Among the many productions of the prolific pen of Mrs. Behn, this tale occupies a unique place. Most of her other works were exceedingly imaginative poems, or else novels and plays of a very light and somewhat coarse character, intended to amuse the fops and rakes of the court of Charles II. But in the tragic narrative of The Royal Slave she allowed the emotions of a warm and sympathetic heart to pour themselves out freely in an endeavor to arouse public indignation against the unspeakable barbarities endured by the bondmen of British Colonies, chronicling in all its horrors, as she does, the dreadful sufferings of one of its most notable victims. In tracing the pedigree of modern “novels with a purpose,” such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Ramona, the moving tale of Oroonoko must be counted as among the earliest of the kind. Its evident purpose to awaken the Christian people of England to the horrors of slavery in lands under their own government, and the author’s warm and womanly sympathy with the despised black men, well justifies the compliment that has been paid Oroonoko of being “the first humanitarian novel in English.” Moreover, in an epoch when purely imaginative romance was the fashion of the day, Mrs. Behn in Oroonoko made a noticeable departure toward the field of realism. She assured her readers over and over that this pathetic story of the Royal Slave is no invention of fancy but a narrative of facts. To a great part of these events she was an eye-witness. For the rest, she had the authority of direct accounts received either from the Royal Slave himself or from her own personal friends. She had herself seen and talked with Oroonoko and Imoinda, and learned to admire and esteem them and often sought to befriend them. The most horrible atrocities of all, the brutalities attending Oroonoko’s execution, had been witnessed by her mother and sister, who had in vain tried to save him. On her return to London she put into literary form the accounts of the African hero which she had collected in Surinam.
GOROMANTIEN was a part of Africa which in the seventeenth century was one of the chief re-sorts of the slave-traders. Its king was a man more than a hundred years old. Thirteen of his sons had died in battle, and he had left for a successor one grandchild, called Oroonoko. This boy was sent into the field to be trained to war as soon as he could bear a bow, and at seventeen he became one of the bravest and most expert of captains.
When he came back from war victorious, and presented himself at court, he became the object of universal admiration. The cleverest sculptor could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot. His face was a perfect ebony, his nose was Roman, and his eyes were the most awe-inspiring that could be seen and very piercing; the white of them being like snow; as were his teeth. Nor did the perfections of his mind come short of his person, for his discourse was admirable upon almost every subject. He spoke English and French with ease. Whoever had heard him speak would have been convinced of their errors that all fine wit is confined to white men, and would have confessed that Oroonoko was as capable of governing wisely, had as great a soul and conceived as statesman-like maxims as any prince civilized in the most refined schools of humanity or the most illustrious courts.
The old General, who had trained Oroonoko in war, had left at his death an only daughter, Imoinda, a beauty who was the lovely black Venus to this young Mars, as charming in person as he, and of delicate virtues. When Oronooko made his first visit to her, he was infinitely surprised at the beauty of this charming Queen of Night. The lovely modesty with which she received him, the softness in her look and sighs gained a perfect conquest over his fierce heart. Having made his first compliments, and presented her with a hundred and fifty slaves in fetters, he told her with his eyes that he was not insensible of her charms. Imoinda was pleased to believe that she under-stood that silent language of new-born love.
Oroonoko stayed not long before he made a second visit; and waited not much longer before he frankly told her he adored her. As he knew no vice, his flame aimed at nothing but honor. Though in that country men take to themselves as many wives as they can maintain, Oroonoko made to Imoinda his vows that she should be the only woman he would possess: that no age nor wrinkles should incline him to change; for her soul would be always fine and young to him. After listening to a thousand assurances of his lasting flame and her eternal empire over him, she condescended to receive him as her husband.
Unfortunately, it was necessary to obtain the consent of the old King, the Prince’s grandfather. But at the report of Imoinda’s surpassing beauty the monarch’s aged heart felt new sparks of love and began to kindle.
And when the King, himself unseen, beheld her charming face, he saw and burned, and would not delay his happiness. No sooner had he returned to his palace than he sent to Imoinda the royal veil, a sign in that country that “the maid who receives it is for the King’s use and ’tis death to disobey.”
The lovely maiden, at this news, was seized with grief, but, almost fainting, she was covered with the veil and led to court. The King sat under a canopy in state, in a very rich bath, to receive this longed-for virgin. Without more courtship, the old monarch bade her throw off her mantle and come to his arms. But Imoinda, all in tears, threw herself on the marble brink of the bath, and tremblingly told him she was already another’s, through the interchange of the most solemn vows. But as she assured him also, for fear of his vengeance upon Oroonoko, that she was still a maid, the King put her among his other wives in his Otan or seraglio. Although forced at last to yield her lovely person to the withered arms of the impotent old King, she could only sigh and weep there, and think of Oroonoko, and oftentimes could not forbear speaking of him.
Through the reports of his officers, and the dissemblance of Oroonoko, the King became convinced after a time that the Prince, his grandson, was no longer a lover of Imoinda. So he took him in his train to the Otan, to banquet with his wives. But when Oroonoko’s eyes, instructed by his passionate heart, exchanged glances with Imoinda’s love-darting orbs, they spoke so affectionately that she no longer doubted that she was the only delight and darling of his soul.
The parley of the eyes of these two lovers had not passed so secretly that an old and jealous sovereign could not detect it.
At the entertainment that night, the royal ladies danced for the diversion of the King. But while Imoinda was beholding with infinite pleasure the joy her motions and graces produced in the eyes of the Prince, regarding him too much, rather than the steps she took, she chanced to fall, and the Prince, leaping up from the carpet where he reclined, clasped her close to his bosom and quite forgot the reverence that was due to the mistress of a king. The monarch, in a jealous rage, led Imoinda to her apartment and ordered Oroonoko to go to the camp.
But the Prince felt that he could not depart till he had seen his beloved once more. By the clever management of his friend Aboan, assisted by a former mistress of the old King, Onahal by name, Oroonoko was led through the citron-grove to the apartment of Imoinda in the sacred precincts of the Otan. The Prince softly awakened Imoinda, who was surprised with joy, and yet trembled with a thousand fears. Beyond imagination was the satisfaction of the two young lovers thus to meet, and beyond expression were the transports of Oroonoko as he listened to the charming assurances that came from the lips of his beloved that fate had allowed her to keep herself for him and him alone. Amid a thousand caresses, both be-moaned the hard fate of youth and beauty. But while they were thus fondly employed, they heard a great noise in the Otan. Spies had tracked the Prince to the forbidden quarters of the seraglio. Oroonoko seized his battle-ax, rushed to the door, and with a commanding voice called out that he, the Prince Oroonoko, would revenge with death the entrance of any rude intruder. “Stand back and know that this place is sacred to love and me to-night. To-morrow, ’tis the King’s!”
Having ascertained the Prince’s identity, the King’s officers withdrew, and Oroonoko fled. The old King bitterly reproached Imoinda, who, falling in tears at his feet, implored his pardon for a fault which she had not with her will committed. The aged monarch, enraged, ordered Imoinda and her companion, Onahal, to be sold as slaves to some other country, whether Christian or heathen he cared not. This cruel sentence, reckoned in that country as worse than death, was immediately and secretly carried out, in spite of the poor victim’s prayers, and no one within or without the seraglio knew their fate.
When the King had thus wreaked his revenge on the women for the insult to himself, his anger toward his grandson cooled. He sent word to Oroonoko by a messenger that Imoinda was dead. For two long days, in the very face of the enemy, Oroonoko lay prostrate in his tent, overwhelmed with grief, declaring that henceforth he would never lift a weapon but would abandon the small remains of his life to sighs and tears.
But when his army was driven back in disorder, he leaped from his couch and cried : “Come, if we must die, let us meet death the noblest way!” That day he performed such prodigies of reckless valor as to change absolutely the fate of the battle.
After a long time spent in military campaigns, the Prince at last, in obedience to his grandfather’s wishes, returned to court. There he met for the second time a well-bred sea captain with whom he had often trafficked for slaves. The sea captain entertained the Prince daily with globes and maps, mathematical discourses and instruments, and drank and hunted with him with such familiarity that he quite drew to himself the heart of the gallant young man.
Before the captain set sail he gave to the Prince and his train an invitation to a grand banquet on his vessel. On board ship the noblest youths of the court of Coromantien sat down to a splendid feast, and were so well plied with wines that, when the captain gave to his men the signal agreed upon, Oroonoko and all his retinue were easily shackled fast in heavy irons, and, as the vessel sailed off, they found themselves in slavery.
Oroonoko raged and struggled like a lion taken in toils, but all in vain. And when he found he could not turn a hand against either his foes or himself, he lay down and refused all food, firmly resolved to die. The Prince’s followers, also, would touch no food. It seemed as if, through suicide, the captain would lose most of his slaves. In this predicament the captain solemnly promised the Prince, with many oaths and on the word of a Christian, that if he would live and show himself to his followers, he should be freed from his shackles, and with his friends should be set ashore when next the ship touched.
The Prince gave his parole of honor for his good behavior, and, freed from his irons, was conducted to the captain’s own cabin. When he had eaten, he visited his people, repeating the assurances of the captain, and the rest of the voyage was borne by all in hope and patience.
But when the ship reached the mouth of the river of Surinam, a colony of England, later known as Dutch Guiana, Oroonoko and his noble attendants learned at once how little trust could be put in any slave-trader’s oaths. For they found themselves seized and sold as slaves to the various merchants and overseers who had come down to meet the slave-ship. It was in vain to make any resistance to this base treachery. But with such disdainful looks did Oroonoko upbraid the slave-captain that blushes rose to his guilty cheeks; and as the Prince passed over the side of the ship he cried : “Farewell, sir ! ‘Tis worth my sufferings to gain so true a knowledge both of you and of your gods by whom you swear. Come, my fellow-slaves; let us descend, and see if we can meet with more honor and honesty in the next world which we shall touch upon.”
When at length Oroonoko had made the journey up the great river to his master’s plantation, and had been conducted to the quarters assigned him among the negroes’ cabins, the slaves, as soon as they beheld him, recognized him as the Prince who had at various times sold most of them to the traders, and, in accordance with the veneration which they pay to their great men, they all cast themselves at his feet, crying out in their language, “Long live, 0 King!” and kissing his feet, paid him even divine homage. But the Prince, troubled with their joy, bade them rise and receive him as their fellow-slave.
At a grand supper which his fellow-negroes soon afterward held in his honor, Oroonoko, in the course of conversation, heard the most glowing accounts of a most charming black woman who had recently come to this neighborhood. Clemene, as she was called, had all the slaves perpetually at her feet, and no man of any nation or color ever beheld her face that did not fall in love with her. Clemene herself was, however, all ice and unconcern, and her graceful modesty, the most exquisite that ever beautified youth, seemed to fear that even the breezes might steal kisses from her delicate mouth.
The next day, Oroonoko, in the company of his master, met the much-praised Clemene. Her eyes, shyly bent on the ground, gave the Prince the opportunity to take a good look at her face. In a minute he recognized in her his beloved Imoinda. As she fell insensible, overcome with delight, the Prince caught her in his arms; and it is needless to tell with what ecstasies of joy they beheld each other, without speaking; then snatched each other to their arms; then gazed again, as if they still doubted whether they possessed the blessing they grasped, and wondered with tender greetings what strange destiny had brought them together. Although they bewailed their fate, at the same time they mutually protested that even fetters and slavery would be supported with joy while they could be so happy as to possess each other.
From that happy day, Cesar, as his English master had dubbed Oroonoko, took Imoinda for his wife. At the wedding there was as much magnificence as the country and their condition would allow, and it was not long before Cesar, as hence-forth he was called, adored her still more, because of her approaching motherhood. This new accident made him more impatient for liberty; and every day he made an offer of gold or slaves as the price of his freedom.
From day to day he was fed with promise after promise and put off, till the new Governor of Surinam should come. At length he began to fear that the delay was a piece of treachery, and that the matter was purposely postponed until the birth of the child, who would also be a slave. This thought made him uneasy and sullen. To distract his attention, Cesar was diverted with sports, hunting and fishing, and with trips among the Indian tribes, in the course of which he performed most notable feats in the killing of fierce tigers and monstrous snakes. Yet these were not actions great enough for his large soul, which still panted for more renowned actions.
The fear and grief of Imoinda that she and her child might be kept as slaves were like so many darts in the great heart of Cesar. So one Sunday, when all the whites were overcome with liquor, Cesar met about three hundred of his fellow blacks and made an impassioned harangue to them about the ignominies and drudgeries of the state of slavery; sufferings fitter for senseless brutes than for human souls. “An ass or a dog,” he said, “having done his duty, could lie down in retreat, and while he did his duty endured no stripes. But men, such as they, toiled through all the tedious week till Black Friday; and then, whether they were faulty or meritorious, they promiscuously suffered the infamous lash till blood trickled from all parts of their body. We are bought and sold like apes and monkeys, to be the support of rogues and renegades who have abandoned their own countries for rapine, murders, theft, and villanies. Will you suffer the lash from such hands?”
His hearers replied with one accord: “No! No! Cesar has spoken like a great captain, like a great king.”
It was resolved by the company to take their wives and children with them and travel to the sea-shhore, and when they could seize a ship, employ it to transport them to their native land. Even if they died in the attempt, it would be braver than to live in perpetual slavery, With one accord they vowed to follow Cesar even to death; and that very night they furnished themselves with arms, and began the march.
The militia of the colony turned out to pursue the rebellious slaves.. But many of the better sort sympathized with Cesar, as a man who had been ill-used; and the white men who en-gaged in the pursuit were armed only with whips, clubs, or rusty old-fashioned swords and guns of little use. In the battle that followed, Cesar and some of his followers fought most valorously. Imoinda shot the Governor in the shoulder with a poisoned arrowa wound so severe that he barely escaped with his life. But most of the blacks proved a cowardly lot, by nature slaves and fit only for white men’s tools, The women and children lost all sense in their great fear, and, rushing among their own fighters, hung upon them and implored them to yield. At length a parley was begun, in which Byam, the Governor, made the fairest promises that if Cesar would surrender he and and his family should depart free out of the land. Cesar at first refused, declaring that there was no faith in the white men or the gods they adored.
“Though no people profess so much as the Christians,” he said, “none perform so little. When I deal with men of honor I know what I have to do, but with the whites a man ought to be continually on his guard.”
But the solicitations of his followers and friends were so great, and the Governor spoke him so fairly and made such solemn oaths of good treatment, that at length Cesar yielded, taking the precaution, however, to have the agreement ratified by the Governor’s hand in writing. All this was agreed to,
Nevertheless, as soon as Cesar and his chief man-at-arms reached the slave quarters, they were treacherously surprised, bound to stakes, and whipped in the most inhuman manner, so as even to rend the very flesh from the bones. Then, to complete their cruelty, his many wounds were rubbed with Indian pepper, which had like to have made him raving mad.
But worse to him even than the pain was the disgrace he felt that he, a prince, should thus have been whipped. Thence-forth, his one thought was to be revenged on the Governor who had perfidiously inflicted such infamy on him.. Hearing of these threats, the Council condemned Cesar to be hanged. But Cesar’s friend Trefry, on whose plantation Cesar was, denied the Council’s jurisdiction. Cesar’s days meanwhile passed in black designs and melancholy thoughts. He must, he felt, have revenge on the Governor for his unspeakable indignities and treacherous cruelties. But his great heart could not endure the thought of leaving his lovely Imoinda as a prey to the en-raged multitude, exposed to their vile lusts and probably to a shameful death. So one sad day he took Imoinda into a wood, to which in happier days they used to go, and there he opened to her his tragic plan; first to kill her, then to kill his enemies, and next himself. He found the heroic wife readier to plead for death as the only way of escape than he to propose it, and she besought him not to leave her a prey to his enemies.
Embracing her with all the passion of a dying lover, he drew his knife to kill this treasure of his soul. Tears trickled down his cheeks; but she smiled with joy that she should die by so noble a hand.
When the eternal leave-taking of the lovers was ended, the lovely victim laid herself down before the sacrificer, while he, with a hand resolved and a heart breaking within, gave the fatal stroke. As soon as he had done the deed, he laid the body decently on leaves and flowers of which he made a bed, concealing it under a similar coverlid of Nature’s handiwork.
But when he found she was dead, past retrieval, his grief became a raging madness.
A thousand times he turned the fatal knife toward his own heart, with a resolution to follow her at once in death. But the desire of revenge on his foes, now a thousand times more in-tense, prevented him. Then, when he thought how, with his own hand, he had sacrificed the fairest and dearest creature that ever Nature made, grief got the ascendancy. He lay down by her side and watered her face with showers of tears. However bent he was on his intended slaughter of his enemies, he had not power to stir from the sight of his dear love, now more adored than ever. In this terrible state, vacillating between fits of intense remorse, revenge, and despondence, he remained for two days; his eyes and brain dizzy, and all his limbs overcome with a faintness never felt before. Then a party of white pursuers found him and learned the dreadful deed he had committed. While they were hesitating which should venture to attack him, Cesar ripped up his own bowels, lest he be taken alive and again fall a victim to the shameful whip. Nevertheless, he was soon surrounded, and in his weak and mangled condition was caught and carried to his master’s plantation, where a surgeon dressed his wounds and he was given food and cordials, and recovered sufficiently to explain the motives that led him to sacrifice his wife. But while his friends among the whites were away, the Governor and one of his council (re-solved to compass the death of the rebellious slave-leader) seized him, tied him to the whipping-post, had a great fire made before him, and told Cesar he should die like a dog.
Cesar in reply assured his executioner that if “he would keep that word, he was the only man of all the whites that ever he heard speak truth.” To those who threatened him with immediate execution, Oroonoko replied, smiling, “A blessing on thee!” and assured them that they need not tie him, for he would stand fixed like a rock and endure death, so as to en-courage them to die.
Then the executioners, with revolting atrocity, cut off the living flesh and members, piece by piece, and tossed them into the fire, till, without a groan, Oroonoko gave up the ghost. Not even then were the savage slave-owners content, but barbarously cut the dead body into quarters and sent it round to the various plantations in the neighborhood.
“Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate,” a man whose glorious name should “survive to all ages with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda.”