Behn, Aphra

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Behn, Aphra

Behn, Aphra (1640-1689) English playwright and fiction writer

England's first abolitionist author, Aphra Behn (born Aphra Johnson) wrote feminist, anti-imperialist fiction during the English Restoration that depicted women compromised by sexism, SLAVERY, and racism. At some point in her life, either in her childhood with her parents or as an adult about 1663 (sources vary), she traveled to the Suriname River in eastern Venezuela, the source of her interest in bicultural relations in South America and the West Indies. At home at a sugar colony on St. John's Hill, Suriname, she kept a journal and educated herself through reading. In the mid-1660s, she began writing under the pseudonym Astraea. She married Johan Behn, a Dutch or German merchant, in England in 1664, though some scholars doubt whether she married at all. In 1668, after spying for Charles II in Antwerp, Belgium, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67) and failing to be reimbursed for her expenses, she spent a short time in debtors' prison.

To clear herself of debt, Behn began writing for the stage. One tragedy based on the Othello myth, Abdelazar; or, The Moor’s Revenge (1671), features a vengeance plot and themes of slavery and racism during the Hapsburg rule of Spain. Like a Moroccan Moses, the title character, a blackskinned prince rescued during the sack of Fez, serves the Spanish as a general but dies in ignominy in prison after a lifetime of nurturing hatred for the Spanish conquerors of the Moroccan royal family. In reference to his misery living at the royal court of a European empire enslaved as the lover of Queen Isabella, he complains, “I cannot ride through the Castilian streets, / But a thousand eyes / Throw killing looks at me” (Behn 2004, 5). He later explains the contretemps generated by the seizure of a black nation by Hispanic forces when King Philip stole the crown of King Abdela of Fez. The fifth act closes on a familiar racist stereotype, the defense of white womanhood by male family members.

With the rapid development of the transAtlantic slave trade from West Africa, Behn produced a tragic novella, Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688). This elegiac work centers on humanist outrage at the Dutch flesh trade and the loss of love, dynasty, and home in the deaths of Oroonoko, his lover Imoinda, and their unborn child, a symbol of promise for the black race. Behn replaces the title character's negroid traits with European features and expressions. Christian posturing becomes the pretense by which enslavers trick black captives and force them to work on the sugarcane plantation of Lord Willoughby of Parham. Alternatives for the more rebellious heathens range from imprisonment to shackling, lashing, torture, and execution. The fate of those who escape and the deception of tribal blacks into bondage merge in a critical speech in which the hero, the nobleman called Caesar, denounces imperial degeneracy. He demands, “And why my dear friends and fellow-sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people… . We are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools and cowards” (Behn 1994, 61). The romance influenced Behn's contemporary, the playwright Thomas Southerne, as well as the Hispano- Cuban writer Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, author of Sab (1841), an antislavery drama.


Behn, Aphra. Abdelazar; or, The Moor’s Revenge.

Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004.

----- . Oroonoko and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Brown, Laura. Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.