Introduction to Oroonoko

The tale of Oroonoko, the Royal Slave is undisputedly Mrs. Behn’s
masterpiece in prose. Its originality and power have singled it out for
a permanence and popularity none of her other works attained. It is
vivid, realistic, pregnant with pathos, beauty, and truth, and not only
has it so impressed itself upon the readers of more than two centuries,
but further, it surely struck a new note in English literature and one
which was re-echoed far and wide. It has been said that ‘Oroonoko is
the first emancipation novel’, and there is no little acumen in this
remark. Certainly we may absolve Mrs. Behn from having directly written
with a purpose such as animated Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle
Tom’s Cabin; but none the less her sympathy with the oppressed blacks,
her deep emotions of pity for outraged humanity, her anger at the
cruelties of the slave-driver aye ready with knout or knife, are
manifest in every line. Beyond the intense interest of the pure
narrative we have passages of a rhythm that is lyric, exquisitely
descriptive of the picturesque tropical scenery and exotic vegetations,
fragrant and luxuriant; there are intimate accounts of adventuring and
primitive life; there are personal touches which lend a colour only
personal touches can, as Aphara tells her prose-epic of her Superman,
Cæsar the slave, Oroonoko the prince.



Epistle Dedicatory.


[Transcriber’s Note:
The Epistle Dedicatory was printed as an Appendix; see Note.]

My Lord,

Since the World is grown so Nice and Critical upon Dedications, and will
Needs be Judging the Book by the Wit of the Patron; we ought, with a
great deal of Circumspection to chuse a Person against whom there can be
no Exception; and whose Wit and Worth truly Merits all that one is
capable of saying upon that Occasion.

The most part of Dedications are charg’d with Flattery; and if the World
knows a Man has some Vices, they will not allow one to speak of his
Virtues. This, My Lord, is for want of thinking Rightly; if Men wou’d
consider with Reason, they wou’d have another sort of Opinion, and
Esteem of Dedications; and wou’d believe almost every Great Man has
enough to make him Worthy of all that can be said of him there. My Lord,
a Picture-drawer, when he intends to make a good Picture, essays the
Face many Ways, and in many Lights, before he begins; that he may chuse
from the several turns of it, which is most Agreeable and gives it the
best Grace; and if there be a Scar, an ungrateful Mole, or any little
Defect, they leave it out; and yet make the Picture extreamly like: But
he who has the good Fortune to draw a Face that is exactly Charming in
all its Parts and Features, what Colours or Agreements can be added to
make it Finer? All that he can give is but its due; and Glories in a
Piece whose Original alone gives it its Perfection. An ill Hand may
diminish, but a good Hand cannot augment its Beauty. A Poet is a Painter
in his way; he draws to the Life, but in another kind; we draw the
Nobler part, the Soul and Mind; the Pictures of the Pen shall out-last
those of the Pencil, and even Worlds themselves. ’Tis a short Chronicle
of those Lives that possibly wou’d be forgotten by other Historians, or
lye neglected there, however deserving an immortal Fame; for Men of
eminent Parts are as Exemplary as even Monarchs themselves; and Virtue
is a noble Lesson to be learn’d, and ’tis by Comparison we can Judge and
Chuse. ’Tis by such illustrious Presidents as your Lordship the World
can be Better’d and Refin’d; when a great part of the lazy Nobility
shall, with Shame, behold the admirable Accomplishments of a Man so
Great, and so Young.

Your Lordship has Read innumerable Volumes of Men and Books, not Vainly
for the gust of Novelty, but Knowledge, excellent Knowledge: Like the
industrious Bee, from every Flower you return Laden with the precious
Dew, which you are sure to turn to the Publick Good. You hoard no one
Reflection, but lay it all out in the Glorious Service of your Religion
and Country; to both which you are a useful and necessary Honour: They
both want such Supporters; and ’tis only Men of so elevated Parts, and
fine Knowledge; such noble Principles of Loyalty and Religion this
Nation Sighs for. Where shall we find a Man so Young, like St.
Augustine, in the midst of all his Youth and Gaiety, Teaching the World
Divine Precepts, true Notions of Faith, and Excellent Morality, and, at
the same time be also a perfect Pattern of all that accomplish a Great
Man? You have, My Lord, all that refin’d Wit that Charms, and the
Affability that Obliges; a Generosity that gives a Lustre to your
Nobility; that Hospitality, and Greatness of Mind that ingages the
World; and that admirable Conduct, that so well Instructs it. Our Nation
ought to regret and bemoan their Misfortunes, for not being able to
claim the Honour of the Birth of a Man who is so fit to serve his
Majesty, and his Kingdoms in all Great and Publick Affairs; And to the
Glory of your Nation, be it spoken, it produces more considerable Men,
for all fine Sence, Wit, Wisdom, Breeding and Generosity (for the
generality of the Nobility) than all other Nations can Boast; and the
Fruitfulness of your Virtues sufficiently make amends for the Barrenness
of your Soil: Which however cannot be incommode to your Lordship; since
your Quality and the Veneration that the Commonalty naturally pay their
Lords creates a flowing Plenty there . . . that makes you Happy. And to
compleat your Happiness, my Lord, Heaven has blest you with a Lady, to
whom it has given all the Graces, Beauties, and Virtues of her Sex; all
the Youth, Sweetness of Nature, of a most illustrious Family; and who is
a most rare Example to all Wives of Quality, for her eminent Piety,
Easiness, and Condescention; and as absolutely merits Respect from all
the World as she does that Passion and Resignation she receives from
your Lordship; and which is, on her part, with so much Tenderness
return’d. Methinks your tranquil Lives are an Image of the new Made and
Beautiful Pair in Paradise: And ’tis the Prayers and Wishes of all, who
have the Honour to know you, that it may Eternally so continue with
Additions of all the Blessings this World can give you.

My Lord, the Obligations I have to some of the Great Men of your Nation,
particularly to your Lordship, gives me an Ambition of making my
Acknowledgements by all the Opportunities I can; and such humble Fruits
as my Industry produces I lay at your Lordship’s Feet. This is a true
Story, of a Man Gallant enough to merit your Protection, and, had he
always been so Fortunate, he had not made so Inglorious an end: The
Royal Slave I had the Honour to know in my Travels to the other World;
and though I had none above me in that Country yet I wanted power to
preserve this Great Man. If there be anything that seems Romantick I
beseech your Lordship to consider these Countries do, in all things, so
far differ from ours that they produce unconceivable Wonders, at least,
so they appear to us, because New and Strange. What I have mentioned I
have taken care shou’d be Truth, let the Critical Reader judge as he
pleases. ’Twill be no Commendation to the Book to assure your Lordship I
writ it in a few Hours, though it may serve to Excuse some of its Faults
of Connexion, for I never rested my Pen a Moment for Thought: ’Tis
purely the Merit of my Slave that must render it worthy of the Honour it
begs; and the Author of that of Subscribing herself,

My Lord
Your Lordship’s most oblig’d
and obedient Servant
A. Behn.