In 1695, theater audiences in Britain were riveted by the debut of a tale about two star-crossed lovers. After a bloody two-year war, Prince Oroonoko went to pay his respects to Imoinda, the daughter of a general who had died during the war. He brought slaves with him as a gift for the deceased general's daughter, "trophies of her father's victories." Upon meeting the charming and beautiful Imoinda, Prince Oroonoko promptly fell in love. The two were engaged to be married, until Oroonoko's grandfather, the King of Coromantee — in modern-day Ghana — became smitten with Imoinda as well. The elderly king, who already had many wives, moved Imoinda into his harem and decreed that she was to marry him.
Deeply in love, Oroonoko and Imoinda still consummated their relationship, despite the risk of angering Oroonoko's grandfather. One of the king's wives, Onahal, even helped them. After learning of the two lovers' actions, the enraged king gave an "order they should be both sold off as slaves to another country." The king eventually forgave his grandson Oroonoko, but the prince was still tricked into becoming a slave for European settlers across the Atlantic in Suriname, then known as Surinam, a small country in South America that had been colonized by the Dutch.
Imoinda, like her lost love, was sent to Suriname as well. The lovers eventually reunited on a plantation, where the two rekindled their love under the names Caesar and Clemene. They finally wed, and "there was as much magnificence as the country could afford at the celebration of this wedding." However, just as their relationship had started with violence, it would end in violence as well. After a slave revolt, knowing that they would both likely die at the hands of their enemy, Oroonoko killed Imoinda, and he himself was soon killed by slavers.
The stirring saga comes from Aphra Behn's book Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, which was also adapted into a popular play. Behn attested that it was inspired by a true story, Oroonoko and Imoinda were real people who lived in Suriname, and that Behn had met Oroonoko in her "travels to the other world." There is debate about whether parts of Oroonoko were indeed based in reality, or if it was a complete work of fiction, penned to support the growing abolitionist sentiment in England at the time.
Whether fact or fiction, the story of Oroonoko was a hit in Britain. But few knew that the author's life was perhaps even more extraordinary than those of her characters. Having come from a poor family, Behn became a spy for the English King Charles II, who sent her to Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. She received little to no pay from King Charles, so to make ends meet Behn became a writer. She is often credited with being the first professional female writer in England. If not the first, Behn was one of the first women anywhere in the world to make a living as a writer. And her work, just like her life, pushed conventions about what was expected for women and other marginalized people in the 17th century.
Much of Behn's early life is shrouded in mystery, likely due to the fact that she came from a poor, unknown family, unlike many writers of the era. According to Janet Todd's Secret Life of Aphra Behn, Behn was born Eaffrey Johnson, the daughter of Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and his wife, Elizabeth Johnson, née Denham, a wet nurse.
Behn spent her childhood between Canterbury and Harbledown, a village "known for its asylum of the disabled poor," Todd writes. Her family struggled financially, and Todd believes that Behn's mother, Elizabeth, may have been the wet nurse for the future Colonel Thomas Colepeper, who was something like a foster sibling to young Aphra Behn. Their friendship may have played a role in her unlikely journey to becoming a spy.
The English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651, left the country in immense political instability. King Charles I was captured and executed in 1649, which led his son Prince Charles II to flee to Paris. A period of military and parliamentary rule lasted for 11 years. During this period, the Sealed Knot, an association of those loyal to Charles and his Stuart family line, led at least 10 uprisings in an attempt to reinstate the monarchy.
Colonel Colepeper was a known ally of the Sealed Knot, and Todd wrote in Secret Life of Aphra Behn that his friend Behn, then a teenager, could have assisted in these secret missions by acting as a messenger, as other women did in this period. That may be when she met Thomas Killigrew, a courtier who was in exile with Charles II, who later became a playwright himself.
Once Charles II returned and assumed the throne of England, Killigrew sent Behn to Antwerp to work as a political spy during the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665. As an attractive woman, she could slip into dangerous situations without alarming the enemy.
Behn's main mission in Antwerp was to try to convince William Scot, who was believed to be spying on England for the Dutch, to become a double agent. Scot's father was himself executed for being a double agent. It is unknown whether Behn was successful in recruiting Scot, but she was apparently adept at plying him for information. In a report to her superiors, Behn wrote that she stopped short of seducing him, but declared that Scot was "so extremely willingly to undertake the service that he said more to confirm me than I could expect."
It was sometime after her likely work for the Sealed Knot and before the Second Anglo-Dutch War that Behn ventured across the Atlantic to Suriname on another secret mission, during which she claims to have met Caesar and Clemene.
Upon her return to England, she married Johan Behn, a merchant from Hamburg. Their union was short lived, and Johan either left Behn or died shortly after their wedding in 1664.
While her career as a spy offered Behn an amount of freedom that most women did not have at this time, she was not compensated for her labor.
According to James Walker's 1932 journal article "The Secret Service Under Charles II and James II," while the spy service was active, only 700 pounds were set aside for surveillance each year, roughly equivalent to just over 100,000 pounds today. It is likely that Behn was not the only spy who was underpaid or received no payment for her services. It is perhaps safe to assume that her gender did not vault her to the top of the payment list.
Behn petitioned King Charles II for payment, but despite her lifelong loyalty to the Stuart line, her request was never fulfilled. She sunk into debt, and an arrest warrant was even issued at one point for this debt, although there is no evidence that she was ever tried or even apprehended.
Behn had to find a new way to earn a living. She had an idea that would have been unthinkable for most women of her time. She turned to writing for money.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.