Despite being a powerful means of criticizing society, the “noble savage” strips its subject of humanity and keeps it at a distance. Our first introduction to that faceless mass to which Oroonoko supposedly ‘belongs’ describes them as being able to swiftly pass “through those almost impassable places and by the mere activity of their feet run down the nimblest deer and other eatable beasts”, a statement bringing to mind not some human being but a two footed beast on par with a lion in its ability to run down prey. Behn goes on to make the calculating claim that since these people are so useful to them and “their numbers so far surpassing ours” they “find it absolutely necessary to caress ‘em as friends, not treat ‘em as slaves”.
In stark contrast to the above, Oroonoko is painted as a rarity, much like the Muslim (an adherent of the religion of Islām) slaves in the Americas whose erudition and ability to read and write in multiple languages caused people such cognitive dissonance that they labeled them Arabs despite their clearly African origins, because surely no one that intelligent could come out of Africa, or end up enslaved.
Oroonoko may be jet-black in complexion but he is clearly not African with his nose that is “rising and Roman, instead of African and flat” and a mouth that is “far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes”. The reader might be forgiven for suspecting that Oroonoko possessed his multi-lingual skills, bravery, leadership abilities, and powerful love, not because it was something innate to his people, but due to his close resemblance to Europeans. After all, Behn takes up two whole paragraphs comparing the hero of her story to Europeans, and then blithely describes his lover as a “beautiful black Venus, to our young Mars”.
This ‘unAfrican’ is depicted as something of a bridge, too good to be African but not enough to be European, and it is probably because of this that he is able to “begot so good an understanding between the Indians and the English that there were no more fears or heart-burnings during [their] stay”. It is this same quality that allows Oroonoko to rouse the slaves, reminding them of “the first principle in nature that was to be obeyed”.
While the readers are given a figure that is close enough to their reality that they might be able to sympathize with him, he is deliberately cut off from Africa and its people diminishing his value as a symbolic representative. And it is this distance that causes his actions to rouse the real African who “suffered not like men, who might find a glory and fortitude in oppression, but like dogs that loved the whip and bell, and fawned the more they were beaten” to ring hollow. How can one sympathize with the real African when they are content being enslaved? How can one sympathize with their descendants in the present when they are naturally thuggish, belligerent, and lazy?