The plot of Oroonoko is almost entirely driven by betrayal, a theme with close ties to what Aphra Behn saw happening within the shifting political climate in 17th-century England. Around the time that Oroonoko was published, England’s Queen Mary and her Dutch husband, William III, replaced Mary’s father, King James II. Royalists like Behn were outraged at what they considered a betrayal of the rightful monarch, James, by the controlling force Parliament was becoming. Thus in Oroonoko, Behn’s thoughts are very much focused on what happens when natural kingship is circumvented. Each of the three sections of Oroonoko revolve around some aspect of Oroonoko’s betrayal by an oppositional power.
The King’s betrayal of Oroonoko, his only heir, by first stealing his wife, Imoinda, and then selling her into slavery, sets off a chain of lifelong betrayals that test Oroonoko’s commitments to his honor, his freedom, and his love for Imoinda. This initial betrayal sows the first of several discontents in Oroonoko’s life, as he learns that men, even those he loves and admires, are not always to be trusted, and are certainly not as ethical as he is.
Besides experiencing the betrayal of a blood relation, Oroonoko is also betrayed by so-called friends, particularly by the Captain, who figures strongly in the middle section of the narrative, and by Byam, whose betrayal closes Oroonoko. Like the King, these men use Oroonoko’s strong sense of honor against him, entrapping him in binding promises that make him complicit in his own enslavement. The Captain’s betrayal takes place when he invites Oroonoko and his men to a party on his ship, and then kidnaps them to be sold into slavery. (It’s important to note that Behn portrays this as a monstrous act not because slavery is inherently evil, but because Oroonoko considered the Captain a friend, and because it is wrong for a “natural” monarch—even an African one—to be robbed of his throne.) The Captain then engages in more insidious forms of betrayal during the trip to Suriname. By pretending to be a pious Christian who will release his slave cargo, the Captain tricks Oroonoko into making promises, which to Oroonoko are sacred and inviolable, that will help the Captain safely bring to port a healthy cargo.
In Suriname, Oroonoko, now more suspicious of the colonists but still susceptible to their trickery, is again betrayed by powerful white men (like Byam(, whose lack of honor makes them essentially invincible against Oroonoko. Oroonoko is portrayed as more noble and powerful than those who enslave him, but because he binds himself to his word of honor, they are able to get the upper hand against him by lying. Even when Oroonoko tries to play by the colonists’ rules and avoid more betrayal, he still ultimately loses out to the white villains—like Byam and the Captain—who get what they want through treachery and deceit.
Betrayal Quotes in Oroonoko
He sent a messenger to the camp, with orders to treat with him about the matter, to gain his pardon, and to endeavor to mitigate his grief; but that by no means he should tell him she was sold, but secretly put to death: for he knew he should never obtain his pardon for the other.
Some have commended this act, as brave in the captain; but I will spare my sense of it, and leave it to my reader to judge as he pleases.
He was very sorry to hear that the captain pretended to the knowledge and worship of any gods, who had taught him no better principles than not to credit as he would be credited.
"Look ye, ye faithless crew," said he, "'tis not life I seek, nor am I afraid of dying" (and at that word, cut a piece of flesh from his own throat, and threw it at 'em), "yet still I would live if I could, till I had perfected my revenge. But oh! it cannot be; I feel life gliding from my eyes and heart; and if I make not haste, I shall fall a victim to the shameful whip."