Aphra Behn

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Racism Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
Love and Obedience Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
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Racism Theme Icon

Like with Shakespeare and his play Othello (1603), Behn’s racist perspectives on non-white cultures complicate her treatment of her subject—the tragic life of a royal slave trying to escape slavery. While it isn’t clear that the narrator’s tepid attitude toward slavery as a normal social practice matches Behn’s own ideas of the institution, what is clear is that Oroonoko itself does little to challenge what would have been the widely accepted view of its 17th-century audience, namely that slavery was integral to maintaining the outposts of the British Empire.

In the Suriname setting, racist attitudes are readily apparent and pervasive. All of Behn’s white colonist characters, from the blatantly racist—like Banister and Byam, who torture their slaves into submission—to the more enlightened—like Trefry and the narrator, who befriend Oroonoko as their equal—participate in and uphold the enslavement of blacks imported from Africa by either owning slaves or by silent assent.

The very hierarchy of the society reflects the attitudes of colonial Europe. White colonists place themselves at the top of the social ladder. In Suriname they are on friendly terms with the natives, but only because they outnumber the colonists. The English do not consider the natives their social equals, but rather a primitive and innocent people useful for sharing important survival skills and trading exotic goods. The black slaves then occupy the bottom rung of society. The colonists think the African people are somehow physically conditioned to better handle the grueling work of maintaining a plantation, and are “inferior” enough as a race to justify enslaving.

Oroonoko’s arrival then complicates this hierarchy and the racist attitudes that maintain it. Beautiful, passionate, intelligent, and noble, Oroonoko possesses every good trait that the common slave was thought not to have. However, even the colonists’ esteem of the prince is tainted because they admire his atypical qualities, or his non-blackness (descriptions of Oroonoko heavily play up his Roman qualities). Importantly, Oroonoko and Imoinda represent the 17th-century English ideal of non-Western beauty—that is, an impossible amalgamation of outlying physical traits representative of both Eastern and Western culture. In effect, Behn actually whitewashes her black hero and heroine to make them more likeable to her Western audience.

Though the topmost tier of white gentility instantly accepts Oroonoko as royalty, and he never does the work of a slave, he is still not in possession of his own liberty. He is treated like nobility, but is still very much a slave, even if, as the narrator rationalizes, he’s a slave in “name only.” The fact that he waits through almost the entirety of the piece for permission to return to his home only drives home the point that being a slave “in name only” is still enough to deprive someone of his natural rights.

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Racism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism appears in each chapter of Oroonoko. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Racism Quotes in Oroonoko

Below you will find the important quotes in Oroonoko related to the theme of Racism.
1. Oroonoko in Coramantien Quotes

They are extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched.

Related Characters: Narrator (Aphra Behn) (speaker)

He was adorned with a native beauty, so transcending all those of his gloomy race that he struck an awe and reverence even into those that knew not his quality; as he did into me, who beheld him with surprise and wonder, when afterwards he arrived in our world.

Related Characters: Narrator (Aphra Behn) (speaker), Prince Oroonoko

The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome.

Related Characters: Narrator (Aphra Behn) (speaker), Prince Oroonoko

And I have observed, 'tis a very great error in those who laugh when one says, "A negro can change color": for I have seen 'em as frequently blush, and look pale, and that as visibly as ever I saw in the most beautiful white. And 'tis certain that both these changes were evident, this day, in both these lovers.

2. Kidnapped Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Narrator (Aphra Behn) (speaker), Prince Oroonoko, The Captain
3. Slavery in Suriname Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Narrator (Aphra Behn) (speaker), Prince Oroonoko, Trefry

And it's by a passive valor they show and prove their activity; a sort of courage too brutal to be applauded by our black hero; nevertheless, he expressed his esteem of 'em.

Related Characters: Narrator (Aphra Behn) (speaker), Prince Oroonoko