It is interesting to me that Oroonoko or, The Royal Slave was held up by abolitionists on why the slave trade should be outlawed. While at first glance, I believed that it was an attack on slavery, showing through the classic, and often racist, trope of the noble savage that black slaves could be just as human as whites, I later questioned if that is what Behn sought out to accomplish. There are instances in the novel that didn’t line up with the idea that Behn was making a commentary on slavery and that led me to ask the question, is this novel really an attack on slavery?
Slavery as an institution in The Royal Slave, isn’t wrong because of its moral injustice, it is wrong because of the man Oroonoko is. Oroonoko’s bondage isn’t wrong because of the brutality that he faces, quite the opposite really, despite being a slave, Oroonoko is treated magnificently, allowed to go hunting, keep his own quarters, and not engage in the labor the other slaves engage in. It is Oroonoko’s status as a prince that makes his situation reprehensible. Behn, in my own eyes, isn’t attacking slavery or even making a commentary on it, she is defending the old hierarchical order. What has happened to Oroonoko isn’t awful because enslaving your fellow man is terrible, it is awful because no man has the right to reduce a prince to the status of a slave. It is after Caesar’s fellows abandon him during their flight to freedom when met with the governors forces, that I first began to think that perhaps Behn isn’t truly speaking out against slavery.
“. . .he was ashamed of what he had done, in endeavouring to make those free, who were by nature slaves, poor wretched rogues, fit to be used as Christians, tools; dogs, treacherous and cowardly, fit for such masters; and they wanted only but to be whipped into the knowledge of the Christian gods, to be the vilest of all creeping things; to learn to worship such deities as had not power to make them just, brave, or honest: In fine, after a thousand things of this nature, not fit here to be recited, he told Byam, he had rather die, than live upon the same earth with such dogs.”
If Behn was trying to endear her European audience to the idea that slaves are not so different from their masters through the use of Oroonoko’s character, why would she have that character compare slaves to dogs, telling them they are unfit for freedom even if they desired it? In fact, Behn makes a point to say the Oroonoko is different from the common African in both visage and character, so why should the reader then believe that all slaves are like Oroonoko?
Aphra Behn was a spy for Charles II so we can make the assumption that Behn was a tory, a royalist who supported the kings power over parliament. Perhaps, instead of an attack on slavery, by using a royal figure like Oroonoko and reducing him to bondage and calling it an injustice, she is speaking on the execution of Charles I and the opposition of the royal family of England. That because of their status, reducing them to anything below that would be an injustice.