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Crusoe, Defoe, and slavery

Robinson Crusoe is, in the broadest sense, a tale of redemption, with Biblical allusions (and explicit references) as diverse as the Prodigal Son, the Garden of Eden, Jonah and the whale, the Book of Job, and the conversion of St. Paul. Crusoe seems to believe that his misfortune is a divine punishment of sorts for “obey[ing] blindly the Dictates of my Fancy rather than my Reason” (36), and that he is redeemed and quite literally “saved” through an abiding faith in God: “All Help is from Heaven, Sir,” he tells the English captain after rescuing him (214). After his spiritual conversion on the island, he writes,

I sincerely gave Thanks to God for opening my Eyes, by whatever afflicting Providences, to see the former Condition of my Life, and to mourn for my Wickedness, and repent. (97)

Yet Crusoe never reckons with what today is easily seen as his most profound moral error, his serial complicity and participation in the practice of slavery. From his ordeal on the Barbary Coast to his plantation in Brazil to his time on the island with “[his] Man Friday,” slavery is hardly ever absent from the text, but is hardly ever explicitly discussed – much less reflected on or questioned – by Crusoe, either. In his introduction to the book, Thomas Keymer argues that there exists a separation between Crusoe’s views (or lack thereof) on slavery and Daniel Defoe’s – that underlying ironies in the text point towards a more progressive stance (xxxvii-xxxix).

Having finished the novel I can’t say that I’m entirely convinced. It seems that only through a carefully selective reading can one tease out an anti-slavery message – and even then a very cautious and oblique one, when it’s not evident that such caution and obliqueness were strictly necessary at the time of its writing. While legal actions and a formal abolitionist movement didn’t begin until twenty or thirty years after Robinson Crusoe was published, it’s clear from Keymer’s introduction and some cursory research that cultural and political undercurrents of objection to the slave trade were well underway. Keymer notes that “the oddness of Crusoe’s inability to see his slaving activities as even potentially controversial is not only a modern perception,” and that Defoe’s infamous rival, Charles Gildon, criticized Robinson Crusoe on these grounds “within months of publication.” (xxxvii) And since Defoe, a prolific writer and political malcontent, doesn’t appear (again, from some cursory research) to have chosen to write at all on the subject of slavery outside of his famous novel, it’s difficult for me to see how Crusoe’s disregard for the issue doesn’t simply mirror his author’s.

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