Does Defoe condone robbery in Robinson Crusoe?

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.

Anonymous, inscribed to the Reverend John, Lord Bishop of London, 1714

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.



Filed under Commentaries

6 responses to “Does Defoe condone robbery in Robinson Crusoe?

  1. lmaruca

    I don’t know if you saw this footnote in the McKeon reading today (p. 407, ftnt 7), a reference to Richard Baxter’s views on slavery in 1683. Your post had me curious, so I followed up. I found an 1825 edition of his works at Google Books ( On pg. 215 he says,

    “To go as pirates and catch up poor negroes or people of another land that never forfeited life or liberty and to make them slaves and sell them is one of the worst kinds of thievery in the world and such persons are to be taken for the common enemies of mankind and they that buy them and use them as beasts for their mere commodity and betray or destroy or neglect their souls are fitter to be called incarnate devils than Christians though they be no Christians whom they so abuse.”

    Interesting, huh? You can read more about Baxter at Wikipedia, though their entry does not discuss his views on slavery.

    • lmaruca

      By the way, an annotated collection of works & debates on slavery as “background” to RC would make a great digital project!

      • yj

        I love it! And I’m strongly considering that idea….I’m torn, though, for fear that it would be too predictable for me to take this up, given my background. However, you mentioned (sub)texts in another post here. I see so many (sub)texts in these 18th century works that seem to be haunted with this “invisible” issue, and I wonder if I would see them if I had a different background. On the otherhand, maybe this is my “calling.” 🙂

  2. lmaruca

    I can relate to not wanting to be categorized or stereotyped …but it’s also important to find a project you’re passionate about. Anyway, if you’re still interested, I found another intersting source, this one secondary–not quite on slavery, but related in its treatment of non-European ethnicities: Merrett, Robert. “Daniel Defoe and Islam.” in a journal called Lumen 24.

    • yj

      Yes…I also considered that it’s possible that no one else involved in 18th century literary studies will care about this side of it. Still, as surprising as it seems, I decided to go ahead with this topic. One of my favorite lines from the Count of Monte Cristo (in the movie, I confess I don’t know if it’s in the book!) is “Let neglect be your ally.” So, I’m going to give this neglected topic a try and see what comes of it — hopefully, something good! I will look for the Lumen article. Thanks!

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