Oroonoko, The Royal Slave is a unique story for it’s time in part due to the fact that it is told from a woman’s point of view. It is unusual to imagine women of her time (circa 1640-1689) to have traveled as extensively as the author Aphra Behn it seems must have traveled in order to describe so many diverse customs, landscapes and people. We hear the distinct female voice both in the story’s construction and through the narrator’s voice which is that of Behn herself. In the story Behn says of Oroonoko (at this point known as Ceasar) that “His misfortune was to fall in an obscure world that afforded only a female pen to celebrate his fame” (page 2193). Rather than a misfortune that female voice is the story’s greatest gift.
Oroonoko’s story is one of a great and noble warrior destroyed by the dishonesty and deceit of others. Behn’s description of his strength and prowess in battle is focused on the decisions he makes, his choices in the heat of battle and also his struggle not to use brute force but to follow codes of conduct and honor. When he is deceived and cheated by his own grandfather, Oroonoko knows that he could easily destroy the withering old man to get what he wants, but instead he waits, plans, and behaves according to rule and custom. He plans to take back his true love, but will only do so according to the loophole he has found in the traditions of his people. He is described by Behn as a mighty warrior, but his greatest strength is in his noble character. The same story told by a man might focus on Oroonko’s might and force, where Behn gives us greater insight into the character and the belief system of a noble prince.
Religion is explored not in terms of rites and rituals, but rather from the perspective of the effect that one’s belief system has on behavior. Most of the white men in the story are manipulative and dishonest with Oroonoko. They swear to their God that they will do what they promise and then do not keep their promise. The first description that Oroonoko receives of religion is from the captain who tricks him and sells him into slavery. The captain explains that he has sworn in the “name of a great god, which if he should violate, he would expect eternal torment in the world to come” (page 2190). Oroonoko goes onto explain at length that he swears on his honor which if he should violate would be the greatest shame to him and to his people.
Throughout the story we see Oroonoko is a man of his word and places the greatest value in maintaining honor and dignity which are more valuable to him than life itself. More than once he makes decisions based upon his belief that when a man says he will do something, he will do it or die trying. When he attempts to lead his fellow slaves to freedom, he is betrayed by their ready willingness to forfeit the battle and return to captivity. He urged them to flee with descriptions of how it was better to die with dignity than to live as a slave, and when they said they would join him, he sure believed they would remain with him in his fight for freedom. He was quickly betrayed when he discovered that even his own people did not place as much value on their honor as did he, but then he reminds himself that they were losers of battle who he himself had sold into slavery, and they were not noble enough to die for honor. The message Behn seems to convey is not that one religion is more important than another but perhaps that religion itself does not save a man├втВмтДвs soul, only his own sense of honor will determine his behavior.
As Behn sends clear messages to us of the tragedies of slavery it is important to remember that we are hearing a woman├втВмтДвs perspective. Given little choice or freedom to determine their own fate, future and destiny; women might be considered to face a slavery of their own in Behn├втВмтДвs time.
Imoinda receives her fate and the burden of the royal veil may suggest something of the injustice of arranged marriage. More important is the contrast between the way the white men treat the natives Behn and Oroonko visit and the way they treat the African natives. Because the African natives are captured and enslaved, they are unable to live naturally and practice their own customs and ultimately come to behave as slaves, so obedient that after Oroonoko is captured, they participate in delivering his torturous punishment. The natives left to their own in South America, display acts of bravery and accept the visit of Behn and her company, even laughing and adopting the custom of an exchange of kisses. These comparisons may suggest a woman’s perspective of slavery in that she too is not permitted to practice what is natural or desired by her, but is told what she must and should do, who she should marry and how she should behave. Particularly for a woman as outspoken as Behn it must have seemed a form of slavery simply to be a woman and be denied so many opportunities and so much freedom. It seems that she lends this sympathy to her story of a noble prince, destined for greatness whose life is altered and cut short by men who did not listen and could not understand.
So much of Oroonoko’s story is about a man whose love for one woman guides him through battle and often nearly destroys him. It is important to notice that Behn does not make this a story about love but about honor. The love Oroonoko feels for Imoinda seems mostly to test his sense of honor. No matter how strong his feelings, he will not destroy his grandfather for this live as that will be dishonorable. He knows he must flee slavery rather than waiting for the white men to live up to their word because his true love is pregnant and urging that their son must be born in freedom. Ultimately he prays for his own death and gives up his life because she has gone before him at his own hand. It is important to the telling of this story that it is not about romance but honor. It is important that it was told by a woman and perhaps it was important for that woman to say that women aren’t only interested in a tale of love and princes, but of humanity, dignity, and truth.