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Aphras Behn's Oroonoko tends to focus on the treatment of slavery and race, particularly Behn's 'granting of heroic stature to an African prince' (Pacheco 1). This highlights the notion of kinship, and reference to a legitimate monarch. Behn's novella of an African slave who was once a king was published in 1688, the year that saw the bloodless deposition of King James II in England. This essay will try and explore and analyse the connections between matters of race and kingship in the novella.
In his article George Guffey challenged such readings by 'asserting that the significance of Behn's hero resides not in his African origins but in his royal blood, his enslavement', (Lore Metzger 3) according to Guffey, this presents a mirror image of the imminent deposition of the legitimate monarch, James II.
One could interpret this as Behn, representing hierarchical principles, creating a royalist ideology; this is shown in Behn's series of references to the execution of Charles I, this creates linkages to Oroonoko's linear as a prince executed by racist men, inferior in hierarchy. The nostalgic imprint of the old order demonstrates the split in English culture caused by the civil war's aftermath; this notion of kingship is shown in Oroonoko when captors name him Caesar. The narrator and Oroonoko- Caesar have both received European educations, as Todd suggests 'accorded to privileged white men; both are victims and beneficiaries of socioeconomic systems that discriminate kings from commoners' supporting the privileges of the nobility with profits of the slave- trade.
Oroonoko is described as having captured and sold black slaves in African wars before he was himself enslaved by a Christian. The narrator not only belongs to a slave owning class but 'clearly supports the nationalistic colonising enterprise which fuelled and depended on the African Slave trade' (Todd, 218). Behn uses lush description 'of gold-prospecting' (45) to suggest desirability- in 1688, on the eve of William of Orange's accession to the British throne- Behn suggests ' tis bemoaned what his majesty lost by losing that part of America'(59). The narrator and a hero who are both victims of the slave trade, and by comparing both characters at different moments, to the Indians, Behn 'provides a perspective on 'the Conquest of America'
( Todd 219) showing notions of imperialism and kingship.
The renaming of slaves can be seen as destroying identity, slaves were renamed as soon as they arrived in foreign lands, removing identity and thus Oroonoko's kingship, however one could argue the name Caesar given to the character still denotes kinship and creates a certain amount of respect.
Throughout the narrative a kind of royalist discourse pervades Behn's story of a prince who is 'beloved like a Deity' (29). After Oroonoko is sold into slavery in Surinam, Behn 'foregrounds the royalist myth' (Anita Dacheco). Trefy, who buys Oroonoko, knows he is no ordinary slave, he is at first richly dressed, according to his social position, he cannot hide the:
'Graces of his looks and Mein The Royal Youth appear'd in spight of the slave, even by those who yet knew not that he was a prince' ( p.39)
Even though disguised, authority shines through, this is clearly shown when Oroonoko reaches the plantation, the response of the slaves to his presence make significance of his royal status clear:
'Live, O king, Long live, O king! And kissing his feet, paid him Divine Homage' (41)
The slaves worship Oroonoko as a god, as Pacheo emphasises 'It would be hard to imagine a more radical vindication, of the royal prerogative' meaning the slaves serve as a function, a literary function, to solidify the rightness and sanctity of royal power. Trefry even reflects happily that Oroonoko's ' Grandeur ' is 'confirmed by the Adoration of all the slaves' (41). The royalist discourse essentially portrays royal power as a natural law, with divine purpose, residing the blood of the royal line. The text seeks to reinforce its royalist ideology with ruling class values, this can be seen by Oroonoko's education, the emphasise on training as Pacheo mentions 'Oroonoko as a European aristocrat, with privileges European upper class-culture', the men who contribute to Oroonoko's education are gentlemen such as Trefry, a person of great 'wit, and fine learning' (38). The novella written at a time of great intense upheaval in social power relations, endorses the elitist values of the ruling class, validating the authority not only for the monarchy, but also of the upper classes that clutter around the throne, 'allied to it through a shared interest in preserving the distinction of hereditary power (496), SOMETHING SHOULD GO HERE.
The matters of race are questioned in Oroonoko's beloved, whom the English rename Clemene. As Todd suggests Imoinda is 'doubly enslaved- to the whites, male and female'(219) one could suggest even to her black husband. In contrast to the narrator, who stands in relation Oroonoko, as queen or ' Petraarchan lady-lord to a vassal- a 'Great mistress' (46). As Todd states 'Imoinda is an uncanny amalgam of European ideals of European fantasties about wives of 'Oriental' despots', she is therefore an image of ideal that race cannot challenge.
Race is shown Behn's portrait of her African prince, of both his physical appearance and his character, is profoundly Eurocentric:
'His face was not of that brown rusty Black, His nose was rising and roman, instead of African and flat, His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen: far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the negroes' ( p 8)
The text is clearly eager to distinguish its hero from other blacks: his beauty generally and his individual features distance Oroonoko from what the narrator calls his 'gloomy Race' (6) and identify him with European ideas of beauty. The phrase ' bating his colour' makes his us feel Oroonoko's African origins as a liability, a flaw in his race.
When the novella comes to consider the hero's equally extraordinary virtue. The account of Oroonoko's upbringing stresses his 'natural inclination to Arms'( 6), his tutelage in ' Morals, language and Science' (7). One could interpret this 'nature' belonging not to primitivism but to royalism, for it is inseparable from exalted birth. We are told of Oroonokos ' native beauty' and struck with ' an awe and reverence, even those that knew not his Quality '(6), the word quality combines connotations of virtue and high birth, in this novella a royal birth, which reflects the prince beauty. Individual value is associated with birth, virtue with an inherited rank which is shown as a natural order. This is a concept of basic hierarchy, virtue as Pacheco states ' virtue is supposedly transmitted from one generation to the next'( 4), meaning power and Kingship is legitimised on the notion of worthiness, authority is presented as hereditary. Kingship is explored even further when onlookers are fortunate to witness royalty it inspires 'Awe and reverence', these choices of words establishes as deeply right a relationship between the prince and the rest of humanity. As Pacheco points out 'there is no mention here of the Doctrine of the divine right of kings' this vitally important to the Stuart monarchs, but the sanctity of Kingship is implied as Oroonoko himself is invested with something akin to divine power.