Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Global Slavery, Old World Bondage, and Aphra Behn's Abdelazer

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Global Slavery, Old World Bondage, and Aphra Behn's Abdelazer

Article excerpt

Aphra Behn has been a central figure in critical studies that interrogate British representations of colonialism and slavery in the long eighteenth century. By focusing so relentlessly on Oroonoko (1689) as a text that inaugurates a New World discourse on slavery in the period, however, scholars have created a skewed version of Behn as a figure who was primarily interested in Atlantic forms of human bondage. This version of Behn serves our critical ends as we continue to explore the forms of plantation slavery that shaped the New World and that created the devastating racial legacies that continue to haunt societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the fact remains that Oroonoko emerges at the very end of Behn's life, a late prose addition to the career of an author focused primarily on the money-making opportunities and cultural prestige of the stage. Several of her earlier plays, particularly Abdelazer, or the Moor's Revenge (1676), engage in a sustained exploration of slavery in the early modern Mediterranean, which demonstrates Behn's interest in depicting Old World forms of human bondage.1 We need to take into account Abdelazer if we are to form a more complete understanding of Behn's views on slavery.

An important part of my argument is synoptic in that I contend that scholars have not yet clearly identified what Abdelazer is about. My essay asserts that Abdelazer portrays an elite military slave who is attempting to use his position and his mastery over a powerful contingent of Moorish slave soldiers to shape the political future of Spain and, ultimately, to become its king. In what stands as an interesting twist on the royal slave motif, Abdelazer is not only a member of a royal family who has been made into a slave, but he is also a slave who is trying to remake himself into royalty in the country in which he has been taken into bondage. Despite Abdelazer 's many assertions about his continued enslavement in Spain, scholars have generally ignored this point or have suggested that he never was actually enslaved or that he has been manumitted before the action of the play begins.2 For these critics, the fact that Abdelazer wields a certain amount of power in Spanish society and is vested with important duties as both a general and bodyguard to the royal family seems largely incompatible with enslavement, and, as a result, they discuss his character as if he has been freed when there is no textual evidence to support this assertion.

In this way, criticism on Abdelazer has suffered from the critical assumption that New World plantation slavery was the norm for the early modern world, and that slaves were, by definition, subjected to extreme forms of physical labor and material degradation. This assumption has hindered Behn scholars from considering other important forms of slavery in the early modern world, especially those in the Islamic Mediterranean, in which some bondsmen were invested with substantial power and responsibility. The military slave institutions of the Islamic world, for example, seem unfamiliar to Behn scholars, but they certainly were not unknown to early modern Englishmen. As I will discuss below, Muslim rulers often deployed highly-trained military slaves as bodyguards, soldiers, and generals in the medieval and early modern period, and English people were fascinated by these slave institutions. Behn effectively transforms Abdelazer into a similar type of elite military slave, a liminal figure who is given some power, but who is also subject to the authority of his masters and is regularly an object of contempt and ridicule. The fact that modern critics have not generally recognized that Abdelazer is, in fact, a slave, means that we have some work to do to recapture a more developed picture of global slave practices in the period and a more nuanced delineation of early-modern English understandings of slavery.

In this essay, I argue that Abdelazer 's plight, as well as his attempt to wrest power for himself, can be best understood when we work within the theoretical frameworks constructed by slave theorists like Orlando Patterson and Daniel Pipes. …

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