Oroonoko: or The History of the Royal Slave by Aphra Benn

I DO not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with adventures of a feign’d hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet’s pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him: And it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits, and natural intrigues; there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention.

I was myself an eye-witness to a great part of what you will nd here set down; and what I cou’d not be witness of, I receiv’d from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, who gave us the whole transactions of his youth: And though I shall omit, for brevity’s sake, a thousand little accidents of his life, which, however pleasant to us, where history was scarce, and adventures very rare, yet might prove tedious and heavy to my reader, in a world where he nds diversions for every minute, new and strange. But we who were perfectly charm’d with the character of this great man, were curious to gather every circumstance of his life.

The scene of the last part of his adventures lies in a colony in America, called Surinam, in the West-Indies.

But before I give you the story of this gallant slave, ’tis t I tell you the manner of bringing them to these new colonies; those they make use of there, not being natives of the place: 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; trading with them for their sh, venison, buffalo’s skins, and little rarities; as marmosets, a sort of monkey, as big as a rat or weasel, but of a marvellous and delicate shape, having face and hands like a human creature; and cousheries, a little beast in the form and fashion of a lion, as big as a kitten, but so exactly made in all parts like that noble beast, that it is it in minature. Then for little paraketoes, great parrots, muckaws, and a thousand other birds and beasts of wonderful and surprizing forms, shapes, and colours. For skins of prodigious snakes, of which there are some threescore yards in length; as is the skin of one that may be seen at his Majesty’s antiquary’s; where are also some rare ies, of amazing forms and colours, presented to ’em by my self; some as big as my st, some less; and all of various excellencies, such as art cannot imitate. Then we trade for feathers, which they order into all shapes, make themselves little short habits of ’em, and glorious wreaths for their heads, necks, arms and legs, whose tinctures are unconceivable. I had a set of these presented to me, and I gave ’em to the King’s Theatre, and it was the dress of the Indian Queen, in nitely admir’d by persons of quality; and was unimitable. Besides these, a thousand little knacks, and rarities in nature; and some of art, as their baskets, weapons, aprons, &c. We dealt with ’em with beads of all colours, knives, axes, pins and needles; which they us’d only as tools to drill holes with in their ears, noses and lips, where they hang a great many little things; as long beads, bits of tin, brass or silver beat thin, and any shining trinket. The beads they weave into aprons about a quarter of an ell long, and of the same breadth; working them very prettily in owers of several colours; which apron they wear just before ’em, as Adam and Eve did the g-leaves; the men wearing a long stripe of linen, which they deal with us for. They thread these beads also on long cotton-threads, and make girdles to tie their aprons to, which come twenty times, or more, about the waste, and then cross, like a shoulder – belt, both ways, and round their necks, arms, and legs. This adornment, with their long black hair, and the face painted in little specks or owers here and there, makes ’em a wonderful gure to behold. Some of the beauties, which indeed are nely shap’d, as almost all are, and who have pretty features, are charming and novel; for they have all that is called beauty, except the colour, which is a reddish yellow; or after a new oiling, which they often use to themselves, they are of the colour of a new brick, but smooth, soft and sleek. They are extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touch’d. And though they are all thus naked, if one lives for ever among ’em, there is not to be seen an undecent action, or glance: and being continually us’d to see one another so unadorn’d, so like our rst parents before the fall, it seems as if they had no wishes, there being nothing to heighten curiosity; but all you can see, you see at once, and every moment see; and where there is no novelty, there can be no curiosity. Not but I have seen a handsome young Indian, dying for love of a very beautiful young Indian maid; but all his courtship was, to fold his arms, pursue her with his eyes, and sighs were all his language: While she, as if no such lover were present, or rather as if she desired none such, carefully guarded her eyes from beholding him; and never approach’d him, but she look’d down with all the blushing modesty I have seen in the most severe and cautious of our world. And these people represented to me an absolute idea of the rst state of innocence, before man knew how to sin: And ’tis most evident and plain, that simple nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and vertuous mistress. ‘Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world, than all the inventions of man: religion wou’d here but destroy that tranquillity they possess by ignorance; and laws wou’d but teach ’em to know offence, of which now they have no notion. They once made mourning and fasting for the death of the English governor, who had given his hand to come on such a day to ’em, and neither came nor sent; believing, when a man’s word was past, nothing but death cou’d or shou’d prevent his keeping it: And when they saw he was not dead, they ask’d him what name they had for a man who promis’d a thing he did not do? The governor told them, Such a man was a lyar, which was a word of infamy to a gentleman. Then one of ’em reply’d, Governor, you are a lyar, and guilty of that infamy. They have a native justice, which knows no fraud; and they understand no vice, or cunning, but when they are taught by the white men. They have plurality of wives; which, when they grow old, serve those that succeed ’em, who are young, but with a servitude easy and respected; and unless they take slaves in war, they have no other attendants.

Those on that continent where I was, had no king; but the oldest war-captain was obey’d with great resignation.

A war-captain is a man who has led them on to battle with conduct and success; of whom I shall have occasion to speak more hereafter, and of some other of their customs and manners, as they fall in my way.

With these people, as I said, we live in perfect tranquillity, and good understanding, as it behoves us to do; they knowing all the places where to seek the best food of the country, and the means of getting it; and for very small and unvaluable tri es, supply us with that ’tis impossible for us to get: for they do not only in the woods, and over the Sevana’s, in hunting, supply the parts of hounds, by swiftly scouring through those almost impassable places, and by the mere activity of their feet run down the nimblest deer, and other eatable beasts; but in the water, one wou’d think they were gods of the rivers, or fellow-citizens of the deep; so rare an art they have in swimming, diving, and almost living in water; by which they command the less swift inhabitants of the oods. And then for shooting, what they cannot take, or reach with their hands, they do with arrows; and have so admirable an aim, that they will split almost an hair, and at any distance that an arrow can reach: they will shoot down oranges, and other fruit, and only touch the stalk with the dart’s point, that they may not hurt the fruit. So that they being on all occasions very useful to us, we nd it absolutely necessary to caress ’em as friends, and not to treat ’em as slaves, nor dare we do other, their numbers so far surpassing ours in that continent.

Those then whom we make use of to work in our plantations of sugar, are negroes, black slaves all together, who are transported thither in this manner.

Those who want slaves, make a bargain with a master, or a captain of a ship, and contract to pay him so much a-piece, a matter of twenty pound a head, for as many as he agrees for, and to pay for ’em when they shall be deliver’d on such a plantation: So that when there arrives a ship laden with slaves, they who have so contracted, go a-board, and receive their number by lot; and perhaps in one lot that may be for ten, there may happen to be three or four men, the rest women and children. Or be there more or less of either sex, you are obliged to be contented with your lot.

Coramantien, a country of blacks so called, was one of those places in which they found the most advantageous trading for these slaves, and thither most of our great traders in that merchandize traf ck; for that nation is very warlike and brave: and having a continual campaign, being always in hostility with one neighbouring prince or other, they had the fortune to take a great many captives: for all they took in battle were sold as slaves; at least those common men who cou’d not ransom themselves. Of these slaves so taken, the general only has all the pro t; and of these generals our captains and masters of ships buy all their freights. The king of Coramantien was himself a man of an hundred and odd years old, and had no son, tho he had many beautiful black wives: for most certainly there are beauties that can charm of that colour. In his younger years he had had many gallant men to his sons, thirteen of whom died in battle, conquering when they fell; and he had only left him for his successor, one grand-child, son to one of these dead victors, who, as soon as he could bear a bow in his hand, and a quiver at his back, was sent into the eld to be train’d up by one of the oldest generals to war; where, from his natural inclination to arms, and the occasions given him, with the good conduct of the old general, he became, at the age of seventeen, one of the most expert captains, and bravest soldiers that ever saw the eld of Mars: so that he was ador’d as the wonder of all that world, and the darling of the soldiers. Besides, he was adorn’d with a native beauty, so transcending all those of his gloomy race, that he struck an awe and reverence, even into those that knew not his quality; as he did into me, who beheld him with surprize and wonder, when afterwards he arrived in our world.

He had scarce arrived at his seventeenth year, when, ghting by his side, the general was kill’d with an arrow in his eye, which the Prince Oroonoko (for so was this gallant Moor call’d) very narrowly avoided; nor had he, if the general who saw the arrow shot, and perceiving it aimed at the prince, had not bow’d his head between, on purpose to receive it in his own body, rather than it should touch that of the prince, and so saved him.

‘Twas then, af icted as Oroonoko was, that he was proclaimed general in the old man’s place: and then it was, at the nishing of that war, which had continu’d for two years, that the prince came to court, where he had hardly been a month together, from the time of his fth year to that of seventeen; and ’twas amazing to imagine where it was he learn’d so much humanity: or, to give his accomplishments a juster name, where ’twas he got that real greatness of soul, those re ned notions of true honour, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry, whose objects were almost continually ghting men, or those mangled or dead, who heard no sounds but those of war and groans. Some part of it we may attribute to the care of a Frenchman of wit and learning, who nding it turn to very good account to be a sort of royal tutor to this young black, and perceiving him very ready, apt, and quick of apprehension, took a great pleasure to teach him morals, language and science; and was for it extremely belov’d and valu’d by him. Another reason was, he lov’d when he came from war, to see all the English gentlemen that traded thither; and did not only learn their language, but that of the Spaniard also, with whom he traded afterwards for slaves.

I have often seen and conversed with this great man, and been a witness to many of his mighty actions; and do assure my reader, the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind, a judgment more solid, a wit more quick, and a conversation more sweet and diverting. He knew almost as much as if he had read much: He had heard of and admired the Romans: He had heard of the late civil wars in England, and the deplorable death of our great monarch; and wou’d discourse of it with all the sense and abhorrence of the injustice imaginable. He had an extreme good and graceful mien, and all the civility of a well-bred great man. He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points address’d himself as if his education had been in some European court.

This great and just character of Oroonoko gave me an extreme curiosity to see him, especially when I knew he spoke French and English, and that I could talk with him. But though I had heard so much of him, I was as greatly surprized when I saw him, as if I had heard nothing of him; so beyond all report I found him. He came into the room, and addressed himself to me, and some other women, with the best grace in the world. He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancy’d: The most famous statuary cou’d not form the gure of a man more admirably turn’d from head to foot. His face was not of that brown rusty black which most of that nation are, but of perfect ebony, or polished jett. His eyes were the most awful that cou’d be seen, and very piercing; the white of ’em being like snow, as were his teeth. His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and at. His mouth the nest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turn’d lips, which are so natural to the rest of the negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly form’d, that bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one grace wanting, that bears the standard of true beauty. His hair came down to his shoulders, by the aids of art, which was by pulling it out with a quill, and keeping it comb’d; of which he took particular care. Nor did the perfections of his mind come short of those of his person; for his discourse was admirable upon almost any subject: and whoever had heard him speak, wou’d have been convinced of their errors, that all ne wit is con ned to the white men, especially to those of Christendom; and wou’d have confess’d that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a soul, as politick maxims, and was as sensible of power, as any prince civiliz’d in the most re ned schools of humanity and learning, or the most illustrious courts.

This prince, such as I have describ’d him, whose soul and body were so admirably adorned, was (while yet he was in the court of his grandfather, as I said) as capable of love, as ’twas possible for a brave and gallant man to be; and in saying that, I have named the highest degree of love: for sure great souls are most capable of that passion.

I have already said, the old general was kill’d by the shot of an arrow by the side of this prince in battle; and that Oroonoko was made general. This old dead hero had one only daughter left of his race, a beauty, that to describe her truly, one need say only, she was female to the noble male; the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her person as he, and of delicate vertues. I have seen a hundred white men sighing after her, and making a thousand vows at her feet, all in vain, and unsuccessful. And she was indeed too great for any but a prince of her own nation to adore.