The Importance Of Historical Context In Behn’s Oroonoko

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Historical context plays a great role in our understanding of a piece of literature, allowing us to achieve a more insightful reading of a text. Within Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko historical context is greatly important for allowing us to consider Behn’s intention behind her writing: Whether Oroonoko creates a radical depiction of slavery or whether it acts as a warning to King James II. Within my essay, I will be exploring how historical context is important when considering Behn’s description of Oroonoko; whether her westernised description alludes to her likely audience or acts as an encompassment of the many people who were enslaved. Further, I will explore the death scene of Oroonoko and whether this, along with Behn’s description of her protagonist, creates a radical depiction of slavery when considering relevant historical context. However, if we consider the historical context surrounding Behn herself, we can interpret Oroonoko’s death as being an allegorical warning to James II during his turbulent reign. Historical context is crucial to this examination, highlighting its importance.

Slavery was prominent at the time of Behn’s publication of Oroonoko in 1688. A few years before publication, in 1663, a charter was granted to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England which related to the trade in Africa. The legal charter was issued by King Charles II, giving it royal approval, and is a representation of the moment in which the transatlantic slave trade officially began in the English empire and would continue to expand up to and beyond the years of Oroonoko’s publication. From this we understand the prominence of slavery, and through analysis we are able to see Behn’s work as an anti-slavery tale. Behn’s description of Oroonoko can be seen to set up a mirror between her audience and Oroonoko himself, allowing Behn to create a relationship between the two. Behn’s audience would likely have been of a high social class, as the upper classes had access to literature in the 17th century. Due to this, Behn may have created Oroonoko to reflect her audience’s characteristics for them to relate his character; such as his nobility, wealth and education shown through his ‘conversion (being) sweet and diverting’ (page). Arguably, Behn draws similarity between her audience and Oroonoko through his westernised description, describing ‘his face not of that brown, rusty black (…) but a perfect ebony or polished jet’, with ‘ebony’ alluding to a rich material, connoting opulence and richness, with ‘polished jet’ emphasising this through connotations of perfection and smoothness. This separates Oroonoko from Africans, with his skin being perfect and rich, not ‘rusty’ connoting dirt and imperfection. Further Behn describes Oroonoko’s ‘eyes (…) the white of ‘em being like snow, as were his teeth’, with ‘snow’ connoting purity as well as high class, as it was deemed that those with white, pale skin were richer as they spent their days inside with leisure rather than under the sun working. Though Oroonoko’s skin is not white, his prominent features are described as white alluding to this wealth and purity. Further, ‘his nose rising and roman, instead of African and flat’, is a heavily westernised description, with ‘roman’ alluding to western characteristics and ‘rising’ connoting ascending and increasing, contrasting with the ‘African’ nose described as ‘flat’ connoting stillness and being grounded. This can be interpreted to describe Oroonoko as high status, with his features rising and standing forward, while African features are flat and beneath western features. The westernised description of Oroonoko greatly mirrors her upper class audience, leading to suggest Behn wanted to draw a connection as a tool for her audience to sympathise with slavery and create a radical depiction that slavery is bad. Historical context is important here as we are able to interpret Behn’s attempt to build a relationship as a tool to create a radical message against slavery during a time in which it was very prominent.

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Further, Oroonoko’s description may create a radical depiction of slavery by alluding to the historical context that ‘in the 17th century the English did not always consider Africans as ‘natural’ slaves. The English had white slaves in Barbados and treated many European indentured servants as virtual ones; Catholics felt it reasonable to enslave Protestants and vice versa; Turks enslaved Christians’ (Janet Todd,‘slavery and colonialism’) highlighting that slaves had different races and backgrounds, not exclusive to African cultures. Behn’s description incorporates both western features, such as his ‘roman’ nose, and African features of skin of ‘perfect ebony’, and so may be Behn attempting to create a slave who encompasses the different races, allowing Behn to present slavery as awful regardless of race or background. This radical suggestion is further illustrated through Oroonoko stating ‘it is not titles make men brave or good, or birth that bestows courage and generosity’ (page) after he himself is enslaved. This may be Behn suggesting that a persons ‘title’ or ‘birth’ do not make a person great, but that we are all ultimately the same. We all would suffer from the treatment of slavery, whether we were rich or poor, black or white. The encompassment allows her to create the radical message that slavery is wrong for any man. The importance of historical context is demonstrated here, as due to an understanding that people of different races were enslaved, we are able to analyse why Behn created a description for Oroonoko the way she did, allowing us greater insight. We are able to interpret Behn’s ‘white-washed’ description as an encompassment of the many men and women who were made slaves, rather than just an attempt to reach out to her likely audience aforementioned.

Considering Behn’s attempt to set up a relationship with her audience along with the understanding of the prominence of slavery, one may continue to interpret Behn’s novella as a radical depiction of slavery through her gruesome description of Oroonoko’s death. Behn graphically describes the death of her protagonist, a description that ‘was admired in its own time, but its grotesque violence did not suit 18th-century tastes and the story was quickly reworked into (…) a sentimental anti-slavery tale.’ (Janet Todd,Oroonoko: Historical and political contexts), this supporting the suggestion Behn intended to create a radical message, as her work was later reworked to be an ‘anti-slavery’ tale. Behn describes the death of Oroonoko, starting with having his ‘members’ ‘cut off’, alluding to his masculinity and dignity being taken away. Behn continues through describing Oroonoko having ‘cut his ears and his nose and burn(ing) them’ and ‘his arm’ ‘hacked off’, which creates a motif of extreme violence and brutality through ‘burn’ and ‘hack’. This brutality leads to Oroonoko’s ‘head sinking’ and him ‘giving up the ghost’, until at last his body is cut ‘into quarters’. From the perspective of a 17th century high class audience, they have witnessed a noble and educated character be humiliated and brutally murdered. This extremely graphic and gory description easily evokes sympathy from the reader, allowing Behn up to push her radical message that slavery is wrong.

This graphic description of Oroonoko’s death may, however, have alternate motives. It is important to consider the historical context surrounding Behn herself, such as Behn being a royalist and supporter of James II whom ascended onto the throne in 1685. Behn’s royalist background is epitomised through her dedication of Oroonoko to Lord Maitland who was a recent Catholic convert, in a Protestant England, creating a metaphorical link of commitment to James II. Behn also dedicated her previous work of The Second Part of the Rover directly to James II after he expressed his love for her first story The Rover. Further, it is important to consider the turbulence of the 17th century surrounding the monarchy, as James, a stubborn Catholic ruler in a primarily Protestant country, was seen to be unstable on the throne and many of his subjects were keen to have his Dutch nephew, William of Orange, save England. This turbulence lead to ‘everyone in London political circles feeling trouble imminent’ including Behn herself who ‘expressed her covert fears’ through ‘the short story of Oroonoko’ (Todd) . This context surrounding Behn allows us to consider whether her work expresses her ‘covert fears’ of the dethroning of James, interpreting Oroonoko’s death ‘as a coded warning to king James of what might happen if he were not on his guard’ (Todd) rather than an attempt to spread a radical message on slavery. Further, Behn’s use of anti-slavery discourse, such as describing Oroonoko as a ‘royal slave’, may have been a disguise to push her own agenda of warning James. It is important to consider that James himself made use of anti-racist language in his ‘Declaration of Indulgence’ in order to negate the effects of laws punishing Catholic and Protestant dissenters. Despite James’ anti-racist discourse, he was in fact the largest shareholder in the Royal African Company which traded along Africa. The company was Stuart family owned and traded over 5000 slaves across the Atlantic every year throughout the 1680s, with many slaves being branded with ‘DY’ the initials of ‘Duke of York’ (James’ title before becoming king). Despite James attempting to come across as anti-racist, it is clear from his great involvement in the slave trade that his true agenda was selfish and disguised. This is important when considering Behn’s true purpose for her text, as her use of anti-slavery discourse my have had the same disguised motives of creating an allegorical warning to James, a King she so greatly supported, that like Oroonoko he may end up stripped of his royal privileges (as Oroonoko was kidnapped and made a slave) or worse yet, killed.

From a close reading of Behn’s Oroonoko, the importance of historical context upon our understanding of a text is illustrated. From knowledge of key historical moments we are able to consider the true meanings and messages behind a text, such as the consideration of whether Behn’s intention of her story was to put across a radical depiction of slavery or to create an allegorical warning to James II.   


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