Oroonoko, written by Aphra Behn, is a story dealing mainly with slavery traversing from Africa to Europe where slave trade dominated. Behn employs literature widely by use of literal elements like symbolism, metaphor, tone and personification among others. Greater part of this novel does not give a direct meaning and the reader has to have a keen eye to understand what the writer meant. This explication paper looks into the hero that Oroonoko was and the knowledge of slave masters that slavery was utterly wrong.
This was delivered to the still doubting captain, who could not resolve to trust a heathen, he said, upon his parole, a man that had no sense or notion of the God that he worshiped. Oroonoko then replied he was very sorry to hear that the captain pretended to the knowledge and worship of any gods, who had taught him no better principles than not to credit, as he would be credited.
However, they told him, the difference of their faith occasioned that distrust: for the captain had protested to him upon the word of a Christian, and sworn in the name of a great God; which if he should violate, he would expect eternal torment in the world to come.
“Is that all the obligation he has to be just to his oath?” replied Oroonoko. “Let him know, I swear by my honour; which to violate would not only render me contemptible and despised by all brave and honest men, and so give myself perpetual pain, but it would be eternally offending and displeasing all mankind; harming, betraying, circumventing, and outraging all men.
However, punishments hereafter are suffered by one’s self; and the world takes no cognizance whether this God have revenged ’em, or not. ‘Tis done so secretly, and deferred so long: while the man of no honour suffers every moment the scorn and contempt of the honester world, and dies every day ignominiously in his fame, which is more valuable than life.
I speak not this to move belief, but to show you how you mistake, when you imagine that he who will violate his honour will keep his word with his gods.” Therefore, turning from him with a disdainful smile, he refused to answer him, when he urged him to know what answer he should carry back to his captain, so that he departed without saying any more (Behn 104).
This scene occurs immediately after Oroonoko is betrayed into slavery. The captain, by no means would not ‘resolve’ to trust ‘heathen’. The word ‘resolve’ here implies that slavery was wrong and even the masters knew it, only that they would not ‘resolve’ to abolish it. The narrator is trying to show how slavery was evil naturally.
The narrator uses sarcasm, as Oroonoko feels “sorry” that the captain “resolves” not to abide to his beliefs. Oroonoko is not being ‘sorry’ that the captain cannot remember his doctrines; no, he is sorry that the captain deliberately ‘resolves’ not to agree slavery is wrong.
The captain forces Oroonoko to take an oath that he will not violate the agreement between him and the captain. To this Oroonoko asks, “Is that all the obligation he has to be just to his oath?” (Behn 104). The tone here highlights the attitude that Oroonoko has towards slavery and its masters. “Is that all the obligation?” indicates that there was no place of slavery for it could not be substantiated. The narrator uses sarcasm as Oroonoko goes on to expound on the judgement that awaits him should he break any of the oaths.
Why should Oroonoko take this oath while he will face eternal torment in ‘the world to come”? The “world to come” here is not life after death; no, it is life after slavery, once slaves gain their freedom. No wonder Oroonoko is reluctant to take the oath because he knows that the torment referred in the text is inconsequential.
There is use of paradox to scorn slavery. Oroonoko says, “It would be eternally offending and displeasing all mankind; harming, betraying, circumventing, and outraging all men. However, punishments hereafter are suffered by one’s self; and the world takes no cognizance whether this God have revenged ’em, or not” (Behn 104). While it would be a disgrace and “displeasing all men” the world, which is made up of the same men does not care whether God revenges or not.
It is not breaking the oath that displeases all men, it is the perpetuated slavery that, “harms, betrays, circumvents, and outrages all men” (Behn 104). The narrator uses irony here. It is ironical that despite men knowing that slavery is wrong, they do not take any initiative to stop it. It is ironical that while men are offended by slavery, they do not care what happens, “taking no cognizance” of the aftermath of it.
Nevertheless, people who deeply know that slavery is wrong, suffer silently at personal levels. “’tis done so secretly, and deferred so long: while the man of no honour suffers every moment the scorn and contempt of the honester world, and dies every day ignominiously in his fame, which is more valuable than life” (Behn 104).
Salve masters knew that slavery was wrong; however, they perpetuated it to comply with ‘the honester world”. The honester world here is the world full of deception with men knowing what God requires of them, yet doing what the ‘world’ requires of them. Due to their dented conscience, they die dishonourably every day only to retain their fame. Ironically, these men gain fame but loose their lives.
The narrator exposes the guilt conscience of slave masters. Oroonoko is a hero and he comes out clearly to tell these masters whatever they are doing are wrong.
“I speak not this to move belief, but to show you how you mistake, when you imagine that he who will violate his honour will keep his word with his gods” (Behn 104). “Not…move belief’ implies that while men have freewill to choose, their beliefs and consciences will judge them. “…he who will violate his honour…,” what honour? The honour here is the beliefs held by these slave masters. They know that slavery is wrong yet choose not to ‘resolve’ to accept it.
‘His honour’ here is used symbolically to signify one’s conscience, which happens to be their gods. That is why by going against what these masters believed, they are condemning themselves and judgement is already upon them because they have broken the honour with their gods.
Oroonoko in general reflects on Behn’s attitude towards slavery. Though she did not oppose slavery, she knew it was wrong and its masters lived in disguise and ignored to acknowledge it was wrong to enslave fellow human beings. Oroonoko being the hero that he was; comes out clearly to let the slave masters know the world was watching what they were doing and above all, their God was watching evidenced by their guilt conscience.
Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” Todd, Janet. Ed. London: Penguin Group, 2003.