In July 2019 Cecilia Morales traveled to London to work in the British Library and Wellcome Library for her dissertation, which engages ways the rhetoric around maternity shaped and was shaped by intense cultural debates across seventeenth-century England. When mentioned in literature, maternity was never apolitical or value neutral; it engaged attitudes about not only gender and reproduction, but also emerging concepts of religion, race, and nationality. Her research focus on this trip was to see what case could be made for an ecocritical understanding of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, specifically how representations of the natural world shaped colonial attitudes toward the maternity of enslaved women.
To build a context for understanding Behn’s portrayals of the plants and animals of Surinam (the scene of her work), Cecilia explored materials pertaining to the scientific movement of the seventeenth century, as well as medical texts and recipe books related to reproduction and childbirth. She dove into correspondence between aspiring English explorer-scientists around the world and the Royal Society, the arbiter of knowledge considered to be of scientific importance. Accounts of non-English mothers giving birth were of particular interest: such accounts were written in Latin in a careful hand, bound, and decorated to indicate their status.
But examining the 1665-1667 diary of William Byam, the English governor of Surinam in the period described by Behn’s Oroonoko, proved the highlight of her trip. It describes the hardships faced by English colonists in the Surinam landscape, providing an important counterpoint to the perspective of Behn’s narrator. While Imoida, an enslaved African woman in the story, seems to validate English expectations of “natural” maternity, the fecundity of the land and a tigress present complicating models that resist colonists’ attempts to master and exploit the plants and animals of “conquered” territories. Attempts to assert even narrative control over the Surinamese ecology are in the end undermined.