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Oronooko is a work of fiction written by Aphra Behn. She is an Englishwoman who became a successful writer in 17th century England. She lived in a time when slavery was considered a major part of the Western world’s economy, specifically when it comes to Great Britain and its colonies in the American continent.
The bulk of the story is set in South America and the origin of the slave trade in the African continent. The author was able to describe the gentleness, beauty, grace, and courage of the African slaves and made a clear argument as to why no one has the right to subjugate them and treat them as nothing more than an object used for economic gain.
History of Slavery
It is impossible to shoot down every type of justification made in favour of slavery without first going through an overview of its history, particularly in the Western world, its connection with Africa and then the British colonies that can be found in the American continent. It has to be made clear that the existence of slavery as an institution is the by-product of a great need. And that is to make money at the most cost-efficient way.
Before the advent of the industrial age a nation’s strength is found in its agricultural sector. Food is the most important thing. But even the means to make clothes and other things required to experience comfortable living can be directly or indirectly acquired through farming and other agricultural pursuits. But there are many challenges to farming and other related activities such as animal husbandry and planting crops.
The first problem is arable land. For those that have no problems with land such as the farmlands that can be found in the American continent in the time of Aphra Behn, the most important limiting factor is manpower.
In the absence of powerful machines that can do the work requiring the muscle power of a hundred men there is a need to hire and train an army of workers. There is a serious problem when it comes to hiring and training people to do the necessary work to make a farm or plantation successful.
There is also the added challenge of retaining a skilled workforce. A traditional method of maintaining a steady workforce requires the utilisation of roving workers, a variety of job seekers knocking at the door of farmhouses asking for work.
There are two problems when it comes to this system and it has something to do with the consistency of the quality of work and the need for a steady supply of workers when they are needed. This method has worked well in the past because of the seasonal nature of farm work.
But someone must have thought what if there is a way to maintain a steady workforce and yet with minimal cost. The answer came readily because slavery is as ancient as some of the more established human traditions.
In ancient times the most common way to own slaves is to conquer a people group through warfare. Armies clash in the battlefield and the defeated group has to allow their conquerors to take them as slaves or die with the rest of their fallen comrades.
Slavery was the acceptable way out for many. The second way to acquire slaves is through the inability to pay loans. The one in debt had to pay off the loan through servitude. In the context of Aphra Behn’s novel however slaves were acquired through a third method and this is by purchasing them from a slave trader.
Let it be known that although there were historical facts thrown into the plot of the story, it remains a work of fiction. Thus, it was convenient for the author to insert herself in the story but more importantly it gave the narrator the freedom to travel back and forth with ease from Europe, to Africa and South America. This allowed the narrator to provide a vivid view as to the sufferings of human beings under a fellow human being.
They are human beings
The first reason why no one is allowed to subjugate a person and treat him or her as beast of burden is because of their humanity. It does not matter if they came from a remote part of the planet. It does not matter if they are uneducated.
It does not matter if they are not civilized. It does not matter if they are hunters and gathers. It does not matter if they have no table manners. These are of no consequence because just like those who wish to enslave them, they are also human beings.
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In the novel Oronooko the author was able to brilliantly convey this message via a loves story. In this manner the author was able to show that they were not different from the people living in so-called civilised nations of Europe.
From a woman’s perspective the author seemed to have said that they fall in love just like the high and mighty people living in well-to-do countries of the world. They have feelings and therefore they can be hurt just like the rest of the people on the planet.
They are not sub-species of humans; they come from the same type. They too are descendants of Adam and Eve. Even before one can begin reading the story, the objection to slavery was very clear even in the cover of the book.
The title says it all: Oronooko or the Royal Slave. The author has pointed out that no one should simply judge another person through a biased standard. From the point of view of European slave masters and slave traders the protagonist is simply Oronooko with a name that suggest he is of a lower class.
But what if he is not an ordinary person? What if he is of noble birth. And yet in South America he is nothing but a slave.
The author made a succinct description of the emotions that she felt when she met men, women, and children of African descent and observed them in their natural habitat. She said that they were not only gentle and beautiful creatures but they move like they are the true masters of the land.
They are adept with their weapons and their tools and they know how to co-exist with nature and in the process demonstrated to the observers that they are at their best when they are free.
The author also highlighted the fact that she was treated with utmost respect when she interacted with them and she came very close to saying that she fell in love with the same people who in other parts of the world are treated as slaves.
And she made this emotion-filled conclusion saying, “we find it absolutely necessary to cares ’em as friends, and not to treat ’em as slaves”, but when these same people are taken by force and transported to a foreign land their precious freedom as well as their dignity evaporates quickly like smoke (Behn, p.7).
Slavery degrades both master and slave
There is another reason why it is unlawful to own slaves. It is the fact that slavery as an institution can only be maintained and sustained when both master and slave have the mentality of a beast or a monster. No human can being can sustain this practice and expect to be a good father, a good husband and a role model for the next generation when it comes to patience, grace, kindness, benevolence, and gentleness.
A slave must be treated a little higher than animals working in the farm. If this is not the mindset of slave traders and slave owners then the system would not work because their so-called “property” will eventually develop the mind of a revolutionary and demand his freedom.
The institution of slavery, in conjunction with the economy related to agriculture only works if the plantation can create a system were there is zero wages and only need minimal upkeep for intelligent beings able to work the farms. If the slaves were set free, then the whole system is ruin. If they demand daily wages then the system will also be bankrupt.
It is therefore necessary to make the slaves feel that they have no rights. It is also important to keep them in a state of fear and to make them understand that they cannot survive beyond the boundaries set by his or her master. There are two things that can be done to maintain the status quo.
The first one is the effective use of punishment. The whip is a favourite tool because it delivers the maximum amount of pain and yet it does not destroy any significant part of the body that can prevent the chastised slave from working in the fields.
The only problem here is the need for the slave owner and his appointed slave master to undergo a transformation from within. A kind man cannot go on with this lifestyle forever until he is willing to change his values and beliefs.
The beaten slave on the other hand is made to believe that he or she is of little value. The slave had to undergo a transformation also because this is the only way for him or her to survive the ordeal. Thus, both are degraded mentally and spiritually speaking.
Another way to maintain the status quo is to deprive slaves their right to education. In their native lands they may have access to informal learning and are taught the skills that can make them into an artist or a talented worker paid to provide a special kind of service.
But in the plantation found in South America in the 17th century they are not taught to read or write. They were only trained on how to work the fields.
The degradation of the values and belief system of the white slave owner and the meek acceptance of the slave is necessary to maintain the system. The slave owner is pressured to break the will of the slaves because he knows very well that they long for freedom.
He cannot relax even for a moment and this develops in him a mean-spirit. The slaves on the other hand cannot see beyond the walls of their imprisonment. Even when the time will come when they are allowed to break the chains of slavery, many of them find comfort in the cruel hands of their masters. Their self-image has been twisted and mangled beyond recognition. This is the evil of slavery.
Men were all created equal in the eyes of God
The most important argument against slavery is the assertion that all men were created equal in the eyes of God. In some parts of the novel the author referred to the creation of Adam and Eve. If one revisits that biblical account, he will discover that all men came from one stock.
It can therefore be said that there were no human sub-species, those that were created to serve others. There may be differences in the colour of the skin and the different behaviour of members of tribal groups or ethnic groups. But deep within, everyone came from the same root. Thus, everyone were created equal and have the same right to pursue life and happiness.
In the case of the slave trade, slave traders insist that there are those who were meant to live a life of servitude. All the children that came out from the wombs of women living in the plantation have the right to freedom, free speech and the right to choose the life that they want to live.
But the moment that a child from a slave woman takes its first breath, the slave master comes in and declares that this child is the property of the plantation owner. Ownership of the child has been established after the purchase of his or her mother from a slave trader.
This is difficult to understand and can be said to be the height of irony. An Englishman and even an American living in the colonies need not be told twice that he is free.
This realisation comes naturally to the members of the Caucasian race. They are acutely aware of this God-given right and yet it boggles the mind why they cannot extend the same privilege to a fellow human being.
If one takes away the economic reason for holding slaves then there is no justification for someone to subjugate another human being. But even if slave traders and plantation owners are made to feel guilty of the practise of buying and selling slaves it highly doubtful if they feel remorse.
The author provided the explanation as to why slave traders continue on with their business selling human beings to the highest bidder.
This is because slavery is not just the invention of the white man, even in Africa, the African leaders and African nobility partake in the system that they find as natural and as indispensable as the other practices in the regions. Consider the following statements made by Aphra Behn who wrote:
Coramantien, a country of blacks so called, was one of those places in which they found the most advantageous trading for slaves, and thither most of our great traders in the merchandise traffic; for that nation is very warlike and brave: and having a continual campaign, being always in hostility with one neighbouring prince or other, they had the fortune to take a great many captives: for all they took in battle were sold as slaves” (Behn, p.7).
Now it is clear why the institution of slavery could not be easily curtailed in the 17th century until the latter part of the 19th century. This is because there are many people who benefit from the slave trade. The hostility and constant fighting between African tribes should be blamed for the proliferation of this trade.
This explains why the practice of slavery continues even if no one can find a simple justification to allow a human being to subjugate a fellow human being.
There is no justification of slavery. The slaves may have black skin but deep down they are the same as the slave traders and plantation owners who treated them as nothing more than a means to an end.
The institution of slavery is destructive to both the slave owner and the slaves but it is difficult to end this practice because there are too many people making easy profit from them. Nevertheless, is clear that slavery must end because all men were created equal in the eyes of God.
Behn, Aphra. Oronooko or the Royal Slave. Middlesex, London: Echo Library, 2009.