Rover (1677), which, like her other plays, features the intrigue and bawdiness common in Restoration drama. While she also wrote poetry, Behn is remembered today primarily for Oroonoko, one of the earliest examples of a new literary form—the novel.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Plantation settlements

In the sixteenth century, Spain still dominated European colonization of the New World. Great Britain entered the competition near the end of the sixteenth century, but early British attempts to found overseas settlements faltered. During the seventeenth century, however, the British succeeded in establishing colonies in the Americas that would provide the foundation of a world empire. With the exception of the Puritan settlements in New England (undertaken to escape religious persecution), these early colonies were plantation settlements that in certain respects resembled those the Spanish had already established. As such, they embodied a combination of commercial and patriotic aspirations: the merchants and adventurers who founded them wished to make personal profit for themselves, but they also generally shared the larger goal of securing economic self-sufficiency for Britain. They hoped that crops might be grown in the colonies and shipped back to Britain, either to be consumed or turned into finished products.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, British plantation settlements had been founded in two parts of the New World: the southern Atlantic coast of North America (i.e., Virginia, 1607; Maryland, 1632); and the islands of the Bermudas and the West Indies (i.e., Bermuda, 1609; St. Kitts, 1624; Barbados, 1625). In both regions, Britain at first grew cotton and tobacco; on Barbados and the other islands of the West Indies, however, these cash crops were soon wholly or partly replaced by sugar cane, in response to the growing desire for sugar in London.

It was from Barbados that British settlers began to colonize the nearby coast of South America in the 1650s, led by the island’s former governor, Francis, Lord Willoughby of Parham. In 1651 Willoughby led a group of planters to an area between the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil and today’s Venezuela, an area that would become the colonial territory of Surinam. Willoughby and other historical individuals appear as characters in Oroonoko, the second part of which is set at Parham, Willoughby’s sugar plantation in Surinam. During the early 1660s, when Behn herself was probably in Surinam, global commercial rivalry between the British and the Dutch intensified, leading to the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67). Under the Treaty of Breda, which ended the war but not the rivalry, Surinam was ceded to the Dutch in exchange for Manhattan Island—a loss that Behn laments in Oroonoko. The colony was afterward known as Dutch Guiana.

Rise of the Atlantic slave trade

Well before Europeans ventured across the Atlantic Ocean, they explored and traded along the coast of Africa. Starting with the Portuguese in the early fifteenth century, Europeans came to the African coast in search of a sea route to Asia. They established supply stations for ships sailing to Asia and soon began trading with the Africans. In particular, they bought large quantities of cheap and abundant African gold from the Akan peoples—the Fanti, Ashanti, and others—who lived between the mouths of the Volta and Ankobra rivers. Part of today’s Ghana, this region soon became known to the Europeans as “the Gold Coast.”

Until the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese retained a virtual monopoly on trade with coastal West Africa, including the Gold Coast. Jealously guarding against encroachment by other Europeans, the Portuguese built a number of coastal fortresses that served as trading outposts. Beginning about 1600, however, first the Dutch and then the British gradually cut into the West African gold trade, eventually building their own forts or capturing those of the Portuguese. The biggest Portuguese fort, Elmina, fell to the Dutch in 1638. A few years earlier, in 1632, the British had established their own fort, Cormantine, on land leased from the local Fanti king. This is the “Coramantien” of the novel, which Behn depicts as a country ruled by Oroonoko’s grandfather. The fort fell to the Dutch in 1665, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. By the 1680s, the Dutch and the British had successfully excluded the Portuguese from trade along the Gold Coast.

In that same decade—the decade in which Behn published Oroonoko—another commodity was overtaking gold as the Europeans’ most valuable export from the West African coast. Slavery had survived on a limited scale in the European, African, and Islamic worlds since ancient times, and a slave trade existed in Africa when the Portuguese arrived. African slavery before the Portuguese, however, was of a very different nature in that it did not stem from the kidnapping or sale of human beings but rather from their capture in war, or some negotiations that called for temporary enslavement.

Apparently as early as the eighth century slaves had been used to work on sugar plantations in the Islamic Middle East. Such plantations served as a model when the cultivation of sugar cane spread further west in the Mediterranean world. Thus a link between slavery and labor intensive plantations—even between slavery and a specific crop, sugar cane—persisted from the Middle Ages. When, in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese discovered islands such as Madeira and Cape Verde in their explorations along the African coast, they founded sugar plantations there and began using African slaves to work them. Meanwhile, the Spanish had established the first plantations in the Americas. Portuguese traders began transporting some Africans to work on these Spanish plantations, and by the 1580s the Portuguese had established plantations of their own in need of slave labor in Brazil.

First the Dutch and then the British followed the Spanish and Portuguese in establishing plantations. The Dutch and the British afterward strove, in turn, to control the increasingly lucrative slave trade. As the plantations expanded during the seventeenth century, this trade in human beings grew on an unprecedented scale, providing a cheap, abundant, and brutally imprisoned labor supply for the economic ventures of the New World. By the end of the century, with an estimated 35,000 transported each year, slaves would overtake all other commodities as Africa’s most valuable export, and the still growing slave trade would rest firmly in the hands of the British.

Events in Britain: Restoration and revolution

Dominance of the slave trade was an aspect of Britain’s general rise to commercial preeminence over the course of the seventeenth century. With this expansion of British commerce came great benefits, but also social tensions that helped redraw the political landscape. Not all of the profits from commerce would find their way into the hands of the traditional titled elites like Lord Willoughby, the aristocratic proprietor of the sugar plantation in Surinam. While such aristocrats often possessed the capital to fund commercial ventures, alongside this traditional pool of affluence, a separate source of wealth was emerging. It comprised those—such as merchants, lawyers, and other businessmen or professionals—who had initially made their money from business, rather than those who inherited their wealth and enhanced it through investments. The political demands of this growing middle class lay behind many of the profound conflicts that wracked British society in the seventeenth century.

Like Behn’s novel, the full title of which is Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave: A True History, these conflicts concerned the nature of royalty and the question of what it means to be a king. Such issues, unavoidably, also involved religion. Behn was a young girl when, after the bloody English civil war, King Charles I was dethroned and beheaded in 1649 by his victorious enemies in the Puritan-dominated Parliament. After 11 years of Puritan rule (the Interregnum), some of the English recalled their dead king’s son from exile in Holland and restored him to the English throne as King Charles II. The Restoration of 1660, however, did not end the struggle between Parliament and the king. Crucial to the parliamentary cause had been a loose alliance between the Puritans and the merchant class, many of whom either were Puritans themselves or shared a number of Puritan values. Even after the Restoration, merchants and others still wished to limit the Crown’s power and expand Parliament’s. The course of the Interregnum had convinced them that a king was a necessary evil, but one to be severely restricted and controlled by Parliament. The royalists, by contrast, upheld the principle of the “divine right of kings,” which taught that a monarch’s power was divinely bestowed, transmitted through a single legitimate line of succession, and (theoretically at least) absolute in nature. The right to govern as a king, believed the royalists, was inborn, not acquired, and God given rather than conferred by society.


Slaves taken from the Gold Coast were called Cormantees, after the English fort Cormantine (Coramantien in the novel). They were prized by slaveholders for their strength and courage. In the early 1670s English colonists in Barbados, fearing that Cormantee slaves were planning to revolt, executed some 30 of them. Like Oroonoko in the novel, these slaves are reported to have died calmly in the belief that death would bring a return to their homelands.

These clashing conceptions of monarchy again came into open conflict in the early 1680s, after Charles II’ younger brother James, the next in line for the throne, publicly declared that he was a Roman Catholic. In largely Protestant England, Catholicism was widely feared for several reasons, an important one being its association in the English mind with foreign enemies such as France and Spain. During the so-called Exclusion Crisis (1679-81), Charles, who had many illegitimate children but no heir, battled successfully to prevent Parliament from excluding James from the succession. When James followed his brother to the throne (as James II) after the latter’s death in 1685, the new king’s efforts on behalf of Catholicism led to a backlash that ended in his overthrow only four years later, in the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution of 1688.


While Oroonoko may be based on real events in Africa and South America, parallels between the novel and contemporary English politics suggest that it may have prompted Behn to write the story. In poems celebrating the royal brothers Charles II and James II, Aphra Behn had already referred to each of them as “Caesar,” which is the name given to Oroonoko by the English in the novel. Like Oroonoko, who revolts rather than have his child born into slavery, James too was preoccupied with the fate of his offspring and potential heir, the son whose birth precipitated the Glorious Revolution of 1688. James was also one of the “black Stuarts,” as some members of the royal family were called because of their dark complexions and hair. Finally, Behn uses the phrase “the frightful Spectacle of a mangl’d King” at the end of the novel to refer to the mutilated Oroonoko, but it would also remind readers of the executed Charles I, beheaded in 1649 (Behn, Oroonoko, p 65).

The Glorious Revolution was engineered largely by the same political grouping that had earlier tried and failed to exclude James from succeeding to the throne, who had become known collectively as Whigs. The Whigs included the merchants and liberal Anglicans (members of the mainstream Church of England, which was headed by the reigning monarch). Puritans and other dissenting Protestants also tended to be Whigs. Against them were the royalists, who had supported James’s succession and who were now called Tories. Most Tories belonged to the Anglican Church, many as conservative members. A handful were Catholics. The Whigs and the Tories were England’s first true political parties in the modern sense. Born from the events of the 1680s, they would dominate the political scene for the next century.

The Revolution itself was triggered by the birth of a male heir to the throne in June 1688, which left the Whigs facing the prospect of another Catholic monarch. Shortly afterward, Whig leaders encouraged James’s son-in-law, the Dutch Protestant prince William of Orange, to invade England. When William did so with a large army in October, James’s nerve failed and he fled to France. In the settlement that followed, Parliament offered the crown jointly to William and his wife Mary, James’s Protestant daughter.

Behn, a fervent royalist, wrote Oroonoko in the tense months before the Glorious Revolution, as it became clear that support for James’s policies had eroded even among Tories. Conversely, however, few Whigs actually intended to depose England’s legitimate monarch; the overture toward William had been meant rather to intimidate James into abandoning his pro-Catholic stance. Yet by the time Behn died in April 1689, William and Mary had been crowned as king and queen. In a close parallel to her novel, a man whose bloodline had predestined him for kingship had been violently removed from his royal station, to endure humiliating exile in a foreign land.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Behn prefaces the novel with a dedicatory letter addressed to Richard Maitland, earl of Lauderdale, a Catholic supporter of James II who would follow the exiled king to France. “This is a true Story, of a Man Gallant enough to merit your Protection,” she writes; if the tale seems made up, it is because “these Countries do, in all things, so far differ from ours, as to produce unconceivable Wonders” (Oroonoko, p. 7). The claim of telling a true story is repeated in the novel’s opening paragraphs and often later in the work, throughout which the narrator seems to speak with Behn’s own voice. She purports to have seen many of the events in Surinam herself and to have heard the rest from “the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself,” who also told her about his youth in Africa (Oroonoko, p. 8).

Before beginning the story, the narrator briefly describes Surinam’s native inhabitants and how Africans are brought there to work as slaves on the sugar plantations. The British colonists, says the narrator, live with the local Indians “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 food, animal skins, and other supplies” (Oroonoko, p. 8). The Indians are like Adam and Eve in their modest and simple innocence. They are useful to the British, who therefore treat the Indians well and do not dare to enslave them, especially since the Indians so utterly outnumber the colonists. “Those then,” she continues, “whom we make use of to work in our Plantations of Sugar are Negro’s, Black-Slaves [sic] altogether” (Oroonoko, p. 11). (The narrator is wrong on two counts: the early British did enslave Indians; and blacks too outnumbered the British.) The African slaves are bought by colonists who strike a deal with a ship’s captain, agreeing on a price per head for a certain number of slaves.

One of the places where the slaves are purchased is “Coramantien, a Country of Blacks so called,” a “war-like and brave” kingdom that is always in conflict with some neighbor or other, and that consequently has a steady supply of prisoners to sell into slavery. The British captains pay the Coramantien generals directly for slaves, so that “the General only has all the profit” (Oroonoko, p. 11). The king of Coramantien is an old man with many wives and 13 sons. Each of the sons, however, has died bravely in battle, leaving a single successor, a 17-year-old grandson named Oroonoko. This young prince is already a brave and accomplished warrior, a handsome young man “adorn’d with a native Beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy Race” that even those who did not know him were struck with “Awe and Reverence,” as is the narrator herself when she first meets him much later in Surinam (Oroonoko, p. 12). In addition to his beauty, Oroonoko possesses both a noble soul and a quick and ready intelligence. An apt pupil, he has been educated in European style by a French tutor. From the tutor he learned French, and from the many European traders in the kingdom he learned English and Spanish as well.

Oroonoko falls in love with Imoinda, the beautiful daughter of the general who has trained him to be a soldier. They agree to marry, but when Oroonoko seeks his grandfather’s approval, the old man, having summoned Imoinda, falls in love with her himself. Then, according to custom, the old king sends her a veil signifying that he desires to take her into his bed, which as king he is entitled to do. Oroonoko, finding out that she has received the royal veil, flies into a rage, but is somewhat comforted when his friends assure him that the king is too old to impose himself on Imoinda sexually. One of the king’s older wives befriends Oroonoko and arranges a tryst for the two lovers in Imoinda’s royal apartment, during which Imoinda assures Oroonoko that she is still a virgin. When the king learns of their meeting, he becomes enraged and sells both women into slavery, with orders that they be sold off to another country, whether Christian or otherwise.

The old king tells Oroonoko that Imoinda has been put to death, thinking that his grandson will forgive him for that punishment sooner than for selling Oroonoko’s beloved into slavery. The king begs Oroonoko’s forgiveness, which Oroonoko grants him. After a battle in which Oroonoko’s generalship brings victory to his army, Oroonoko returns to court just as an English ship arrives in port. Oroonoko knows the captain—having sold slaves to him—and when the captain invites the young prince and his friends to dinner aboard the ship, Oroonoko does not hesitate to accept. After plying his guests with wine, the English captain suddenly gives a signal and the young Africans are surrounded and clapped in irons. They have been enslaved.

Oroonoko rages like a lion in his fetters, but to no avail. He then decides to stop eating in protest at the betrayal, and when his men follow his example, the captain fears that they will all perish before he can sell them. So the captain pretends to be sorry, saying that he wants to set the Africans free and let them go at the next land they come to, but he is afraid they will take revenge. Oroonoko promises that he will not attack the captain, who, seeing that Oroonoko’s men will never eat with their prince in chains, sets Oroonoko free. Keeping his promise, Oroonoko thus passes the voyage comfortably, but on arrival in Surinam the treacherous captain once again chains the young prince, who is sold off along with the others to the overseer of an English plantation. This is Parham, a plantation near where the narrator happens to be staying at the time, her father having been appointed as the colony’s lieutenant governor (she says that he died on the voyage from England).

Trefry, the overseer, recognizing Oroonoko’s intelligence and spirit, soon “lov’d him as his dearest brother, and shew’d him all the Civilities due to so great a Man” (Oroonoko, p. 35). After he hears Oroonoko’s story, Trefry promises he will find a way to return him to his country. He also promises to inquire after the fate of Oroonoko’s friends. Following the custom of renaming slaves, Trefry gives Oroonoko the name Caesar.

When Caesar (as he is referred to from this point on) arrives at the main house, it is as if a king or a governor is arriving, not a slave. He is assigned responsibilities like other slaves, but since “it was more for Form, than any Design, to put him to his Task, he endur’d no more of the Slave but the name” (Oroonoko, p. 37). When the other slaves see Caesar, they recognize him as the prince who has sold many of them into slavery themselves, and they bow down before him as if he were their king. For his part, Caesar tells them to get up and treat him as a fellow slave, for he is no better than they are. Trefry then tells Caesar that there is a beautiful young female slave by whom “most of these young Slaves were undone in Love,” and who indeed has charmed Trefry himself as no other woman has ever done (Oroonoko, p. 38). She has been given the name Clemene. Why, Caesar asks, since she is a slave, has Trefry not simply forced himself on her? He was going to, Trefry answers, but her modesty stopped him cold. The next day Trefry takes Caesar to the famous beauty, and the young prince is overjoyed at suddenly seeing the face of none other than his beloved Imoinda.

The two lovers embrace ecstatically and hear each other’s story, agreeing that it is better to be enslaved together than to be free apart. Leaving the reunited pair, Trefry hurries to the main house to give the news of the reunion to the narrator (who now explains that she has already become friends with Caesar and has assured him of his liberty once the governor arrives). Caesar and Clemene are married that very day to general celebration, and soon afterward Clemene becomes pregnant. Clemene’s pregnancy makes Caesar all the more impatient to get her and himself freed, and he repeatedly implores Trefry to expedite the process. But the governor’s expected arrival by ship fails to occur. As it seems to Caesar that delay follows delay, he begins to suspect that the whites want the baby to be born into slavery, a prospect that heightens his anxiety. The whites, in turn, grow suspicious that the increasingly sullen Caesar is planning a revolt, and the narrator herself, as his good friend, is assigned the task of sounding him out and watching him. He assures her that he will not lift his hand against the whites.

The narrator then relates several feats of prowess that Caesar performs. He kills an attacking tiger by running it through with a sword, and when another big cat seems invulnerable to hunters’ bullets, he shoots it through the eye with a bow and arrow. Another time, having heard of the electric eels that can cause numbness or unconsciousness by their touch, he grabs hold of one. After being shocked into unconsciousness and almost drowning, Caesar keeps his grip on the eel and they enjoy it for supper. And when friction arises between the whites and the local Indians, Caesar takes a party of whites, including the narrator, on a friendly journey among the Indians, with the result that good relations are restored.

Yet still the whites delay the couple’s liberation. One Sunday, when the whites have been drinking and are not paying attention, Caesar assembles the 150 or so male slaves and delivers a fiery speech about the injustice of their enslavement. Why should the whites have such power over them, he asks:

Have they Vanquish’d us Nobly in Fight? Have they Won us in Honourable Battel? And are we, by the chance of War, become their Slaves? This wou’d not anger a Noble Heart, this wou’d not animate a Souldiers soul; no, but we are Bought and Sold like Apes, or Monkeys, to be the sport of Women, Fools and Cowards; and the Support of Rogues, Runagades, that have abandoned their own Countries, for Rapin (rape), Murders, Thefts and Villainies.…
(Oroonoko, p. 52)

Having roused them, Caesar then proposes a plan to escape into the wilderness, where they can survive on their own. Then they can make their way towards the sea, establish a colony of their own, defend it if necessary, and hope to obtain a ship to take them back to Africa and freedom. The slaves vow to follow him to the death, and they all take their wives and children and go off into the wilderness.

Next morning, when the slaves’ absence is discovered, a party of 600 whites is assembled and sets off in pursuit, led by the colony’s deputy governor, William Byam, who has pretended affection for Caesar while in reality hating him bitterly (Oroonoko, p. 54). The narrator despises Byam, calling him a “Fawning, fair-tongu’d fellow … whose Character is not fit to be mentioned with the worst of the Slaves” (Oroonoko, p. 54). The English catch up with the fleeing Africans, who are outnumbered and eventually surrender, leaving Caesar, Clemene, and Tuscan, a slave who has acted as Caesar’s lieutenant, to fight on by themselves. Finally, Byam tricks Caesar into surrendering by promising to set him free and let him sail away on the next ship that arrives. When Caesar gives himself up, with Imoinda and Tuscan, the two men are seized by the white mob, bound to stakes, and whipped mercilessly. The white women, the narrator relates, flee from fear of the rebellious slaves, so that the narrator herself is not on hand to prevent Caesar’s whipping at the hands of the mob.

Allowed to take Clemene for a walk, Caesar kills her with her consent, intending to kill himself as well after revenging himself upon Byam. There is no hope of escape and the couple cannot bear to have their child born into slavery. Caesar also fears that the whites will rape Clemene. But he lacks the strength to move after cutting Clemene’s throat. Feebly he attempts to disembowel himself as he is recaptured by the white mob. The whites finish the job for him, tying him to a whipping post around which they build a fire. Caesar calmly smokes a pipe as first his genitals, then his nose and ears, and finally his arms are hacked off by the enraged whites. Only when his second arm is cut off does the pipe fall and Caesar die, without uttering a sound.

Race and nobility

Oroonoko fascinates critics today because it deals with complex issues—race, gender, and sexual violence—that are often linked in modern discourse but were rarely discussed together, if they were discussed at all, in early English literature. The fascination is heightened by the fact that the novel was written by a professional woman writer in an age when few women wrote at all, and no other women wrote professionally. Finally, Behn is held by many to have pioneered a literary form, the novel, that did not yet exist but would soon rise to dominate modern literature.

Book and author thus add up to an unusual and provocative combination, but one that may easily create a deceptive impression of modernity for readers today. Another aspect of her tale clearly mattered more to Behn than the “modern” themes mentioned above, but lacks the same meaning for moderns that it had for Behn and her contemporaries: that is the innate nobility of its central character. A brief consideration of Oroonoko’s nobility supplies a proper context for the novel’s most important “modern” theme, that of race. A reader today might applaud a white writer’s characterization of a black man as noble and heroic. Yet Oroonoko’s physical beauty, for example, the most visible manifestation of his nobility, is described as stemming from European-looking features (paler skin, thin lips, arched nose, and so forth). These features set him apart from other blacks, whose ugliness the narrator assumes, and place Behn firmly within her time, when other descriptions of “beautiful” blacks stressed their European features. In 1674, a French traveler to the Gold Coast likewise praised an African who lacked “the unattractive flat nose or that large mouth that the other blacks have” (Justel in Behn, p. 77).

The sense of modernity that Behn’s novel conveys comes from its apparently even-handed treatment of the races, by which both some blacks and some whites are noble and heroic and others less so. But this aspect of the novel actually has little to do with modern notions of equality. To Behn, a royalist, race simply mattered less than inborn nobility in determining someone’s social rank and human worth. As Oroonoko’s speech to his fellow slaves suggests, it is dishonorable and treacherous enslavement that the novel objects to, not the existence of slavery as an institution. He and his fellow slaves had not been won laudably in war; they were captured and sold like animals, and to serve ignominious masters. As enslavement of Africans became more firmly entrenched in the eighteenth century, race would take on greater significance for most whites in determining one’s rank and worth than it had for Behn and some of her contemporaries.


Surinam (now often spelled Suriname) has the world’s largest concentration of people who are descended from runaway slaves. Like Oroonoko in the novel, slaves who were able to escape the plantation’s brutality sought refuge in the dense growth of the surrounding rain forest. Unlike the novel’s hero, who is caught by a white mob, many of these escaped slaves won recognition of their independence by treaty and proudly preserved their African heritage. Today, the descendants of escaped slaves call themselves Bush Negroes and make up 5-10 percent of Surinam’s population.

Sources and literary context

In the past scholars have been divided on the question of whether Aphra Behn actually visited Surinam, but recent critics have generally accepted that she did. Lord Willoughby (the owner of Parham), John Trefry (the overseer of Parham), William Byam (Surinam’s deputy governor), and other characters in the novel all existed in reality and seem to have been drawn reasonably true to life. William Byam, for example, provoked complaints from Surinam planters, who found him capricious and arbitrary in exercising power. How much of the tale Behn tells, then, is true? Again, scholars have been divided and documentary evidence is sparse. No records remain, for example, of any lieutenant governor appointed to Surinam who might be confirmed as Behn’s father. If all of the narrator’s claims are taken at face value, then Behn and her family accompanied her father to Surinam after his appointment as lieutenant governor, probably sometime in 1663. The father died on the voyage, and after arriving, Behn met a slave named Oroonoko (called Caesar). Subsequent events unfolded as related.

On the other hand, claims of truthfulness are a common literary device in fiction, and travelers’ accounts had been written on which Behn may have relied. Critics skeptical of Behn’s claims, for example, have suggested she drew heavily on George Warren’s An Impartial Description of Surinam upon the Continent Guinea in America (1667). Behn may, in other words, have meant simply to report events as they actually happened, as Warren and other travelers did; or, she may have intended her readers to understand that her tale was a fiction, in which case she anticipated other early novels by decades (Robinson Crusoe, often cited as the “first” novel, would be published in 1719). In between these two extremes lies any number of degrees of truth and invention, though it seems at least likely that much of the story may actually have occurred. Some critics have therefore settled for calling Behn’s unusual book an autobiographical novel.


Behn was best known to her contemporaries for her often bawdy plays and frankly erotic poems, both of which were acceptable to English society when written by men but which could provoke withering censure when written by a woman. The earliest recorded reaction to Oroonoko comes from the playwright Thomas Southerne, who adapted the book for the stage in 1696. In the dedication he wrote that Behn “had a great Command of the Stage; and I have always wonder’d that she would bury her Favorite Hero in a Novel, when she might have revived him in the Scene” (Southerne in Behn, p. 193). Southerne put his idea into action; he himself staged Oronooko in 1696 (with a white Imoinda). As Restoration openness gave way to the more fastidious sensibility of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Behn’s works were of ten viewed as improper, even obscene. Yet Oroonoko’s influence can be traced to the European ideal of the noble savage, which the novel promoted. First enunciated in the sixteenth century, in the wake of Portugal’s contact with Brazilian peoples, by such writers as Desiderius Erasmus (Praise of Folly [1509] and Francois Rabelais (Pantagruel [1533]), this concept attributes an exalted state of innocence to primitive peoples, in contrast to the perceived corruption of the civilized world.

Not until the twentieth century, however, did Behn’s highly original voice again find a real audience. Virginia Woolf, for example, praised her as a forerunner to later trailblazing female authors, such as Jane Austen (1775-1817) and George Eliot (1819-80). Woolf wrote in 1929, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn … for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (Woolf, p. 69).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Ed. Joanna Lipking. New York: Norton, 1997.

Brown, Laura. The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves. In The New Eighteenth Century. Ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn 1640-89. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977.

Ferguson, Margaret W. Juggling the Categories of Race, Class, and Gender: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. In Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker. London: Routledge, 1994.

Goreau, Angeline. Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. New York: Dial, 1980.

Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Spencer, Jane. The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Todd, Janet, ed. Aphra Behn Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Chatto & Windus, 1929.

Woodcock, George. Aphra Behn: The English Sappho. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989.