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.