Reflection: Oronooko by Aphra Behn

One of my concerns of late has been the reclaiming of classical literatures from regressive frameworks. If that sounds euphemistic it’s because it is. My concern, more simply put, is that regressive ideologies have claimed the classical literatures that came from Europe as their own, and this is at the expense of progressive ideologies. I’m not saying that these texts are the only texts of merit, nor am I saying that they should be studied at the expense of texts that have been marginalised under, let’s admit it, settler-colonialist pedagogies that are premised on European-supremacy. Nonetheless, given settler-colonialism is one of the after effects of European invasion and colonisation, I do think it is important to understand the texts that gave shape to that mindset, if only so that the systems built on those readings can be dismantled from within. Colonised peoples know that the systems are fucked, finding ways of teaching colonisers (and I count myself among that number) about the ways in which their world views are not universal, nor even coherent, and are certainly not materially applicable in a universal sense (ie. they’re not just “the way things are”). To this extent Aphra Behn’s novel, Oronooko provides a valuable insight into the early spread of colonialism and the ideologies that underpin it.

Behn has always been an author who fascinated me. She was a playwrite, a poet, an essayist, and a translator. Oronooko is often cited as one of the earliest English novels (women at the forefront of experimental writing AGAIN). She lived between 1640-1689, a time of great upheaval in England, which saw the English Civil War(s) (1642-1651), the trial and execution of King Charles I and the abolition of the monarchy (1649), the Restoration of the English Monarchy (1661), the Great Fire of London (1666), the Glorious Revolution (1688). The English East India Company (the John Company) was founded in 1600 and going strong (never underestimate the relationship between capitalism and colonisation), the Americas had been invaded and Britain established its first colony there in 1607. My point with all of this is that, like, there was a lot going on. I mean, I know our world is uncertain, and overwhelming, but so was Behn’s. And Oronooko provides an interesting lens through which to approach that world, and subsequently, through which to approach our own world.

There are themes in this text which would discomfort a modern reader, or at least if you are not uncomfortable with some of the ideas that underpin this text, if you do not find that it confronts you, then I think that we do not share similar values. Not least of these is the disregard for African bodies, subjectivity and agency which permeates the text. In a world where it is still controversial (how? How is this a controversial claim?) to state that Black Lives Matter, Oronooko’s speech that asserts his own value as a human is heartbreaking:

“…we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools, and cowards, and the support of rogues…And shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left to distinguish them from the vilest creatures?” (89-90)

It has echoes of Shylocke’s infamous “Hath not a Jew” monologue from Merchant of Venice, and it can be heard in he writing of revolutionaries such as Fanon, Malcolm X, and Coates. However it is worth remembering that this book is a work of fiction, written by a white woman. As such, it provides an early example of white women speaking for African, in this case Ghanaian, peoples. How times change. The book, while it reads as a first person account of the life of the Prince Oronooko, his love, his betrayal into slavery, is narrated by an uncertain narrator. Although some scholars maintain that Behn was present in the Jamaican colony, and the other figures in the book are real people who lived during that time, like other travel narratives that followed hers (such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) the narrator should not be conflated with the author. There is perhaps a case for applying some of Lackey’s theories of bio-fiction to the text, but that is a game for a different field.

Oronooko does, however, have urgency for the contemporary reader: the disregard for life, the privileging of capital, the interplay between political ideologies and the ways in which they went on to shape the colonisation practices that frame our own world. Oronooko is a useful tool for unpacking the legacies that shape our modern world.

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