Often found in slave narratives is a type of character called the “noble savage” who is an African American character, or other outsider, portrayed as agreeable and uncorrupt to a more dominant group, such as white people. This character trope often involved giving the character “whiter” characteristics to make them more understandable and accepted by white people. This type of character is found in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: The History of the Royal Slave which was published in 1688 in England. This story is the account of a Prince, Oroonoko, who falls in love with Imoinda but is separated and then later rejoined as slaves. While this novel reads as a love story, it projects the idea of a noble savage through the appearance of Oroonoko. The author of this text, Behn, was a white woman who wrote her novel to incite sympathy towards African Americans and slaves. This concept of the noble savage in Oroonoko is comparable to the main character in Fredrick Douglass’ The Heroic Slave which was written in 1853 in America. The Heroic Slave is a narrative about a slave ship uprising led by the main slave character, Madison Washington. While this narrative was written nearly 200 years after Behn’s, it uses similar techniques to portray African Americans in a favorable light. The Heroic Slave also varies from Oroonoko in the sense that it was written by an African American male in America. However, there are far more similarities that connect these two time capsules together.
The first, and quite possibly the most obvious, similarity between these texts is the title. The Heroic Slave and the Royal Slave both describe the word “slave” with something positive and admirable. This simple choice of words already clues readers into the fact this these stories feature a noble savage. The second similarity is that both stories portray a slave character as a good person through how they are described both physically and in relation to their intelligence. In Behn’s novel, she explains, “nor did the perfections of his mind come short of those of his person; for his discourse was admirable upon almost any subject: and whoever had heard him speak, wou’d have been convinced of their errors, that all fine wit is confined to the white men, especially to those of Christendom… had as great a soul” (Behn, 154). With this quote, Behn is revealing how not only is Oroonoko beautiful with his white attributes, but he can talk well and has wit. Oroonoko is described as smart and more European than the other African Americans. Since Douglass’ character, Madison Washington, first appears giving a speech, it is mentioned in his description that “his voice, that unfailing index of the soul, though full and melodious, had that in it which could terrify as well as charm. He was just the man you would choose when hardships were to be endured, or danger to be encountered, –intelligent and brave” (Douglass, 179). Again, we see an African American character being complimented for his intelligence and ability to talk. These descriptions do differ slightly in the sense that Washington is seen as a gentle giant while Oroonoko is seen as a brave prince that meets European standards. In addition, both descriptions refer to the soul to emphasis that these men are all-around good people.
In another effort to portray the African American as a real human, both of these authors make the effort to point out that they are not barbaric. This tries to change the perspective of most white readers that see African Americans and slaves as savages and barbaric. In Behn’s novel she writes, “he had an extreme good and graceful mien, and all the civility of a well-bred great man. He had nothing of barbarity in his nature” (Behn, 153). Behn aims to use this character description to challenge and change the idea that people of dark skin tones are barbaric. Similarly, in Douglass’ description of Washington, he explains, “his whole appearance betokened Herculean strength; yet there was nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect” (Douglass, 179). Douglass directly addresses and negates the popular belief of white people that African Americans and slaves are savages and aggressive. Through the ways in which both the authors describe intellect, appearance, and negate common stereotypes, these two stories use the noble savage trope to show that African Americans are no less human or good than the readers of these texts.