There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of Oroonoko, a novella–some would say a novel–by the Restoration playwright Aphra Behn. There’s a decent chance you don’t know Behn either, but that’s a matter for a different day.
Had you lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, Oroonoko would not be quite so unknown. Behn’s narrative enjoyed a good bit of applaud upon its publication in 1688, the year, not coincidentally, I think, that England ousted their second king in forty years, deposing James II in favor of the Protestant William and Mary. In 1695, 6 years after Behn’s death, Thomas Southern adapted the story for the stage, creating a tragedy that remained popular for decades.
In short, the story features an African prince, Oroonoko, in love with a beautiful woman, Imoinda, who is also desired by the king. This love affair lands both the young people in a slave ship bound for Surinam where they are sold to work on sugar plantations. Once a king, Behn suggests, always a king, and Oroonoko behaves in a manner to be greatly regarded. He leads a slave revolt, which fails. He accepts his punishment bravely. Determined to defeat his tormenters with the only tool at his disposal, he enters into a suicide pact with Imoinda. After killing her, he is captured before being able to dispatch himself, suffering a grisly execution with stunning composure.
My interest in the Curse of Ham motif in literature drew me to Behn’s story, but that theme really does not appear in any meaningful way. Yes, the Africans are described as somewhat lascivious, but Oroonoko’s behavior is utterly above reproach. Behn has been suggested as a firm opponent of slavery, but I can’t really see that. She doesn’t seem to have an exceptional measure of sympathy for the average slave, instead lamenting the royal slave. Oroonoko, clearly, did not belong in chains, but the others were acceptable.
One can scarcely read this story without noting curious parallels with the story of David. The king steals the beloved of Oroonoko and orders him away to the front lines of battle. Thus, Oroonoko appears as Uriah the Hittite to the king’s David. At nearly the same time, however, we see Oroonoko’s deference and discretion before the king, suggesting Oroonoko as David with the king as Saul.