Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

Caesar gathers all the black men and gives them a rousing speech about how terrible it is to be a slave, worse than a beast of burden. The whites enslaved them and they have no right to do it, because they did not vanquish them in a war, but simply bought them. Another slave, named Tuscan, notices that it is thanks to Caesar that many of them are slaves in the first place. Just kidding. Of course nobody notices such a thing and the novel forgets about this issue entirely. Instead, Tuscan says that they have wives and children too, and Caesar answers that they are going to take them along, unless any woman is so depraved that she’d rather stay behind than follow her husband, she deserves her lot. The plan is rather peaceful – they simply want to run away and establish a settlement of their own at the seaside, where they are going to live, counting on a stray ship to carry them home.They all go home, tell their wives to pack their hammocks and children, and they leave at night. On Monday morning the overseers find the huts empty. Surprisingly, other whites are not in a hurry to pursue the escapees, although such cases set a bad example for other slaves. But they are really fond of Caesar and they think he was ill-used, so some of them might be even secretly helping him. The deputy governor William Byam, about whom the narrator is very critical, is now “the only violent man against him”, even though previously he was making up to him like crazy. He leads a very ill-equipped army against him and Trefry goes with him as a mediator, because he’s afraid the Negroes will rather take their own life than surrender.

Advertisements

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

The travellers are introduced to the Indian Peeie, or shaman and the narrator describes the tricks through which he “heals” people. He is a sixteen-year-old man, and has an even younger wife. When he sees the narrator’s brother kiss his wife (as a greeting, not in a sexual way), he kisses the narrator, and then he kisses his wife, and they find this new custom awfully funny. At least I think that’s what happened, because Behn uses some very convoluted syntax here. Caesar wants to meet the Indian war captains, and the travellers are introduced to them, but they look very scary, with nose or ears or lips missing. It is explained that in order to become the next war captain, they engage in some competitive self-mutilation and some even die in the process of showing how brave they are. The travellers also meet some Indians from other parts of the country, who have gold powder with them and they seem to be suicidally willing to guide the white people to the rivers where it can be found. The whites are of course very excited but the Governor forbids by letters anybody to go there and sets a guard at the mouth of the Amazon (which of course is a blunder on Behn’s part, because the Amazon doesn’t flow anywhere near Surinam). But before a systematic gold-exploring party can be organized, Surinam is lost to the Dutch.

When Imoinda grows big with child, she becomes more and more worried that the freedom which is so difficult for the two of them to obtain will be even mor unattainable when there are three of them. Caesar has a plan but he has spies upon him – white tradesmen and people who are indentured as unpaid labour for their crimes for a fixed period of time and who live among “Negroes”. He waits until one Sunday when all these men are drunk, gathers blacks around him and arms them.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

Another exploit of Caesar’s is connected with the electric eel, or as the narrator calls it, “the numb eel”. Not knowing much about electricity, she explains the fact that the eel, when caught on the rod, can paralyze the rod-holder, by its being extremely cold. Caesar doesn’t believe these stories at the beginning. When finally he catches one, instead of throwing the rod away or pulling the fish out as soon as possible, he experimentally tries to hold it as long as he can to see what happens. This empirical spirit could have brought him to a sticky end, as it did for many scientists in the past. He faints and falls into the river, out of which he is fortunately fished out by some Indians. He is a bit sheepish when he is brought home and resuscitated, but regains his good humour when they all dine on the eel.

Next section is about an encounter with Indians, and here the narrative gets a bit confusing. First the narrator claims they were at this point in great fear of Indian attack because of “some disputes” and so they are afraid to go and visit any Indian towns. But then, when she describes her encounter, the Indians are portrayed as very curious about white men, whom they have never seen before, and not at all aggressive. So something doesn’t add up. It all starts with the narrator bemoaning that she can’t go and see Indians, in whom she was very interested. Caesar offers to be their guard and so the whole group of whites gets on the barge and sail up the river. They pick up one fisherman, a white man who has gone native and even his skin is so tanned he looks like an Indian. When they approach the actual settlement, most of their group get cold feet, so the only ones who decided to go there are the narrator, her brother, her maid, Caesar and the fisherman/interpreter. In order to surprise the Indians more, the first three go alone while Caesar and the fisherman hide in the bushes. (What a stupid idea.) The Indians are suitably surprised, touching the newcomers’ bodies and their fine clothes. (The narrator explains that they all were dressed very fine, because it’s the most suitable thing in hot countries. What?) When Caesar and the interpreter, whom the Indians know because of their trade with him, emerge from the bushes, they ask him many questions about the whites, like whether they can swim, they can hunt, or they are reasonable human beings. The interpreter confirms all that and the Indians take them to their village, where they prepare a nice dinner for them, although they tend to overuse pepper a bit. The narrator observes that they could be easily brought to believe in any religion, because when they saw her relative burning a piece of paper with the aid of an optical lens, they hold him for a great prophet and they ask him “to give them the characters or figures of his name” which they are going to use as an amulet against bad weather. I’m not sure if I understand it correctly and the Indians asked the white man to write his name for them, and if it’s the correct interpretation, how they came to know what writing is in the first place.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

A rather slow section starts describing various forms of (ethically questionable) entertainment provided for the narrator and her company. After her arrival she moved into the best house in the neighbourhood, called St John’s Hill, and we get a long description of how delightful the area was, with the river murmuring down under the scarp, the delightful orange grove nearby etc. One of their favourite pastimes was stealing “tigers'” (meaning probably jaguars’ or cougars’) cubs from their dens. One day they were caught by the female returning from the hunt. While the ladies scampered, Caesar calmly borrowed a sword from the other man present, “brother to Harry Martin , the great Oliverian” and as she lunges at him, pierces her through the heart, after which he calmly picks up the cub and lays it down at the feet of the ladies. No hint of what happened to the baby later, and what the point of this game was except for the fun of having a wild kitten around (probably just for a few days before it died). Also, I thought that for Behn the name of Henry Marten, a regicide, would be an anathema and in no context would she call a man like him “great”, but maybe that’s a nuance of 17th c. politics I am missing here. Also, Captain George Martin did die in Surinam in 1667, which corroborates Behn’s claim of having been there. Another feat of Caesar’s hunting skills is when he kills another “tiger” with his bow and arrow when she is feeding. The “tiger” ravaged local flocks and many other hunters had tried to kill her before, as proven by what Caesar finds when he dissects her: seven bullets in her heart, which is covered in old scars, showing that she lived for quite some time with them. Throughout these descriptions, Behn keeps on using interchangeably “he” and “she” when referring to the beasts. The Helpful Footnote thinks maybe it’s because she can’t bring herself to associate female pronouns with fierce beasts.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

After the joyous reunion Caesar and Clemene are married and soon after that Clemene is pregnant. Caesar is overjoyed, but also increasingly impatient to be set free. The English keep on promising him that he is going to be set free as soon as the Lord Governor arrives, and he promises them vast amounts of gold and slaves for his ransom. (So much for being this an anti-slavery text.) But he starts to get suspicious, believing that they want to keep him and his child when it is born. The narrator is responsible to keep him and Clemene entertained, and they spend much time together on conversations about the ancient Romans, the narrator showing Clemene new crocheting techniques and the like. She also tells her “stories of nuns”, trying to convert them both to Christianity (which probably led to the hypothesis that Behn was Catholic). But Caesar is not a convert material and he can’t wrap his head around the doctrine of Trinity. The narrator also tries to appease Caesar, telling him that if he shows his dissatisfaction, the English are going to be afraid of him, thinking that he is going to start a mutiny, and then he is going to be imprisoned. This doesn’t help to improve his mood, although he swears he would never raise his hand even against the most hated white man in the area. They try to keep Caesar entertained by providing him opportunities for various sports and hunting, but it’s still too little to keep a man like him happy, because he’s been accustomed to a very active life. After that the narrator makes a digression about herself and she finally explains what her role in that country is. Her father was made the lieutenant governor of several islands off the coast of Surinam, but he died on his way there and she, his daughter, was going just to spend a short time in Surinam before presumably heading back home. She gives us a long description of all the exotic glories of South America, how it stretches probably from China to Peru (!), is a land of eternal spring, where trees bloom and give fruit at the same time, and also yield precious tinder, sweet-smelling resins and so on. She believes that if the late King (probably meaning Charles II) had known what a wonderful place it is, he would never have parted with it so easily to the Dutch. Oh, and armadillo meat is apparently delicious.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

The next day Trefry takes Caesar on a walk which accidentally/on purpose is past Clemene’s house, while telling him that he should not even look at her because he is going to fall in love with her like everybody else. Caesar assures him that his heart belongs to Imoinda only and if he should fall in love with somebody else, he’d rather tear it out of his breast. At this moment Clemene’s pet dog runs out of her house (she is rather like Marie Antoinette playing the shepherdess, isn’t she?) and she rushes out to catch him. Trefry catches her hand and tells her that even if she avoids him, she should at least pay some respect to the stranger, meaning Caesar, but she looks on the ground. Nevertheless, Caesar immediately recognizes her as Imoinda, and Imoinda despite her eyes being fixed on the ground must have recognized him too, because she faints. He catches her in his arms, she comes round and they are transported with joy and mutual assurances of love. Trefry rushes back to Parham House to tell the narrator about this unexpected turn of events and she goes back with him to see Oroonoko, whose story she already heard from his own mouth and from his French governor. All are very happy and now they are going to pay Imoinda “a treble respect”, because they already guessed she must be a member of nobility because her body is covered with ornamental scarification. The narrator here explains that it is the custom of Oroonoko’s culture to decorate the bodies of nobility in this way: some, like Caesar, have just a small flower or bird on their temples, while others have their torsos completely covered in them, like ancient Picts. Two things notable here: firstly Imoinda’s extreme modesty, which is supposed to be a signifier of her nobility, like the extreme sensitivity of the Princess to the pea in Andersen’s story. It’s very problematic for the modern reader, because it implies other female slaves do not deserve this kind of respect just by being human. Second observation, more favourable to Behn: she does not respond with repulsion to exotic scarification, but rather admires it, comparing it to Japanese lacquerwork and lace.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

When they reach the plantation, Oroonoko (or rather Caesar, since that’s what the narrator is going to call him now) spends some time in the big house, where he receives visitors who come to admire him. Finally he goes to his hut, which was assigned to him as well as his field and his work, but the narrator emphasizes it’s just pure formality. When the slaves working there recognize him as the man who sold many of them, they… wait for it.. greet him joyously, falling on their faces, “from a veneration they pay to a great man”! I know Behn was a firm supporter of the Stuarts, but this is beyond ridiculous. So this is not an anti-slavery story after all, but a story about how you should always fawn to the kings because they are better than you just because they are kings. All the slaves club their resources together and throw Caesar a big party. During the party Trefry tells him about this one slave they call Clemene, about fifteen or sixteen years old, in who all the slaves and he himself are madly in love, but she disdains them all. She also doesn’t have to do any work because there is always an admirer willing to do it pro bono for her. This plantation is really like something from a pastoral romance. Caesar does ask a more realistic question about why Treffry didn’t rape her, but he answers that he tried but “she disarms me with that modesty and weeping, so tender and so moving that I retire, and thank my stars she overcame me.” I am not sure if Behn is trying to say that slaves who are raped are simply not as modest as Imoinda (because who can doubt it’s her?) or that Treffry is an exceptionally decent slave overseer. I hope the lattter, because then she writes other men “laughed at his civility to a slave”. But then she writes a highly problematic line about how Caesar praises Treffry because “that slave might be noble, or, what was better, have true notions of honour and decency in her”. Which implies that the women who are a. not noble or b. not have true notions of honour and decency (and how does one measure it?) are fair game.