Evangelina de la Rosa
Professor Gabriela Kappes
March 25, 2018
The Struggle of Slavery
Have you ever wonder, if European colonist viewed slaves during the trans-Atlantic slave trade as symbols of admiration and strength? Through reading the text Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave by Aphra Behn and analyzing the digital archival object “Une vente d’eslaves, a Rio-de-Janeiro,” from the digital collection Slave Sales and Auction: Africa Coast and Americas, both exemplify details of how African families experience separation. Furthermore, they give insight into how slave traders and how traders capitalized on human beings. The narrator of the 18th-century text, Aphra Behn, claims to be an eye-witness of the real history of prince Oroonoko’s transition from a slave owner and African prince to become a slave himself in Surinam in South America. Behn illuminates the idea that Oroonoko the protagonist is given more power and dignity than the slaves portrayed in the archival illustration.
The archival object, “Slave Auction, Rio de Janeiro, 1858-1860 appears in the digital collection of The University of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities “Slavery Images.” At first glance, the scene shows a group of people dispersed in a room, in which a black woman is being sold at an auction. The auctioneer is the tallest figure, a white man wearing a dark-colored suit, and glasses stands on top of a wooden chair. His right hand is stretched upward grabbing a hammer above a child’s head, showing a state of dominance at the auction. And with his left hand, he is pointing at the slave. Next to the auctioneer, the slave woman wears a long white corset dress, bandana headscarf, and she does not wear shoes. Meanwhile, the woman is being inspected by a prospective buyer, her eyes are closed, and her mouth is open, displaying respect to her superiors. There is also a child holding the woman’s hand which I assumed is her son. The little boy stands on her right-side feeling scared of all the things going on around them. At the same time, other slaves are being examined by other buyers before they are auctioned. They seem to be worried and fear of what their near future may bring. The illustration also shows furniture such as a table, chairs, cabinets, and musical instruments. Other well-dressed white men are observing and chatting among themselves. The auction takes place in a home where the possessions were for sale, including the slaves. It is quite unpleasant for the viewers because what it implies is that traders sold people as though they were goods, and they were not treated as human beings.
In the novel, Behn’s depicts Oroonoko as a slave with European characteristics to make him appear princely and likable. When Oroonoko arrives at Surinam, as a slave “he was receiv’d more like a Governor, than a slave” (37); he is still wearing his royal African robes, and the colonists and other slaves still see him as a prince and a great war leader even after he removes his robes. Furthermore, Oroonoko still praised by his people because of his high position of power he held in his native country. Behn highlights that “As soon as they approach’d him, they venerated and esteem’d him; his Eyes insensibly commanded Respect, and his Behavior insinuated it into every Soul.” (36). Oroonoko is known to be energetic and intellectual because he has learned many languages. In Surinam, “they assign’d him his portion of Land, his House, and his Business, up in plantation. But as it was more for Form, than any Design, to put him to his Task…” (37). The supervisor of Oroonoko’s plantation, Trefrey, treats him as an equal and offers him protection. He is not treated like other common slaves, and he is allowed to spend his time talking with the people around rather than work on the plantation. This treatment gives him considerable power even though he is not a free man. Besides, when Oroonoko tries to organize rebellion amongst the salves, they follow him because he is an educated nobleman. On the other hand, in the archival illustration of the slave auction, African slaves are dehumanized and treated with impoliteness. Nevertheless, we would never see Oroonoko treated with disrespect. However, what we do see is Oroonoko welcomed like a king at the plantation in Surinam.
After all, the novel gives the notion that the ideologies of European culture are superior, and the slaves appreciated it. Besides, the whites’ behavior toward Oroonoko demonstrates that although their culture has the leading power in the colony, they admire Oroonoko’s ability to lead others, although his power to lead might be due to his Europeans sensibilities, not due to his African heritages. In contrast, the archival illustration evokes a lot of sorrow and compassion for the humans that were sold as slaves. It shows the harsh realities that were a genuine reality for slaves.
- Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. First Melville House Printing. August 2014.
- Slave Aution, Rio de Janeiro, 1858-1860.