Some important questions that Behn’s work asks us to consider are: do some people deserve freedom? And do others, then, deserve to be enslaved?
Though to our modern sensibility, the answer is obvious that freedom is an inalienable human right, this wasn’t so clear to Behn’s 17th-century British audience. British readers would already be accustomed to rigid social stratification, even amongst whites (the divine right of kings to rule others, for example), and would have generally assumed that slavery was an appropriate state for races they considered to be “inferior,” like Africans. Indeed, at that time slavery was a common practice amongst whites and blacks alike, and Oroonoko’s transition from a slave owner to a slave himself attests to this historical occurrence.
When Behn presents the slave-holding traditions of Coramantien and Suriname, she offers little commentary as to whether she considered the institution itself morally right or wrong. In fact, her narrator explicitly says that she wants to let readers decide for themselves what they think about the Captain’s betrayal of Oroonoko into slavery. To this end, the narrator doesn’t sugarcoat the practices that the English and the Coramantien people engaged in to perpetuate slavery. She gives illuminating period detail of how families are separated, how rival African tribes sold their prisoners of war to Europeans, and even how slave traders made money selling human chattel.
Despite this, the narrator also goes to great lengths to indicate that Oroonoko is too special and too good to be a slave. The colonists also think about Oroonoko’s wife, Imoinda, in this way. Even before they find out she is royalty, they give her special treatment because they admire her beauty and poise.
At first, Oroonoko rejects the notion that he deserves better treatment, and he resigns himself to be treated like the other slaves—but this never happens, of course. The narrator and Oroonoko’s (relatively) kind slave owner, Trefry, both promise to help Oroonoko achieve his liberty after they get to know him and admire his nobility, his intelligence, and his physical beauty. Oroonoko then carves out an uncertain position for himself as a gentlemanly slave. He trades Trefry his fine, princely robes for simple slave garments, and demands that the other slaves treat him like a commoner (when they begin to bow at his feet), but he also spends most of his time with the upper-class colonists, hunting and dining with them.
After Oroonoko grows tired of waiting for the Lord Governor’s permission to return to Coramantien, he uses his position as a natural leader within the slave community to incite his fellow slaves to arm themselves and run away to freedom with him. Oroonoko thus seems to have replaced his uncertain status in the colony and developed a position against slavery. As the leader of the slaves, he argues that no man, woman, or child should ever be enslaved, and that the slaves should unite to become a free and supportive community.
When the armed colonists come after them, however, Oroonoko is abandoned by his fearful followers. Oroonoko then seems to lose his faith in humanity, and returns to the English (and Coramantien) way of thinking about slavery—namely that some people deserve freedom (like whites and non-white royalty) and some people deserve to be slaves (like “common” blacks or prisoners of war). Oroonoko even apologizes to Byam for his rash belief that he could make free the men and women who are innately servile.
Freedom and Slavery ThemeTracker
Freedom and Slavery Quotes in Oroonoko
I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this Royal Slave, to entertain my reader with adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents but such as arrived in earnest to him.
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 saw an honesty in his eyes, and he found him wise and witty enough to understand honor: for it was one of his maxims, A man of wit could not be a knave or villain.
He begged Trefry to give him something more befitting a slave, which he did, and took off his robes: nevertheless he shone through all, and his osenbrigs…could not conceal the graces of his looks and mien; and he had no less admirers …the royal youth appeared in spite of the slave, and people could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it.
But as it was more for form than any design to put him to his task, he endured no more of the slave but the name, and remained some days in the house, receiving all visits that were made him, without stirring towards that part of the plantation where the negroes were.
Much more to this effect he spoke, with an air impatient enough to make me know he would not be long in bondage; and though he suffered only the name of a slave, and had nothing of the toil and labor of one, yet that was sufficient to render him uneasy; and he had been too long idle, who used to be always in action, and in arms.
And why," said he, my dear friends and fellow-sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people? Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honorable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves?
"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."