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Women and Empire – Aphra Behn

Allegra Geller, Op-Ed Columnist

January 2012

I tend to shy from the present, preferring to focus on the past.  I am inclined to examine history for and within itself. It has been said that ‘History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty[i] which I hold to be true.  Much like art, I view history as something once created in which great beauty can be found. Although my studies thus far have remained within the Tudor and Stuart periods, over the past year I have enjoyed studying British literature with a focus on Empire (I am indebted to Dr. George S. Christian for introducing me to numerous great works). With that in mind, in this column I will strive to provide interesting glimpses into British imperial history, albeit liberally strewn with literary themes and references whenever possible.

At present, I aim to spend some time with imperial women of distinction: travelers and explorers, doctors and nurses, missionaries and women of ill repute.  From India and Africa to my own country of Canada, Englishwomen have influenced the history of the British Empire through a veritable cornucopia of contributions, including literature, exploration, the healing arts and entertainment. I shall begin my look at these illustrious women with one of the first professional female writers in British history…

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A spy for King Charles II, one-time prisoner in debtor’s jail, controversial political writer and Restoration dramatist, Aphra Behn (1640-1689) secured her place in history with the writing and publication of her prose narrative novel Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, in 1688.  Although relatively little is known of her personal life, through Oroonoko -considered by many to be a landmark of fiction and one of the greatest contributions to British literature-, we are nevertheless able to view Behn reflected in her literary mirror of the early colonial Empire.

Of Aphra Behn’s early life and education, almost nothing is known definitively.  Though from her poetry and prose it can be deduced she was a woman of some learning.  It is possible that she was briefly married in 1664, though she may have simply styled herself as Mrs. Behn for the sake of decorum.  She was most likely raised Catholic, as evinced by her great devotion to James II (1633-1701), the last English Catholic monarch.  In 1663, Behn travelled to the British colony of Surinam, where she would have undoubtedly witnessed various aspects of colonialism first hand.  During her residence in the West Indies, Behn claimed to have encountered the illustrious African slave Oroonoko and is said to have kept a detailed journal of her experiences which she would later use to immortalize him in prose.

After returning to England in 1664 Behn joined the court of Charles II, where as a supporter of the Tory party she adamantly believed in the divine right of kings and was fiercely loyal to the restored monarch.  She entered his employ as a spy in Antwerp, though due to lack of payment from the King she eventually landed in debtor’s jail.  Leaving espionage behind in 1669, Behn dedicated herself to professional writing, and in 1685 to the new King, James II.

The rise of James II caused widespread discontent.  He faced two rebellions shortly after ascending the throne which resulted in his establishment of a large standing army.  This caused further resentment among his subjects who believed that the King was subverting the Church of England through his Catholic ‘Policy of Romanization’. The Anglican political nation, gripped by shock and fear, conspired with the Dutch Prince William of Orange to overthrow James.  It was during this time of great political turmoil, in 1688, that Aphra Behn wrote Oroonoko.

A multilayered work with manifold historical significance, Oroonoko serves as a semi-autobiography of Behn by way of the novel’s narrator being almost indistinguishable from the author.  The first English novel to realistically depict the horrors of slavery, Oroonoko brought awareness of the reality of the African slave trade home to England. With its descriptions of far off people, places and products, the novel vividly portrayed early colonial pursuits and also functioned as a royalist treatise and discourse on the political issues of the late 17th century.

The British colonies in the Caribbean were lucrative, requiring  the import of large numbers of African slaves to harvest sugarcane, cotton and tobacco.  Oroonoko tells the tale of an African prince captured and brought as a slave to a sugarcane plantation in Surinam.  The novel’s ‘enticing catalogues of exotic commodities’[ii] both glorified the colony as a ‘tropical heaven’[iii] and exemplified imperial commerce, with an emphasis on New World products  indicating Behn’s support for the overseas ventures of James II (who held the Royal African Company’s slaving monopoly).  The name of both the book and its hero is in itself a reference to colonial commerce, as the tobacco cultivated in Surinam was called orinoco (also spelled oronocco or oronoko).[iv]

Behn’s royalist ideology and belief in the divine right of kings is apparent in the emphasis placed on the royal lineage of her hero.  ‘Belov’d like a Deity,’[v] Oroonoko is depicted as having inherent regal qualities and of being ‘invested with something akin to divine power’[vi] while his being forced into slavery despite being a legitimate prince foreshadowed the deposition of James II and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  With the theme of slavery, Behn also effectively communicated her belief that James II’s overthrow by William and Mary of Orange would constitute a type of slavery, or ‘an imposition on the English constitution, the king’s prerogatives and on the nation at large.’[vii]  Her depiction of the colonial administrators in the novel who ‘wantonly exceeded the limits of their power’[viii] served to accuse those who threatened the throne.

Oroonoko has been lauded as an early abolitionist tract due to the nobility and heroism of its African protagonist.  It has also been condemned as having perpetuated negativity towards Africans by way of its narrator never opposing slavery.  Despite these conflicting arguments, Behn’s work significantly contributed to the development of antislavery literature and influenced the evolution of the English novel.

But who was Aphra Behn?  Her voyage to the West Indies and sojourn in the Netherlands as a spy proclaims her to be adventurous and brave. Arising out of the political events of the mid-17th century, Oroonoko is a testament to her royalist ideology and confirms her as a writer of ‘considerable political intelligence’.[ix]  A woman of deep conviction, she unabashedly proclaimed her loyalty to the deposed Stuart monarchy by refusing to write of the April 1689 accession of William and Mary of Orange.  Aphra Behn died on April 16, 1689, having made her mark as one of the first women to write for a living. Her legacy paved the way for future women writers, including Virginia Woolf who honoured Behn in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own:

All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn…

for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.[x]

(Note: Many thanks to Dr. Brian Levack for his excellent lectures on Stuart History which I consulted frequently while writing this, and to Cole Wehrle, whose lecture on Aphra Behn inspired this article)

[i] Peter N. Stearns, ‘Why Study History’, American Historical Association, (1998). Available from:

[ii] Elizabeth A. Bohls, ‘The Aesthetics of Colonialism: Janet Schaw in the West Indies, 1774-1775’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 27, no. 3 (1994): p. 366.

[iii] Hilal Kaya, ‘Early Intimations of Colonialism in the 17th century: William Shakespeare’s Othello and The Tempest, John Fletcher’s The Island Princess, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko’, Journal of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, 4 (2010).

[iv] Susan B. Iwanisziw, ‘Behn’s Novel Investment in “Oroonoko”: Kingship, Slavery and Tobacco in English Colonialism’, South Atlantic Review, 63, no. 2 (1998): p. 77.

[v] Aphra Behn, Oroonoko; or, the Royal Slave, 1688.

[vi] Anita Pacheco, ‘Royalism and Honor in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 4, no. 3 (1994): 491

[vii] Richard Kroll, ‘Tales of Love and Gallantry: The Politics of Oroonoko’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 67, no. 4 (2004): p. 597.

[viii] Moira Ferguson, ‘Oroonoko: Birth of a Paradigm’, New Literary History, 23 (1992): p. 348.

[ix] Kroll, p. 573.

[x] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929.

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  1. A Bilodeau
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting. You are very talented!!

  2. Brad Sutton
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    A very interesting woman indeed and a POV that main-stream history often over looks

  3. jason sims
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    This is a life that deserves to be recognized and celebrated. Having Studied the lives and works of women in America, I was truly fascinated with this article and the life of Aphra Behn. Thank you very much for this glimpse into her world.

  4. Jessica Sutton
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed your article very much! I am always interested in reading about powerful women who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. Indeed it is because of women like this that I am able to speak mine. Thank you for bringing her back to life for us.