Effects of Punishment by Burning and Oroonoko

Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko and the image “Effects of Punishment by Burning, Richmond, Virginia, 1866” from Harper’s Weekly exhibit the devastating and inhumane nature of punishments from slavery. Behn’s novel follows the tragic tale of a man who, forced by the hands of slavery, murders his family, while the image shows the horrible torture done to a young woman. Both pieces of work display the atrocities of slave punishment and show that slavery is the direct or indirect cause of violence towards enslaved African-Americans.

The image of the young unidentified woman is taken from The University of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Slavery Images” archive. The image was published in “Harper’s Weekly” on July 28, 1866. According to the article, the woman in the image was thirteen years old when she was brutally punished for upsetting or annoying her mistress for reasons unknown. She was locked in a room alone for a little over a week when the mistress came in and repeatedly burned her during that time. Because of this, the mistress was arrested but was released after making bail. The black and white painting depicts the young African-American girl with several burn marks lining her back and arms. She also appears to have several burns on her head and her left hand appears to be covered by a bandage. The young woman appears to be sitting on a chair looking towards the opposite direction with her dress pulled down toward her waistline to show where she has been burned on her body. Underneath the image, the caption reads “Marks of punishment inflicted upon a colored servant in Richmond, Virginia”. From this painting, the viewer can assume that this is about the punishment given to the slave by the slave owner. This image displays one of the many forms of punishment that slaves had to go through. This painting can evoke an emotional response for those who view it because it shows the aftermath of a cruel punishment that someone wrongly endured.

Behn’s Oroonoko displays the inner turmoil the protagonist Oroonoko faces when he tries to decide whether he should get his revenge on Byam for selling him into slavery. Oroonoko knows that if he was to attempt killing Byam, his plan could possibly fail which would result in his death. The narrator states, “He consider’d, if he should do this deed, and die either in the attempt, or after it, he left his lovely Imoinda a prey, or at best a slave to the enraged multitude; his great heart could not endure that thought” (217). Oroonoko couldn’t endure the thought of his wife being alone and enslaved for the rest of her life. She would be vulnerable and more susceptible to the nasty lusts of other men and even death. His fear of slavery ultimately drives him to murder his wife and unborn child to free them from the pain and suffering of being a slave. The narrator continues, “he told her his design, first of killing her, and then his enemies, and next himself, and the impossibility of escaping, and therefore he told her the necessity of dying” (217). He concludes that since their chances of escaping slavery are impossible, he tells Imoinda that death is the only thing that will free them. In this sense, slavery has indirectly caused the deaths of Oroonoko’s family. Although Oroonoko murdered his wife with his own hands, slavery was the reason for his actions.

The image from the “Slavery Images” archive depicts one of many acts of violence against African-Americans. Similar to Oroonoko, the young woman in the image is a slave who was abused by her captor. As a slave, she was more vulnerable to violence and abuse from the slave owners. Although the woman was arrested, she made bail and was able to return home. This shows that violence towards slaves was normalized and accepted during that time. The article does not mention what happened to the young woman after this incident, but the reader can assume that this woman may have been abused again. Violence towards slaves was allowed because they were seen as merely the property of the slave owners who bought them. After they were bought, they could do anything they wanted to them, which resulted in the physical abuse that many slaves experienced. The same idea can be seen in Behn’s Oroonoko. Before being kidnapped and sold into slavery by Byam, Oroonoko was the last descendant of the royal line in Coramantien and seen as a noble hero who led his men with honor. When he was in his country, Oroonoko was treated with respect but after being stripped of his royal status, he was merely the property of Trefry. Although his slave owner was kindhearted, Oroonoko still suffered an inhumane death for conspiring to kill Byam. In the end, Oroonoko is tied to a whipping post, where he is slowly dismembered and murdered. Oroonoko’s family died because they were threatened with the prolonged suffering of slavery, while Oroonoko died trying to free himself and get revenge on the man who cursed him to the life as a slave.

In conclusion, Oroonoko and the young woman in the image both suffered by the hands of slavery. They were confined and imprisoned because of the color of their skin and were treated less than humans. In the end, slavery is the main cause of their suffering and also what drove Oroonoko to murder his wife and unborn child. Oroonoko dreamed of having his own family to provide and care for them, but slavery prevented his dreams from becoming a reality.

Works Cited

Effects of Punishment by Burning, Richmond, Virginia, 1866. Digital image. Slaveryimages.org. Harper’s Weekly, 28 July 1866. Web. 22 Oct. 2018.

Behn, Aphra, 1640-1689. Oroonoko, Or, The Royal Slave. Boston :Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.


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