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by Aphra Behn
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was a prolific dramatist of the English Restoration, one of the first renown female writers in English, who also worked as some sort of government spy in the Netherlands.
I do not pretend to entertain the reader with a feigned hero, whose adventures I can manage according to my fancy. Of many of the events here set down, I was an eye-witness, and what I did not see myself, I learnt from the mouth of Oroonoko. When I made his acquaintance I was living in that part of our South American colony called Surinam, which we lately ceded to the Dutch - a great mistake, I think, for the land was fertile, and the natives were friendly, and many Englishmen had set up sugar plantations, which they worked by means of negroes. Most of these slaves came from that part of Africa known as Coromantien. The Coromantiens, being very warlike, were continually fighting other nations, and they always had many captives ready to be sold as slaves to our planters.
The king of Coromantien was a hundred years of age. All his sons had fallen in battle, and only one of them had left behind him an heir. Oroonoko, as the young prince was called, was a very intelligent and handsome negro, and as his grandfather engaged a Frenchman of wit and learning to teach him, he received an education better than that of many European princes. This I can speak of from my own knowledge, as I have often conversed with him. He had a great admiration for the ancient Romans; and in everything but the colour of his skin he reminded me of those heroes of antiquity.
His nose was finely curved, and his lips, too, were well shaped, instead of being thick as those of most Africans are. As the king of Coromantien, by reason of his great age, was unable to bear arms, he entrusted his chief headman with the duty of training Oroonoko in the arts of war. For two years, the young prince was away fighting with a powerful inland nation; the chief headman was killed in a fierce battle, and Oroonoko succeeded him in the command of the army. He was then only seventeen years of age, but he quickly brought the long war to a successful conclusion, and returned home with a multitude of captives. The greater part of these he gave to his grandfather, and the rest he took to Imoinda, the daughter and only child of the chief headman, as trophies of her father's victories.
Imoinda was a marvellously beautiful girl; her features, like those of Oroonoko, were regular and noble, and more European than African. It was a case of love at first sight on both sides, and the young prince presented the lovely maiden with a hundred and fifty slaves, and returned home in a fever of passion. It was necessary for him to obtain his grandfather's consent to his marriage, but for some days he was so perplexed by the flood of strange, new feelings surging in his young heart that he remained silent and moody.
His followers, however, were loud in their praises of Imoinda. They extolled her ravishing charms even in the presence of the old king, so that nothing else was talked of but Imoinda. Oroonoko's love rapidly became too strong for him to control, and one night he went secretly to the house of his beloved, and wooed her with such fervency of soul that even she was astonished by it. It was the savage custom of his country for a king to have a hundred wives, as his grandfather had; but Oroonoko was an enlightened and chivalrous man.
"Never, Imoinda," he cried, "shall you have a rival. You are the only woman I shall love, the only woman I shall marry. Come, my darling, and let us try and raise our people up by our example."
Imoinda was naturally overjoyed to become the wife of so noble and cultivated a prince, and she waited the next morning in a state of delicious excitement for Oroonoko to return and claim her as his bride. But, to her dismay and horror, four headmen with their servants came at daybreak to her house with a royal veil. This is a rudely embroidered cloth which the king of Coromantien sends to any lady whom he has a mind to make his wife. After she is covered with it, the maid is secured for the king's otan, or harem, and it is death to disobey the royal summons.
Trembling and almost fainting, Imoinda was compelled to suffer herself to be covered and led away to the old king. His imagination had been excited by the wild way in which the followers of his grandson had praised the beauty of the maiden, and, carried away by unnatural jealousy, he had resolved, in a fit of madness, to possess her at all costs. In spite of all he had heard, he was amazed by her loveliness. Rising up from his throne, he came towards her with outstretched arms.
"I am already married," she cried, bursting into tears and throwing herself at his feet. "Do not dishonour me! Let me return to my own house."
"Who has dared to marry the daughter of my chief headman without my consent?" said the old king, his eyes rolling in anger. "Whoever he is, he shall die at once."
Imoinda began to fear for Oroonoko, and tried to undo the effect of her words.
"He - he is not exactly my husband yet," she stammered. "But, oh, I love him! I love him! And I have promised to marry him."
"That's nothing," said the king, his eyes now lighting up with pleasure. "You must be my wife."
In the afternoon, Oroonoko, who had gone in search of Imoinda, returned. Having heard that she had received the royal veil, he came in so violent a rage that his men had great trouble to save him from killing himself.
"What can I do?" he cried desperately. "Even if I slew my grandfather, I could not now make Imoinda my wife."
By the custom of the country, it would have been so great a crime to marry a woman whom Us grandfather had taken that Oroonoko's people would probably have risen up against him. But one of his men pointed out that, as Imoinda was his lawful wife by solemn contract, he was really the injured man, and might, if he would, take her back - the breach of the law being on his grandfather's side. Thereupon, the young prince resolved to recover her, and in the night he entered the otan, or royal harem, by a secret passage, and made his way to the apartment of Imoinda. Had he found the old king there, he no doubt would have killed him; but, happily, the lovely maid was alone, and quietly sleeping in her bed. He softly awakened her, and she trembled with joy and fear at his boldness. But they had not been long together when a sudden noise was heard and a band of armed men with spears burst into the room.
"Back!" shouted the young prince, lifting up his battle-axe. "Back, all of you! Do you not know Oroonoko?"
"Yes," said one of the men. "The king has sent us to take you, dead or alive."
But when Oroonoko attacked them, they allowed him to fight his way out of the otan, but tore the maid from his arms and took her to the king. The old man was blind with rage, and, seizing a spear, he staggered to his feet, determined to kill her by his own hand. But Imoinda was in no mood to die. She knew that her lover had fled to his camp, and intended to return at the head of a large army and rescue her by main force. If she could only calm the anger of the old king for a few days, all would be well. So, with the guile of a woman, she flung herself at the king's feet, protesting in a flood of tears, that Oroonoko had broken into her room and taken her by force.
"Very well," said the old king, with a cruel look in his eyes, "I will forgive you. Having received the royal veil, you cannot marry my grandson. On the other hand, since he has entered your room, you cannot remain any longer in the otan. You must be sent out of the country."
And early the next morning some of his servants were commanded to dress her so that she could not be recognised, and then she was carried down to the shore and sold to the captain of a slave ship.
The king did not dare to tell his grandson that he had sold Imoinda as a slave, for the Coromantiens justly reckon slavery as something worse than death; so he sent a messenger to say that she was dead. At first, Oroonoko was minded to attack his grandfather, but better feelings prevailed; and he led his army against a hostile nation, resolved to perish on the battlefield. So desperate was his courage that he defeated his far more numerous foes, and took a great multitude of them captives. Many of these he sold to the captain of a slave-ship, then lying off Coromantien. When the bargain was concluded, the captain invited the prince and all his attendants to a banquet on board his ship, and so plied them with wine that, being unaccustomed to drink of this sort, they were overcome by it.
When Oroonoko recovered his senses, he found himself chained up in a dark room, and all his men were groaning in fetters around him. The cunning slave-dealer had got out of paying for his cargo of slaves, and increased their number by carrying off the young prince and his companions. This was how I came to meet Oroonoko. The unscrupulous slave-dealer brought him to Surinam, and sold him and seventeen of his followers to our overseer, a young Cornishman named Trefry.
Trefry, a man of great wit and fine learning, was attracted by the noble bearing of Oroonoko, and treated him more as a friend than as a servant. And when, to his great astonishment, he found that the young prince was his equal in scholarship, and could converse with him in English, French, and Spanish, he asked him how it was he had become a slave. Oroonoko then related the story of the slave-dealer's treachery, and Trefry was so moved by it that he promised to find the means to free him from slavery and enable him to return to Coromantien.
When Oroonoko arrived at our plantation, all our negroes left off work and came to see him. When they saw that he was really the great prince of Coromantien, who had conquered them in battle and sold them into slavery, they cast themselves at his feet, crying out in their own language: "Live, O king! Long live, O king!" They kissed his feet and paid him divine homage - for such is the nature of this people, that instead of bearing him any grudge for selling them into captivity, they were filled with awe and veneration for him.
Mr. Trefry was glad to find Oroonoko's statement of his royal rank confirmed by the adoration of all the slaves.
"There's one girl," he said, "who did not come to greet you. I am sure you will be delighted to find you have so beautiful a subject. If it is possible for anyone to console you for the loss of Imoinda, she will do so. To tell the truth, I've been in love with her myself, but I found that I could not win her."
"I do not want to see her," said Oroonoko. "If I go back to Coromantien, I will not take any woman with me. I vowed to Imoinda that I would never have any wife but her, and, though she is dead, I shall keep my vow."
The next morning Trefry took Oroonoko for a walk, and by design brought him to the house of the beautiful slave.
"Clemene," he said, "did you not hear that one of the princes of your people arrived in Surinam yesterday? However you may fly from all white men, you surely ought to pay some respect to him."
Oroonoko started when a girl came out, with her head bowed down as if she had resolved never to raise her eyes again to the face of a man.
"Imoinda! Imoinda!" Oroonoko cried after a moment's silence. "Imoinda!"
It was she. She looked up at the sound of his voice, and then tottered and fell down in a swoon, and Oroonoko caught her in his arms. By degrees she came to herself; and it is needless to tell with what transport, what ecstasies of joy, the lovers beheld each other. Mr. Trefry was infinitely pleased by this happy conclusion of the prince's misadventures; and, leaving the lovers to themselves, he came to Parham House, and gave me an account of all that had happened. In the afternoon, to the great joy of all the negroes, Oroonoko and Imoinda were married. I was invited to the wedding, and I assured Oroonoko that he and his wife would be set free as soon as the lord-governor of the colony returned to Surinam.
Unhappily, the lord-governor was delayed for some months in the islands, and Oroonoko became impatient. After the trick played upon him by the captain of the slave-ship, he had become exceedingly suspicious of the honesty and good faith of white men. He was afraid that the overseer would keep him and his wife until their child was born, and make a slave of it. At last, he grew so moody and sullen that many persons feared that he would incite the negroes to a mutiny. In order to soothe the prince, I invited him and Imoinda to stay at my house, where I entertained them to the best of my ability.
"Surely," I said to him, "you do not suspect that we will break our word with you? Only wait patiently, my friend, till the lord-governor arrives, and you will be permitted to return to your own kingdom."
"You do not understand," Oroonoko replied. "I am angry with myself for remaining so long a slave. What! Do you white people think that I, the king of Coromantien, can be treated like the captives that I have taken in war and sold to you? Had it not been for Imoinda, I would long since have been free or dead."
Unfortunately, both for me and Oroonoko, my father, who had been appointed lieutenant-general of the West Indies and Guiana, died at sea on his way to Surinam, and the new lord-governor was long in arriving. In the meantime, a child was born to Imoinda, and all the negroes, to the number of 300, came together to celebrate the event. Oroonoko, beside himself with anger, because his child had been born into slavery, made a harangue to the assembled multitude.
"Why should we be slaves to these white men?" he cried. "Have they conquered us nobly in battle? Are we become their captives by the chance of war? No! We have been bought and sold, like monkeys or cattle, to a set of cowards and rogues who have been driven out of their own country by reason of their villainy! Shall we let vile creatures such as these flog us and bruise us as they please?"
"No, no!" shouted the negroes. "Be our king, Oroonoko, and make us a free nation!"
Thereupon he commanded them to seize what arms they could, and tie up everything they wanted in their hammocks, and sling these over their shoulders, and march out, with their wives and children. The next morning, when the overseers went to call their slaves up to work, they found they had fled. By noon, 600 militiamen set out in search of the fugitives. The negroes were forced to travel slowly by reason of their women and children; and at the end of two days the militiamen, led by the new lord-governor, caught them up and surrounded them. In the battle that ensued, several Englishmen were killed and a great many wounded; but as they outnumbered the negroes, and were much better armed, they defeated them. Even then Oroonoko would not surrender. But the lord-governor parleyed with him, and promised that he would give him and his wife and child a free passage to Coromantien in the first ship that touched on the coast.
On this, Oroonoko surrendered. But, to his horror and surprise, he was taken back to Surinam, and tied to a stake at the whipping-place, and lashed until the very flesh was torn from his bones. His captors then bound him in chains, and cast him into a prison. From this, however, he was at last rescued by Mr. Trefry. But the shame and the torture had unhinged his fine mind. He led Imoinda and his child into a forest, and asked his wife whether she would prefer to remain the slave of the white devils, or die at once by his hand. Imoinda begged him rather to kill her, and Oroonoko did so. But, instead of putting an end to himself, the prince determined to die fighting. He turned back from the forest, fiercely resolved to search out the lord-governor, and slay him; but, falling into the hands of the militiamen, he was killed in a very horrible manner.
I can only say that this negro was the noblest and gentlest man I ever met. It needs more genius than I possess to praise him as he deserves; yet I hope the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his name survive to all ages, with that of the beautiful, brave, and constant Imoinda.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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