The author of this ground-breaking novel has often been accused of romanticism in her portrayal of Africans and the African slave trade. However, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko is also replete with fantastic descriptions of the West Indian landscape in Surinam and portrayals of life in the West African nation of Coramantien.
In the story, Oroonoko is a prince of Coramantien. Infatuated with the beauteous Imoinda, he soon finds that he isn't the only one who wants to bed her; he has a rival in his grandfather, the king of Coramantien. As a king's suit often gains precedence over one from a lesser official, Imoinda finds herself initiated into the king's harem. However, both Oroonoko and Imoinda reunite in Suriname later. Aphra Behn characterizes the Coramantiens as a noble people:
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.
Of Oroonoko himself, Aphra Behn lavishes an almost worshipful description of his physical majesty, prowess, and sexual potency.
He was pretty tall...His face was not of that brown, rusty black...but of perfect ebony...His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat...His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen...The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly form'd...There was no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty. His hair came down to his shoulders...a brave and gallant man...
Because of this romanticized portrayal, Aphra Behn has been accused of superimposing a blatantly Anglicized perception of male physical beauty onto an African template. Behn further anglicizes her protagonist's view of marriage by imposing Western standards of fidelity on Oroonoko; although she admits in the story that West Africans are often polygamous, she portrays Oroonoko as a monogamist, who pledges to remain faithful to Imoinda. Behn also highlights her hero's Western education (unusual for the historical period); indeed, she tells us that it delights her that he can speak both French and English and that she can converse with him.
Yet, Behn manages to imbue historical reality into her story as well. Oroonoko, a West African prince, is also a man of war. As such, he has no problems selling his prisoners of war to European colonialists. Many of these prisoners of war become slaves on sugar plantations in the West Indies. African rulers and traders become wealthy through the selling of human labor.
Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave, described in his memoirs published in 1789 how African rulers carried out raids to capture slaves. "When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary, if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of his fellow creature's liberty with as little reluctance, as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly, he falls upon his neighbours, and a desperate battle ensues...if he prevails, and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice by selling them." (The Slave Trade).
Ironically, Oroonoko himself becomes a victim of the slave trade when he is tricked by the English captain he is fond of transacting business with. This English captain lures Oroonoko and his men onto his ship to enjoy a pleasurable night on board. However, when Oroonoko's mind is addled with drink, the Captain has his own men clap chains of iron upon the majestic prince.
This is how Oroonoko ends up in Suriname. After the conceivable reality of this treachery, Behn romanticizes the relationship between the colonialists and Oroonoko. Trefry, the overseer of Parham Plantation, Oroonoko's new master, is so enamored with this noble prince that he befriends him.
...and finding something so extraordinary in his face, his shape and mein, a greatness of look, and haughtiness in his air, and finding he spoke English...Trefry soon found he was yet something greater than he confess'd...began to conceive so vast an esteem of him, that he ever after lov'd him as his dearest brother, and shewed him all the civilities due to so great a man.
However, in the end, Oroonoko's civility turns to righteous anger when he finds himself betrayed again and again by his English masters. He comes to feel that the English are merely placating him with their many empty promises of freedom. He becomes restless and demands a revolution. His fellow slaves are initially afraid. They tell Oroonoko that their wives and children will never be able to traverse 'unpassable woods, mountains and bogs' and to hold firm against 'ravenous beasts of prey.'
While slave revolts have been historically documented, the first slave revolts in Suriname actually occurred during the Dutch occupation. Aphra Behn's novel was published in 1688. The first Suriname slave revolts occurred in the mid 18th century. Below, please find links about the Maroon revolts on Suriname, many of which eeriely recapitulate Oroonoko's attempt to lead the fleeing slaves into the deep jungle.
Uprisings and Maroons in the Americas.
Maroons: Rebel Slaves in the Americas.