The Paradoxes of Slavery in Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko


Diana Jaher


Critics generally base their analyses of ambivalent representations of slavery in Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko on its hero. By concentrating on Oroonoko, an African prince, many scholars argue that Southerne objects, not to slavery, but to either the enslavement of aristocrats or the institution’s excessive brutality. 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, however, depicts a third slave of almost equal importance to the Prince and his wife: Oroonoko’s attendant, Aboan. While some scholars include Aboan in their critiques of Southerne’s attitude towards slavery, they often minimize his presence or characterize him as inferior. Yet he proves himself Oroonoko’s equal—at times his superior—in insight and initiative throughout the play and voices much of its anti-slavery rhetoric. By focusing on Aboan, I explore a tension in Oroonoko that registers a fundamental critique of slavery as an institution: Southerne subverts one major rationalization he offers for enslavement – the traditional aristocratic justification that slaves are naturally inferior and therefore suited to bondage—by presenting an exceptional, non-aristocratic slave.

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