Robinson Crusoe

I’ve just finished reading Robinson Crusoe for the first time. It’s a book I’ve always vaguely conflated in my mind with Treasure Island – I knew it was about a castaway, that probably there were pirates, and parrots, but not much more.

I didn’t know that Daniel Defoe’s tale is considered by some to be the first English novel. But I must say, for a book first published in 1719, it’s surprisingly readable. It’s much less of a verbose slog than some later 19th-century novels I’ve read. It’s also more than just an adventure story.

David Blewitt’s essay ‘The Island and the World’ is included at the end of the edition I borrowed from the library, and he elucidates  the themes of redemption and deliverance running through the novel. These are part of what make it a compelling read. But it turns out there is also a more troubling aspect to Crusoe, one which mostly lies under the surface of the action, but which is hugely important. The story arc of the title character is, essentially, an advert for the profitability of slaver colonialism.

Crusoe is marooned on his island because he has established a plantation in ‘the Brasils’, and he boards a vessel with the intent of buying slaves to expand his operation. When a storm drives the ship onto the mysterious island, Crusoe is the sole survivor.

But Crusoe only arrives in South America after he is himself enslaved in North Africa. When he manages to escape by boat, he is fortunately picked up by a Portuguese ship heading across the Atlantic. Tellingly, the misery of his slavery experience, and a brief episode in which he’s helped by Africans as he sails along the coast, has no discernible impact on his attitude to the use of African slaves when he starts his plantation.

During the 28-year island stay, his plantation is looked after for him by caretakers, and he is presumed dead. When he eventually manages to escape the island and reveal he’s alive, he is able to effectively cash in on a much-expanded estate, worked by slave labour. As a location the plantation features only briefly in the book, and none of its slaves are given any presence. Instead the focus is on Crusoe’s island, where his moral journey plays out: learning that hard work, resourcefulness and trust in God will enable him to survive his ordeal and eventually obtain deliverance. But his reward, when he at last escapes, is not just freedom: it’s the wealth earned by slaves.

In 2019, for the book’s 300th anniversary, Charles Boyle wrote a revealing piece in the Guardian that examined the links between Crusoe and British imperialism, arguing it was time to ‘let him go’. It’s certainly very interesting to learn that two months before the book’s publication, Defoe had argued for the founding a British colony near the mouth of the Orinoco (the setting for Crusoe’s fictional island), to be overseen by the South Sea Company (whose bubble famously burst a year later).

I disagree with Boyle about the quality of Defoe’s writing – on the whole I found Crusoe engrossing and very interesting. That is surely a reason for its enduring, if problematic, appeal. Crusoe the myth certainly needs picking apart, as Boyle does very well. But if read critically, and as a product of its time, Crusoe the novel helps to demonstrate the moral double-think that allowed a system as horrific as slavery to be rationalised for so long, as simply sensible economics.

Relatedly, I read in the news yesterday that a ground-breaking study of Britain’s slave economy by the first Prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, is finally being published in Britain, some 80 years after it was written.

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