Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn was, according to Virginia Woolf, the first English woman to earn her living as a writer. Little is known about her life, but she was famous in her lifetime for her plays, poetry and fiction. Her short novel Orinooco is the story of an African prince, in love with a beautiful African princess; both are enslaved and taken to Surinam, in South America. There Orinooco inspires a slave revolt and is cruelly punished. The story is remarkable for its sympathetic portrayals of the noble and virtuous Orinooko, his lover Imoinda, and of African and Amerindian culture. Aphra Behn visited Surinam, probably in 1663-4, and the story is based on experience.

Aphra Behn is critical of the slave trade and the hypocrisy of Christians, and, as narrator, often expresses ideas that seem ahead of her time, making a clear distinction between morality and religion. She describes a Frenchman as “a man of very little religion [but with]…admirable morals and a brave soul.” She gives Orinooco a speech in which he responds to an oath (later broken) made by a Christian “sworn in the name of a great god, which if he should violate, he would expect eternal torment in the world to come. ‘Is this all the obligation he has to be just to his oath?’ replied Orinooco. ‘Let him know I swear by my honour, which to violate would not only render me contemptible and despised of all brave and honest men, and so give myself perpetual pain, but it would be eternally offending and diseasing all mankind…’”

This linking of morality with personal integrity and the respect of others, rather than with fear of eternal punishment, is essentially humanist. The story is of interest to humanists as an early example of a critique of aspects of Christian culture (“Such ill morals are only practised in Christian countries where they prefer the bare name of religion and, without virtue or morality, think that’s sufficient”), and its wide-ranging and open-minded humanity. It was widely read and popular, and often seen as an early anti-slavery novel.