The Paradoxes of Slavery in Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko

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Critics generally base their analyses of ambivalent representations of slavery in Oroonoko, Thomas Southernes popular 1695 play, on its hero. (1) By concentrating on Oroonoko, an African prince, many scholars argue that Southerne (1660-1746) objects, not to slavery, but to either the enslavement of aristocrats (2) or the institution's excessive brutality. (3) Like his prototype in the play's source, Aphra Behn's novella Oroonoko; Or The Royal Slave (1688), Oroonoko, is, in fact, an extraordinary case: an idealized member of the nobility whose English owners condemn his bondage and exempt him and his wife, Imoinda, from the harsh labor and punishments that slaves typically experience. Lesser-born slaves, the play appears to conclude, deserve their condition, if not its associated cruelties.

Southerne's Oroonoko, however, depicts a third slave of almost equal importance to the prince and his wife: Oroonoko's attendant, Aboan, second only to the title character in the original productions printed cast list. (4) While some scholars include Aboan in their critiques of Southerne's attitude toward slavery, they often minimize his presence (5) or characterize him as a "kneeling, supplicant African." (6) Yet he proves himself Oroonoko's equal--at times his superior--in insight and initiative throughout the play and voices much of its antislavery rhetoric. By focusing on Aboan, I explore a tension in Oroonoko that registers a fundamental critique of slavery as an institution that is absent from Behn's novella: Southerne subverts one major rationalization he offers for enslavement--the traditional aristocratic justification that slaves are naturally inferior and therefore suited to bondage (7)--by presenting an exceptional, nonaristocratic slave. (8)

Southerne's personal beliefs regarding slavery are impossible to discern in Oroonoko: the play presents a range of attitudes. Rosenthal and Jordan and Love mention that at the time Oroonoko was written, the playwright sought financial support from Christopher Codrington (1668-1710), a wealthy slave owner who treated his slaves with unusual benevolence by baptizing and educating them. (9) While the influence of Codrington's humanitarian actions (which did not extend to freeing the slaves) may have informed some of the play's language--Aboan's graphic descriptions of physical abuse, for example--Southerne's desire for a patron's money is not necessarily evidence of the dramatist's own opinions. More likely, the playwright shared his countrymen's prevailing attitudes toward slavery: despite English distaste for the institution--slavery was not legally sanctioned in England, although it was in her colonies (10)--many recognized "its apparent contribution to the collective wealth and power of the empire." (11) Whatever their personal feelings, most English accepted slavery with an accommodation made more palatable by the institution's distance--Surinam, Oroonoko's setting, was an ocean away--and thought little more about it. (12) Given their views, it is unlikely that English audiences for Southerne's play closely analyzed its position on slavery. Not until the late eighteenth century, when antislavery rhetoric was more widespread, was Oroonoko considered an abolitionist text. (13)

English enthusiasm for "collective wealth" informs much of the play's pro-slavery stance. The Whigs, the decade's dominant party, favored property and property owners, for they believed that "men who possessed sufficient wealth to give them a firm stake in society" (14) had the incentive and ability to contribute to the economic and political health of their country. Southerne's political beliefs are hazy: initially a Tory, the playwright changed sides after the Glorious Revolution of 1688--perhaps only outwardly--possibly to aid his professional advancement. (15) He dedicated Oroonoko to William Cavendish (1641-1707), the Duke of Devonshire and a prominent Whig. Moreover, he wrote in an era dominated by Whiggish values. …