The Persistence of Renaissance Tropes in Literary Representations of Africa and Africans throughout the Eighteenth-Century: An Analysis of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa

Essay by Dan Miller

Art by Luiza Ortiz

Africa and Africans have long been the recipients of the West’s (1) collective imaginings. In literature, the geography and the populus of Africa have served as provocative Others constructed by the West to better help the West define itself. In this sense, Africa and Africans have functioned in Western discourse as literary receptacles into which the West has poured, and continues to pour, a host of ideas, beliefs, and associations. Elaborated later in this essay, these ideas, beliefs, and associations include notions of African peoples as bestial residents of a wild land; outsiders lacking the civility and superior qualities of European society.

By the eighteenth-century, Africa was not a free subject of thought, but rather one constrained by the legacy of associations and tropes established centuries prior that had come to characterize the continent and its people. Comparing the representation of Africa and Africans in Aphra Behn’s short novel Oroonoko (1688), based on the story of the titular character Oroonoko, and Mungo Park’s travelogue Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799), to each other—while taking into account the precedent Renaissance representations—reveals the staying-power across time and genre of the tropes of representation established in the “long sixteenth century” (Spicer 9). These comparisons also reveal how the tropes of representing Africa and Africans evolved in tandem with the evolution of Enlightenment ideas, specifically the scientific/anthropological gaze exhibited by Travels.

Contrary to conventional belief, the rise of the scientific age towards the end of the eighteenth-century did not entail the death of imaginative representations of Africa(ns) and the rise of objective, empirical accounts. Rather, Africa and Africans never ceased to be subjects of the West’s invention—a realm onto which the West continues to project its fears, desires, “truths,” and myths. Owing to the subjective task of representation in literature en masse, the Age of Enlightenment merely provided a varnish of objectivity that obscured the necessarily inventive work of representation.

Preceding Oroonoko and Travels was a well-established tradition of African representation during the ‘long sixteenth century’ (ca. 1480 – 1610). During this ‘long century,’ Europe came into greater contact with Africa and Africans as Portugese explorers established trade routes along the West Coast of Africa in the 1400s (Spicer 9); portugese explorer Vasco Da Gama sailed around the Horn of Africa in 1497 (Fernandez-Armesto), and cut off from the white slave trade by Ottoman expansion in the early sixteenth-century, Europe began to import African slaves and ushered in “early modern slave trade” (Hornback). It was during the Renaissance that Africans began to truly and consistently rub elbows with their fair-skinned, northern counterparts: the Europeans.

As this relationship between Europe and Africa evolved throughout the long sixteenth century, African peoples and their lands began to be imagined and represented by European art. Flemish artist Adriaen Collaert’s engraving of Maerten de Vos’ “Africa” from The Four Continents series (1580-1600) is a revealing case-study in late-Renaissance representations of Africa and Africans (fig.1). The piece depicts a nude African woman seated suggestively upon a crocodile, behind her a vast landscape dotted with non-European beasts both real and fictional—i.e., elephants, ostriches, a lion, a snake, and what appears to be a dragon. Collaert’s bestial, primitive, sensual, and imaginative portrayal of Africa is indicative of sixteenth-century European attitudes towards Africa(ns), and displays the roots of the tropes of representation that Europeans, such as Aphra Behn and Mungo Park, would later employ to reconstruct Africa and Africans in their own works. Collaert’s engraving displays that Africa and Africans in the Renaissance were already “a foil to Europe… a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (Achebe 15).

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(fig. 1: Collaert, Adriaen. “Allegory of Africa.” The Four Continents. 1580-1600.

Renaissance scholar Robert Hornback argues these Renaissance representations signify a kind of “proto-racism” (2) that anticipated the development of a form of racism referred to be scholars as scientific racism—a racism exemplified by various European scientific pursuits undertaken during the eighteenth-century, such as the craniometry of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, that aimed at hierarchizing the races. This hierarchical view of race is also prevalent in non-fiction literature concerned with the representation of Africans such as Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa.

According to Hornback, the proto-racist prejudices that preceded the developments of scientific racism arose from the Renaissance slave trade. Such prejudices were based on “the supposed rational and moral inferiority of blackness drawn from religious texts, moral allegory, metaphysical philosophy, and the many blackface fool traditions informed by them” (Hornback 2). The primary figure of Hornback’s study is the “pan-European” Renaissance comedic, black-faced Harlequin who

accreted many stereotypes, reappears in constructions of irrationality/folly, sartorial pride or dandyism, linguistic ineptitude, childishness, racial impersonation, Otherness versus native/national culture, and highbrow versus lowbrow culture—as Sambo would in Europe and across the Atlantic from the eighteenth century on, and as Jim Crow and Zip Coon would in antebellum America. (25)

The Harlequin, while perhaps the most popular, was far from the only negatively-associated black-faced figure in European traditions. To his account of examples of negatively-associated black-faced figures, Hornback adds the characters of various medieval pageants such as Tutivillus and Hellechino, as well as the plays Dulcitius, De Buskenblaster, and The Marriage of Wit and Science. Such representations of black-faced African figures as these established the tropes of representation that pervaded the literary progeny of post-Renaissance Europe. To this list of Renaissance influences on the representation of peoples of non-European descent, I would like to add Shakespeare’s Othello as a noteworthy case study. Shakespeare’s prominence in the canon of Renaissance English literature, as well as Othello’s central depiction of a Moor, marks the play as a prominent and influential instance of non-European representation. Consequently, the reader of Oroonoko and Travels will profit from keeping in mind Othello, for as this essay displays, such a consideration reveals the persistence and evolution of Renaissance tropes of representation in the eighteenth-century. As much as Oroonoko and Travels might claim to be presenting novel accounts of Africa(ns), both texts continue to participate in the tropes of representation exemplified decades earlier in Shakespeare’s play.

Beginning with Oroonoko and Othello, the striking similarities between these texts suggest the significant influence that Renaissance representations, specifically Shakespeare’s, exercised over later representations of Africa(ns). Othello and Oroonoko share a number of narrative features. Namely, they are tragedies that center royal, dark-skinned figures; they involve wooing a woman constrained by patriarchal obligations; and both texts’ climatic scenes revolve around killing a wife. These are all tropes associated with pre-Enlightenment art: they are flush with pathos, and accord with tragic narrative arcs influenced by classical Greek and Roman literature, such as that of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The entente of literary tropes between Othello and Oroonoko thus suggests a connection of influence from the Renaissance to the beginning of the eighteenth-century with regard to the representation of Africans.

Neither Othello nor Oroonoko are voiceless depictions of Africans like Collaert’s engraving. Each figure is an adept orator in their respective story-worlds, admired by others for their exceptional speech. For example, as the military commander Othello relates to the Duke of Venice, his wooing of the Duke’s daughter Desdemona was achieved not by the “chains of magic” (I, ii, 64) that Brabantio claims, but by his oration: “She’d come again, and with a greedy ear / Devour up my discourse” (Shakespeare I, iii, 149). Oroonoko is likewise distinguished by his eloquence: “…his Discourse was admirable upon almost any Subject; who-ever heard him speak, wou’d have been convinc’d of their Errors, that all fine Wit is confin’d to the White Men…” (Behn 14). Though this later excerpt suggests that oral ability is typically associated with white men at this time, it displays how African exceptionalism in the eighteenth-century is associated with the degree to which Africans resemble Europeans. Both Oroonoko and Othello display a trope of orality associated with Africans that draws its exceptional tone from the eighteenth-century assumption that the more a non-European resembles a European, the more praiseworthy they are. Such a trope, in contrast with the literacy of Europe, serves to Other these men, and suggests an illiterate primitivity couched in their laudable oration.

Orality in Othello and Oroonoko is also tied to the trope of African credulity. In Oroonoko we are told as Oronooko boards a slave ship to discuss matter with the ship’s captain that Oroonoko “never had violated a Word in his Life himself, much less a solemn Asserveration, believ’d in an instant what this Man [the Captain] said” (Behn 32). Though the Captain promised not to capture Oroonoko, Oroonoko’s inability to recognize the duplicity of the Captain in Oroonoko causes him to be “lash’d fast in Irons, and betray’d to Slavery” (Behn 31). This enslavement is a consequence of Oroonoko’s faith in the spoken word. Othello’s downfall is similar to Oroonoko’s. It is Othello’s trust in the speeches of the deceitful “honest, honest Iago” (Shakespeare V, ii, 151), such as Iago’s hints at Desdemona’s infidelity, that leads Othello to make Desdemona’s quietus, and subsequently his own. For both Othello and Oroonoko, the belief in the spoken word renders them credulous within the Euro-centric world of literacy, where words and their meanings are separated. This suggests that Europeans viewed Africans as incompatible with literate, “civilized” European culture.

Finally, both Oroonoko and Othello are figures governed by a deep sense of, and obligation to, honour. For Othello, his honour stems from a masculine, military sense of duty. As Othello describes himself to Lodovico after he murders Desdemona “An honorable murderer, if you will / For naught I did in hate, but all in honour” (Shakespeare V, ii, 289-291). For Othello, it is honour that redeems his actions. Similarly, Oroonoko is described as a “Gallant Slave” (Behn 1) who “had right Notions of Honour” (Behn 15), and it is his “Brave and Just” (Behn 60) reasons for killing Imoinda that redeem him. Thus, both figures share a heightened sense of honour that distinguishes them in their worlds and makes those around them inferior.

However, for as much as Oroonoko appears to be drawing on the tropes in Othello, Behn’s novella is not simply a reissue of Shakespeare’s play. The ways in which Oroonoko deviates from Othello displays how the tropes of representing Africa and Africans had evolved since the end of the Renaissance. In contrast to Oroonoko, Othello is not troubled with exploring and depicting the nature of where Othello comes from. Contrastingly, Oroonoko begins with an explicit description of “Coramantien” (Behn 11) that constructs Africa primarily in terms of its sociopolitical structure. The text describes the “King of Coramantien” (Behn 11) who had “the Obedience of the People” (Behn 16), as well as the heir to the throne, the prince Oroonoko, and the sociopolitical dynamics of this African society. This sociopolitical structure is Behn’s invention; as Joanna Lipking observes in a footnote, “The Fante people had a ‘braffo,’ or military leader, [one resembling the military general figure that Behn depicts] though not a strong monarchy. Moreover, as Europeans were slow to understand, descent systems of the Akan-speaking peoples of this region were matrilineal” (Behn 12). This matrilineal descent system contradicts Behn’s conception of African society as patrilineal. This invented nature of Cormantien in Oroonoko thus says more about the European idea of Africa than it does Africa itself, as is the case with many representations of foreign places. Africa was a place on which to project normative European ideals of socio-political organization.

Oroonoko also establishes a new trope of representation that distinguishes it from Othello as a result of its inclusion of multiple ethnicities. Whereas Shakespeare’s “Turks” (II, i, 23) only lurk shipwrecked by the storms off the coast of Cyprus, the Suriname people occupy a significant portion of Behn’s text. The inclusion of the Suriname people, while it may seem irrelevant to the text’s representation of Africans, is in fact crucial to understanding how Europeans were beginning to racialize their world. Oroonoko articulates in its description of the Surniame people a persistent trope in the characterization of Indigenous peoples in the Americas: namely that they are “so like our Parents before the Fall” (Behn 9). The edenic, infantile, and savage vignettes of the Surinam people in Oroonoko stand in contrast to its depiction of the noble Oroonoko, thus suggesting a kind of nascent tendency to classify by race (a tendency that finds full expression in Travels). Furthermore, the gaze of white superiority with which Oroonoko constructs the Surinam people and the non-royal African slaves—“Dogs, treacherous and cowardly, fit for such Masters” (Behn 84) as the text depicts them—displays a precedent racial hierarchy that would be taken up and fleshed-out by the development of scientific racism throughout the eighteenth-century. The Surinam people are constructed in Oroonoko not only to help the Europeans define themselves, but to help the Europeans define and classify distinct Others—specifically Indigenous Americans and Africans —and place them beneath Europeans in a racial hierarchy.

Finally, another major deviation that Oroonoko takes from Othello is its conclusion. Where Othello gives an eloquent, redeeming speech before smiting himself, making his “bloody period” (Shakespeare V, ii, 353), Oroonoko’s death is far less eulogistic. Although Oroonoko attempts to commit a valiant suicide to avoid “fall[ing ]Victim to the shameful Whip” (Behn 63), he fails. Instead, he is kept alive only to meet his end by dismemberment. That he is “cut… in Quarters, and sent… to several of the chief Plantations” (Behn 64) is a metaphor for the objectification of the African body. Oroonoko is gradually reduced and degraded, both physically and spiritually, throughout the novel until his final end as an object of colonial exploitation. Oroonoko’s cruel and unceremonious death, in comparison with Othello’s valiant self-sacrifice, becomes an allegory for the degradation of the African in European literature, and by extension, in European ontology.

Having now elucidated the Renaissance tropes of representation from which Oroonoko draws, and the ways in which the text deviates from these tropes (but nevertheless submits to novel ones), let us now turn to Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa to see the persistence and evolution of these tropes by the end of the eighteenth-century. Where Travels differentiates from all the aforementioned representations of Africa(ns)—Collaert, Harlequin, Othello, and Oroonoko—is in its newfound guise of scientific objectivity. A text published at the close of the Age of Enlightenment, Travels exemplifies the scientific zeitgeist of the late 1700s. No longer did imagination and invention reign in literature, but empiricism, objectivity, and positivism began to seep into the literary world. Travels is thus a lens into how the rise of these Enlightenment ideals impacted the portrayal and the understanding of Africa and Africans in 1799.

While Othello and Oroonoko share narrative tropes derived from the pathetic conventions of classical literature, Travels represents a departure from these conventions. There is no central heroic, black figure, no pathetic romance, no noble, tragic end. Travels’ anthropologic mission and objective tone strip it of the pathos displayed in Oroonoko. However, at times Park is torn between his duty to avoid pathos and adhere to objectivity, and his tendency to empathize with the world around him. Like a scientist observing a phenomena, Park seems at times resistant to intrude, such as when one of the Africans who accompanied Park on his sojourn, Nealee, is left “on the road, where undoubtedly she soon perished, and was probably devoured by wild beasts” (277). The candor of Park’s prose in this and other instances suggests a literary repulsion to the emphatic diction of his generic predecessors. But, Travels is not entirely devoid of pathos. The commiseration Park feels for the state of the Africans he describes is a condescending kind of pathos derived from the assumed inferiority of African peoples, designed to elicit pity in the reader, but limited by obligations to objectivity.

Travels does not, and could not, abandon its literary predecessors entirely, however. Despite the influence of new Enlightenment ideas on the representation of Africans, Park nevertheless employs many of the tropes that Oroonoko inherited from the Renaissance, namely from Othello. One such trope that Travels participates in is the oral African trope. Although the African is decentred in Park’s text (in contrast to Oroonoko and Othello where a non-European figure is the central protagonist), it nevertheless emphasizes the orality of Africans in two ways. First, Travels emphasizes orality by foregrounding the speech of Africans—Johnson is Park’s “interpreter” (Park 24) and Park records a “diverting” (Park 26) story relayed by a Mandingo. The second way that Travels emphasizes orality is by foregrounding the illiteracy of African peoples: “The truth is…that all the natives of this part of Africa consider the art of writing as bordering on magic” (Park 32). As with Oroonoko, the orality that Travels associates with its representations of Africans suggests an illiterate simplicity associated with Africans.

In conjunction with the oral African trope, Travels also participates in the honest African trope as articulated in the discussions above about Oroonoko and Othello’s faith in the spoken word of others. In describing a grieving mother, Park writes that she “walked on before, quite frantic with grief, clapping her hands, and enumerating the good qualities of her son. Ee maffo fonio (he never told a lie) said the disconsolate mother, as her wounded son was carried in at the gate ; — Ee maffo fordo ahada (he never told a lie; no, never.)” (84). Like Othello and Oroonoko, the Africans in Travels uphold a kind of purity free of duplicity.

Furthermore, like Oroonoko, Travels is keen to observe and theorize the political and social structures of the African nations. For example, upon his arrival in the African village Sibidooloo, Park describes the government of Manding as “a sort of republic, or rather an oligarchy—every town having a particular Mansa, and the chief power of the state, in the last resort, being lodged in the assembly of the whole body” (203). ‘Republic’ and ‘oligarchy’ are both European terms and thus signify a European gaze. In instances such as these, it is language that exposes Park’s false objectivity. Just as Oroonoko imposes a false, Eurocentric patriarchal monarchy upon Coramantien, so too does Travels impose a Eurocentric conception of government upon the people of Manding. The modifier “sort of” and Park’s ambivalence between republicanism or oligarchianism displays his awareness of his linguistic limitations in observing Africa(ns). Although he speaks the Manding language, Park is writing in English, and because language shapes how we interpret the world, he must therefore impose linguistic categories that are necessarily somewhat inventive.

Though Travels is without a central African figure, it is not without a seemingly exceptional (2) African figure who stands out in contrast to his peers such as the main figures in Othello and Oroonoko. Karfa, an African himself and a slave trader, is befriended by Park in the later chapters of Travels. Karfa serves as Park’s companion in his quest to return to the coast. He nurses Park to health from his bout with malaria, and appears to alter his opinion of Africans’ intellectual capacity. In describing Karfa, Park writes “I have preserved these little traits of character in this worthy Negro, not only from regard to the man, but also because they appear to me to demonstrate that he possessed a mind above his condition” (298). As in Oroonoko, the voiceless Africans in the text are made inferiorized by the exceptionalism of the few who find themselves validated by the European pen. Oroonoko and Karfa stand out amongst other Africans because of their resemblance to Europeans, not to Africans.

Travels is also multi-ethnic like Oroonoko. However, rather than Indigenous Americans, the other race Park identifies and categorizes are the Moors. Park describes the “rudeness and barbarity of the Moors” (98) and frequently refers to them in derogatory, Orientalist terms. As with Oroonoko’s portrayal of the Surinam people, Travels’ depiction of the Moors is more revealing of European attitudes than of the African Moors themselves. If the Moors are rude, brash, and lascivious, then the Europeans are polite, reserved, and contained. Furthermore, as with Oroonoko, it appears multi-ethnic texts of the eighteenth-century employed a variety of ethnicities to define these against each other. If the Moors are rude, and Europeans polite, then non-Islamic Africans are neither of these things. The racialization of the peoples in these texts accords with the larger context of the eighteenth-century: the Enlightenment. Science and rationality demanded things be put in their proper place—characterized and categorized.

In a time unconstrained by the anthropological criteria of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, and unchecked by any other authority on Africa, Park would have been uninhibited to inject his text with fabricated interludes. The exactitude and assuredness of his account renders it suspicious. However, this suspicion is a privilege of the twenty-first-century. The average eighteenth-century reader did not have the means to fact-check, nor a wealth of criticism to consult. Their encounters with Africa began and ended in the world of literature—the worlds of Oroonoko, Othello, Travels in the Interior of Africa, the stage-going Harlequin—and visual depictions such as Collaert’s engraving. What unites all these texts are common tropes signifying the collective imaginings with which Africa was constructed over the centuries. Although over time the diction changed, the narratives, purposes, ideas, and underlying truth of the representation of Africa and Africans in the eighteenth-century is that it was always fiction. Whether implicitly or explicitly, no writer was able to access Africa without first engaging long-standing tropes of representation.


1 In this paper, the term ‘the West’, refers to the collectivity of geography that has come to be associated with the concept of ‘the West;’ i.e., primarily Europe in Mungo Park’s and Aphra Behn’s respective contexts, but also North America in the present-day.

2 By exceptional I do not mean to suggest praiseworthy. As a slave trader, Karfa is certainly not an morally admirable figure. Rather, exceptional in this instance refers to the degree to which Park’s text foregrounds Karfa as a remarkable figure in contrast to other Africans.

Works Cited

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Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Edited by Joanna Lipking. Norton Critical Editions, 1997. Collaert, Adriaen. “Allegory of Africa.” The Four Continents. 1580-1600.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe and Campbell, Eila M.J.. “Vasco da Gama”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Feb. 2021, Accessed 14 April 2021.

Hornback R. (2018) “Introduction: Recovering the Contexts of Early Modern Proto-Racism.” Racism and Early Blackface Comic Traditions. Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Park, Mungo. Travels in the Interior of Africa. A. and C. Black, Edinburgh, 1858. 1858.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Signet Classic, 1986.
Spicer, Joaneath. Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe. Walters Art Museum, 2013.