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Definition: Oroonoko from Chambers Dictionary of Literary Characters

The grandson and heir of an African king, he loves and is loved by Imoinda, the daughter of his grandfather's general. Yet the king also loves her, and on discovering their affair, orders that she be sold as a slave. For his part, Oroonoko is captured by English slave-traders and taken to Surinam, where the lovers are reunited. Given the slave-name of Caesar, Oroonoko leads an unsuccessful revolt. The proud Imoinda chooses to die at his hands; he is discovered beside her body and executed. Oroonoko represents both true royal nobility, faith in love, and a moral consistency which, although ruthless, is higher than that of his so-called white superiors.

Summary Article: OROONOKO
from Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko; or The Royal Slave (1688) is a heroic tragedy, courtly romance, and travel narrative all rolled into one. Oroonoko is a slave of noble birth, a king, who falls victim to the tragedy of British slavery and racism. Though Oroonoko is enslaved, he never loses his royal dignity nor his essence of virtue, even in the face of his enslavement. Oroonoko loves the beautiful Imoinda, who he eventually murders. He is betrayed by his own people and meets a bloody and tragic end. As the executioner cuts off parts of his body, Oroonoko calmly smokes a pipe until he “gave up the Ghost, without a Groan, or a Reproach.”

Oroonoko explores themes of human nobility, slavery, and European inhumanity to African slaves. Though her hero is black, Behn emphasizes he is a person of “quality.” Behn’s Oroonoko is one of the first attempts to portray the lives of African characters from an African point of view, and one of the first attempts to explore the contradictions between human dignity and European racism.

  • Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Catherine Gallagher, ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000.
  • Lipking, Joanna. Oroonoko: An Authoritative Text, Historical Background, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
  • Debbie Clare Olson

    Copyright © 2008 by ABC-CLIO, Inc.

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