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Perceptions and Portrayals: Oroonoko in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and King Gezo in “Gezo, King of Dahomey”

When many people think about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, they often think of white men benefiting from the capture and use of African people as slaves. However, figures that tend to go overlooked are the powerful African men who themselves captured, sold, and used other Africans as slaves and engaged with this brutal and inhumane practice. The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has many interesting pieces on slavery, some of which highlight these African men that benefited from the slave trade. However, one that is very eye-opening is the portrait of Gezo, King of Dahomey. The image of King Gezo and how he is portrayed to the audience is very similar to the beginning passages of Oroonoko by Aphra Behn, where Behn, the narrator, describes the prince’s attire and how royal and “Roman” he is. The descriptions of both King Gezo and Oroonoko are quite similar, with an emphasis on his extravagance and grace, which is portrayed in this painting as well as with Oroonoko in his homeland of Coramantien. This paper will focus on the portrayal of both King Gezo and Oroonoko from the perspective of the audience/reader as well as how the painter and author of Oroonoko choose to portray both men of royalty who benefited from and engaged with the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

First, a description is needed of the portrait in order to compare and contrast it with the depiction of Prince Oroonoko in the novella by Aphra Behn. The first aspect of the painting that catches the eye is the attire of the king—a bright blue and white fabric that covers the left arm and leaves the right arm free to move. In addition, there is a large amount of red used in the portrait. First, the King’s sandals, umbrella, and hat all have red, as well as gold, in them. These colors give the viewer a feeling of royalty and power— colors that many normal people might not have been wearing. Therefore, it can be determined that these colors symbolize royalty and elegance. There is also red on the shawl of the woman standing behind him; this woman, however, is a mystery to the viewer. Perhaps she is a servant of his, a wife, a confidant. Nevertheless, it is difficult to come to a solid conclusion. However, it is quite clear that she is of lower status than he, due to her lack of shoes and minimal/simplistic clothing and lack of accessories, except for earrings. But this is not to say that she does not have status. She is wearing red, a royal color, and has earrings on, signifying some form of status in relation to King Gezo.

The last aspect of the portrait is the pickaxe that King Gezo is holding. In the description of the painting, it states that he captured and exported slaves from The Bight of Benin, the second largest exporter of captives after West Central Africa (Forbes). The description also states that he “was feared for his military power and his numerous slave raids. He had an army of several thousand female warriors, the famous Amazons” (Forbes). This leads one to believe that this tool could be a symbol of his influence and participation in hunting down other Africans, capturing them, and exporting them in the slave trade, as well as using them as personal slaves in his homeland. In the painting, in the distance, there is a brief outline of a tent with people standing in front of it. This could either be the area where King Gezo lives, or possibly an area that he is raiding and capturing people to be traded. Nevertheless, these facts are not presented to the viewer, therefore, only speculation can be used to determine where exactly King Gezo is.

The entire portrait portrays this feeling of superiority and power, which matches the description given of the illustration, showing King Gezo as a powerful and feared ruler and businessman. When one first views the portrait, one can immediately make a connection to Prince Oroonoko and his elegance/royalty. When examining these two African royals together, two main questions arise. First, when comparing and contrasting King Gezo and Oroonoko, how to the painter and Aphra Behn present these two royal Africans to either the viewer or the reader? How are they different? How are they similar? Secondly, how do the viewer/reader absorb these two powerful figures when given the context of their lives?

In order to answer the first question, one must examine how the painter and Behn are presenting King Gezo and Oroonoko, respectively. As stated before in the description of the portrait, King Gezo is presented to the viewer as a powerful and revered man with great status. However, after reading the description of King Gezo, one may no longer feel this reverence, and instead might feel frustration that another African would participate in the capture, exportation, and exploitation of other Africans. But this is also very interesting because it is something that is overlooked and not emphasized by Behn when she speaks about Oroonoko, an African prince that engaged and benefitted from the selling and trade of African people, just like King Gezo. Furthermore, because Behn tends to describe Oroonoko in a fetishized and obsessed manner, his engagement with the slave trade is generally overlooked, which causes the reader to not pay much attention to that fact and instead focus on Oroonoko’s elegance. In Behn’s first descriptions of Oroonoko, she stated, “I have often seen and conversed with this great man, and been a witness to many of his mighty actions, and do assure my reader the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind, a judgment more solid, a wit more quick, and a conversation more sweet and diverting” (Behn 145). Behn focuses on Oroonoko’s education, his intellect, and his rich upbringing. Behn then continues by stating, “He had an extreme good and graceful mien, and all the civility of a well-bred great man” (145) and that “He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court” (145).  Behn’s description of the prince are focused on his Western characteristics that seemingly place him above other Africans. It is rarely mentioned that he was an African prince that, just like King Gezo, interacted with and benefited from the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Automatically, Oroonoko is presented in a more positive light to the reader than King Gezo is to the viewer, even though the two figures are quite similar in their status, wealth, and occupation.

Now moving on to the second question posed earlier, one must examine how these two figures are presented and what these mediums entail. The discrepancy in how King Gezo and Oroonoko are presented to the audience makes sense when examining the mediums in which they are portrayed. King Gezo’s portrait is presented in a digital archive which focuses much more on historical context and facts rather than sensationalism or fictitious descriptions. This is why a viewer of this portrait will most likely focus on the fact that King Gezo was an African king who killed, captured, sold, and used other Africans in order to maintain his wealth and status. This also accounts for a much colder response from the audience who views him as a historical figure that engaged in a terrible and inhumane market. However, the portrayal of prince Oroonoko is quite different, and therefore, his reception will also be different. Not only is this prince fictional, but also is presented in a fictional novella. Although Oroonoko is very similar to King Gezo, he is presented to the reader from the point of view of Aphra Behn, a white female narrator who has an obsession with the African prince and usually portrays him in a more positive light. This is a narrator who tells the reader that Oroonoko’s “nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen, far fro those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes” (Behn 145). Because Oroonoko is described as having extremely Roman and white features, the reader tends to forget that he is an African man engaging in the African slave trade, just like his real-life counterpart, King Gezo. The depiction of these two African royals using two very different mediums, one historical and one fictional, tends to illicit rather different responses in the viewer/reader, making them feel like they are extremely different men, even though they share many similar qualities.

By examining the description of prince Oroonoko and the portrayal of King Gezo in his portrait, many fascinating conclusions can be made about these two African rulers, whether fictional or not. As this paper examined, the way in which the creator paints King Gezo, and Behn describes Oroonoko are extremely similar; both works emphasize the royalty and wealth of each ruler. However, the discrepancy comes when examining the mediums in which both figures are portrayed—one through a historical and digital archive, the other through a fictional novella. These two different mediums lead the audience to feel differently about each man. With King Gezo, because he is shown through a more historical lens, the viewer tends to focus on his engagement with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and tends to feel frustration towards a historical figure that blatantly took advantage of his own people. In contrast, however, there is Oroonoko, who is described by a biased narrator as basically a white man with wonderful characteristics, causing the reader to overlook his own involvement and benefit from the African slave trade. This demonstrates that the portrayal of figures and the mediums used to portray them have an extreme effect on the perceptions that people have about said works as well as how the audience interacts with these pieces.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, 139-188.

Forbes, Frederick E. “Gezo, King of Dahomey (1818-1858).” 1851. Dahomey and the Dahomans. Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York. http://www.inmotionaame.org/gallery/detail.cfm?migration=1&topic=99&id=292420&type=image&metadata=show&page=3&bhcp=1