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Euro-centrism in Behn's Oroonoko or The Royal Slave A True History

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An Examination of Euro-Centrist

Influences in Aphra Behn’s

Narrative Oroonoko or

The Royal Slave

A True History

 

 

Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko or The Royal Slave A True History is an English narrative written for an English-speaking audience concerning her account of the life and death of a slave coming from Africa to an English plantation in Surinam, South America.  In this context, it is certainly not to be unexpected that Behn’s narrative - whether fictional or otherwise - would naturally have a Euro-centric bent to it since we have an English author writing to a 17th century English-reading audience.  In this light I would like to take the opportunity to examine in some detail the influence that Euro-centrism has on the story.  I shall focus in particular on the effect that 17th century Euro-centric thinking has in shaping the author’s choice of words and the reader’s perception of both Oroonoko and of Africans in general.

 

To begin, as though the assertion that black is beautiful is doubtful among Behn’s readers, she assures us that “there are beauties that can charm of that color” (2154) and that despite his “gloomy race,” Oroonoko possessed a “native beauty.” (2154)  Even if the author uses “gloomy” in the context of describing the tone, or darkness, of his skin, the dual meaning of the word is undeniable, even in 17th century rendering.  That his nose was “rising and Roman, instead of African and flat” is in some way meant to endear readers to the tragic hero, readers who may otherwise be detracted from empathizing with Oroonoko should he appear too black. (2155)  Furthermore, he was not the “brown, rusty black” like most Africans, but instead “a perfect ebony, or polished jet,” the latter phrase possessing more favorable connotations in Europe as a type of stone (lignite) that, when cleaned up and polished, is used for jewelry. (2155)  Oroonoko could not, therefore, be just black but rather a special kind of black, one readers could easily identify with rather than an ordinary black.  Even the protagonist’s mouth, Behn emphasizes, had to be the “finest shaped…far from those great turned lips” common among his race.  Once again, Behn emphasizes Euro-centrist thinking in her attempt  -  however noble or defensible  -  to de-Africanize the narrative hero’s features in what I can only assume is an attempt to endear him to readers, who may otherwise find an African protagonist too barbarous.  Behn is exacting in her need to dismiss this preconceived notion of Africans as somehow unworthy of attention by assuring us he possessed “real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honor, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry,” at least as defined by 17th century English readers.  She continues, describing the protagonist’s shape and appearance in an arguably backhanded complimentary way:

                “The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed

                that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agree-

                able, and handsome.” (2156)

Notice the emphasis on “bating,” or excepting, Oroonoko’s “color.” (2156)  Even if one does not inherently accept this as a racial slight in and of itself, when observed in context of Behn’s elaborate description, it is clear that Oroonoko’s color is an objectionable trait that must otherwise be mitigated and countered with a litany of other European-like features in order to be found acceptable to Western, English-speaking readers.  Although this man is described in the most flattering of terms, there is nonetheless an implicit indication from her own words that his color, therefore, could not be “beautiful, agreeable, and handsome.” (2156)  Even Oroonoko’s hair was “combed” and “came down to his shoulders,” an odd description of Europeanized intent when considering this description in context, for it too de-Africanizes the character by making him more European-like. 

 

And in as far as literary terminology used to make analogies of Oroonoko’s appearance and stature, Behn utilizes classical references to further assuage the negatives of his race such as when she calculatingly compares Oroonoko to the “bravest soldiers, that ever saw the field of Mars.” (2154)  Imoinda, the hero’s teenage lover, is equated to a “beautiful black Venus to our young Mars.” (2156)  Undoubtedly these comparisons would be readily understood by contemporary readers as concrete analogies to something good or desirable, yet I am not addressing the wrong or rightness of such descriptions, only observing the Euro-centric terminology Behn chooses to employ to a literary end.  Had this same story been written by a fellow African who was familiar with Oroonoko’s tale, I am unsure whether or not he or she would have utilized classical Romanesque references or European comparisons to describe the protagonist.  An author, therefore, is bound to choose analogies and descriptions with which they are most familiar; however, Behn’s choice of words conveys not only her own culture’s base of knowledge and literary

heritage but also the biases and preconceptions accompanying that heritage.  Thus, as Behn writes her own narrative in terms with which she is familiar, these terms themselves reveal a Euro-centric tendency towards making the world readily comprehendible and acceptable to the reader.

 

More references both to classical Greek and Roman mythology and to European chivalry abound in the narrative, as when Oroonoko declares “Were [Imoinda] in walled cities, or confined from me in fortifications of the greatest strength: did enchantments or monsters detain her from me, I would venture through any hazard to free her.” (2159)  Though undoubtedly sub-Sahara African princes would have heard about or seen walled cities and enchanted monsters, it may not necessarily be the first analogy a 17th century African (who had never before been outside of Africa) would have made to compare his determination to free his love.  Naturally, Oroonoko’s French tutor may be said to have educated the young warrior in the imagery of classical and European chivalry and mythology, but even the emphasis that Behn makes on Oroonoko having a cultured, French tutor may be seen as a literary convention which, in effect, Europeanizes the hero so as to make him more cultured and therefore easier for contemporary readers to digest.  Ironically, what Behn’s late 17th and 18th century readers found acceptable may be exactly what late 20th and early 21st century readers find at fault, at least for those involved in the study of literary criticism.

 

Additionally, Aboan’s knowledge of how the “affairs and business at court” operate tend to foster a vision of the workings and intrigues of an English royal court as much as anything, another example of how Euro-centric influences pervade the story. (2161)  Seventeenth century African “courts” (in what is now present day Ghana) may have operated in similar veins, yet to contemporary readers of Behn’s narrative, doubtless they would have envisioned something along the lines of Charles II or James II court.  And all the references to acting or dying in “the noblest way” conjures images of European chivalry as befits the best Romance of Behn’s era. (2167)  Even Oroonoko’s god-like entrance into the King of Cormantien’s court, who “not only returned triumphant but beloved like a deity,” is reminiscent of some Greek hero having thwarted the wrath of one or another treacherous deity. (2168)  While being transported ignominiously aboard the slave ship, all the young men hang upon Oroonoko’s reassurance of freedom “as some divine oracle,” a reference, no doubt, to that ancient Oracle at Delphi. (2170-71)  Regardless of the hero’s theological exposure and beliefs, Behn’s verbiage and choice of metaphors is arguably slanted with a Euro-centric bias.  That Western literary tradition is founded upon such language is evidence, I assert, that Behn’s choice of language when quoting the protagonist’s narrative is Euro-centric in origin and stems from both the time and place in which the work was written;  it is as much the result of Behn’s own cultural and literary heritage as it is the cause of it.

 

After arriving on the English plantation, Trefry’s renaming of Oroonoko as “Caesar” certainly carries with it the nuances of Euro-centric history, its choice alone foreshadowing both the greatness and the tragic end that the young African prince would experience. (2173)   Oroonoko’s reception among the other slaves on the Surinam plantation is as princely as his arrival, yet even in this we find traces of Euro-centric thinking as when Behn describes the “barbarous music” that slaves performed that evening. (2173)  This descriptive choice implies a sense of otherness that, when combined with other analogies, references and language choice, pervades the narrative. 

 

Even Behn’s interpretation of Oroonoko’s reaction to the wounds of the Native American warriors during their visit to the village may contain overtones of a Euro-centric nature, as when “he was impatient to know how they all came by those frightful marks of rage or malice, rather than wounds got in noble battle.” (2182-2183)  That Oroonoko would assume the wounds were self-mutilation or otherwise is not as remarkable as the distinct differentiation between those kinds of marks versus the kind received in “noble” war.  There is arguable a chivalric overtone to this paraphrasing of the protagonist’s words whose origin may lie more in the perception of the narrator than in actual fact.  In combat himself, Oroonoko is said to have fought like a “Fury,” a reference to the classical Furies and another instance of an author bringing her own education and perception to the work in composing such a metaphor. (2187)

 

Some of the language used throughout Oroonoko may be seen as inadvertently containing double meanings of Euro-centric origin that may not have been the intent in the 17th century.  Today’s literary critics could point out that statements such as “black designs” (2189) and “black Friday” (2184) occasion the need to examine their usage in modern critical terms, however, it may be easy to see European ethno-centrism in many of the clichés of 17th century English.  Undoubtedly a modern writer composing a similar narrative today may be more judicious in choosing words and phrases that are sensitive to multi-culturalism, yet foresight cannot predict how future generations will ascertain the effectiveness of cultural sensitivity and cannot guarantee abstention from similar kinds of critical reviews. 

 

# Aphra Behn, Oroonoko or The Royal Slave A True History, in The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Vol. 1, ed. Patricia Rossi  (New York: Longman, 1999), p 2154

# Behn, 2155

# Behn, 2155

# Behn, 2156

# Behn, 2156

# Behn, 2156

# Behn, 2154

# Behn, 2156

# Behn, 2159

# Behn, 2161

# Behn, 2167

# Behn, 2168

# Behn, 2170-71

# Behn, 2173

# Behn, 2173

# Behn, 2182-83

# Behn, 2187

# Behn, 2189, 2184

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