Honorable Conquests

In class last week we discussed the significant social and cultural changes that occurred during the Restoration and the eighteenth century, both within Britain and on a global scale. Two critical factors in those changes were the expansion of the British empire around the world and Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. In Oroonoko, Aphra Behn calls attention British imperialism by describing the various experiences of slaves in the South American colony of Surinam. One interesting pattern that I noticed in my reading of this novel was Behn’s use of the discourse of imperialism and conquest in her depictions of love and romance. Oroonoko and Imoinda’s relationship is described with language which is evocative of the colonial expansion associated with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

I first picked up on this connection between romance and conquest on page 16 of the novel. Behn draws an explicit comparison between Imoinda’s effect on Oroonoko and a military triumph:

[Imoinda] gained a perfect conquest over his fierce heart, and made him feel the victor could be subdued. So that having made his first compliments and presented her a hundred and fifty slaves in fetters, he told her with his eyes, that he was not insensible of her charms; while Imoinda, who wished for nothing more than so glorious a conquest, was pleased to believe she understood that silent language of new-born love… (Behn 16-17)

In this passage, Imoinda is described as gaining control over Oroonoko in such a way that calls to mind British conquests of various native peoples. Behn goes on to describe Imoinda’s “eternal empire over [Oroonoko]” (18). These comparisons between the relationship between Imoinda and Oroonoko are coupled with frequent allusions to virtue and morals. Oroonoko is described as an honorable hero who “knew no vice” (17), while Imoinda is “female to the noble male, the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars, as charming in her person as he, and of delicate virutes” (16). The young lovers clearly feel passionately for one another, but they do not allow their feelings to prevent them from going about their union properly. The narrator describes a “certain ceremony” which mandates that “the grandfather was to be first made acquainted with the design; for they pay a most absolute resignation to the monarch, especially when he is a parent also” (18). This respect for tradition demonstrates Imoinda and Oroonoko’s moral integrity, and effectively portrays the two as honorable characters.

Based on Oroonoko, it would seem that Aphra Behn was not opposed to slavery in and of itself. She seems to have believed that there were benefits to slavery, and while Oroonoko illustrates the gruesome experiences of one slave in particular, Behn did not appear to be calling for an end to slavery all together. Rather, she effectively called attention to the fact that there are proper ways to go about the slave trade. I think that Behn’s use of the discourse of conquest in her descriptions of Imoinda and Oroonoko’s relationship demonstrates this notion. Imoinda “gained a perfect conquest over [Oroonoko]”, but the pair was prepared to follow the appropriate steps to ensure that their union was consummated legitimately. This union is ultimately destroyed by other characters who are deceitful and who fail to honor the traditional customs of war.

 

Works Cited:

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Ed. Janet Todd. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.