I'm inclined to read this pre-novel as historical, and in its historical context. The narrative is that of the title character, a "royal slave" as the subtitle attests, and his adventures within the slave trade of the late seventeenth century. The story is told first-person perspective, and the writer purports that this is a "true history," and she has been an "Eye-Witness" (Behn 8). Oroonoko is made a slave by his father or grandfather -- the text is vague on this point -- because Oroonoko is in a courtship/romantic affair with Imoinda, who, like Oroonoko, is described as being attractive, a "Black Venus," while Oroonoko's features are described as European. Oroonoko's father is the king, who has the right to deflower any young women of the kingdom and wishes to do this with Imoinda. Oroonoko is made a slave because of the patriarch's lust, recalling the biblical story of King David and Bathsheba, only to die tragically after a slave revolt and the killing of his amour to secure her purity.
These two quotes regarding race and beauty indicate that Africans are described in reference to existing, entrenched European forms:
I have seen an hundred White Men sighing after her, and making a thousand Vows at her Feet, all vain, and unsuccessful... (14)
His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His Mouth, the finest shap'd that cou'd be seen; far from those great turn'd Lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so noble, and exactly form'd, that, bating his Colour, there cou'd be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. (13)
Instead of using the fact that the writer seems only able to interpret non-Europeans as extensions of European standards and forms, such as Oroonoko being described as "noble" above, to point this out as a textual flaw, given the historical nature of the text, which lays the seed of possibility for what came to be called the novel, I'm instead interested in using this trace as an opportunity to read.
That Oroonoko appears in 1688 seems amazing. At a time when peasants of the European countryside lived much like the medieval peasants of centuries before, for a woman to write a narrative to be published for a wide audience shows the special place that England held in the history of globalization. Behn's concerns go far beyond mere religion and boarding-room entertainment; in fact, despite the narrative's unfamiliarity to us, it remains a lasting artifact of the blooming maritime/global European culture out of which it sprang. There is a sense of newness in the text, of amazement with the powers wielded by early capitalist tentacles, reaching into the hinterland of Africa and transporting entire populations to other continents: the Americas. Oroonoko may be the first novel of the new smaller world.
In 1688, England was not the unmatched imperial maritime power it was later to become. As the portraits of Rembrandt indicate, with their wealthy traders, the ports of what was to become the Netherlands brought in foreign goods on a scale that had not been seen -- and all this only a century and a half since Magellan circumnavigated the earth, truly globalizing European culture. England was in competition, and often war, with the other up-and-comers of European world hegemony: Spain, Netherlands/Low Countries, France.
Given this history, how much can we really ask Behn to take a decidedly anti-slavery stand? Oroonoko is a narrative of the new international commerce, and of the cultural exchange of refitting historical European social forms onto exotic foreign peoples as a way of understanding those forms in their changing relationship to Europeans themselves. In 1688, England was the only country with a parliamentary government that we can recognize as similar to our own, and England was only a few decades removed from the Commonwealth, Europe's first republic, and although James II ruled as Oroonoko was published, and the Catholic-leaning Behn writes dearly of that leader, at a textual level we can tell that the history of religious schism, starting with Henry VIII and Martin Luther, deeply changed how people related to religious dogma. After all, new ways of financing business, starting with banks, the invention of life insurance and actuarial science, make religion as such a secondary concern in Oroonoko, instead the new world of commerce meeting the old values of Europe comes to the fore, with Oroonoko and Imoinda the narrative playthings of these historical changes. Today, we often imagine historical imperial conquest to be based on parallel "civilizing" and "Christianizing" missions, and the resultant dehumanization of subjugated peoples, but the early Dutch and English experiences were different, and decidedly less concerned with the assimilation of foreigners and more concerned with the expansion of trade routes and methods for obtaining raw materials, i.e. slavery for the purpose of mass agriculture. Oroonoko, after all, doesn't like religion: "But of all Discourses Caesar lik'd that the worst, and wou'd never be reconcil'd to our Notions of the Trinity, of which he ever made a Jest..." (41).
As J. M. Roberts writes in his Pelican History of the World (1st edition 1976), the economic changes between 1500 and 1800 brought about a conflict between old, well-nigh ancient values and the values that we, in the modern context, take for granted:
Gentlemanly status could be approached by enrichment, by professional distinction, or by personal merit. It was essentially a matter of shared code of behaviour, still reflecting the aristocratic concept of honour, but one civilized by the purging away of its exclusiveness, its gothicisms and its legal supports. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the idea of the gentleman became one of the formative influences of English history. (536)
Though not complete, there was a shift from personal ties to market relationships as a way of defining people's rights and expectations, and a shift from a corporate vision of society to an individualist one. (536)
With this, we can understand the way Oroonoko the character is represented: first, as an example of the expanding definition of what it means to have honor, be noble and a gentleman, and second, his special status as an exceptional, royal individual, and a sort of l'uomo universale of war, languages and passion. When Behn embellishes Oroonoko's language with intricate litotes and verbal forms perhaps not in use in African langauges, his status rises, and we see a glance of the future debate of what it means to be a gentleman:
To this, Caesar Reply'd, That Honour was the First Principle in Nature, that was to be Obey'd; but as no Man wou'd pretend to that, without all the Acts of Vertue, Compassion, Charity, Love, Justice and Reason; he found it not inconsistent with that, to take an equal Care of their Wives and Children, as they wou'd of themselves; and that he did not Design, when he led them to Freedom, and Glorious Liberty, that they shou'd leave that better part of themselves to Perish by the Hand of the Tyrant's Whip... (Behn 53)
Oroonoko's claim that honor comes from "nature" is not heresy in the historical context; actually it makes sense given that although the landowners played a significant part in the goverrnmental powers of England, they were small in number and had no special legal status, both of which were the opposite in France. Further, the English monarch, although titularly all-powerful, had to deal with practical restraints from Parliament, who made the taxes, and this way of doing government went roughly back to, of course, 1215 and the Magna Carta.
In the excerpt above, "Vertue" and "Reason," strike me as being in particular conflict, and it is emblematic that Oroonoko speaks of both, although virtue could be the value of the old guard (I'm thinking of Machiavelli's use of the term), and reason the value of the new -- i.e. the Age of Reason.
In any event, Oroonoko attests to a fluid and changing England, yet poised to ratain the old values in the new world. The following quote has self-criticism and longing for a good 'ol days past:
But Caesar told him, there was no Faith in the White Men, or the Gods they Ador'd; who instructed 'em in Principles so false, that honest Men cou'd not live amongst 'em; though no People profess'd so much, none perfom'd so little; that he knew what he had to do, when he dealt with Men of Honour; but with them a Man ought to be eternally on his Guard, and never to Eat and Drink with Christians without his Weapon of Defence in his Hand; and, for his own Security, never to credit one Word they spoke... (56)
Ironically, in an excerpt that chastises businessmen-Christians as being untrustworthy, the word "credit" creeps in, indicating the new public sphere where face-to-face reputation gives way to long-distance transfers of money without necessarily meeting face-to-face. And further in this vein, the injustice of slavery that Oroonoko shows leads us not to a conclusion about what this text is about, but how this moment in history is transitional, for while slavery for a noble African is bad, what is necessary for economic power is necessary:
...'tis fit I tell you the manner of brining them to these new Colonies; for those they make use of there, are not Natives of the place... (8)
In short, it is difficult for me to make sense of Oroonoko; it seems to be a mishmash of tragic plotlines (David/Bathsheba, Othello, the slave revolt) and a vision of foreigners through the lens of "What does it mean to live in this transitional phase?" though Behn wouldn't phrase her purpose that way. In the end, what is the tragedy? That Oroonoko earns no revenge against his slaveholder, or that slavery and circumstances cut short his life? Or that in the colonial/slavery systems, the best virtues for whites are the worst for the ruled? From the economic perspective, Oroonoko's tobacco-smoking torture death notwithstanding, the tragedy seems to be that while something European and English is merely getting altered -- honor -- someone foreign is getting killed.