- Behn's Oroonoko, the Gold Coast, and Slavery in the Early-Modern Atlantic World
Critics of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (1688) have contended with the title character's role as both a slave owner and as an agent in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in a number of ways. Much of the scholarship focuses on the speech Oroonoko delivers to his fellow slaves in Surinam, which draws distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable forms of enslavement. Oroonoko proclaims that being enslaved to those who have "Won us in Honourable Battel" is unobjectionable and positively compares that experience of bondage with being "Bought and Sold like Apes, or Monkeys, to be the Sport of Women, Fools and Cowards."1 Critics have assigned various names to the first form of enslavement that Oroonoko identifies: Laura Rosenthal nominates it as "African"; Gary Gautier as "heroic"; and Oddvar Holmesland as "chivalric" and "courtly."2 Each critic argues that Behn's text presents this form of heroic enslavement as superior to the grotesquely violent and purely mercantile bondage that predominates in Surinam.
Other scholars have noted some degree of irony in Oroonoko's speech and his situation—after all, they argue, Oroonoko himself sold many of these slaves, so how can he inveigh against a commercial slave trade? Srinivas Aravamudan has developed this reading of Oroonoko as an "ironic text" more than any other critic to date.3 He asks, for example, "what are we to make of the slaves' exaggerated veneration of Oroonoko … [End Page 215] especially when Oroonoko was personally responsible for having sold these individuals into slavery?"4 Aravamudan opens up the possibility that such episodes in the text "are invested with satirical potential if read imaginatively," and he opposes traditional post-colonial readings that venerate Oroonoko as a victim of European treachery and slavery.5
Aravamudan's work represents a significant leap forward in the development of a critical reading of Oroonoko's slaving practices. However, it leaves much work to be done in constructing a systematic analysis not only of the ways Behn depicts slavery in West Africa and Oroonoko's involvement in the slave trade, but also of the text's investment in drawing value-laden distinctions between slave systems. We need to read Behn's text from within a paradigm that is critical of the slave systems that existed in all zones of the early-modern Atlantic. A critique of global slave institutions shares many of the ethical impulses of post-colonial work but expands its vision by attending to human bondage both inside and outside of traditional imperial scenes. From this perspective, we can focus less on the "irony" of Oroonoko's situation and deliver a forceful critique of both his role in the slave institutions of Coramantien and Behn's attempts to represent some versions of slavery as more acceptable than others.
By working with contemporary historical and anthropological scholarship on early-modern West Africa, we can also advance our understanding of the complex ways that Oroonoko responds to the seventeenth-century Atlantic world. Rather than attend to the scholarship of those who study the history of Africa, Behn scholars have often worked primarily with published pamphlets about West Africa from the early-modern period.6 Additionally, some critics continue to perpetuate the idea that early-modern English traders exerted a colonial or imperial influence over their West African trading partners.7 In doing so, scholars have not considered, for example, John Thornton's important work on Africa and the early-modern Atlantic, which contests a host of Eurocentric assumptions, including the idea that "Africa … played a passive role in the development of the Atlantic."8 Rather, Thornton emphasizes the economic and military strength of West African nations, their reliance on slave institutions before contact with Europeans, and the control that West African elites exercised over the terms and conditions of the slave trade.
If we are to take up the demands of current historians like Thornton and others to acknowledge the sophistication and agency of early-modern West Africans, then we must also be willing to subject the slave owners and traders of the early-modern Gold Coast...