Jeremy W. Hubbell is a graduate student in History at SUNY Stony Brook and has written for a wide variety of business, academic, and educational publishers. In the following essay, he views Robinson Crusoe as a guidebook for English colonialism.
Today, the typical reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe assumes that the novel is central to the bourgeois myth. However, as Diana Spearman and others have pointed out, the story of a man in isolation for twenty-four years is a strange myth for a class of people dependent on an economic system that requires people to interact with one another through an economic medium.
Instead, Defoe’s novel meditates on the redeeming qualities offered by the labor of colonialism for the Englishman. Work was the way to civilize the wilderness of the New World and achieve peace with God. The project of colonialism, as the Puritans were proving at the start of the eighteenth century, provided a profitable way of realizing God’s directive in Genesis: “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Although too old to follow God’s directive, Defoe hoped to persuade the English people to engage in the good work. He even shows them how — the Englishman must be ruthless yet reasonable in order to conquer nature and receive God’s reward. Defoe’s novel encourages England to emulate the Puritans in their success.
He believed that Englishmen were destined to succeed at colonialism if they overcame their fear through the use of their psychological tools: their reason, their work ethic, and their Protestant faith. In ‘Robinson Crusoe’, Defoe imagines a true-born Englishman fulfilling his fantasy. Throughout the novel, Defoe makes clear that a man’s power over himself and nature depends upon ceaseless labor — this is the secret to the colonial project.
Before the colonialist can begin to work, security precautions must be taken. This is Crusoe’s first concern. The next phase of conquest is the act of possession.
Both concerns are demonstrated during his escape from slavery and his dealings with Xury, who embodies the barbarities of both slavery and Africa. Crusoe has two advantages over the boy, in that he is bigger and he has a gun. In other words, Crusoe’s first providential trial is a small contest. He passes and is and is amply rewarded.
In this first trial, his planning and stealth (both are forms of work) have already provided him with possessions, but Xury’s subordination secures his claim to the ownership of the commandeered vessel, the stolen goods, and even Xury himself. This pattern of getting and securing by force is repeated throughout the novel. The power of the patriarch, however, comes only by the grace of God, and only after vast expenditures of labor.
On the island, Crusoe cannot immediately carry out this model as well as he wishes. He must first master himself. The process of mastering himself and his environment takes twenty years, finally culminating when he faces what he believes to be a devil, which turns out to be a dying goat.
During those twenty years, Crusoe illustrates the small steps towards self-sufficiency and self-mastery. His entire scheme of labor and conquest serializes the lesson of patience. Part of this lesson involves a day-to-day manufacture of an organized civilization.
He wants to construct a castle, but he must first “make me some tools.” Thus, he recovers as many items of civilization as possible from the wrecked ship. Next, he sets about remaking civilization with those salvaged objects. He constructs a shovel, a table, and a chair. These things prevent him from existing “like a mere savage.”
As a civilized man, he makes peace with God and institutes daily readings from the New Testament. From this point on, there are few skills he cannot master with the use of logic and reason, although issues of security and ownership remain unsettled.
The island contains no singular embodiment of nature to be conquered, so instead every element of the island presents a threat. Crusoe vacillates on how to deal with these threats. The first method involves visualization of mastery:
I came to an opening the country appeared so fresh it looked like a planted garden surveying it with a secret kind of pleasure to think that this was all my own; that I was king and lord of all this country indefeasibly, and had a right and possession; and, if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a manor in England.
Here, Crusoe is expressing a Lockean sentiment: the perception that “I own it” is half of ownership. Yet this is insufficient, because anyone or anything could perceive and state likewise.
So Crusoe uses fear to complete his conquest. A metaphor for his use of terror is found in his conflicts with his winged enemies, the crows. He employs terror in the same way the English crown does; he hangs three dead crows as if they were “notorious thieves” and, consequently, he never sees another bird in that part of the island.
He also employs terror with the goats. He learns the value of entrapment and starvation as coercive devices, and soon has a tame herd serving his nutritional needs. The most radical element of terror Crusoe employs in his campaign against the armies of nature and barbarity is the fortification of his shelter. For this, he uses trees, cables, and the earth to make impenetrable shelter.
However, his construction never serves a defensive purpose. Rather, it signifies the completion of his ownership; with his ten-foot walls, there is no doubt that he rules the land he has surveyed.
Crusoe’s power depends upon a constant supply of labor. Once he has conquered the island with his hedges, fences, granaries and boats, he begins to fear that the cannibals will take it all away from him. Clearly, God’s work is never finished, but Crusoe soon finds help.
As in his earlier ceremony of possession, he visualizes having a servant before he even rescues Friday. Colonialism, according to Crusoe, demands a steady state of mind developed in the course of laborious exercises. Even when Friday shows him an easier way of constructing a boat, Crusoe sticks to his own method.
Crusoe’s success results from a cruelty to self. By doing things the hard way, he learned hard lessons, and he wants Friday to imitate him. His relationship with Friday reflects his relationship with himself.
Away from the hectic world of 1719, Crusoe is on his island in perfect isolation. Not only is Crusoe geographically located where Defoe had pinned his hopes (a colony at the mouth of the Orinoco where Sir Walter Raleigh attempted a settlement), but he lives in the time of greatest hope.
Defoe admired many of Oliver Cromwell’s projects, especially the Navigation Acts, so it is not surprising that Crusoe is lost to civilization in 1659, the year Cromwell’s son, Richard, lost political power. Once on the island, Crusoe reinvents society for himself. The island becomes his benevolent garden and he laboriously constructs the infrastructure of civilization by subjugating nature.
This is precisely the process the Puritans went through. As Joyce Appleby describes them in hisCapitalism and a New Social Order, “Far from turning into modern entrepreneurs, Puritan men became rural patriarchs who commanded their wives, controlled their [children] and kept out any deviants who might spoil the sweet harmony of their peaceable kingdom.” Crusoe behaves in the same way, keeping out crows, cannibals, or anyone refusing his authority. Power, for Crusoe, comes down to control:
It would have made a stoic smile to have seen me and my little family sit down to dinner; there was my majesty, the prince and lord of the whole island; I had the lives of all my subjects [two cats, a parrot who is the only one permitted to talk, and a dog] at my absolute command; I could hang, draw, give liberty, and take it away; and no rebels among all my subjects.
This, and like passages, express Crusoe’s belief in his “undoubted right of dominion” over the whole island. Such a belief in patriarchal forms of government led Philip Morgan to comment in his opus, Slave Counterpoint, that “Defoe had shrewdly caught the tenor of idealized plantation life.” Granted, Defoe remains anxious about his ownership until he can register his claim in a European court.
The story of Crusoe is a counterpoint to the attitude that prevailed in London at the time: work, not speculation, will offer people full employment and contentment. Defoe was prophesying doom for the stock market, but he was echoing the warnings and calls for moderation issued by Horace Walpole.
The only thing of value in Crusoe’s story is his right to rule his work and accomplishments. All of his speculations lead only to his distraction and endangerment. With a cool head and reason, as well as the backing of God, Crusoe will be safe, fed, and happy — not to mention rich. Defoe hoped the same for England and its people.
If Defoe wanted to write a novel of capitalism, he would not isolate his hero on an island for twenty-four years. In fact, Defoe never tired of pointing out that a proper economy depends upon an individual’s free access to the market, other people, currency, and an unimpeded right to invest and profit with that capital. Defoe did not write a novel about the trials and tribulations of those attempting to involve themselves in commerce. His novel does not resemble a Horatio Alger story.
Robinson Crusoe is a religious instruction manual, cautioning the people of England against capital speculation or abandonment of their Puritan work ethic. Furthermore, the novel suggests that the English are destined to reap the rewards of colonialism due to their work ethic and their religious convictions.
Unlike every other castaway story popular in Defoe’s time, in which the “hero” essentially goes crazy as a result of solitude, Crusoe thrives utilizing the Puritan principles — reason, work, and God. That is the lesson he wanted to provide to the English people.
Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.