Skip to main content

Tiger Bomb: Aphra Behn Senses Trouble

In the still jungle of the senses lay
A tiger soundly sleeping, till one day
A bold young hunter chanced to come that way.

“How calm,” he said, “that splendid creature lies,
“I long to rouse him into swift surprise!”
A well aimed arrow-shot from amorous eyes,

And lo ! the tiger rouses up and turns,
A coal of fire his glowing eyeball burns,
His mighty frame with savage hunger yearns.

He crouches for a spring; his eyes dilate—
Alas! bold hunter, what shall be thy fate ?
Thou canst not fly, it is too late, too late.

Once having tasted human flesh, ah! then,
Woe, woe unto the whole rash world of men,

The awakened tiger will not sleep again.

—The Tiger, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1883[1]

In the language of contemporary law and insurance, Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel Oroonoko[2] has an alarming level of liability exposure.  Were it to be tried for conniving with and advancing racism, imperialism, colonial rapaciousness, the acceptance of slavery, and a whole host of other related evils, a wise defense attorney would seek a settlement in civil court or a plea bargain in criminal court.

There are, of course, mitigating factors.  Depending upon whom you ask, Oroonoko is either the first novel, or one of the first novels, written in English.  Behn is also rightly esteemed as a bold trailblazer who created opportunities for women writers after her.  Virginia Woolf is unequivocal on this point:

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.[3]

The sheer aesthetic mastery behind Oroonoko is also a tribute to Behn’s prodigious talent.  To read Oroonoko is to experience an elegiac work which successfully combines a narration of commanding delicacy with a story of operatic, over-the top romantic catastrophe—as if the pianist Alfred Brendel were performing a protean score written by Jean Cocteau and Rainer Werner Fassbinder under German occupation in Vichy France.

Still, this simultaneously simple and rococo brocade of complications and sudden shifts of fortune is fraught with the not-so-incidental and not-so-innocent details of its context.  The entirety of its action is imbricated in the problematic practices of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism, and the attendant attitudes of racial supremacy.  This is not necessarily to say that Behn wholeheartedly embraces all of these practices and attitudes—but by no means can one plausibly argue that she condemns them with any sort of consistent conviction either.  As Moira Ferguson plainly writes, “Oroonoko…does not sustain an emancipationist reading.”[4]  A simple recap of Oroonoko’s plot should suffice to make apparent Oroonoko’s most elemental problems.

Oroonoko is told in the first person by a female narrator who claims to have been “an Eye-Witness to a great part, of what…[is] set down.”  What she did not see firsthand, she supposedly “receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor [i.e., Oroonoko] in th[e] History.”  She is located in Surinam during the entirety of the narrative’s events, though the novel is actually being written in England, after (to her dismay) the Dutch have supplanted the English.  The narrator begins her tale with a description of Surinam, whose native inhabitants the English do not use as slaves as “they…are very useful to us” and “their numbers far surpass[] ours in that Continent.”

Behn’s narrator (who is also Aphra Behn) describes the natives as so many noble savages.  Almost all “have all that is called beauty, except the Colour, which is a reddish Yellow.”  They represent “an absolute Idea of the first state of Innocence, before man knew how to sin.”  Their “Native Justice…knows no Fraud; and they understand no Vice, or Cunning, but what they are taught by the White Man.”

Since it is wiser to trade with the Indians (or avail themselves of their skills in other ways) than it is to enslave them, the English sugar planters of Surinam import slaves from Africa, “Negro’sBlack-Slaves altogether.”  Which brings us to Coramantien.

Coramantien is an African kingdom ruled over by a very old king with “many beautiful Black-Wives; for most certainly, there are beauties that can charm of that color.”  His offspring included thirteen sons, all of whom have already been killed in battles (Coramantien is marked by a pronounced martial streak, enslaving its prisoners of war either for its own upkeep or, more often, for sale to Europeans).  His final blood heir is a grandson, Oroonoko, who “became, at the Age of Seventeen, one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers, that ever saw the Field of Mars.”  In Coramantien, Oroonoko “was ador’d as the Wonder of all that World…adorn’d with a native Beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race, that he strook an Awe and Reverence, even in those that knew not his Quality.”[5]

When an old general falls dead on the battlefield (saving Oroonoko’s life by leaping in front of an arrow flying towards him), Oroonoko himself becomes a general and, after leading his soldiers to victory in war, returns to the Court of his grandfather, the King.  Soon thereafter, he pays a visit to the daughter of the general who selflessly saved his life.  This daughter is Imoinda, and Oroonoko falls in love with her instantly.  On his second visit, “contrary to the Custom of his Country, he made her Vows, she shou’d be the only woman he wou’d possess while he liv’d.”[6]

Oroonoko and Imoinda resolve to marry, but first notify the King of their intentions.  The King grows jealous of Oroonoko’s possession of so great a beauty, and exercises his royal right by demanding Imoinda for himself.  Oroonoko, distraught, relinquishes Imoinda as allies assure him that at the King’s advanced age (over one hundred years), no sexual harm beyond the most rudimentary caresses can come to her.  Oroonoko accepts this cold comfort and eventually the King is made to believe that Oroonoko no longer desires Imoinda.  On Oroonoko’s next audience with the King, he does not betray his emotions; in fact, he is so convincing that the King brings him to his Otan for a feast with Imoinda.

When Imoinda dances for the assembled guests and loses her footing, she falls into the arms of Oroonoko, who catches her and caresses her.  The King is outraged, and orders Oroonoko to the front to command a campaign that is soon to begin.

Oroonoko, disconsolate, does not depart immediately.  The King has several spies trail him.  Through a series of intrigues, Oroonoko is able to gain entry to Imoinda’s quarters and there she swears that she remains a virgin and there Oroonoko takes her virginity.  But now he lingers too long, and he and Imoinda are discovered at daybreak.  Oroonoko flees to the battlefield, believing that Imoinda will be able to escape death by convincing the King that she was taken by surprise and attacked by Oroonoko.

The King, in disgust, sells Imoinda into slavery and dispatches a messenger to tell Oroonoko that she has been killed (as slavery would be considered a fate worse than death).  Oroonoko is too grief stricken to take part in the campaign and remains in his tent for two days.  But when all is nearly lost on the battlefield, he springs into action:

…being animated with Despair, he fought as if he came on purpose to die, and did such things as will not be believ’d that Humane Strength cou’d perform; and such as soon inspir’d all the rest with new Courage, and new Order: And now it was, that they began to fight indeed; and so, as if they wou’d not be out-done, even by their ador’d Hero; who turning the Tide of Victory, changing absolutely the Fate of the Day, gain’d an entire Conquest… .

Returning to Court (after “a thousand” entreaties from the King to do so), Oroonoko receives a hero’s welcome.  His grief fades in time, but he remains melancholy and “no Motives or Beauties, though all endeavor’d it, coud engage him in any sort of Amour.”

One day an English slave-ship captain arrives at Court.  Oroonoko is familiar with him because he (Oroonoko) has sold him slaves in the past.  The captain invites Oroonoko and some of the men under his command to join him on his ship for dinner.  Oroonoko accepts.  After all of the men, including Oroonoko, have eaten and imbibed a great deal of alcoholic punch, they are put in chains as the ship sets sail for Surinam.  Oroonoko and his fellow slaves begin a hunger strike in protest.  Alarmed, the ship’s captain assures Oroonoko that he is ashamed of his actions and that once on the other side of the Atlantic he will find him safe passage back to his own country.  Oroonoko puts an end to his hunger strike and convinces the other slaves to do the same.  But once in Surinam, all of the slaves, including Oroonoko, are sold.

Trefry is the name of the man who purchases Oroonoko, and Caesar is the name Oroonoko is given as “Christians never buy any slaves but they give ‘em some Name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous, and hard to pronounce.”  The narrator tells us that Trefry immediately recognizes Oroonoko’s special character, and, after hearing his story during the three-day trip upriver to Trefry’s property, Trefry promises to get him back to Coramantien.

Oroonoko’s arrival on Trefry’s land is momentous:

…he no sooner came to the Houses of the Slaves…but they all came forth to behold him, and found he was that Prince who has, at several times, sold most of ‘em to these Parts; and, from a Veneration they pay to great Men, especially if they know ‘em, and from the Surprize and Awe they had at the sight of him, they all cast themselves at his Feet, crying out, in their Language, Live, O King!  Long Live, O King!  And kissing his feet, paid him even divine Homage.

Oroonoko quickly learns that all of the slaves are lovesick over a beautiful female slave named Clemene.  He is taken to see her and it turns out that Clemene is Imoinda.  Oroonoko and Imoinda (Caesar and Clemene) marry, and this makes Oroonoko even more anxious for his liberty,[7] but he is “fed…Day to Day with Promises, and delay’d…till the Lord Governor should come.”  The English become nervous that an increasingly impatient Oroonoko will stir up a “Mutiny,” and even though he assures the narrator “that whatsoever Resolutions he shou’d take, he wou’d Act nothing upon the White-People,” the White-People nonetheless act something upon him and devise “Diversions” to keep him occupied, just in case.

One of these diversionary adventures involves a tiger.

Another time…he kill’d a Tiger, which had long infested that part…; abundance of People assaile’d this Beast, some affirming they had shot her with several Bullets quite through the Body, at several times; and some swearing they shot her through the very Heart, and they believ’d she was a Devil rather than a Mortal thing.

Oroonoko, of course, kills the tiger on his first attempt—shooting an arrow through its eye and then cutting it open with a knife.  The narrator almost apologetically asks the reader to bear with the incredulous nature of what she relates next:

…I shall now relate a thing that possibly will find no Credit among Men, because ‘tis a Notion commonly receiv’d with us, That nothing can receive a Wound in the Heart and Live; but when the Heart of this courageous Animal was taken out, there were Seven Bullets of Lead in it, and the Wounds seam’d up with great Scars, and she liv’d with the Bullets a great while, for it was long since they were shot… .

We will return to this image below.

In the end, diversions like these do not work.  When Imoinda begins to show with child, Oroonoko’s patience is at an end; he leads a slave revolt during which Imoinda wounds the Governor with a poisoned arrow, but the rebellion is soon quelled.  Oroonoko is tied up and whipped, then untied “almost Fainting, with a loss of Blood, from a thousands Wounds all over his body. …”

Concluding that he will never gain freedom for himself, his wife, or his unborn child, Oroonoko resolves to kill Imoinda, revenge himself on his most vicious captors, and then kill himself rather than allow his family to live a life of slavery.  He takes Imoinda into the woods and reveals his intentions.  She willingly offers her breast, and Oroonoko stabs her.  He is too wracked with guilt, grief, and exhaustion to carry out the rest of his plan, and after two days of immobility in the woods he is discovered, captured, and brought back to Trefry’s property, where a surgeon pronounces Oroonoko near death with not much longer to live.  The Governor draws Trefry away from his property on a false pretext and sends “a wild Irish Man” (naturally) named Bannister to set upon Oroonoko.  Bannister brings Oroonoko out into the woods with a band of hooligans intent on killing him.

Tied to a tree, Oroonoko is killed and cut into quarters.

Thus Dy’d this Great Man; worthy of a better Fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his Praise; yet, I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to mak his Glorious Name to survive to all Ages; with that of the Brave, the Beautiful, and the Constant Imoinda.

This is the tragic romance of Oroonoko.

Let us make two returns.  The first is to a reiteration of the existence of Oroonoko’s unsavory aspects.  As the plots-of-great-operas synopsis above makes abundantly clear, there are too many problems with the story and setting of Oroonoko to allow for any sort of antislavery or polemical reading (or even a purely allegorical reading based on contemporary English politics[8]).  To round out this point, Ferguson’s position is worth quoting again, this time at length:

The traditional argument that Oroonoko marks the first antislavery fiction in the English language turns on Oroonoko’s fiery exhortation to the slaves, since all other textual commentary points in a proslavery direction.


But despite the obvious reasons for the revolt, the construction of Oroonoko’s speech raises the questions both about his motives and the narrator’s.  In her own words, the “told-to” narrator reports more than half the speech and excoriates dehumanization. … Voicing (and voiced) in the first person…West African Prince Oroonoko addresses “underlings” in the tones of a superior, deplores his own enslavement, and (in ominous prophecy) his role as “the sport of women, fools, and cowards.” His conscious self-exclusion from the majority of slaves in his use of the second person when he mentions the lash, and his temporary identification with slaves whom he may have originally sold into slavery lend lavish irony to his exhortations. …


… .  [Oroonoko] affirms the propriety of a ruler’s outlook that coincides with Behn’s uncompromising royalist perspective.


As long as humane traffikers (not seen as a contradiction) and philanthropic plantation owners (ditto) run the institution and felicitously convert pagan Africans to Christianity and hence to “civilized” values, then slavery and the slave trade can blend harmoniously with the aristocratic ethic.[9]

Ferguson’s got a bead on Oroonoko.

But to Behn’s credit, even amidst her arrant seventeenth-century condescension and connivance at imperial practices, she creates in Oroonoko a black African character for whom the reader cannot help but sympathize as he dies, heartbroken, under the worst of circumstances.

In Oroonoko, Behn presents an idealized lover—not the Don Juan of stereotypically male aspirations, or a Romeo of bold but tragic constancy.  No, Oroonoko is a fierce warrior in love with his own dignity and the dignity of those he loves.  His powerful role as a romantic lover is secondary to his role of his almost violent love for his own humanity. Like the tiger he slays (and here we make our second return), he suffers, and lives through, multiple (metaphoric) wounds to his heart because of the ferocity of his will to (his own) dignity and liberty—until, finally trapped by forces he recognizes that even he cannot alter, he perishes long after another would have capitulated or succumbed.  Now, remember the tiger’s autopsy:

…when the Heart of this courageous Animal was taken out, there were Seven Bullets of Lead in it, and the Wounds seam’d up with great Scars, and she liv’d with the Bulletts a great while… .

Behn’s narrator mourns Oroonoko’s death (“Thus Dy’d this Great Man”); but her mourning is not only retrospective—the great power of the elegiac requiem that is the entirety of the text of Oroonoko  is its prescience.  Oroonoko is a curious, odd text, and in it and its multiple contradictions and problems—or, one might say, through these things—Behn has presented an oneiric adumbration of the tragedy and heartbreak that will accompany the colonial project as it continues to unfold over hundreds of years.

In Oroonoko, at its literal and figurative heart—indeed, at its deepest, almost unconcious core (no matter how problematic Behn’s attitudes; no matter how problematic Oroonoko’s own relationship to members of his own race)—is a specter of roused resistance; the spirit whose indomitable desire for the unhindered enjoyment of the love and freedom that is rightfully its own is capable of suppression only by the most gruesome and barbaric means; the redoubtable tiger in its awful symmetry who cannot be suppressed by ordinary methods, but instead requires almost superhuman efforts (an expert arrow-shot through the eye) to destroy:

…a Tiger…had long infested that part, and born away abundance of  Sheep and Oxen, and other things, that were for the support of those [Europeans] to whom they belong’d; abundance of People assail’d this Beast, some affirming thay had shot her with several Bulletts quite through the Body, at several times; and some swearing they shot her through the very Heart, and they believ’d she was a Devil rather than a Mortal thing.

 Ambivalent about, partially excluded from, but wholly complicit in, colonial projects, Behn nevertheless foresees, however imperfectly and inchoately, the resistance which will bedevil the continuation of European projections of power in years to come.[10]   In the mythical, but wholly enslaved, figure of Oroonoko, and in the figure of the tiger—who totemistically serves as Oroonoko’s animistic doppelganger—Behn, in dreamlike fashion, and from the perspective of European anxiety and human sympathy, prophesies the manifold and multifarious disasters to come.  The tragedies that will come about as a result both of schemes of domination and of the various resistances to these schemes.

Alberto J. Rivero notes that Behn’s text and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which appears  in the early twentieth century, long after Oroonoko, are fruitfully compared.

Oroonoko and Heart of Darkness…attempt to preserve, by acts of rhetorical violence, hierarchies of class and race, while representing the virtual impossibility of doing so in those chaotic, carnivalesque colonial spaces.  Both are divided fictions, duplicitous representations riven by the contradictions lying at the heart of the colonial project—both written, moreover, by “outsiders,” by a woman marginalized because of her gender and by an Anglo-Pole writing about a society in a language not his own.[11]

Like Conrad, Behn was unable to go so far as to condemn the project underway; in fact, so far as the project was an “English” one, Behn was probably more loyal to its success than was Conrad after her.  But Behn, like Conrad after her, saw the chaos, the menace, the deleterious effects for all parties that is the necessary concomitant of the mission civilisatrice; the corrosive effect upon “civilization” that its imperial expansion produced. The inhumanity and barbarity that was—and still is—all too warmly embraced by “civilization” when the enemy is somebodies else; the horror!

…  And turning to the Men that bound him, he said, My Friends, am I to Dye, or to be Whip’d?  And they cry’d, Whip’d!  no; you shall not escape so well: And then he replied, smiling, A Blessing on thee; and assur’d them, they need not tye him, for he wou’d stand fixt, like a Rock; and indure Death so as shou’d encourage them to Dye.  But if you Whip me, said he, be sure you tye me fast.

He had learn’d to take Tobaco; and when he was assur’d he should Dye, he desir’d they would give him a Pipe in his Mouth, ready Lighted, which they did; and the Executioner came, and first cut off his Members, and threw them into the Fire; after that, with an ill-favoured Knife, they cut his Ears, and his Nose, and burn’d them; he still Smoak’d on, as if nothing had touch’d him; then they hack’d off one of his Arms, and still he bore up, and held his Pipe; but at the cutting off the other Arm, his Head sunk, and his Pipe drop’d; and he gave up the Ghost, without a Groan, or a Reproach.  My Mother and Sister were by him all the while, but not suffer’d to save him; so rude and wild were the Rabble, and so inhumane were the Justices, who stood by to see the Execution, who after paid dearly enough for their Insolence.  They cut Caesar in Quarters, and sent them to several of the chief Plantations: One Quarter was sent to colonel Martin, who refus’d it; and swore, he had rather see the Quarters of Banister, and the Governor himself, on his Plantations; and that he cou’d govern his Negroes without Terrifying and Griefing them with frightful Spectacles of a mangl’d King.

Here colonel Martin, the benevolent slavemaster, not only displays a human revulsion at barbarity, but also, perhaps, and in keeping with Behn’s inchoate intimations, recoils at the recognition that systems of domination, oppression, and exploitation (in this case, slavery and colonialism) are inevitably doomed to just this sort of escalating and ultimately uncontrollable horror.  The horror!

Caesar cut [her] Open with a Knife, to see where those Wounds were that had been reported to him, and why [she] did not Die of ‘em. …  [W]hen the Heart of this courageous Animal was taken out, there were Seven Bullets of Lead in it, and the Wouns seam’d up with great Scars, and she liv’d with the Bullets a great while for it was long since they were shot… .


If the tiger ever stands still, the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger will not stand still. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his side, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death.

—Ho Chi Minh[12]

1]Wilcox, Ella Wheeler.  “The Tiger.”  Poems of Passion.  Chicago: Belford Clark & Company, 1883.  137.  Google Books.  4 Oct. 2009.

[2]Behn, Aphra.  Oroonoko.  Ed. Joanna Lipking.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.  Print.  All quoted passages from Behn’s text are taken from this edition.

[3]Woolf, Virginia.  A Room of One’s Own.  London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1929.  Cited in Behn, 197.

[4]Ferguson, Moira.  “Oroonoko: Birth of a Paradigm.”  New Literary History 23,2 (Spring, 1992): 341-46.  JSTOR.  18 Nov. 2007.

[5]Just how beautiful was Oroonoko?

“His Face was not of that Brown, rusty Black which most of that Nation are, but a perfect Ebony, or polish’d 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 flat.  His mouth, the finest shap’d that could be seen; far from those great turn’d Lips, which are so natural to rest of the Negroes.  The whole proportion and Air of his Face was so noble, and exactly form’d, that, bating his Colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome.”

[6]Without departing from the notion of the superiority of European civilization, or the singularity of Oroonoko in contradistinction to his barbaric culture, Behn takes a swipe at male-female relationships in Christendom with this description of Coramantien romantic relationships:

“[I]n that Country…Men take to themselves as many as they can maintain; and…the only Crime and Sin with Woman is, turn her off, to abandon her to Want, Shame and Misery; Such ill Morals are only practis’d in Christian-Countries, where they prefer the bare name of Religion; and without Vertue or Morality, think that’s sufficient.”

[7]Even offering slaves for his freedom.

[8]The Norton Critical Edition notes that “Behn often referred to both [the beheaded] Charles I and [the exiled] James II as ‘Caesar’ in celebratory poems.”  Behn, 36.

[9]Ferguson, op. cit.  341-43.  [My emphases.  Ferguson’s bracketed insertion of “European” in “degenerate [European] race”]

[10]Of course, it is noteworthy that much of the action of Oroonoko takes place in Surinam, but the dramatic conflict is not, in the end, between the natives and the English.  Still, Behn intimates that trouble is just around the corner vis-à-vis the “Indians” when she explains the strategic decision not to enslave them—and, more explicitly, when she relates this passage:

“About this time we were in many mortal Fears, about some Disputes the English had with the Indians; so that we cou’d scarce trust our selves, without great Numbers, to go to any Indian Towns, or Place, where they abode, for fear they shou’d fall upon us, as they did immediately after my coming away; and that it was in the possession of the Dutch, who us’d ‘em not so civilly as the English; so that they cut in pieces all they cou’d take, getting into Houses, and hanging up the Mother, and all her Children about her; and cut a Footman, I left behind me, all in Joynts, and nail’d him to Trees. ”

(In addition to the English using the Indians “civilly,” Oroonoko also plays a role in lessening the tensions between English and native.)

[11]Rivero, Alberto.  “Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and the ‘Blank Spaces’ of Colonial Fictions.”  Studies in English Literature 39.3 (1999): 444.  Project Muse.  16 Oct. 2006.

[12]Quoted in (among many other works) Morrison, Wilbur H. The Elephant and the Tiger: The Full Story of the Vietnam War. Central Point, Oregon: Hellgate Press. xiv. 2001.

+ posts

Leave a Reply