In the beginning of Oroonoko, the narrator (an unnamed Englishwoman) directly addresses the reader to explain that the tale she is about to recount is completely true. She claims that she was an eyewitness to many of the events that took place in Suriname, South America. At the time (the 1660s), Suriname was a British colony. The narrator insists that anything she didn’t see, Oroonoko told her.
Before she begins the story of Oroonoko’s life, the narrator makes one further aside. She explains that it is necessary to first give the reader a historical and cultural account of the native people of Suriname. This, she says, will reveal why slaves are imported into the colony.
According to the narrator, the white colonists in Suriname apparently live with the natives in “perfect amity,” and don’t “command” them, but instead treat them with “brotherly and friendly affection.” The natives and the whites have established a robust economy with each other, trading goods which are considered foreign and exotic to each respective culture.
Next, the narrator details what the natives look like. Their exotic beauty, which is so different from the European idea of beauty, captivates her. She says that the natives “have all that is called beauty, except the color” and are “extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched.” They are also mostly naked (they wear loincloths), but because they are so used to seeing each other this way, partial nudity does not excite sexual feelings between men and women: “where there is no novelty, there can be no curiosity.”
For the narrator, the natives represent “an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin.” She proclaims that religion would only destroy their peace, which they naturally possess through “ignorance,” and laws would only teach them how to cause offense.
The narrator relates an important anecdote that illustrates the strong moral code governing the simple but virtuous society of the natives of Suriname. Apparently an English governor promised to come visit the natives on a certain day, but failed to show up or send an excuse for his absence. The natives believed that he must have died, because this was the only reason why someone would ever break a promise in their culture. When the governor finally came to them, the natives asked what the English thought of a man who broke his promise. Not realizing the natives were referring to him, the governor responded that that man would be considered “a liar,” saying that this was a word of “infamy” to gentlemen. The natives then accused the governor of being a liar, and guilty of that infamy. The narrator proclaims that “native justice” is far superior to the laws white men have to offer, and those laws would only teach the natives “vice” and “cunning.
The narrator wraps up her digression on the customs and cultures of the natives of Suriname by explaining that the English colonists rely on the natives for information about the foods to eat and trade. She reiterates that their relationship is one of friendship, but also adds that the natives outnumber the whites. Because the natives cannot be enslaved, she explains, the colony imports African slaves to work the sugar plantations
The narrator then briefly explains how the slave trade works. Those looking to purchase slaves make a deal with a ship’s captain to pay him so much per slave. The slaves on the ships are organized into lots of about ten people, three to four men and the rest women and children. The buyer cannot choose his lot, but has to be content with what the captain gives him. The colony in Suriname buys slaves that are prisoners of war—those captured by the army of Coramantien, the brave and warlike African nation from which Oroonoko came.
With this background, the narrator at last comes to the story of Oroonoko’s life. She begins by outlining his royal lineage, warrior upbringing, and the events that brought him to the West Indies (Caribbean). As the last living male descendant and the grandson of the King of Coramantien, a man with many wives, Oroonoko is sent away from court to learn the arts of war when he is five. He is trained by the country’s best and oldest general, the father of Imoinda, who becomes Oroonoko’s foster-father. By age 17, Oroonoko has become an expert captain, one of the best and bravest soldiers of the army, and is beautiful and admired by his people. However, tragedy strikes when his foster-father saves his life in battle, taking a fatal arrow in the eye that had been aimed at Oroonoko. Greatly saddened by this event, Oroonoko becomes the new general, finishes the war, and comes back to court.
Here the narrator makes another digression from the narrative to describe Oroonoko’s intelligence, morality, and beauty—the traits he was most admired for in the West Indies. She explains that Oroonoko grew up with a background in Western education due to his French tutor, an intelligent expatriate who taught him languages, morals, and science. Oroonoko also had an innate desire to learn about Western cultures. He learned English and Spanish by mingling with the English and Spanish slave traders he sold his prisoners to.
The narrator assures readers of the truth of Oroonoko’s merits by describing her own impressions of him, and the details of their first meeting. After hearing so much about him, she had been eager to see him, and was extremely surprised at how handsome he seemed to her—for a black man. His features are all the more remarkable to the narrator because they are not exactly like what she has seen of his race. His skin is “perfect ebony” instead “brown rusty black,” and his nose is “Roman, instead of African and flat.” Based on his fine appearance, she decides he must be a good ruler with a beautiful soul. His ability to speak intelligently about a number of subjects only confirms these opinions. Because Oroonoko is so beautiful both inside and out, the narrator also thinks him capable of “the highest degree of love,” which only the greatest souls can experience.
Slipping back into the chronological sequence of the narrative, the narrator reminds readers that the death of Oroonoko’s mentor (Imoinda’s father) has huge consequences other than just bringing Oroonoko back to court. Apparently the old general had a daughter, the last of his line, who is as beautiful and virtuous as Oroonoko himself. Once back at court, Oroonoko pays Imoinda (the general’s daughter) a visit to offer his condolences, and to give her a present of the slaves the army captured from her father’s last battle. Immediately Oroonoko is struck by Imoinda’s unparalleled beauty, and she by his. Each falls for the other. Oroonoko leaves smitten. In conversations with friends afterwards, he doesn’t even have to bring her up, because she is all they talk about.
Importantly, Oroonoko vows that Imoinda will be the only woman he marries, “contrary to the custom of his country.” Even when she’s old, wrinkly, and no longer beautiful, he promises that he will still see and love the eternal youth and beauty of her soul. Imoinda accepts his proposal and receives him “as the greatest honor the gods could do her.” The couple hold a ceremony, which the narrator forgets “to ask how ‘twas performed,” and both decide that they need the blessing of the King (Oroonoko’s grandfather). “Resignation to the monarch” and filial piety are both important virtues in their society.
Not much time passes before Oroonoko pays a second visit to the fair Imoinda. Shortly thereafter, the brave warrior, unused to talking with women, professes his love for her in a speech inspired by an “unknown power [that] instructed his heart and tongue in the language of love.” Imoinda is likewise inspired to relate her passion to him.
The narrator then provides some details about the old King, who is not like Oroonoko at all. Though he is almost one hundred years old, the King is still interested in women, and has many wives and concubines. When he hears of Imoinda’s beauty, the King immediately decides that he has to find out if she is worth adding to his legion of concubines. Before inviting her to court for his “private use,” the King has some reconnaissance work done. He discovers, to his chagrin, that Imoinda is Oroonoko’s “mistress.”
The King is hardly dissuaded by this news, however. One day when Oroonoko is out hunting, he brings Imoinda to the palace, wanting to discreetly observe her and her feelings towards Oroonoko. One of the King’s attendants brings Imoinda to the palace to give her a present. He tells her the present is from Oroonoko, but actually it is just the King’s bait.
Suspecting nothing, Imoinda is naturally overjoyed to receive what she thinks is Oroonoko’s gift. She expresses her feelings for Oroonoko in no uncertain way before the King. Seeing Imoinda’s beauty, however, the King resolves that he must have her, even though she loves Oroonoko. He is slightly upset to discover that Imoinda is truly in love with Oroonoko, but he reassures himself that Imoinda will surely accept his proposition. He knows that his people must obey their king like a god, so Imoinda’s sense of duty will surely override her love for Oroonoko and compel her to be his concubine.
Decided on this plan, the King immediately sends the royal veil to Imoinda. In Coramantien this is a universally understood symbol that denotes “the ceremony of invitation,” and decrees that Imoinda should cover herself with the veil and come to the King’s bed. Disobeying this signal, the narrator warns, is not only an immediate cause for execution, but also “a most impious disobedience.”
When Imoinda receives the veil, she is horrified, but she also knows that “delays in these cases are dangerous, and pleading worse than treason.” Trembling and faint with fear, Imoinda dons the veil and departs for the Otan: the King’s private pleasure palace.
Meanwhile, the King has ordered a bath to be prepared, and he is sitting in the tub when Imoinda finally arrives. He coarsely tells her to take off her clothes and come to his arms. However, Imoinda starts crying and falls to the edge of the bathtub, pleading with the King to listen to her.
Imoinda explains that she is still a virgin, and says that she would gladly give her virginity to the King, except that it is not hers to bestow on any man but her husband. She also reminds the King that their country’s laws and his own sense of honor would prevent him from sleeping with her, as well. Imoinda finishes her speech by telling the King that she does not want to “be the occasion of making him commit a great sin” by hiding her married state.
The King is furious that Imoinda is trying to deny him, and she is terrified to be doing so. To make her shut up and comply, the King demands that she reveal the name of her husband. Imoinda is about to tell him when the King purposely interrupts her, threatening death to whomever she names as her husband, even if it be Oroonoko himself! The King demands that Imoinda deny her marriage and swear herself a virgin, the latter of which she has to do, since she has not actually slept with Oroonoko yet. The King is satisfied with this assurance and leads an unresisting but miserable Imoinda into the bath.
Oroonoko returns from his hunt and finds Imoinda missing. When he finds out that she has been presented with the royal veil, he is so distraught that he wants to hurt himself, but he is stopped by his attendants. After calming down, Oroonoko begins to despair to his friends over the hopelessness of ever getting Imoinda back from the King. For even when the king dies, it would be taboo for Oroonoko to marry a woman who had been his grandfather’s consort. And even if Oroonoko ignores the custom, he would dishonor his successors. It would be better, he laments, if he and Imoinda could escape to “some unknown world [that had] never heard our story.”
Oroonoko’s friends try to comfort him by telling him that his grandfather is in the wrong, and the law is on his side. Oroonoko takes some comfort in this idea, and decides that he has to see Imoinda to find out if she is still a virgin. However, getting into the Otan to see her won’t be easy. Oroonoko knows that he can only enter if the King invites him—to trespass is death. Lacking an immediate plan to gain an invitation, he can only wait and suffer.
In the meantime, the King is suffering, too. Not only does he feel bad about taking away Imoinda from his noble grandson, but every time he is with Imoinda, her weeping reminds him of his treachery. When she is with the King, Imoinda is bold enough to speak often about her husband, something the King allows because he still dotes on Oroonoko.
To make matters worse for Oroonooko, the King has been asking his friends and attendants how he’s been coping with the loss of Imoinda. Concerned about Oroonoko’s safety, they all lie and tell the King what he wants to hear: Oroonoko has gotten over Imoinda and fills his time studying, hunting, and training his army. The King is pleased by this news, and gloats about it to Imoinda, hoping to get her to stop pining for her lover and properly attend to the King instead. Imoinda pretends to be unconcerned whenever the King starts gloating, but inside her heart is breaking. She is only happy when she can be alone and give vent to her grief.
In time, Oroonoko and the King have a number of meetings. By carefully hiding his true feelings, Oroonoko convinces the King that he is no longer in love with Imoinda. Eventually Oroonoko is invited to the Otan to dine.
Despite being able to fool the King, when Oroonoko sees Imoinda for the first time since she’s been taken away, he blushes deeply and almost faints. The narrator interrupts to confirm that it is indeed possible for dark-skinned people to blush—she’s seen it. Luckily for Oroonoko, his good friend, Aboan, is there to support him, and the King happens to look away at the right moment.
Imoinda is overjoyed to see Oroonoko so pained, because now she knows that he still loves her. While caressing the King, she steals several glances at Oroonoko. Whenever their eyes meet, Imoinda’s pained expression tells him that she doesn’t want to be there either. They continue speaking through their eyes until Onahal, one of the King’s older wives and Imoinda’s keeper, opens a door, and Oroonoko sees she has decorated the bed. The King then rises and leads Imoinda off to the bedroom. Oroonoko is so upset that he cannot control his rage, and he falls to the floor, groaning for a long time.
When Onahal finishes attending to the King and his concubine, she exits the bedroom and retires to wait until she is called. She passes by the room where Oroonoko is still lying on the floor, and hears his moaning. She administers cordials to restore him to his senses, but then realizes that lovesickness is what ails him. Onahal changes her tactics and tries to console Oroonoko by telling him that the King cannot do Imoinda any real harm, because the King cannot perform when he tries to have sex with her. Onahal tells Oroonoko that Imoinda still loves him.
Oroonoko’s friend Aboan, who has presumably been with Oroonoko the entire time, agrees with Onahal’s assessment. Soon, all three sit down and Oroonoko tries to convince Onahal to help him. She agrees to act as messenger for the lovers.
The talk with Onahal gives Oroonoko new hope, and allows him to act unconcerned when the King and Imoinda emerge from the bedroom. The King requests entertainment, and his concubines and young wives all dance. Oroonoko watches only Imoinda, the most graceful of the dancers. In the meantime, Onahal and Aboan retire to a secluded window seat.
The narrator again interrupts the narrative to describe Onahal’s position in the court. No longer beautiful, she has been cast off by the King and is in charge of instructing the young wives and concubines, as a sort of governess. The narrator imagines what Onahal must think and feel about her new role, and decides that she must feel badly used. For his part, Oroonoko too fears that Onahal might be unwilling to help him because the King no longer desires her.
Returning to the narrative, the narrator describes what transpires between Aboan and Onahal in the window seat. Aboan is a beautiful and virtuous man, like Oroonoko, and because he has visited the Otan often, he has captured Onahal’s interest. The narrator points out that even though she is old, Onahal is still capable of love.
Aboan is no fool, and he knows that Onahal likes him. He recognizes that courting her could help advance his career, and he’s not vain enough to be picky about the appearance of a woman who is sexually available. Plus, knowing of Oroonoko’s longing to be with Imoinda, he sees an opportunity to help his friend by seducing Onahal. Aboan flirts with Onahal in the window seat, and finds her receptive to his advances.
When the King breaks up the festivities to retire, Aboan returns to Oroonoko with the news of his success with Onahal. Oroonoko asks Aboan to continue to seduce Onahal so that Aboan can ask her to help orchestrate a secret meeting between Oroonoko and Imoinda. Aboan readily agrees, and the two are both impatient to return to the Otan.
Soon a war has broken out, however, and Oroonoko must go to the front lines. He vows to meet with Imoinda the next time he goes to the Otan before he leaves. Though Oroonoko doesn’t realize it, spies have informed the King about the persistent love between his grandson and favorite concubine. This is why Oroonoko’s deployment is being hastened.
When an invitation to return to the Otan arrives, Oroonoko senses that this will be his last chance to be with Imoinda before they are separated again. He urges Aboan to do his best with Onahal. At the Otan, the women again dance to entertain the King, while Onahal and Aboan slip off to a corner. When they are alone, Onahal confesses that she wants to take only one lover: Aboan. Aboan charms her, telling her that he wants her too. He also asks for proof of her love.
Onahal is overjoyed to hear this. She tries to give Aboan her pearl earrings, but he tells her that instead he wants an hour alone with her—implying that he wants to sleep with her. Giving him the pearls anyway, Onahal whispers instructions: she will meet him at the gates of the orange groves behind the Otan at midnight.
All this time, the King is engrossed in the dancing and focuses on Imoinda, who seems prettier than ever because Onahal has been giving her news about Oroonoko. Oroonoko too watches Imoinda, and she watches him. Unfortunately, as she dances closer to the prince, she is distracted from her steps and loses her balance. Oroonoko leaps up and catches her before she falls.
Everyone in the court sees how happy Oroonoko is to hold Imoinda. He is so excited to have her in his arms that he clasps her close, forgetting that doing so means certain death. Imoinda, however, is much more sensible of the danger Oroonoko is in. To protect him, she springs from his arms and continues dancing, as though nothing had happened.
Seeing this exchange, the King’s jealousy flares. He stops the entertainment and drags Imoinda away, sending word behind him that the Prince must depart for war immediately—if Oroonoko stays another night, he will die for his disobedience. Meanwhile Onahal, recognizing that her happiness with Aboan depends on prolonging Oroonoko’s stay, tells them both to come to the gate before they leave the Otan.
Behind closed doors, the King confronts Imoinda. He thinks she and Oroonoko planned her fall, and he doesn’t listen when Imoinda protests her innocence. The King leaves Imoinda in her apartments and returns to his own. He then dispatches an attendant to check if Oroonoko is getting ready to leave for battle. Upon hearing that Oroonoko is not making any preparations, the King orders his guard to spy on Oroonoko and send a report of his movements to him.
At midnight, spies watch Oroonoko and Aboan arrive at the Otan’s back gate, where Onahal lets them in. They relay this information to the King. Meanwhile Onahal leads Oroonoko to Imoinda’s apartment, and then drags Aboan to her own
Oroonoko approaches the sleeping Imoinda and awakens her with his caresses. Imoinda is still a virgin, and this, the narrator says, makes the ensuing consummation of their marriage all the sweeter.
As the couple lay in bed, they hear a great commotion in the Otan. Hearing the voices of many men outside Imoinda’s chambers, Oroonoko springs out of bed and grabs his battleax to fend off the intruders. He yells at them that he, the Prince, demands them to stand back or else he will kill the first to enter. Recognizing his voice, the men respond that the King has ordered them to investigate the break in. Before departing, they give Oroonoko a friendly warning to leave quickly before he is killed. Oroonoko and Imoinda say a quick, sad goodbye, and Oroonoko leaves for camp.
Shortly thereafter, the enraged King confronts Imoinda and Onahal. Hoping to buy Oroonoko time and save his life, both women lie and say that Oroonoko broke in and raped Imoinda. Because Imoinda has been “ravished,” and by the King’s own kin at that, she is now a “polluted thing” that the King no longer wants and can no longer have. He cannot simply give Imoinda back to Oroonoko, however, because she was given the royal veil. The King feels spiteful, and decides against executing Imoinda (a noble punishment). Though both women plead for death, he decides to instead sell them as slaves to a far-off land—an ignoble punishment for anyone of high status.
After executing this plan, the King does feel some remorse. He recognizes for the first time that he has infringed upon great love, the purity of which his courtiers now all openly testify to. He also admits that Oroonoko had good reason to do all he did. But the King mostly repents of his cruelty to Imoinda out of fear of retribution from Oroonoko. He knows that in selling her he acted rashly, and that Oroonoko could hurt himself in his grief—or worse, hurt the King as revenge. The king dispatches a messenger to lie to Oroonoko and tell him that Imoinda was executed.
The messenger arrives as Oroonoko is preparing for battle. Oroonoko guesses that Imoinda is dead from the messenger’s downcast looks. The messenger also informs Oroonoko of the King’s sorrow and guilt. Oroonoko promises not to seek revenge, because death will be coming for the King soon anyway, thus serving a quicker justice than Oroonoko could. Oroonoko falls into a deep depression and refuses to fight. Because of this, his army, now led by Aboan, does poorly in battle and is close to losing.
When they are about to lose, Oroonoko’s fighting spirit gets the best of his grief. He storms into battle and gravely wounds the leader of the opposition, a man named Jamoan, and wins the war. He later takes Jamoan as a slav
fter the war, Oroonoko decides to stay in his camp rather than return to court, the site of his grief. Jamoan, his French tutor, Aboan, and all his troops try to cheer Oroonoko up. In time, his heartache lessens. After ignoring numerous summonses from the King to come home, Oroonoko reluctantly returns. He is received with great pomp, and is honored for his victory. Now a changed man, the prince is not interested in “any sort of amour” anymore.
Not long after Oroonoko’s return, an English slave trader arrives in Coramantien’s port. The Captain of the ship has a good rapport with the generals of Coramantien, having purchased many slaves from them before. The Captain is also friends with Oroonoko, who esteems his intelligence and elegance, and receives him as a royal guest. The Captain’s visit continues for some time, and both men seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
As the date for the Captain’s departure draws near, he invites Oroonoko to dine with him onboard his ship, in order to repay the prince’s generosity. Oroonoko accepts the invitation, and the Captain prepares the ship for a royal reception. Oroonoko, his French tutor, Aboan, Jamoan, and around 100 of the noblest male courtiers come aboard the ship that night. The Captain plies them all heavily with wine.
The Coramantiens get drunk and explore the ship with delight. Suddenly, the Captain gives a signal, and his sailors seize all the guests and chain them up. The ship then sets sail, bound for the New World, where the Captain plans to sell the kidnapped men into slavery.
The narrator notes that some readers might consider the Captain’s act “brave,” but she leaves out her opinion, letting her reader “judge as he pleases.”
During the journey, Oroonoko is kept apart from his men and is tightly bound to prevent his escape. Greatly resentful of this treatment, he refuses to eat. His men do the same, and they begin to starve to death, resolved to die rather than become slaves. This hunger strike vexes the Captain, who stands to lose a fortune if his cargo dies. He sends a sailor to apologize to Oroonoko, because the Captain is too ashamed to see him himself. On the Captain’s orders, the sailor lies to the Prince, telling him that the Captain has decided to release the men at the next port, if they will promise to eat.
Believing that the Captain will keep his promise, Oroonoko agrees and swears an oath. Oroonoko is a man of honor and would never break a promise—something the Captain has planned for. For his part, Oroonoko expects that in making this promise, he will be freed from his shackles. But the Captain denies him this, because he doesn’t trust that the Prince won’t try to take revenge. Oroonoko then makes another promise: that he will be friendly and obey the Captain if he can be released from his chains
The back-and-forth between Oroonoko, the messenger, and the Captain continues. The Captain again refuses to release Oroonoko, saying that he can’t trust the oath of a non-Christian. Oroonoko is sorry to hear that the Captain does not know “to credit as he would be credited.” Oroonoko explains that to break an oath in his religion means he would be considered dishonorable for the rest of his life, and would experience eternal torment in the afterlife. After explaining this, Oroonoko refuses to negotiate through the messenger anymore.
Realizing that he has no choice but to free Oroonoko if he is to sell healthy slaves, the Captain relents. He also concludes that Oroonoko must be able to visit his men in order to keep up their morale. Meanwhile the Frenchman has been secured to prevent him from aiding the Prince, but the Captain does not consider him a prisoner because he is white.
The Captain finally visits Oroonoko and removes his irons, leaving him to rest and eat, but encouraging him to visit his men. The Captain reassures Oroonoko of his word. The Prince, who has no reason to suspect further treachery, visits his men, and they rejoice at the sight of him. They are not released from their chains, but they bear their load bravely and with more ease, knowing that their dear leader is safe.
After this all the captured men eat, and the Prince’s attendants are even “pleased with their captivity” because by it, they hope to redeem the Prince. Oroonoko, however, considers his capture to be punishment for leaving Imoinda behind to be murdered. Needless to say, the Captain reneges on his promise to free the men.
Finally the ship arrives in Suriname, an English colony in South America. Oroonoko and each of his men are put in separate lots along with other slaves. A man named Trefry buys the first lot, which contains Oroonoko and 17 more slaves.
On his way off the ship, Oroonoko gives the Captain a furious look, which makes the Captain blush. Oroonoko shouts that he now knows the truth about the Captain and the gods he swears by. As he leaps into Trefry’s boat, Oroonoko urges his fellow slaves to not resist, because they might “meet with more honor and honesty” in the New World.
During Oroonoko’s boat ride, the narrator describes Trefry, the young Cornish gentleman who has purchased Oroonoko. Trefry manages the plantation of an unnamed Lord. He is very good at math and linguistics and, like Oroonoko, can speak several languages.
Trefry immediately recognizes that Oroonoko is different from the average slave, due to his fancy garb and his regal attitude. Upon discovering that Oroonoko can speak English, Trefry guesses that Oroonoko is more exceptional than what he confesses to be. This assumption causes Trefry to admire Oroonoko, and to treat him with great civility.
Trefry’s behavior and their discovered common interests help Oroonoko relax on the boat ride. The two men engage in a mutually enjoyable conversation, and Oroonoko thinks that slavery under such an intelligent master might not be so bad. By the end of the ride upriver, Oroonoko has confided his story to Trefry and pledged his fortune and service to him. Trefry abhors the Captain’s antics, and promises to help conduct Oroonoko back to his homeland. He also pledges to find out about the condition and location of Oroonoko’s men, whom the prince is worried about.
Because of his fresh experiences with betrayal, Oroonoko doesn’t really believe that the promises of this “backearary,” or white person, are necessarily creditable. But he also sees sincerity in Trefry’s face, and is impressed enough by his wisdom to have some hope in his new master
While they have been travelling upriver, Trefry has periodically stopped in at great riverside estates for refreshments. At these stops, large crowds have gathered on the banks to see Oroonoko, whose fame has preceded him. Oroonoko is uncomfortable with this attention, and asks Trefry to give him simpler clothes. But even in wearing clothes befitting a slave, crowds of admirers still gather and easily pick him out. People “could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it,” even when they don’t know he is a prince.
Also during the journey to the plantation, Trefry gives Oroonoko a Christian name, a common practice amongst slave owners. For the rest of the tale Oroonoko is referred to as “Caesar,” a name chosen to reflect his martial and leadership skills. The narrator remarks that Caesar’s “misfortune” was to come to an obscure world, a world in which many died or were banished after the Dutch took control of Suriname years later. This left only the narrator’s “female pen” to record the story of the royal slave, Oroonoko. In another aside, she says that Trefry never even had the chance to begin telling this story.
Back in the narrative, Caesar comes to Parham House, the great house of the plantation, where he is received as a governor rather than a slave. He stays there for a few days, and even receives guests. He is really a slave in name only, and does not do any of the work an ordinary slave might do. When Caesar finally visits the part of the plantation where the slaves stay, they flock to see him and pay him homage.
Some white gentleman who accompany Caesar watch this spectacle with intrigue, because it confirms Trefry’s hunch that Caesar is not ordinary. Caesar doesn’t like this attention, however, and urges the kneeling people to treat him like a fellow slave. Instead, the slaves hold a banquet for him, which he and a few whites attend.
During the dinner, Trefry, who “loves to talk of love,” tells Caesar about Clemene, the beautiful “she-slave” whom everyone, white men included, is in love with. Trefry thinks that she is languishing for some lost love. Caesar, who because of his own tragic love story still cares about the topic, is surprised to hear that she denies herself to everyone, even her own kind. He admires her virtue.
The next day, Trefry and Caesar go on a walk, and Trefry points out Clemene’s house. Suddenly, a little dog runs out, followed by Clemene. Clemene tries to run back inside to avoid the men, but Trefry grabs her hand and introduces her to Caesar. Though Clemene doesn’t look either man in the eye, Caesar immediately recognizes her—it’s Imoinda! When Imoinda finally does look at Caesar, she faints, and he catches her. When she awakens, the joy on both their faces is palpable
Trefry is happy to have reunited the couple, and while they relate their misfortunes and pledge their love to each other, he rushes back to Parham House to tell the narrator the good news. The narrator is then impatient to meet Caesar’s love and befriend her. She remarks that after this incident, the colonists now pay Imoinda a “treble respect.” Before, they had respected her for being beautiful and virtuous, but now that they know she is Caesar’s beloved, they admire her even more.
Soon after reuniting, Caesar and Imoinda get married “to the general joy of all people.” Not long after, they conceive a child, which makes Caesar “more impatient of liberty.” He petitions Trefry to release him and Clemene, promising either gold or a vast quantity of slaves to be paid to him before their release, on the condition that Caesar would be certain of being released after paying the ransom.
Trefry and other colonists make daily promises to Caesar, hoping to delay his departure until the Lord Governor can come to Suriname and assess the situation. Caesar, meanwhile, suspects that they are delaying his release so that their baby will be born into slavery. This idea makes Caesar very sullen, and some colonists fear that he will lead the other slaves, who greatly outnumber the whites, to rebel. They tell the narrator to placate Caesar, and so she comes to spend much time entertaining the two royal slaves.
The narrator tells Caesar and Imoinda stories about the lives of the Romans, which Caesar enjoys, and she also tries to convert them to Christianity. She is unsuccessful with Caesar, who makes fun of the idea of the Trinity, but she seems to have more success with Clemene, who enjoys hearing stories about nuns.
Through these conversations, the narrator gets to know Caesar much better. She realizes that he likes the company of women more than that of men, because he cannot handle alcohol. She also notices that he grows less content the more Imoinda’s pregnancy develops, as he doesn’t want his child born a slave. He assuage the narrator’s fears that he would take up arms, however, and promises that he “could do nothing that honor did not dictate.” The narrator also learns that Caesar’s love for Imoinda alone helps him endure bondage.
Before Caesar leaves the narrator that day, she makes him promise to be patient a little while longer until the Lord Governor arrives. However, she and the rest of the colonists no longer think it safe to leave Caesar unaccompanied. They decide to have him accompanied by attendants who act as spies, particularly when he visits the slaves’ quarters.
These precautions are implemented for some time. Caesar doesn’t realize he’s being watched, but instead thinks that colonists are showing him increased respect, particularly as more gentlemen come to pay him visits. The narrator takes an important role in babysitting Caesar as well, planning several expeditions that allow him to channel his aggression and energy into hunting game.
Caesar once steals a tiger cub from a tigress, slaying the beast when it tries to attack the party. Another time, he kills an elusive tiger that had been poaching livestock from the plantations. Caesar also finds out that he cannot overcome the challenge of capturing an electric eel with his bare hands, and he is briefly ashamed to discover that he too succumbs to the numbing sickness that almost causes him to drown.
With Caesar in tow, the narrator and her friends search for “wonderful and strange things,” from exotic, aromatic flowers to new and delicious foods, like “aramadilly.” Reflecting on the richness and beauty of Suriname (the natives find gold flakes in the river) and her luxurious lifestyle (she lives in an fancy house near a waterfall), she suggests that if the English King had ever visited, he would not have ended up giving the colony to the Dutch.
During their excursions, the company also visits Indian villages to learn more about the natives. The relations between the British and the Indians are somewhat strained at this point, and some colonists fear the natives will attack. This later happens under the Dutch, the narrator notes. In retribution for their mistreatment, the natives invade the Dutch settlement, hanging women and children
With Caesar acting as guard on these ambassadorial missions, however, the English crew feel safe enough to enter the villages, even during a feud between the English and natives. They also take a bilingual Native fisherman along as guide.
The friendliness, ignorance, and simplicity of the natives, whom the English allow to touch their body parts, charm the narrator, and the natives likewise admire the white visitors. Through the interpreter, they learn about each other’s cultures and affairs. Caesar is curious to know why so many of the native soldiers are disfigured and heavily scarred: some are missing noses, ears, and lips. He is then impressed and a little shocked to learn that according to their art of war, to decide who should be general, two soldiers compete before a panel of judges. They are asked to prove their merit as generals, and each man silently responds by cutting off a piece of flesh from his own body until one gives up. Several die from this “passive valor they show [to] prove their activity.”
The narrator diverts Caesar through these outings for some time. However, as Imoinda enters the late stages of her pregnancy, Caesar grows more restless. One Sunday, while the whites, including Caesar’s spies, are drunk, Caesar steals away to visit the slave houses. He organizes a feast for them, during which he picks out 150 men able to bear arms. The narrator notes that few colonists have functioning weapons. Most do not oil their swords, which quickly rust because of the humidity, and most guns are corroded, unless they are brand-new from England. The slaves, on the other hand, are handy at using a bow and arrow, just like the natives.
At the feast, Caesar gives a passionate speech about the evils of slavery, its dehumanizing effects, and the dishonor of working for a corrupt race. He asks the slaves if they are content to suffer “the lash,” and they reply “no” in unison. Then Tuscan, the tallest and most elegant-looking slave of the crowd, interrupts Caesar’s speech. Bowing at Caesar’s feet, he reminds Caesar that most men have wives and children who would find it difficult to undertake the required journey through the harsh terrain to escape slavery. Caesar replies that “honor was the first principle in nature to be obeyed.” Under his plan, he would also lead all who desired freedom, women and children included. Only “degenerate” women, who were too afraid to follow their husbands and would rather remain slaves, would be left behind.
Everyone agrees to this plan, and Caesar adds that they can help one another on the journey. Men can take turns carrying tired children, and they can collectively gather food. Tuscan then asks what they should do. Caesar replies that they will travel towards the sea and form a new colony, which they will defend from attack until they can find a ship to seize. The ship will take them all back to their respective countries. The men vow to follow him to death.
That very night, the men return to their homes and prepare for their departure, making weapons and gathering supplies. The enslaved men, women, and children then depart early Monday morning. Later that day, when the overseers arrive to collect the slaves for work, they are astonished to see their dwelling places empty.
Six hundred so-called militia men, a rag tag group of whites, prepare to pursue the fugitives. The narrator notes that no “men of fashion” concern themselves with the affair, even though it could have fatal consequences for the whites. The reason is that these conscientious objectors are friends of Caesar, and some may have even helped him plan his escape. They also deplore the Parhamites, a faction of those who belong to the Parham House who don’t love the Lord Governor and who want to keep Caesar in slavery.
Deputy Governor Byam, the leader of the Parhamites, leads a band carrying whips, rusted guns (for show), and clubs into the jungle after Caesar. The narrator thinks Byam is a detestable person. He is the only leader who wants to use violence against Caesar, though he has before pretended to befriend him. Trefry also joins the group to act as a mediator. He foresees a grim ending to the slaves’ freedom run, and he hopes to get them to surrender peacefully and prevent them from committing suicide. Byam, the narrator notes, has different plans.
The Parhamites easily find the slaves’ trail, which has been well cleared by the hundreds of runaways. Caesar soon realizes he is being pursued, and he adopts a “posture of defense.” The women and children file to the back and the men come forward. The slaves don’t waste time trying to “parley” with the English—instead they begin fighting immediately, guerilla style.
Seeing their husbands being hurt and people dying all around, the enslaved women become frightened. When the English cry out, “Yield and live, yield and be pardoned,” wives and children rush into the fray and cling to their husbands and fathers, urging them to yield and leave the fighting to Caesar. Soon, only two fighters remain beside Caesar, Tuscan, and Imoinda. The rest have fled.
Imoinda is quite skilled with her bow. She wounds several of the whites with her poisoned arrows, including Byam. The narrator notes that he would have died if his Indian mistress had not sucked the poison out of his wound. Caesar, Tuscan, and Imoinda all resolve to die fighting rather than surrender and be captured. Recognizing this and now thirsting for a more exacting revenge against Caesar, Byam changes tactics and tries to negotiate.
Byam tells Caesar that his decision to revolt was rash, and that Byam’s men have stopped fighting because they esteem Caesar. Byam then promises to abide by any terms Caesar demands, and says that if his child is born on the island, he or she will be free. Byam also promises to put Caesar and his wife on the next passing ship and send them back to Coramantien. Caesar agrees that he acted rashly—saying that he should not have tried to free those who are by nature slaves—but he tells Byam that he has no faith in the white men or their gods anymore. Trefry believes Byam to mean what he says, however, and he privately persuades Caesar to surrender and name his conditions. Trefry even cries a little. Overcome by Trefry’s emotions and considering his wife’s condition, Caesar relents and signs a treaty with Byam. He also asks that Tuscan be pardoned.
After this is done, the colonists and the three slaves walk back toward the plantation. Upon reaching the place where slaves are whipped, however, the Parhamites grab Caesar and Tuscan, who are both surprised and exhausted. The colonists bind the men tightly and proceed to whip them, while Byam looks on.
During his lashing, Caesar makes no sound and does not struggle. He only looks angrily at Byam, and at each one of the runaway slaves who now take turns whipping him. The Parhamites then untie Caesar, and he falls to the ground, weak from the loss of blood. Next, they weigh him down with iron chains, rub Indian pepper on his skin to aggravate his wounds, and tie him to the ground, so he cannot move.
Imoinda has not seen Caesar’s punishment, as the Parhamites made sure to lock her up inside Parham House to prevent her from the miscarriage that seeing such a gruesome sight would likely induce. Meanwhile, the narrator and the other English women have been evacuated upriver, after hearing of Caesar’s flight earlier that day. They have no inkling that Caesar has been captured and horribly mistreated. They believe that he has overcome the white colonists and will return to slit their throats. Reflecting on the unfortunate events that took place, the narrator laments that she was not present at the time, because she had the power and authority to stop the violence against Caesar.
The women do not travel very far when the news of Caesar’s whipping reaches them. On the river, they meet Colonel Martin, a great friend of Caesar’s, who is very angry to hear about his mistreatment. The women transport him back to Parham House to intervene on Caesar’s behalf. When they arrive, they find Caesar in great pain. While they nurse him back to health, he confides his plan to kill Byam, whatever it takes. Caesar pledges to do no harm to the women and Trefry, who had no idea of Byam’s evil plans. They try to talk him out of this idea, but fail.
Byam, meanwhile, has been recovering from Imoinda’s poisoned arrow, and has also been planning his own revenge against Caesar. He calls his council, which is made up of men whom the narrator describes as “notorious villains” and ex-convicts. They conclude that Caesar must be made an example of to all the other slaves, so that they submit to their masters. They make a plan to hang Caesar.
At the same time, Trefry goes to Byam and tells him to stay away from his Lord’s servants (meaning Caesar) and that his authority does not extend to the plantation—Parham is a sanctuary. Trefry reminds Byam that men with more authority than Byam have an interest in Caesar, and would not let anything happen to him. Trefry has Byam’s council kicked out of Parham House, where they had been convening, and a guard is posted to only allow in friends of Caesar. Byam is allowed to stay until he is recovered.
As Caesar recovers, he begins to think about his next move. He realizes that he will never go back home to Coramantien, and accepts that he will be killed for murdering Byam. These thoughts do not trouble him, but what makes him truly sorrowful is thinking about what will happen to Imoinda and his child. He imagines that Imoinda will be raped by all the men and then killed. Caesar vows to prevent this from happening. He resolves himself to commit a dire act—a deed that first horrifies the narrator, but which she later comes to think is “brave and just.”
To carry out his plan, Caesar gets Trefry to let him take a walk with Imoinda, alone. They walk to a secluded forest, where Caesar gazes at his wife longingly. Then, crying heavily, he tells her of his plan—he is going to kill her to protect her from a disgraceful fate after he kills Byam. Hearing this news, Imoinda kneels before Caesar and begs him not to leave her a prey to his enemies. Caesar embraces her and then pulls out his knife. While he cries, Imoinda looks at him with joy because, as the narrator relates, she reveres Caesar like a deity. In their culture, when a man has any occasion to quit his wife, if he loves her, he kills her (if not, he sells her).
Caesar stabs Imoinda, and then lays her body on a heap of leaves and flowers. His grief swells into a rage and he turns the knife on himself. He wants to follow Imoinda into the afterlife, but only stops when he thinks of his vendetta against Byam—which cost him the life of his beloved.
Though still bent on revenge, Caesar finds that he cannot leave Imoinda’s side. He lies down beside her and does not stir for two days. He is slowly weakened by hunger, thirst, and—most of all—grief. Six more days pass
Back at the plantation, the colonists begin to worry when Caesar and Imoinda don’t return from their walk. They think that some accident has befallen the pair. A search party heads out, including Tuscan, who is now perfectly reconciled with Byam. They don’t travel far when the powerful stench of Imoinda’s rotting corpse leads them to Caesar. As they get closer to the source of the smell, they think they will find Caesar dead.
Hearing the search party approach, Caesar is finally able to stand up, having failed to do so for the past eight days. He staggers to a tree to support himself, and calls out to the search party not to come closer. The men are shocked to see the state Caesar is in, and inquire what he has done to Imoinda. He points to the pile of leaves, and they call him a monster for murdering her. Ignoring their questions, Caesar tells them to go back, and to tell Byam that he is lucky that Caesar’s body is too weak to exact revenge.
When the search party returns, Byam’s Council decides that now is the perfect time to seize Caesar and carry out their plan. They return to the forest, but are wary of approaching him, and ask which man will dare try to capture him. Caesar warns that he will kill any one who approaches. He cuts off part of his own throat and throws it at the men. Caesar tells them he knows he is dying and won’t achieve his revenge, and will be whipped again. A bold Englishman then tries to capture Caesar, but Caesar kills him with his knife.
Tuscan is moved by Caesar’s determination, and cries out that he loves him and won’t let him die. He runs toward Caesar and tries to take him in his arms, but Caesar stabs Tuscan in the arm. Then six men carry Caesar back to Parham House and have a surgeon attend to his wounds. Caesar’s friends rush to his side, but only see a disfigured and decrepit man who hardly resembles their beloved Caesar.
Six days later, because of the diligent care of his friends, Caesar is able to talk again. He demands that they let him die, or else he will cause death to a great many others. While his friends try to encourage him to live, the surgeon comforts Caesar by informing him that he won’t survive.
Around this time, the narrator falls ill and leaves Parham House to stay at Colonel Martin’s. While she is away, Byam sends Trefry on a hoax errand upriver. Then a wild Irishman named Banister, who is a member of Byam’s Council, kidnaps Caesar from Parham house. He brings Caesar back to the same whipping post as before. The Council ties Caesar up and lights a great fire before him.
Banister tells Caesar that he is going to die like the dog he is. Caesar responds that this is the “first piece of bravery Banister ever did,” and he says that Banister is the only white person he’s met who told him the truth.
Turning to his persecutors, Caesar asks them if he is going to be whipped or killed. The men of Byam’s Council cry out that he won’t escape with only a whipping. Caesar blesses their decision, and promises to stand still without flinching for his execution. But, he warns, if they intend to whip him, they should bind him tightly.
Before the Council begins to torture Caesar, he asks for a pipe (he has learned to smoke while in Suriname). Caesar smokes as the executioner first cuts off his genitals and throws them onto the fire. He continues smoking calmly as the executioner then uses an “ill-favored knife” to cut off his ears and nose, throwing both into the fire. Caesar continues to smoke even after they cut off one of his arms. After they cut off the other arm, however, Caesar stops smoking and his head sinks. He dies without a groan or a word of reproach.
The narrator’s mother and sister remain by Caesar’s side during his execution, but they don’t dare to intervene because the Council is so wild and angry. The Council later makes the women pay dearly for their “insolence,” but the narrator does not say how.
To conclude their barbarity, the Council cuts Caesar’s body into quarters, and then sends the sections of his body to the chief plantations of the colony—hoping to scare the other slaves into subservience. Colonel Martin, for his part, refuses his share of Caesar’s body, and swears he would rather have a quarter of Banister’s body instead. Besides, Colonel Martin argues that he can govern his slaves perfectly well without scaring them with the body of a “mangled king.”
The narrator concludes her story by expressing her hope that her tale will preserve Caesar’s “glorious name,” as well as that of “the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda.”