Robinson Crusoe: A Commentary on Man and Commonwealth Society
Written by Bernard Barbara
for Prof. Rebecca Million
In the novel Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe demonstrates various journalistic, political, philosophical, and moral traits that, at the time of writing his work, were part of his perspectives — as a journalist and propagandist — on colonial society. He demonstrates the damaging impact of self-interest on a society and on the individual throughout the events suffered by colonial society and humanity during his time, through political, natural, and personal lessons in life. He uses the character of Robinson Crusoe to embody English colonialism with its concepts and beliefs, but with his own brand of parody to critique it from a puritan point of view. To accomplish this, Defoe uses contemporary global events of his time to instill both verisimilitude and the realization of how events that were perceived as the “wrath of God” as a consequence of social, spiritual, or moral transgressions were quickly set aside either through self-interest, explanation, justification, or just through the English quality of “carrying on.”
Robinson Crusoe is a survivor who overcomes his deserted island by placing his morals and values in difficult surroundings. When The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: & c was published in 1719, stories of seafaring adventures, encounters with pirates, and the discovery of strange lands and peoples were so popular that Defoe’s book was accepted as a true-life story. Despite popular belief as Kathrine Frank argues in Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth, Robert Knox, whose story begins at a time of adventure, commerce, and colonialism, rather than Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish castaway usually put forward as the real Crusoe, personifies Defoe’s concept or experience of captivity, whether in a faraway land or a London correctional institution, and could be argued to be fundamental to the Crusoe myth rather than the island itself (Scutts). There is no indication that Knox and Defoe ever met, even though they lived a short distance from each other. Nonetheless, their stories of immurement give a view of a world rousing into modern times. In November, 1659, the same year Crusoe washed up on his island, nineteen-year-old Knox was a sailor on board Anne, an East India Company ship captained by his father. Hindered by a storm while at anchor off the south coast of India, the ship coasted to Kottiyar Bay in Ceylon for repairs, where word of its presence soon spread. After unsuccessful negotiations with a small native group, Knox, his father and other men found themselves captured. The men were taken inland and separated, although Knox and his father were kept together, moved from village to village. It was twenty years before he escaped (Scutts).
There is no indication that Defoe traveled outside Britain, but his journalistic research nourished his creativity. His business ventures and failures landed him in liabilities, in the pillory, and in prison. It could be argued that Defoe’s writings and the creation of Crusoe were driven not only by lessons he learned the hard way, as he expresses in the moral of his “Hymn to the Pillory” (1703) that “survivors are those who create in the face of all the dark forces that seek to destroy them,” but also as a result of his perspectives as a propagandist (Scutts).
Another fashion in which Defoe created verisimilitude was in the use of pirates. Between 1713 and 1714, a succession of peace accords were signed which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (the Queen Anne’s War). With the end of conflict mariners, including Britain’s privateers, were relieved of military duty, resultant in a large number of trained crewmen at a time when the cross-Atlantic colonial shipping trade was beginning to prosper. In addition, Europeans who had been forced by unemployment to become mariners and soldiers involved in slaving were often quick to discard the profession and turn to pirating, giving pirate captains for many years a supply of trained European recruits As part of the war’s settlement, Britain acquired the asiento, a Spanish government contract, to supply slaves to Spain’s global colonies, furnishing British merchants and smugglers access to the longstanding closed Spanish markets in America. At that time, Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, was active from 1716 to 1718 and was perhaps the most notorious pirate among English-speaking nations. Blackbeard’s most famous ship was Queen Anne’s Revenge, named ironically in response to the end of Queen Anne’s War (Gosse).
These events were at the forefront of English political and news reporting at the time of publication of Defoe’s work. The Spanish, traditionally loathed enemies, described by Crusoe as “frightful and terrible to all People of Humanity, or of Christian Compassion … who were without Principles of Tenderness, or the common Bowels of Pity to the Miserable ” (Defoe 146), were now partners with English colonial monarchy and traditional heroes now became villains in exotic faraway parts of the world.
Slavery in colonial perspectives was not only regarded as simply a business proposition, being quite convenient for the kingdom to replenish its economy. It was also a very real possibility that
for anyone who traveled in the Mediterranean, or who lived along the shores in places like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, and even as far north as England and Iceland [could become slaves and that over] the course of four centuries, [About] 10 to 12 million black Africans were brought to the Americas. But from 1500 to 1650 … more white Christian slaves were probably taken to Barbary than black African slaves to the Americas … At its peak, the destruction and depopulation of some areas probably exceeded what European slavers would later inflict on the African interior. (Grabmeier)
An interesting point to make is how moral reciprocity does not seem to hold any consistent value to Crusoe in that there is no integration between belief and behavior; rather, he is driven by self-interest, as when he sells Xury, a fellow slave who had helped the hero to regain his freedom. One would think Crusoe would have afforded Xury equal consideration.
During the early eighteenth century much of commonwealth worldview began to shift from John Locke’s liberal ideologies to a more utilitarian point of view, which was very convenient for a commonwealth in the midst of redefining itself and its relationships. It became convenient to now look at traditional enemies with a new moral consideration. Moral consideration became a moral system designed to protect each other as a moral reciprocity in that one would protect the rights of another with the expectation that the other would do the same for oneself.
At this time there were murmurings of the question of slavery and rights, particularly now that Europeans had experienced being slaves on the world market by greater numbers. A contemporary philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, proposed and reflected upon French society regarding slavery at about this time. He criticized slavery in the British dominion in that “[there] is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor,” and that it is not if they can reason or talk; rather, if they can suffer, that should be the qualifying factor as to whether or not they should be afforded a moral right to be free of suffering (Singer 272).
It could be argued that Crusoe then represents a colonial society’s transition from one belief system to another and how a new belief system would conflict with the need to behave in another way in a colonial reality of self-interest. As an example we have a moral reciprocity between Xury and Crusoe in that they aid each other in escaping slavery. Crusoe contemplates as a slave at one point and realizes slavery as the lowest condition possible:
At this surprising Change of my Circumstances from a Merchant to a miserable Slave, I was perfectly overwhelmed; [that] I should be miserable, and have none to relieve me, which I thought was now so effectually brought to pass, that it could not be worse; that the Hand of Heaven had overtaken me, and I was undone without Redemption. (Defoe 19)
This insight is put aside later when Crusoe decides to sell Xury as chattel by accepting “60 Pieces of Eight more for [the] Boy” who had faithfully helped him in escaping his own bondage (Defoe 30).
Crusoe saves Friday, a cannibal, from other cannibals for similar self-interest and for the same considerations of moral reciprocity. But if we shift our attention from this towards the relationship between Crusoe and the Spaniard who eventually came to his island, we gain insight into the problem of British colonial subjectivity (Dowdel 419). Understanding the racial makeup of Crusoe’s island, one could say that the narrative has less to do with British colonial experience but rather with the formation of British subjectivity played out in isolating circumstances of colonial life. Defoe demonstrates that the ability of the inhabitants to consent to a “form of government is predicated upon their capacity to provide themselves with the appropriate rules of social and political conduct” (Dowdel 418).
Crusoe reflects about how his “island was now peopled, and … very rich in subjects; [and that he] had an undoubted right of dominion. [with people who] were perfectly subjected.” He felt as “absolute lord and lawgiver, [as] they all owed their lives to [him], and were ready to lay down their lives” (Defoe 190). Crusoe further illustrates this by contractualizing his “subjects” by instilling a sense of moral reciprocity based on mutual moral concepts and faith, as when he proposed to the Spaniard the deliverance of his men. When his island is visited by other Europeans, he does the same in that with the promise of salvation, the Englishmen would “not pretend any authority” and that any arms placed in their hands were to be returned upon request. Along with this, a passage to England was negotiated, all based on “all the assurances that the invention and faith of man could devise” (Defoe 201).
This point could further be substantiated by arguing that the true master of the island is not Crusoe, but Friday who, at any moment, has the capacity to disengage in a number of ways from his relationship with Crusoe, and at his own whim. It would suggest that Friday stays of his own accord out of moral reciprocity. Defoe shows Crusoe, a former slave, as selling Xury and placing Friday in servitude is analogous to how colonial Europeans, former victims of slavery, engaged out of self-interest with the Spanish to ship slaves to their colonial dominions out of self-interest and reciprocity regardless of the lessons learned as a society.
It is interesting to note that, in 1684, Knox being made the captain of a slave ship by the East India Company is similar to Crusoe accepting the business proposition of acquiring slaves while in the Brazils, as was the English monarchy accepting the Spanish asiento to provide slaves to foreign interests. He “would have had to be a much more unconventional man than he was” to object to the slave trade at this point in history; but it makes him a frustrating hero (Frank).
As a commentary on humanity and self-interest, Defoe uses several events in his narrative to show that regardless of consequence, man, by nature, tends to disregard consequence out of self-interest. Defoe seems to use natural disasters and the perceived “wrath of God” that were being reported about Jamaica to embody this dynamic.
Jamaicans had no gauge to calculate the force of the hurricane that impacted their island other than the most substantive measurement: the loss of lives, property, and livelihood. Accounts existed in newspapers, pamphlets, and diaries of the era, chronicling the emotional and economic devastation. In their own words (Mulcahy 53):
The external face of the earth, so much altered, scarce know where I am. Not a blade of grass, or a leaf left, or tree, shrub or bush . . . the appearance of the dreary mountains of Wales, in the winter season…the most luxuriant Spring changed in this one Night to the drearyest Winter…swell[ed] to a most amazing height, overflowing the ill-fated town of Savanna la Mar and the low lands adjacent…not less than 300 people of all colors were drowned or buried in the ruins.
During the most widely reported hurricane of Crusoe’s time in the Caribbean, on July 31, 1715, seven days after departing from Havana, eleven of twelve Spanish ships of a fleet were lost in a hurricane near Vero Beach. They became known, as the Spanish Treasure Fleet (Scott-Ireton; Mattick). These types of losses, along with losses from privateering, contributed as an indirect pressure for the end of Queen Anne’s War.
What was remarkable about this hurricane was that it caused between 1000 and 2500 deaths, and it should be pointed out that from the mid-16th to the mid-18th century, heavily armed fleets such as these navigated the waters between Spain and the Americas, carrying huge amounts of New World treasure. It is through these treasure fleet systems that Spain created a mighty New World empire and a powerful nation in Europe, much to the resentment of the English colonial monarchy. Defoe refers to these quite clearly in his narrative where Crusoe notices a shipwreck off his island after another hurricane and remarks that “the ship had a great deal of wealth on board …. She must have been bound from the Buenos Ayres, the Rio de la Plata [or] the Havanas … so perhaps to Spain. She no doubt had a great treasure in her” (Defoe 151).
At the same time, earthquakes were much in the news. Port Royal, Jamaica, the unofficial capital, and one of the busiest and wealthiest ports in the West Indies, was known both as the “storehouse and treasury of the West Indies” and “one of the wickedest places on earth,” being the home port for the many privateers and pirates operating in the Caribbean Sea (U.S. Geological Society). The earthquake caused most of Port Royal to sink below sea level and about 2,000 people died as a result of the earthquake and the following tsunami. About 3,000 people died in the days following the earthquakes due to injuries and disease (Tortello).
This was described as the result of God’s wrath in that “there never happens an earthquake, but God speaks to men on Earth,” as stated by Boston puritan Cotton Mather (Tortello).
To understand the enormity of the earthquake, not only did Port Royal sink below the sea, but “dead bodies and bones from uprooted graves covered the harbor replacing ships tossed by the mammoth waves into the town’s destroyed buildings and onto the shells of its once bustling streets. In total, between 1,500 and 2,000 people lost their lives” (Tortello).
Naval, merchant, and fishing ships were wrecked and the port was destroyed. The duration of the quake is unclear. Many “Port Royal residents are documented as saying that it lasted at least 15 minutes,” but most reports indicated that the catastrophe took no more than two to three minutes (Tortello). It was sufficient to destroy almost one third of Port Royal’s population. In addition to those who died, up to 3,000 were reported to have sustained serious injuries. Nonetheless, these inhabitants returned to their grievous ways as recorded in the following:
Looters broke into homes and warehouses taking every thing of value. The dead were said to have been robbed of all they had on them, and on the very night of the quake, many in the destroyed town were even said to have been back at their “old trade of drinking, swearing and whoring.” (Tortello)
The Rev. Mr. Heath, the Anglican rector in Port Royal, hoped that this terrible judgment would stand as a warning and that God would make these people of disrepute reform their lives. Others, like Boston-based puritan minister Cotton Mather, believed God intended it as a warning to Christians everywhere (Tortello).
Defoe foreshadows this theme of self-interest and consequence when he describes Crusoe as disregarding his parents’ authority and well-intentioned advice and deciding to embark on his adventure:
I consulted neither Father or Mother any more, nor so much as sent them Word of it; but leaving them to hear of it as they might, without asking God’s Blessing, or my Father’s, without any Consideration of Circumstances or Consequences and in an ill Hour, God knows. On the first of September 1651 I went on Board a Ship bound for London; never any young Adventurer’s Misfortunes, I believe, began sooner, or continued longer than mine. (Defoe 8)
The consequence of this self-interest was a storm of hurricane magnitude:
All this while the storm encreas’d, and the sea…went very high…I expected every wave would have swallowed us up, and that every time the ship fell down, as I thought, in a trough or hollow of the sea, we would never rise more. (Defoe 9)
Defoe shows human nature in the aftermath of such events and how these fears or entreaties to God are then mitigated by our nature to return to self-interest regardless of consequence or the observations of others, in this case the ship’s captain:
In a word, as the Sea was returned to its Smoothness of Surface and settled Calmness by the Abatement of that Storm, so the Hurry of my Thoughts being over, my Fears and Apprehensions of being swallow’d up by the Sea being forgotten, and the Current of my former Desires return’d, I entirely forgot the Vows and Promises that I made in my Distress. (Defoe 11)
However he afterwards talk’d very gravely to me, exhorted me to go back to my Father, not to tempt Providence to my Ruine; told me I might see a visible Hand of Heaven against me, And young Man, said he, depend upon it, if you do not go back, where-ever you go, you will meet with nothing but Disasters and Disappointments till your Father’s Words are fulfilled upon you. (Defoe 15)
Yet Crusoe, and mankind for that matter, ignores providence, God’s wrath, and lessons learned through hard consequences, and continues to go along his way, carrying on as he explains early in the narrative:
I have since often observed, how incongruous and irrational the common temper of mankind is, especially of youth, to that reason which ought to guide them in such cases—viz. that they are not ashamed to sin, and yet are ashamed to repent; not ashamed of the action for which they ought justly to be esteemed fools, but are ashamed of the returning, which only can make them be esteemed wise men. (Defoe 14)
The personal views of Defoe and his role as a journalist and propagandist helped to shape Crusoe as an embodiment of colonial subjectivity and politics through the clever use of the character’s interactions with the inhabitants of the islands. He also was very effective in showing these dynamics as practiced on a personal level as part of human nature; though we endeavor to improve our conditions, at times our egos prevent us from truly attaining any spiritual or psychic change.
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