Antecedents: African Settings in British and American Fiction Before World War II
African settings have appealed to English authors since the very beginnings of the English novel, and the early examples of English novels with African settings establish a tradition that associates specific thematic concerns with Africa. These concerns--slavery and the slave trade, the conflict between humans and the natural world of Africa, and the notion that Africa is the home of lost cities and civilizations capable of harboring mysterious peoples and creatures--continue to interest contemporary American authors who feature African settings in their novels. Early examples of English fiction with African settings include Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave ( 1688) by Aphra Behn, Robinson Crusoe ( 1719) and Madagascar; or, Robert Drury's Journal ( 1729) by Daniel Defoe, and The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia ( 1759) by Samuel Johnson. In these narratives, Behn takes up the topic of slavery and its effects, Defoe discusses both slavery and the conflict between humans and the natural world of Africa, and Johnson describes a timeless African valley that is the forerunner of the lost cities in the novels of Haggard, Burroughs, and Crichton. Furthermore, because Behn, Defoe, and Johnson depict Africans as cultured, civilized beings, their works highlight the shift in Western attitudes concerning Africa and Africans that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Behn's attitude toward Africans in Oroonoko demonstrates that in the late seventeenth century Europeans had not yet completely accepted racist notions about African and Africans; indeed, in Oroonoko, the Europeans are far more savage than the Africans. The story of Oroonoko involves two lovers who are taken as slaves and transported from Africa to South America. The lovers, Oroonoko and Imoinda, are reunited in Surinam, where Oroonoko leads a slave rebellion that fails, resulting in his and Imoinda's violent deaths. The protagonists of Oroonoko--Oroonoko and