Defoes book has inspired novels, Hollywood movies and games but the shipwrecked slave-trader should never have become a role model
In February 1719, two months before the publication of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe proposed in the Weekly Journal that the South Sea Company – founded just eight years earlier to manage the national debt and awarded a contract to supply the Spanish colonies in Latin America with several thousand African slaves per year – should oversee the founding of a British colony at the mouth of the River Orinoco on the coast of present day Venezuela. The government would be required “to furnish six Men of War, and 4000 regular Troops, with some Engineers and 100 pieces of Cannon, and military Stores in Proportion for the maintaining and supporting the Design”, but “the Revenue it shall bring to the Kingdom will be a full amends”. Defoe chose to locate the fictional island on which Crusoe is stranded around 40 miles from the mouth of the Orinoco, and furnish it with a kindlier climate than that of the actual island on which Alexander Selkirk, the presumed model for Crusoe, was marooned. His book (no one was calling it a “novel” at the time) was a prospectus for potential investors, lacking only glossy photos of beaches and palm trees.
Bribery and insider dealing combined with public credulity to drive the share price of the South Sea Company unsustainably high, and in 1720 the bubble burst, causing widespread financial ruin. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – which recounts, in addition to Crusoe’s diligent labours on the island, his skirmishes with cannibals and a crew of English mutineers, his rescue and a perilous overland journey from Lisbon to bring home the fortune that has been accumulating during his absence – would have been a better investment. By late summer 1719 the book had been reprinted three times and Defoe had published a sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. A third volume, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, followed in 1720. By the end of the 19th century, the original Crusoe had been reissued in several hundred editions and the book had come to resemble, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “one of the anonymous productions of the race rather than the effort of a single mind”. During the 20th century, Defoe’s original template was turned upside down and inside out – by, among many others, HG Wells, Jean Giraudoux, William Golding, JG Ballard and Julio Cortázar – in ways that reflected changing attitudes to race, gender, imperialism, rationality and the environment.
In Michel Tournier’s Friday, or, The Other Island (1967), Robinson comes to perceive the island not as “a territory to be exploited but a being, unquestionably feminine”; mandrakes grow on the slope where Robinson has sex with the earth and “a new man seemed to be coming to life within him, wholly alien to the practical administrator”. In Sam Selvon’s Moses Ascending (1975), Moses takes over a run-down house in Shepherd’s Bush and has his practical affairs attended to “by my man Friday, a white immigrant from somewhere in the Midlands … He was a willing worker, eager to learn the ways of the Black man.” In JM Coetzee’s Foe (1986), Susan Barton tells Mr Foe, a writer she has engaged to bring her adventures to book, that “The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a way of giving voice to Friday” – whose tongue has been cut out, either by the slavers who transported him from Africa or by Crusoe himself.
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