NOT TO BE MISSED
"Orounoko ou l'histoire de l'esclave royal" (1688), a novel by Aphra BEHN
Original title: "Oroonoko or the Royal Slave". Translation in French by Bernard Dhuicq, in Alpha Behn. "La belle infidèle". Arles: Editions Philippe Picquier, 1990. (pp. 133-217).
Ce compte rendu en français
Books in translation always offer a fascinating insight into others' culture and history. Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko, published in 1688 in London, is a case in point. Practically unknown in France, it is yet a book that would interest a wide range of French and Francophone readers. The novel tells the life and tragic demise of Oroonoko, a young African nobleman in the mid 17th century.
As the novel begins, Oroonoko leads the army of his grandfather, the king. But his respect and devotion to his elders do not pay off as the monarch takes a fancy to Oroonoko's sweetheart, Imoinda, and decides to include her in his harem. Devastated, Imoinda and Oroonoko make desperate attempts to change the old king's mind, but it is to no avail and what should happen, happens: the pair meet secretly, they are discovered and Imoinda is sold to a slave-trader by the offended monarch. That could have been the end of the story, but it is not; Oroonoko who is trying to forget his forlorn love is tricked by a English captain aboard his ship and taken prisoner. Lengthy negotiations lead the captain to promise, on his honour, to release Oroonoko in the next port-of-call. But instead, he sells him in Surinam to an Englishman who takes him to his plantation. Upon arriving there, miracles happen! Oroonoko is reunited with Imoinda who had been bought by the same plantation owner. However bliss is short-lived as repeated promises made to Oroonoko that he would be freed, along with Imoinda, never eventuate, and the young man, true to his impetuous nature and sense of honour, takes the lead in a slaves' rebellion; one that is quashed in a bloodbath and ends with the barbaric punishment of Oroonoko.
Leaving the plot aside, Oroonoko evokes some challenging issues that still resonate today. The novel's dramatic reversal of stereotypes depicting African and English characters is a striking example. Contrary to expectations, Oroonoko has no similarity to the stereotypical savages depicted on the pages of colonial literature in subsequent centuries. His demeanour is that of a well-educated gentleman who makes his country proud. He is definitely holding the high moral ground, whereas England is poorly served with her deceitful ship's captain and blood-thirsty colonials. Thus, the author's lack of support for her compatriots when Oroonoko is taken hostage: "Some have commended this act, as brave in the captain", the narrator says, "but I spare my sense of it, and leave it to my reader to judge". (p.36) Her straight acknowledgment of the captain's felony follows soon after as Oroonoko leaves the vessel in chains and "only beheld the captain with a look all fierce and disdainful, upbraiding him with eyes that forc'd blushes on his guilty cheeks". (pp.42-43)
The exposition of some unmanly attitudes to be found among the architects of British colonial expansion led to vituperative attacks against both Aphra Behn and her novel. But it is easy to see that the author was not intent to apportion blame according to race. Rather she was eager to show that appalling behaviour is present in each and every race. Orookono's grandfather's outrageous attitude towards his grandson and his inhumane banishment of Imoinda are proof enough that villains can be found in all societies. Thus one might rightly argue that in spite of all that separates Behn's African King and her English captain, both men have much in common. They are both cunning, unscrupulous and duplicitous, laying bare the fundamental mechanisms of the slave-trade that fed off the collusion of greedy people of various complexions.
Upon closer examination, Orookono, the heroic, brave and fearless man who has fallen victim of a devious slave-trader is not a knight in shining armour either. As one critic said, Aphra Behn invites us to commiserate with the plight of her hero but says little of his companions in misfortune. And there is a good reason for her silence: Orookono was indeed a slave-trader before ending in chains himself: "To this captain, Orookono sold an abundance of his slaves; and for the favour and esteem he had for him, made him many presents, and oblig'd him to stay at Court as long as possible he cou'd. Which the captain seem'd to take as a very great honour done him, entertaining the Prince every day with globes and maps and mathematical discourses and instruments; eating, drinking, hunting, and living with him with so much familiarity". (p.35) It is therefore not overly surprising that a few months later, upon entering the small slave compound in Surinam, to which he has been transported, "the negroes [who] came forth to behold him, found he was that Prince who had, at several times, sold most of 'em to these parts". (p.46)
Aphra Behn is certainly a good advocate of racial equality : except when she argues, for example, that Oroonoko is an image of perfection "bating his colour" (p.8) Ð but she can hardly be seen as an early campaigner against slavery, as suggested by some critics. She never criticised or condemned it directly and it is the events that lead to Orookono's capture that bothers her, not slavery per se.
Her contribution to gender equality also sparked off much debate. Being a tough and free-spirited woman by all reckoning, she managed to challenge male literary hegemony and had her voice heard. She also made a substantial contribution to the establishment of the novel as a literary genre in England and is often considered to be the first English woman writer who managed to live off her pen. Thus Virginia Woolf's oft-quoted pronouncement: "all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn ... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds".  Written by a woman and told by a female narrator, Oroonoko also increased women's visibility in many ways. For instance, that she argued indirectly that the scourge of slavery was hurting women as well as men is but one example: "in a lot of ten slaves, there may happen to be three or four men, the rest women and children. Or be there more or less of either sex. You are obliged to be contented with your lot". (p.5). Imoinda's transportation to America was not an exception to the rule.
Yet, Aphra Behn's heroine is not the free and liberated character one could have expected of an author who challenged social norms and expectations in so many ways. Imoinda is "a beauty, that to describe her truly, one need say only, she was female to the noble male; the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her person as he, and of delicate vertues". (p.9) Sweet, discrete and submissive, Imoinda is the antithesis of the assertive, liberated and adventurous woman embodied in Aphra Behn. As Oroonoko tells his fellow slave Tuscan, women are not free to chose their destiny and they have to follow their husband, especially when his honours is at stake, as "honour was the first principle in nature ... and if there were a woman among them so degenerate from love and vertue, to chuse slavery before the pursuit of her husband ... that such a one ought to be abandoned".(p.68) To what extent did Aphra Behn share the convictions of her characters is still a matter of conjecture because, on the one hand she was very much attached to established order, but on the other hand all the many plays she wrote subsequently are satires that challenge moral and social conventions unfavourable to women.
Aphra Behn became a lesser literary-world figure in the years following her death in 1689. Her wanton reputation, independence of mind and staunch support of the Old Rule brought about her displacement from an increasingly patriarchal and moralistic world. Furthermore, the ambiguity of her novel Oroonoko that could easily be interpreted as an affirmation of women's freedom to speak their minds, English shortcomings, colonial violence and Black Africans' chivalry was not something an expansionist Europe, in full flight, was keen to air. Not even the evocation of a rather decent Frenchman who was Oroonoko's tutor during his youth could ingratiate the author with the French: "twas amazing to imagine where it was that Orookono learn'd so much humanity ... Some part of it we may attribute to the care of a Frenchman of wit and learning, who finding it turn to a sort of very good account to be a royal tutor to this young black, and perceiving him very ready, apt, and quick of apprehension, took a great pleasure to teach him morals, language and science". (p.7) Sweet words to a French ear. But that was not sufficient to welcome Aphra Behn into French literary circles. An early translator of Behn wrote in 1788: "I wonder why the taste for English novels in France did not lead someone to share with us the work of this ingenious pen?".  Contemporary French readers are still awaiting an answer to that question.
The rehabilitation of Aphra Behn as a central figure of English literature is taking its course in the English world, but the significance of her work to French and African literatures still remains to be seen. In the absence of French novels about Africa written by female authors in the 17th century, Oroonoko, the tale of the multi-talented African prince, well-versed in the ways of the world, who was taught by a Frenchman and betrayed by a rogue English captain, should definitely occupy a place of choice on our bookshelves.
1. Mentioned in Johanna Lipking (ed.) "Aphra Behn Oroonoko, an authoritative text, historical backgrounds, criticism, critical essays". New York. W.W. Norton, 1997, p.189.
2. "Translator's note", in Aphra Behn. "La belle infidèle". Arles: Editions Philippe Picquier, 1990, p.219.
Aphra Behn. "Orounoko ou l'histoire de l'esclave royal", Londres, 1688. Translated by Bernard Dhuicq, in Alpha Behn. La belle infidèle. Arles: Editions Philippe Picquier, 1990. (pp. 133-217).
Aphra Behn. "Oroonoko ou La véritable histoire de l'esclave royal". Translated by G. Villeneuve. Paris: Flammarion, 2009.
Quotes from: Mrs Aphra Behn. "Two Tales The Royal Slave and The Fair Jilt". Cambridge: The Folio Society, 1953.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities