Oroonoko

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Oroonoko 3. Slavery in Suriname Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
During Oroonoko’s boat ride, the narrator describes Trefry, the young Cornish gentleman who has purchased Oroonoko. Trefry manages the plantation of an unnamed Lord. He is very good at math and linguistics and, like Oroonoko, can speak several languages.
Though Trefry holds similar intellectual interests to Oroonoko, this in itself does not mean that Oroonoko has met a better future just yet. After all, the Captain, too, initially treated Oroonoko like a friend and equal.
Themes
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Trefry immediately recognizes that Oroonoko is different from the average slave, due to his fancy garb and his regal attitude. Upon discovering that Oroonoko can speak English, Trefry guesses that Oroonoko is more exceptional than what he confesses to be. This assumption causes Trefry to admire Oroonoko, and to treat him with great civility.
There is a sense that Oroonoko’s nobility is an inextricable part of him, and even defines him. This connects to Behn’s royalist beliefs, that kings are inherently different from other men, and have the right to rule over them.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
Trefry’s behavior and their discovered common interests help Oroonoko relax on the boat ride. The two men engage in a mutually enjoyable conversation, and Oroonoko thinks that slavery under such an intelligent master might not be so bad. By the end of the ride upriver, Oroonoko has confided his story to Trefry and pledged his fortune and service to him. Trefry abhors the Captain’s antics, and promises to help conduct Oroonoko back to his homeland. He also pledges to find out about the condition and location of Oroonoko’s men, whom the prince is worried about.
Things seem to brighten somewhat for Oroonoko here, because Trefry seems so different from the Captain. This helps make slavery more palatable to Oroonoko, who begins to see that not all white men are the same. Trefry’s understanding of slavery is complex, and seemingly similar to that of the narrator/Behn. While he does not condemn slavery, and even participates in the slave trade, he thinks it is immoral to enslave those who are by nature exceptional or royal—like Oroonoko.
Themes
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
Because of his fresh experiences with betrayal, Oroonoko doesn’t really believe that the promises of this “backearary,” or white person, are necessarily creditable. But he also sees sincerity in Trefry’s face, and is impressed enough by his wisdom to have some hope in his new master.
Oroonoko initially uses Coramantien language to further distance himself from his new owner, whose race he does not like or trust. However, he is still able to judge Trefry as an individual.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
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While they have been travelling upriver, Trefry has periodically stopped in at great riverside estates for refreshments. At these stops, large crowds have gathered on the banks to see Oroonoko, whose fame has preceded him. Oroonoko is uncomfortable with this attention, and asks Trefry to give him simpler clothes. But even in wearing clothes befitting a slave, crowds of admirers still gather and easily pick him out. People “could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it,” even when they don’t know he is a prince.
Oroonoko cannot hide the fact that he is royalty, any more than he can hide his skin color. That the colonists are able to see his nobility just like Trefry, even when he tries to disguise it with slave garments, further demonstrates the complicated understanding the colonists have of slavery. Furthermore, the great numbers of colonists who go out of their way just to see Oroonoko suggest that he still holds some princely power, even if it is only as an object of admiration.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
Also during the journey to the plantation, Trefry gives Oroonoko a Christian name, a common practice amongst slave owners. For the rest of the tale Oroonoko is referred to as “Caesar,” a name chosen to reflect his martial and leadership skills. The narrator remarks that Caesar’s “misfortune” was to come to an obscure world, a world in which many died or were banished after the Dutch took control of Suriname years later. This left only the narrator’s “female pen” to record the story of the royal slave, Oroonoko. In another aside, she says that Trefry never even had the chance to begin telling this story.
In the New World, Oroonoko not only loses his freedom but also his African identity. Though Imoinda is also given a Christian name, the narrator always refers to her as “Imoinda,” rather than “Clemene,” once her true identity is revealed. It is unclear why this is, except that the narrator/Behn seems to feel a special sympathy for Imoinda (as opposed to a worshipful attitude towards Oroonoko). Oroonoko is again associated with Classical heroes through his new name—Caesar—the title of the emperors of Rome.
Themes
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Back in the narrative, Caesar comes to Parham House, the great house of the plantation, where he is received as a governor rather than a slave. He stays there for a few days, and even receives guests. He is really a slave in name only, and does not do any of the work an ordinary slave might do. When Caesar finally visits the part of the plantation where the slaves stay, they flock to see him and pay him homage.
Despite his change of location, Caesar is still treated like royalty. People admire his intelligence, beauty, and virtue, but he also presumably has some quality that only kings have, and that others can recognize. It is important to keep in mind that being a slave “in name only” is still to be a slave—Oroonoko doesn’t have to labor, but he still isn’t in control of his own life, and is considered another man’s property.
Themes
Love and Obedience Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
Some white gentleman who accompany Caesar watch this spectacle with intrigue, because it confirms Trefry’s hunch that Caesar is not ordinary. Caesar doesn’t like this attention, however, and urges the kneeling people to treat him like a fellow slave. Instead, the slaves hold a banquet for him, which he and a few whites attend.
Caesar would prefer to be treated just like the other slaves, because the way he is currently treated, as a gentleman who is honored but also owned by another man, is confusing to his sense of self. He is also presumably still feeling guilty about Imoinda.
Themes
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
During the dinner, Trefry, who “loves to talk of love,” tells Caesar about Clemene, the beautiful “she-slave” whom everyone, white men included, is in love with. Trefry thinks that she is languishing for some lost love. Caesar, who because of his own tragic love story still cares about the topic, is surprised to hear that she denies herself to everyone, even her own kind. He admires her virtue.
Both Trefry and Oroonoko are great romantics, further adding to their sense of kinship. The description of the black female slave should remind readers of Imoinda, who also was extremely “virtuous” (chaste) when the King tried to have his way with her.
Themes
Love and Obedience Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
The next day, Trefry and Caesar go on a walk, and Trefry points out Clemene’s house. Suddenly, a little dog runs out, followed by Clemene. Clemene tries to run back inside to avoid the men, but Trefry grabs her hand and introduces her to Caesar. Though Clemene doesn’t look either man in the eye, Caesar immediately recognizes her—it’s Imoinda! When Imoinda finally does look at Caesar, she faints, and he catches her. When she awakens, the joy on both their faces is palpable.
By detaining her when she clearly wants to get away, Trefry treats Clemene as property—he is kind, but he is still a slave owner. This second collapse presents an inversion of Imoinda’s misstep at the Otan. Under the King’s watchful eyes, neither Oroonoko nor Imoinda were completely free to act on their impulses when Imoinda tripped, but in Suriname, the enslaved pair are at least free to be together.
Themes
Love and Obedience Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Trefry is happy to have reunited the couple, and while they relate their misfortunes and pledge their love to each other, he rushes back to Parham House to tell the narrator the good news. The narrator is then impatient to meet Caesar’s love and befriend her. She remarks that after this incident, the colonists now pay Imoinda a “treble respect.” Before, they had respected her for being beautiful and virtuous, but now that they know she is Caesar’s beloved, they admire her even more.
Caesar helps improve the way the colonists treat Imoinda, who, presumably because she has no royal blood, was not instantly recognized as intrinsically different from other slaves in the way that Oroonoko was. As Caesar’s wife, she now has higher social capital.
Themes
Love and Obedience Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
Soon after reuniting, Caesar and Imoinda get married “to the general joy of all people.” Not long after, they conceive a child, which makes Caesar “more impatient of liberty.” He petitions Trefry to release him and Clemene, promising either gold or a vast quantity of slaves to be paid to him before their release, on the condition that Caesar would be certain of being released after paying the ransom.
Caesar and Imoinda now have the romantic freedom that they should have had in Coramantien—but this is the only kind of freedom they have. Imoinda’s pregnancy, while welcome news for the couple (especially as the baby could continue Oroonoko’s royal line), increases the pressure on Caesar to win back his freedom. He now has one more person whose freedom he must bargain for.
Themes
Love and Obedience Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Trefry and other colonists make daily promises to Caesar, hoping to delay his departure until the Lord Governor can come to Suriname and assess the situation. Caesar, meanwhile, suspects that they are delaying his release so that their baby will be born into slavery. This idea makes Caesar very sullen, and some colonists fear that he will lead the other slaves, who greatly outnumber the whites, to rebel. They tell the narrator to placate Caesar, and so she comes to spend much time entertaining the two royal slaves.
Though colonists denounce Caesar’s enslavement, they don’t do anything substantial to change his circumstances, other than cautioning him to wait. In fact, the colonists expend more energy keeping Caesar content with his current circumstances than they do trying to free him. It’s unclear why this is, as they aren’t getting any economical benefit from his enslavement.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
The narrator tells Caesar and Imoinda stories about the lives of the Romans, which Caesar enjoys, and she also tries to convert them to Christianity. She is unsuccessful with Caesar, who makes fun of the idea of the Trinity, but she seems to have more success with Clemene, who enjoys hearing stories about nuns.
Caesar may like learning about Western culture, but he is not ready to surrender to a Western religion. This is understandable, given the bad example set by the Christians he has been exposed to (like the Captain). The narrator now takes a more active role, suggesting more autobiographical elements to Behn’s account.
Themes
Honor  Theme Icon
Through these conversations, the narrator gets to know Caesar much better. She realizes that he likes the company of women more than that of men, because he cannot handle alcohol. She also notices that he grows less content the more Imoinda’s pregnancy develops, as he doesn’t want his child born a slave. He assuage the narrator’s fears that he would take up arms, however, and promises that he “could do nothing that honor did not dictate.” The narrator also learns that Caesar’s love for Imoinda alone helps him endure bondage.
Caesar might also prefer the company of white females to white males because the females don’t have direct connections to the slave trade. As to his promise, it notably does not preclude violence altogether, and thus foreshadows Caesar’s later martial action against the slaveholders. As usual, Caesar’s sense of honor and his love for Imoinda remain steadfast and strong.
Themes
Love and Obedience Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
Before Caesar leaves the narrator that day, she makes him promise to be patient a little while longer until the Lord Governor arrives. However, she and the rest of the colonists no longer think it safe to leave Caesar unaccompanied. They decide to have him accompanied by attendants who act as spies, particularly when he visits the slaves’ quarters.
Though the colonists claim to like Caesar, they do not value their friendship with him enough to have full faith and confidence in his loyalty to them. In fact, their precautions indicate that they believe him to be a credible threat to their security, despite his honorable and non-threatening demeanor.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
These precautions are implemented for some time. Caesar doesn’t realize he’s being watched, but instead thinks that colonists are showing him increased respect, particularly as more gentlemen come to pay him visits. The narrator takes an important role in babysitting Caesar as well, planning several expeditions that allow him to channel his aggression and energy into hunting game.
Caesar is unfortunately still blind to the ruses of whites, particularly their double-dealing. This is partially due to his own high personal standards, which he assumes the people he most admires must also hold. The narrator’s choice of diversions is meant to sublimate Caesar’s martial tendencies into a productive activity that keeps him “safe.”
Themes
Betrayal Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
Caesar once steals a tiger cub from a tigress, slaying the beast when it tries to attack the party. Another time, he kills an elusive tiger that had been poaching livestock from the plantations. Caesar also finds out that he cannot overcome the challenge of capturing an electric eel with his bare hands, and he is briefly ashamed to discover that he too succumbs to the numbing sickness that almost causes him to drown.
Caesar is a skilled hunter and can do many things the average colonist cannot, but his pride in his hunting skills also leads him to test the limits of his strength, which he mistakenly thinks are superhuman. As the eel episode proves, he is still fallible, and his limitations are more similar to other men than he might care to admit.
Themes
Honor  Theme Icon
With Caesar in tow, the narrator and her friends search for “wonderful and strange things,” from exotic, aromatic flowers to new and delicious foods, like “aramadilly.” Reflecting on the richness and beauty of Suriname (the natives find gold flakes in the river) and her luxurious lifestyle (she lives in an fancy house near a waterfall), she suggests that if the English King had ever visited, he would not have ended up giving the colony to the Dutch.
Aphra Behn’s political opinions appear in the narrator’s claim that the King made a mistake in giving up the colony. Behind the narrator’s admiration for the paradisiacal Suriname lies the colonial agenda, which Behn herself supports. This agenda mostly involves making money, even if that means brutally exploiting natural resources and native people for English profit, prestige, and pleasure.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
During their excursions, the company also visits Indian villages to learn more about the natives. The relations between the British and the Indians are somewhat strained at this point, and some colonists fear the natives will attack. This later happens under the Dutch, the narrator notes. In retribution for their mistreatment, the natives invade the Dutch settlement, hanging women and children.
The narrator suggests that the British are far more benevolent colonizers in comparison to the Dutch. However, she overlooks the exploitation of the natives under British rule, and gives a one-sided impression of the relationship between the British and natives, which should give readers pause once they learn that the relationship is not as perfect as she initially suggested.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
With Caesar acting as guard on these ambassadorial missions, however, the English crew feel safe enough to enter the villages, even during a feud between the English and natives. They also take a bilingual Native fisherman along as guide.
The English are comfortable with Caesar’s fighting prowess as long as it benefits them. They are still exploiting him, although in a different way from the other slaves.
Themes
Betrayal Theme Icon
The friendliness, ignorance, and simplicity of the natives, whom the English allow to touch their body parts, charm the narrator, and the natives likewise admire the white visitors. Through the interpreter, they learn about each other’s cultures and affairs. Caesar is curious to know why so many of the native soldiers are disfigured and heavily scarred: some are missing noses, ears, and lips. He is then impressed and a little shocked to learn that according to their art of war, to decide who should be general, two soldiers compete before a panel of judges. They are asked to prove their merit as generals, and each man silently responds by cutting off a piece of flesh from his own body until one gives up. Several die from this “passive valor they show [to] prove their activity.”
Whereas the colonists find the Coramantien arts of war and social customs strange, Caesar finds the martial practices of the natives bizarre. This suggests that anything that is not familiar has the ability to shock and amaze, and even to be considered barbaric or inferior. In including positive and negative perceptions of other people’s cultures from white and non-white perspectives alike, Behn’s “female pen” demonstrates its capacity for introspection and understanding.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon