Robinson Crusoe (Penguin Popular Classics)

by Daniel Defoe | Literature & Fiction |
ISBN: 9780140620153 Global Overview for this book
Registered by LittleBigDave of Selby, North Yorkshire United Kingdom on 10/26/2008
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Journal Entry 1 by LittleBigDave from Selby, North Yorkshire United Kingdom on Sunday, October 26, 2008
Post-Colonialism and Imperialism in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is an ideal novel to be studied from a post-colonial perspective and an ideal novel to be used when examining imperialism in literature. The novel’s plot miniaturises and epitomises the British Empire’s colonisation of foreign countries, and in Crusoe encapsulates the mindset of the British coloniser.

James Joyce said of Robinson Crusoe,
The true symbol of British conquest is Robinson… He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday… is the symbol of the subject races. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity. (Joyce: 2002)

Crusoe’s first act of colonialism seen in the novel is his abhorrent and unfair treatment of the slave boy, Xury whom he meets after emancipating himself from the slavery of The Moors. At one point Crusoe tells Xury, “Xury, if you will be faithful to me, I’ll make you a great man” (Crusoe, 1994:28). Yet later on, when Crusoe has no more need for Xury, he reneges on this promise and sells him to a Portuguese ship captain. Despite having no claim greater than a detached sort of friendship towards Xury, he feels that he has the right to sell him, as though a commodity. Crusoe’s behaviour, and the fact that he seemingly feels no remorse for his betrayal, except for later expressing a regret for selling Xury, not for moral reasons but because he realises the boy would have come in useful as a worker, shows that he has an inherent belief of his superiority over other races, and that, possibly because of his time as a plantation and slave owner, he sees human beings as possessions and commodities, almost like cattle. This attitude is confirmed in Crusoe’s reference at the end of the novel to women and goods, “Besides other supplies, I sent seven women”. (Defoe, 1994:298). Here Crusoe is reducing the status of women to the same level as perishable goods and tradable items.

When finally ensconced on ‘his’ island Robinson Crusoe kills, conquers and/or colonises every other person he meets; from Friday and the savages to the mutineers and their captors Crusoe’s pursuit of dominance and status is unrelenting. Crusoe feels he has a right to rule over these people, sees the island as his kingdom and refers to himself as its king,

My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked. First of all, the whole country was my own mere property, so that I had an undoubted right of dominion. (Defoe, 1994:236)

Here Crusoe is exhibiting the colonialist belief that any piece of land he inhabits immediately becomes his property, and its inhabitants, albeit in this case not its indigenous population, are there to be enslaved and to be used for the coloniser’s own ends.

The most notable instance of colonisation in the novel is the relationship between Crusoe and Friday. Crusoe meets and names Friday and from the relationship’s inception he decides that Friday is to be his slave. Even prior to their initial meeting Crusoe said, “I fancied myself able to manage one, nay, two or three savages, if I had them, to make them entirely slaves to me, to do whatever I should direct them”. (Defoe, 1994:236).

The idea of treating Friday, or seemingly anyone as an equal never seems to occur to Crusoe. James Egan, in his article ‘Monarchy and the Puritan Concept of the Self’ believes this to be for puritanical religious reasons,

I would suggest there is a spiritual significance to Crusoe’s notion of Kingship… By acting as though he were a king, Crusoe is able to engage in social relations with his fellow men and yet remain in control of these relations… The metaphor of kingship may mean that Crusoe is a monarch over his own soul. (Egan, 1973:453)

Egan goes on to imply that the reason Crusoe does not treat other people as equals is due to his belief that, through his religion he is spiritually superior to other non-puritan people, “Crusoe avoids contaminating contact with the Spanish captain because he identifies the Spaniard’s Catholicism with the wiles of the Antichrist”. (Egan, 1973:451) This statement doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny though, as Crusoe never fully accepts Friday as an equal, even after Friday’s conversion, nor did he treat Xury as an equal, and their relationship occurred before Crusoe himself had become devoutly religious, therefore his religion based prejudices shouldn’t have been in place at that time.

Crusoe continues to collect more ‘subjects’ for his Kingdom when he rescues Friday’s father and the Spaniard from being eaten by, what he calls ‘savages’. Later, Crusoe finds out that the Spaniard whom he rescued knows of fifteen more people; Spanish and Portuguese sailors, who are stranded on a nearby island and living at peace with the island’s indigenous population. Crusoe agrees to allow these people to his island, with the intention of them helping him escape, but he never sees in this news the opportunity for himself to also build a rapport with the island’s natives, who, being his only known enemy/human threat and knowing the land better than anyone else, would eliminate one obstacle and also surely be a great help in aiding his escape. Despite knowing that ‘the savages’ are able to live in peace with Europeans he still feels it necessary to maintain his violent separatism and his animosity.

Eventually, after the rest of the shipwrecked Europeans reach the island, Crusoe has around him a substantial coterie of subjects, from different lands and of different religions. Crusoe does not see fit to install any kind of democratic rule, or even a regime based on mutual respect and work, he still exerts his rule of law over all these people and, in order for themselves, and him to be saved he insists that they all swear allegiance to him and promise to obey him at all times,

…upon their solemn oath, that they should be absolutely under my leading, as their commander and captain; and that they should swear upon the Holy Sacraments and the Gospel to be true to me (Defoe, 1994:236)

Even here, when teamwork and mutual cooperation is needed, and when they will be leaving ‘his’ island and his jurisdiction, Crusoe still expects and demands that people adhere to the hierarchy that he has put in place.

After Crusoe leaves the island he allows or possibly forces (as he is in possession of the only boat, the only means of leaving the island) English and Spanish sailors to stay upon it. After Crusoe has left they eventually build a thriving community, despite sporadic altercations with Caribbean’s from the neighbouring islands. When Crusoe returns to the island his claim on it, in his opinion, has not diminished, indeed he still refers to it as ‘my island’. When he finds that the colonising Europeans he left behind have improved their lot upon the island he proceeds to exert his right to ownership once more, “I shared the Island into parts with them, reserved to myself the property of the whole, but gave them such parts respectively as they agreed on” (Defoe, 1994:236).

Throughout the novel Robinson Crusoe extols the virtues of Christianity yet he has little to no compassion for his fellow man. Unless someone is able to be of practical use to him Crusoe pays them no regard. Even his seemingly heroic acts such as rescuing Friday from his pursuers and disrupting the mutiny of the ship are only a means to an end for Crusoe, just another way to recruit subjects for his kingdom and eventually find his way off the island.


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