See the glad Sailor on Peruvia’s Shoar,
Ballasts with Ingots and resplendent Ore,
Or pours his Negroes forth on Chili’s Strand,
Reluctant and with Tears the Wretches land;
Whilst he (his Sable Freight for Gold resign’d)
Takes in Exchange of Slaves, the Master of Mankind.
We all did it, right? It was a sometimes socially sanctioned form of robbery — exploiting and manipulating each other for self-interest, national interest and personal and national profit. And we all have had a hand in it to some degree….Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Americans, English, Spanish, French, Portugese, Dutch, Africans, Chinese – the list goes on. It was universal. Take the Moors. Robinson Crusoe is captured as a slave and serves his Moorish master long before he ever owns a slave.
Then comes the opportunity for Robinson Crusoe’s exploitation in Brazil….Land is cheap. Robinson comes into quite a bit of it. There’s a problem, though. Not enough slave/servants to exploit the potential profit. The solution, rob a few from the coasts of Guinea, lured by a few “toys.” Who wouldn’t try it? The potential for profit was so great. But so was the danger.
As a result of the shipwreck, Robinson finds himself not enslaved this time, but a prisoner in what would be a paradise, except for the occasional cannibal carnage on the beach…What was wrong with those cannibals? They weren’t smart enough to make financial profit from their captives. Instead, they literally eat away their capital and profits.
It takes a brilliant economic mind of the type Robinson has to manage to secure a slave/servant in this type of environment. But manage he does. And his man Friday is so grateful for his “salvation” from cannibalism and paganism through Master Robinson, that he willingly pledges lifelong “service” to Master Robinson until death would part. Friday has not been robbed of his name, nation, freedom and dignity. This creature cheerfully gives all away forever. In return, Master Robinson gains, through Friday, a greater understanding of the Christian faith. Hhhhhhmmmmm…….
Of course, they both survive and reenter the normal world where Brazilian plantations and slave labor have amassed a huge fortune for Master Robinson in his absence. Now a generous, righteous soul, as a result of his personal salvation through shipwreck and solitude on the island, Master Robinson spreads the wealth to family, friends, sponsors and, of course, the Church. It was all quite proper; it was all quite right. And we all did it.
Well, never mind that everybody did it – the exploitation and enslavement. What did Defoe think about it? I started my search for an answer with John Richardson’s Slavery and Augustan Literature. Richardson was helpful for me in learning how the English talked about, or rather didn’t talk about, profit from the exploitation and manipulation of other human beings, namely the slave trade in the 18th century. He left me with no doubt that the moral issues surrounding slavery were very much on Defoe’s mind, but gave no clarity on his position.
I next reviewed Roxann Wheeler’s The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in 18th Century British Culture. She deals more explicity with Defoe’s racial ideology, and helped me to understand the gradual rhetorical and language developments surrounding race in the 18th century. But still no answer.
Finally, I stopped my search with Manuel Schonhorn’s Defoe’s Politics. Although the book’s jacket proclaims that Robinson Crusoe is “a dramatic reenactment of Defoe’s lifelong political preoccupations concerning society, government, and kingship,” and gave me a great introduction to Defoe’s thoughts on how the monarchy, parliament and the common people should balance power, he wasn’t interested in the robbery.
So, I honestly didn’t find the answer to what Defoe thought. Good thing we no longer do it. Good thing all this robbery of human rights for profit is in the past.