Colonial books: “Oroonoko” by Aphra Behn and “Robinson Crusoe” By Daniel Defoe: The comparative study on colonialism (My ENG 214: Survey Of English Literature II, semester assignment)

Colonization is a familiar word in modern times though its actual bulk lies in the past. Many cultures and traditions that are present today have many ties to this past. Many modern day novels now portray colonization in its actuality – harsh domination over the natural race of a particular land. However, it is important to note that during this period of colonization there were people writing of it and their opinion were quite different. Two such novels are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko; both are considered to be eighteen century novels dealing with the issue of colonialism. This paper aims to show the aspects of both Oroonoko and Robinson Crusoe that make them colonial novels.

Colonialism is the major theme for both the novels, however, when dealing with colonialism a number of subthemes emerge: Adventure, domination (especially by slavery), subjugation, detachment, and finally profit. Though both authors leave us the impression that they both believe colonization and slavery are just facets of the natural world, Behn and Defoe do not completely follow the same methods of describing it. Defoe makes Robinson Crusoe, his fictional character; possess a calculative and stoic mind bent on enforcing the Protestant Work Ethic in every situation but Behn, with her character Oroonoko, show that despite slavery being a common practice in the world it is not just to be taken lightly. Defoe decides to make Crusoe a practical and rational ‘white’ human being while Behn, despite the popular belief of that time, attempts to ‘humanize’ Oroonoko in the context that he is just not another slave. Both novels are differentiated by this significance, Robinson Crusoe treats colonialism as an adventurous and necessary action for the progress of humanity while Oroonoko is about the one who is enslaved and implicitly questions the whole structure of slavery.

Adventure is one of the central themes of any colonial novel; as Professor Firdous Azim pointed out in a lecture concerning Oroonoko, the new lands to the white man are seemingly awaiting virgins to be ravaged and exploited. Robinson Crusoe, as a novel, embodies this concept; Crusoe’s eagerness to seek other lands and become an explorer is the ideology of the colonizers. As Edward Said expertly stated in the Introduction of his popular book, Orientalism, that the Other (meaning those who are not white) are the Exotic and it is their lands that must conquered along with them. Crusoe, as my friend Robina presented in her lecture about the novel, is a guide and his biography can be considered as a sort of a guidebook to other colonizers. This is quite true if the novel’s events are followed chronologically; despite Crusoe’s best efforts to abandon his ideas of being an explorer for the disasters that overtake him at sea, he always gets lucky enough to reap the benefits of his situation. The first time he is shipwrecked he managed to escape and start anew, the second time he ventures out to sea he is captured and enslaved yet eventually escapes to start life anew once more. It is important to note that when he escapes from slavery he enslaves the boy Xury, who was already the slave of his former master, and fares quite well in the boat that he escaped with. There is a sense of adventure in this despite his claims of being in a ‘dilemma’ in which ‘[he] was very pensive’ and feared ‘[he] must perish’. After he is rescued he is able to go to Brazil and make a fortune in being a plantation owner. Though he was marooned in the island afterwards he is seen to make fairly good progress in keeping himself alive and even those details are somewhat glorified with how he makes his home, his bower and establishes his faith once more. All these are explicit colonial techniques – firstly, one must be white to be a good colonizer and leader, secondly, one must accept Christianity to be successful and lastly, he must manipulate everything around him to gain supremacy. These, as Defoe implies, are the rites of passage that make a man fit for adventure. In my opinion they are elaborately fictitious accounts that only seem to elevate the white man. For Crusoe’s companionship with Lady Luck seems too exaggerated and only benefits him, not those around him.

Oroonoko is the different perspective; Oroonoko is the one enslaved, he had been colonized, and for him, unfortunately, it is not an adventure. To him the Other will most definitely be the colonizers and their way of life, and Behn sympathizes this account by saying “ he finds diversions for every minute, new and strange.’ He too is in a foreign land, that of Surinam in the West Indies, but despite his superior qualities at adaptability (which are strangely more realistic than Crusoe’s) he cannot ravage these virgin lands as an adventurer. Though Behn coins his life as ‘adventures’ it is obvious by his need to rebel and be free that he found all his exotic surroundings a constant reminder of his oppression. Even marriage to his beloved Imoinda does not soothe the aggression he feels for being a slave. He knows he is a slave and though he has learned new ways, they are not his own, naturally, this would frustrate anyone. His actions show that colonizers idea of a romantic adventure is horrendously flawed as one must become “Europeanized” to achieve it. This is both unjust and diabolical. 

Domination and Subjugation work hand in hand in both the novels. With Crusoe’s voyage we see how white men are becoming ubiquitous; they can be found in various parts of the world in which they seek new lands to conquer and make their own. This is made evident by Crusoe himself for both the times he is cast out at sea he wishes to see a White trade ship in which he knows he will find safety. When he is finally marooned on the island he decides to colonize himself and does that easily as he is the only permanent inhabitant. The introduction of the cannibals and Friday does not really change that. He has taken the throne in this island and the Other are now the tribes that come occasionally to make sacrifices. It is his interaction with Friday that show how he has the upperhand in everything. Firstly, Friday is a willing prisoner for he is been abandoned by his own people thus it seems wiser to him to befriend the strange white man. Crusoe, from the very beginning, wants Friday as his slave as to him every coloured person is a creature who must become a slave (he seems to have forgotten the ‘friendly Negroes’ who had saved him when he was rebelling from his own slavery). He does not bother to learn Friday’s language, nor does he bother to learn of Friday’s real name. To him his only wish is to save:

 The Soul of a poor Savage, and bring him to the true Knowledge of Religion, and of the Christian Doctrine, that he might know Jesus Christ, to know whom is Life Eternal.  I say, when I reflected on all these Things, a secret Joy run through every Part of my Soul, and I frequently rejoyc’d that ever I was brought to this Place…

It is obvious by these statements that Crusoe from before wished to impose his beliefs on Friday, his noble ‘savage’. It is quite an colonial aspect from the start, Friday must call Crusoe Master and cater to his every need. To Defoe all is right in the world.

Behn is more of a teacher than an enslaver of Oroonoko; though she objectifies him as well with describing his physical beauty in a European manner, she actually still acknowledges that he is beautiful and highly intelligent. She goes even far on saying:

The perfections of his mind come short of those of his person, for his discourse was admirable upon almost any subject; and whoever heard him speak would have been convinced of their errors…and would have confessed that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well…

Though these attributes are considered common to a prince Behn acknowledges them which is far from what Defoe does. She even believes that the indigenous people of Surinam are morally superior than White people and thus implies that enslaving them would be a blatant sin. She only thinks Oroonoko people can be enslaved as they buy and sell their own people as a contract with the White merchants. Oroonoko treating her as his confidante and telling her about his wish to rebel actually makes her ponder on her own social beliefs. Crusoe, in isolation, despite his claims at Providence, remains the same.

Crusoe and Behn both, however, do follow the need to be detached. To Crusoe, anything can become a commodity – the slavery of himself to which he bore no real grudge (as my classmate Robina established in her lecture) proves that the making of profit (the Christian work Ethic) remains supreme thus he does things with a calculative mind. But Behn only stays detached when she describes Oroonoko’s death as it would be dangerous for her, she being a white and a woman, to explicitly state the injustice to the prince. To her Oroonoko is like the ‘mighty river Oroonoko’ (ironically this line is from Robinson Crusoe) who is supposed to be remembered and respected.

In conclusion, though both Behn and Defoe write on colonization their approaches are different. Defoe believes it is the natural state of things and a whole new adventure. To Behn, however, she makes us think both ways, sure, slaves are possibly a necessity but is it truly alright? I believe both books do an excellent job as colonial novels.

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