Author: Aphra Behn.
Publisher: Penguin Classics.
Published: 2016/ 1688.
Part of Penguin’s Little Black Classics collection, Oroonoko (2016) is a reissue of Aphra Behn’s 17th century work. Inspired by her visit to Surinam, the short novel chronicles the life of Prince Oroonoko, from being royalty in West Africa to his enslavement and transportation to Surinam in South America.
The first part of the novel follows Oroonoko’s struggle to be with his lover Imoinda, who the King, Oroonoko’s grandfather, has chosen to be part of his harem. The second half involves Oroonoko’s life as a slave in Surinam having been captured by the English.
The short novel provides an interesting glimpse at 17th century colonialism in both West Africa and South America from slavery to the abuse native populations. It also discusses the intricacies of African monarchies and the societies ruled by Kings. This perspective was quite refreshing as the pre-colonial period of African history is rarely discussed in Western literature.
Aphra Behn showed a lot of respect for African and South American cultures in this novel. Although there are racialised descriptions of the peoples she discusses, there is a kindness and an admiration with how she talks about them. At the time of writing, racial hierarchies were being used to justify colonisation, brutality, and slavery by European Empires. For the most part, that mindset is absent from Behn’s writing. She is first and foremost concerned with the characters, their personal affairs, and struggles. She is goes as far as to depict the brutality of slavery, and the colonisers behind the atrocities.
Overall, Behn’s work casts a different look at historical colonialism, almost looking from the inside-out. It is a view that is important, and of which is not often taken by Western writers.