Robinson Crusoe, The First Postcolonial Novel

Next year will mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and there will no doubt be much ballyhooing about the book that Edward Said has called “the prototypical modern realist novel.” Indeed, postcolonial daggers have already been drawn. James Joyce called the novel’s main character “the prototype of the British colonist,” which he did not mean as a compliment, and Said notes that the novel “not accidentally is about a European who creates a fiefdom for himself on a distant, non-European land.” In her recent book, Racism: The 101 Most Important Questions, Susan Arandt suggests that Robinson Crusoe is “actually a handbook of how Europeans could efficiently colonize territories in Africa and the Americas, and exploit both the resources and the people working there.”

I hadn’t read Robinson Crusoe since I was 12, and remembered it as a simple story about a man stranded on a deserted island for twenty-seven years, and how he manages to survive until he is rescued. I thought of it more as a handbook for future Boy Scouts (as, in a totally unsuspected way, it was). To me, it was about self-sufficiency, ingenuity, perseverance, fortitude. In fact, that’s what Defoe wanted readers to think, because self-sufficiency, ingenuity, perseverance and fortitude are exactly the boy-scout badges one needs if one is to colonize a foreign country. But that was only half the story. When I re-read the novel this week, I discovered something else I hadn’t realized when I was 12. Robinson Crusoe may be about many things, including colonialism, mercantilism, cultural imperialism, but what it’s really about is a nasty corollary of those nationalistic impluses:

First and foremost, Robinson Crusoe is a novel about slavery. 

Defoe sets up this theme long before Crusoe lands on his island. In 1651, following his irrepressible urge to go to sea, Crusoe “went on board a Vessel bound to the Coast of Africa; or, as our Sailors vulgarly call it, a Voyage to Guinea.” By the mid-17th century, the African slave trade was well established, Portugal having traded in Africa for gold, slaves, ivory and pepper since at least 1478. Crusoe doesn’t say what he did in Guinea, but he came home with 5.9 ounces of gold, worth about £300, which he used to outfit himself for a second voyage. This time, off the coast of Spain, he is captured by Turks and kept as “a miserable slave” for two years. He escapes in a sloop with the help of two Moors, an older man and a boy named Xury. Once safe, he tosses the older Moor overboard, but keeps and even befriends Xury, and together they sail south towards Africa, hoping to meet a British merchant ship. Instead, they are picked up by a Portuguese slave ship “bound to the Coast of Guinea for Negroes.” After loading its human cargo, the ship takes Crusoe to Brazil, “an inexpressible Joy to me,” where he promptly sells Xury to the captain for 60 pieces of eight.

In Brazil, Crusoe uses the money to buy land and start a sugar plantation. “The first thing I did,” he says, “I bought me a Negro Slave and an European Servant also.” After successfully growing cane for four years, he decides to expand into tobacco, for which he needs more slaves. Consequently, he accepts an offer sail back to Guinea “to buy Negroes for the Service of the Brasils, in great Numbers,” for himself and three of his plantation-owning neighbours. It’s on this voyage that his ship founders and he is washed up alone on an uninhabited Caribbean island, which he later calls “the Isle of Despair.”

It’s pretty clear by now what this novel is about. Crusoe is one of those intelligent but not overly self-reflective characters who are so embedded in their culture that they can’t see — and therefore can’t resist being caught up in — the ethical implications of that culture. This makes him the ideal protagonist for a novelist whose intent is to explore those implications in his own society. 

Crusoe wants to be a good man, he thinks he is a good man, and he acts in ways that he thinks a good man should act. With disastrous results. After escaping from the Turk and tossing “the Moor” off his sloop, he assures himself he “had done him no hurt,” and tells the Moor, “You swim well enough to reach to the Shoar, and the Sea is calm.” But he does not stop to wonder what the Moor’s reception on shore will be after having helped a slave s escape. When he sells Xury to the Portuguese captain, he first consientiously extracts from the captain “an Obligation to set him free in ten Years, if he turn’d Christian,” and “Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the Captain have him.” He has, in other words, by the ethics of the day, acted in good faith. But what choice did Xury have? Did Crusoe say to him, Look, I can sell you to this captain, keep the money for myself, and you can be a slave for the next ten years, providing you abjure everything you believe in and espouse the religion against which yours has been battling for the past 1,500 years, or I can set you free now, pay you for the help you’ve been to me, and we can start a sugar plantation together? No, he doesn’t say that. It never occurs to him to do so, which is Defoe’s point, and Said’s.

The intent to buy slaves in Africa and sell them in Brazil, then, is an extension of Crusoe’s (and therefore Britain’s) ethical path: the difference is that this time there is no talking his way around it. Defoe clearly wants us to understand that Crusoe (and therefore Britain) has crossed a line. Even Crusoe realizes it: “I that was born to be my own Destruction,” he says, and  he “could no more resist the Offer [to enter the slave trade] than I could restrain my own first Rambling Designs.” It’s his own nature, not ill fate or a perfect storm or an unseaworthy vessel, that brings about his downfall. He shouldn’t have allowed himself to set foot on that ship.

Crusoe catches a glimpse of this truth, but his hardship on the island fogs his view of it. When, after twenty-five years on the island, he meets the man to whom he gives the Eurocentric name Friday, Crusoe still thinks he is doing good. He has rescued a man from a gang of savage cannibals, he has saved a life – perhaps partly out of self-preservation, for upon seeing Friday run from his captors, he thinks: “It came now very warmly upon my Thoughts, and indeed irresistibly, that now was my Time to get me a Servant.” But he has also acted out of pure, humanitarian instinct, for his next thought is that he “was call’d plainly by Providence to save this poor Creature’s Life.” Friday, when he understands that Crusoe has saved his life, prostrates himself at Crusoe’s feet, where he “kiss’d the Ground, and taking me by the Foot, set my Foot upon his Head; this it seems was in token of swearing to be my Slave forever.”

Friday is under no illusion as to the nature of their relationship. Crusoe doesn’t quite get it, for he still thinks he has found “a Companion, or an Assistant.” But Friday gets it. And so, therefore, does Defoe.

I think I recognized this theme when I re-read Defoe because in my forthcoming novel, Up from Freedom, I deal with a similar situation, that of a man who does not think of himself as a racist, or as a slaveholder, but who lives in a racist society (America in 1840s) in which slavery is so prevalent as to be almost invisible – if, that is, one is white, middle-class and male. As Bill McKibben said a few years ago, we may reject television as individuals, but we live in a television society. For fifty years, our stories, our metaphors, our culture were determined largely by television, even if we didn’t watch it. Edward Said was making a similar point about colonialism and imperialism: the literature of a time is both fed by and feeds political assumptions. As readers absorb the fiction, they are caught up in the reality, and vice versa.

Defoe saw this, and tried to use the novel to explore what he saw as a dangerous social error. Robinson Crusoe is not only the first modern realist novel, then, it is also the first postcolonial novel. As I hope to have shown in Up from Freedom, this entanglement is something from which we have yet to extract ourselves.

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Out of the Fiery Dumpster

Why is Canada getting such a bashing in the literary press these days? 

At this year’s Kingston WritersFest, Adam Gopnik, a Canadian who lives in New York, mentioned how glad he was to be back in Canada. In Canada, he said, he can breathe. He felt that for the first time in a long time, he was in a civil society. I recall Joyce Carol Oates saying much the same thing a few years ago at the same festival. Oates, who lived in Windsor for almost a decade before moving back to the States, said that when she arrived in Kingston, she could physically Continue reading

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Reading Like a Translator I: What Did Don Quixote Eat on Saturdays?

Translator: Don QuixoteDon Quixote’s woes, from the point of view of a translator, begin on the first page:

At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there liv’d not long ago one of those old-fashion’d gentlemen who are never without a Lance upon a Rack, an old Target, a lean Horse, and a Greyhound. His Diet consisted of more Beef than Mutton; and with minc’d Meat on most Nights, Lentils on Fridays, Eggs and Bacon on Saturdays, and a Pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three Quarters of his Revenue.

This is from one of the early translations, by Peter Motteux, published in 1700. The problem is with Continue reading

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Upon a Peak in Darién

We landed in Panama on February 10, twelve of us, for a birding trip that would take us into the Darién Gap, the only stretch of the 30,000-kilometre-long PanAmerican Highway to remain unconstructed. The Gap, which lies between Panama and Colombia, is an all but impenetrable tangle of rainforest, and one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. There may be no true wilderness left in North or Central America, no piece of geography that is still untrammeled or untrashed, but the Darién Gap is about as close as it gets. No television, poor Internet, and only sporadic cell-phone coverage. We thought if there was anywhere on Earth we could get away from thinking about Donald Trump for a few days, the Darién Gap was the place.

We were wrong.

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Banff

Walking up from the Banff townsite to the Banff Centre for Art and Creativity one evening, I saw movement on the path ahead of me. It was going on six-thirty p.m., and this far north and surrounded by mountains, it was dark. During our orientation session, we’d been told to “be aware of bears,” which, we were told, should be hibernating by now, “but some might not be.” I was dressed in black – black jeans, black sweater, even black socks and toque – except for my outer jacket, which was a soft, fawn colour. In the dark, downwind, and from the point of view of a near-sighted grizzly, it occurred to me I could have been mistaken for a mule deer.

I stepped off the path into the shade of a tall evergreen tree and waited. After a few seconds, a huge elk appeared on the path, sauntering down from the Banff Centre, moving so slowly towards town it was as though he’d been sent down to scare townspeople but wished he didn’t have to go. The path was iced over and slippery, so perhaps he was just being careful of his footing. Continue reading

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Roderick Haig-Brown

A white mist hangs over the Campbell River in the mornings. The river flows swiftly and is so shallow it kicks a lot of moisture up into the cold (by BC standards), winter air. Seabirds, mostly Glaucous-winged gulls but occasionally Common mergansers or the odd Hoodie, when they take a break from paddling are swept downstream so fast I barely have time to grab my binoculars before they’re gone. Although only a few kilometers from its headwaters in Campbell Lake to its estuary in Discovery Passage, the Campbell is an important salmon river, with five kinds of salmon and two of trout fighting their way upstream to spawn at different times of the year. It’s the end of February, and the Cutthroat should be running soon. I know because the Bald eagles are gathering: there were three of them in the Douglas-fir beside the house yesterday, two adults and a mottled, untidy juvenile nervously anticipating its first taste of trout. Continue reading

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Slavery: The Greatest Show on Earth

joice hath

In February 1835, Phineas T. Barnum launched his career as a showman by purchasing a female slave, Joice Heth, from R.W. Lindsay, a Kentucky side-show promoter working out of Philadelphia. Heth was old, thin, totally blind and partially paralyzed. Barnum bought her for $1,000, half of which he had to borrow.

 On August 10, 1835, Barnum exhibited Heth at Niblo’s Garden, one of New York City’s largest theatres, where six months earlier he had applied for a job as a bartender and been turned down. He claimed Heth was 161 years old, and had been George Washington’s nurse when the first president was a newborn. For seven months, Barnum exhibited her in cities throughout New England, in taverns, concert halls, inns, museums, even in railway houses. Audiences would ask her questions about Washington, and she would recount what Washington said and did as a child, including chopping down a cherry tree and refusing to lie about it. She sang hymns she claimed to have sung to “dear little Georgie” to get him to sleep. She talked about her religious beliefs. Barnum made $1,500 a week exhibiting her.

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Heart Of Oak

I was raised almost mutely by a father who, I am sure, loved me, but with a kind of muscle love that could not be expressed except physically. In his youth he was blighted by his birth, by the Depression, and by the war, calamities that deformed his capacity to love openly. I didn’t think I minded, it all seemed explicably Darwinian to me. A child is born, grows up, leaves home, has a child; that child grows up, leaves home, has children. What could be more natural? But then last week, my eldest daughter came to visit, with her two daughters, my granddaughters, who are four and one. Continue reading

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Figures in the Night…Passing

It’s dark outside, possibly raining. Bette Davis is alone in a big house, sitting in a large, wing-back chair so she can’t see or hear anything behind her. She looks up from time to time, as though she hears a strange sound, then goes back to her reading. Is that a thump upstairs? Did something move in the pantry?

She goes back to her reading. It’s a good book. It’s by Stephen King.

Because it’s Bette Davis, we know something bad is going to happen.

Then, of course, the power goes out. In the ensuing silence, we hear the scrape of a match. Bette has lit a candle. It lights her face, but the rest of the screen behind her remains in darkness.

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Click Home

For the past month I have been away from home. First in Vancouver, teaching a creative nonfiction summer course at the University of British Columbia, then to Moose Jaw, for the Saskatchewan Festival of Words, and from there to the Sage Hill Experience, a two-week writing retreat-slash-workshop held in a Franciscan monastery near Lumsden, Saskatchewan. A month of sleeping in unfamiliar beds – a student dormitory, a hotel, and a friar’s cell, albeit one with a closet and en suite bath. Of eating starchy cafeteria food, deep-fried fast food, squiggly foreign food, alone or with friends, or with strangers who, over time, became friends. A month of talking, of being available, of being excited, of squeezing a bit of writing time between long bouts of teaching, of seeing cities through the windows of taxis, of reading Ian Rankin and doing Sudokus in airports. Continue reading

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