Ethical Issues in Oroonoko: Slavery
For years, man has illustrated his willingness to perform injustices to those weaker than he. From the bully in the schoolyard, to the king and his court, it seems that man has a desire to control and dominate others. Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn, illustrates that slavery is unethical, humiliating, demoralizing, and worse than death. Oroonoko is a powerful story about the tribulations of a gallant prince named Oroonoko. Throughout the novel, he is shown to be a brave prince and a friend to many. He is given command over an army and shows his military and strategical prowess by winning his battles and conquering his enemies. In the beginning of the novel, the prince presents Imoinda, the daughter of his foster father, with a gift of slaves that had been captured in his victorious battles. For Oroonoko, slavery was accepted and part of his daily life. However, in the novel, Behn presents slavery as a controversial and central issue towards the downfall of Oroonoko. Is it ethical to enslave another human and own them like a piece of property? What does the novel say about an issue such as slavery? The book, in fact, condemns this type of horrific behavior. She illustrates this issue by showing that slavery is demoralizing and humiliating to the people who are involuntary subjected to this kind of torment.
In the beginning of the story, Behn describes the native people of Surinam, a colony in the West Indies, as beautiful, respectable, and friendly. Behn says, "for those we live with in perfect amity, without daring to command 'em; but, on the contrary, caress 'em with all the brotherly and friendly affection in the world." The natives are very useful to immigrants who came from other areas of the world into Surinam. Behn thought of them as being helpful because she could learn their culture and their everyday style of life. Behn finds it, "Necessary to caress 'em as friends, and not to treat 'em as slaves." Here, Behn says that treating the people of Surinam as slaves is improper and immoral. She says that friends should not be enslaved because they are helpful and caring. Through this effect, Behn considers slavery as an unethical issue.
In the novel, Behn displays slavery as an issue that is associated with misery and torment. This occurs when the prince encounters the English captain who deceitfully places Oroonoko and others in captivity. Oroonoko is portrayed in a state of suffering when he is enslaved, "We were no sooner arrived but we went up to the plantation to see Caesar; whom we found in a very miserable and unexpressable condition; and I have a thousand times admired how he lived in so much tormenting pain protesting our innocency of the fact, and our abhorrence of such cruelties." While Oroonoko is at the plantation, his attitude is different from when he was the commander of the army. He is miserable, sad, and in a position with less power than he had before. In conjunction with the misery that is involved with slavery, the actions that coincide with a slave such as whippings are also condemned in the novel, "No, I would not kill myself, even after a whipping, but will be content to live with that infamy, and be pointed at by every grinning slave." Behn depicts a slave as someone one who is mentally and physically humiliated. In general, public humiliation is and torment is an unethical issue and Behn's portrayal of misery, humility, and torment proves that slavery is immoral Oroonoko.
In Oroonoko, Behn creates a mindset that favors death over slavery. One situation in the novel where slavery is condemned is when the king threatens to send Imoinda off to another country to be sold as slaves. "He ought to have had so much value and consideration for a maid of her quality as to have nobly put her to death, and not to have sold her like a common slave; the greatest revenge, and the most disgraceful of any, and to which they a thousand times prefer death." She states that slavery is the perfect revenge against someone who has deceived another. The king orders, that "they should be both sold off as slaves to another country, either Christian or heathen, 'twas no matter where. This cruel sentence, worse than death, they implored might be reversed." After constantly repeating the idea of someone preferring death many times over slavery in the novel, Behn shows the reader that slavery is unethical.
In conclusion, Behn shows that enslaving a friend is wrong, and that slavery brings about humiliation, torture, and grief. Behn uses the morbid effects of slavery to the extent when she categorizes slavery as being many times worse than death. Using these techniques, Behn gives an immoral connotation to slavery in Oroonoko.