‘Robinson Crusoe': Civilizing the Other

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Civilizing the Other: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the British Imperial Ideology

Himmet Umunç

Hacettepe University

Within a period of just over a year, between April 1719 and August 1720, Defoe published a sequence of three Robinson Crusoe fictions. The first, which came out in April 1719, appeared with a long and elaborate title which read as follows:



Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of

AMERICA, near the Mouth of the Great River of ORONOOQUE;

Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men

perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last strangely

deliver’d by Pyrates (Defoe 23).

Then in August of the same year Defoe brought out another fiction entitled The

Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, in which, as he had promised in the closing

paragraph of his first fiction (299), he described Crusoe’s visit to the island, trade in

the East Indies, and adventurous return to England via China, Siberia and Russia

(Fausett 1). This fiction was followed a year later, in August 1720, by a new Crusoe

fiction, which constituted the final part of the trilogy and was entitled The Serious

Reflections during the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his

Vision of the Angelick World. In this final part, which is what Fausett has called a

“devotional supplement” (1), Defoe offered an account of Crusoe’s moral reflections

on his wayward life.

If we recall that, from the 1680s onwards, Defoe had actively been involved in political debates and polemics (Macaree i-vi) and engaged in the writing of pamphlets,  articles, editorial comments and newssheets on a wide range of currently hot issues, whereby he had become, as Schonhorn has put it, “the foremost political pamphleteer of the [Glorious] Revolution” (141), his choice of fiction in his later life as his new writing career not only marked his political disillusionment when his Tory leader Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and Secretary of the Treasury, lost power to the Whigs under George I (Langford 362-74), but it also signalled the growing popularity of the novel as a developing genre of writing in England, the rise of which Ian Watt has somewhat controversially attributed to Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (9-59). Yet,  in writing his fictions, whether the Crusoe sequence or Moll Flanders and the others,  he translated into them themes, situations and iconographical representations from the political and socio-economic matrix of the ideas, perceptions, and conditions of his time, and, thus, polarized through their variegated texture a set of intertexts and thematic constructs which gestured towards a hermeneutic depth. For our concern, in particular, the Crusoe fictions are of a depth of this kind; of these fictions, it is the first one which has traditionally been the most widely read and best known text and universally referred to in abbreviation simply as Robinson Crusoe. It is through this text that we shall try to demonsrate to what extent Defoe illustrated the imperial ideology that had already been in the making in Englnad.  It is a universally admitted fact that, ever since its publication, Defoe’s fiction of Robinson Crusoe’s life and adventures on a distant lonely island has fascinated the general public, and, as Fausett has demonsrated, the text has been read and  interpreted in an intriguing variety of ways through the context of the political, moral,  social, literary, and cultural perceptions and discourses of each succeeding period (2ff). For instance, while Rousseau referred to it in 1762 “as an expression of modern individualism” (Fausett 2), for the Victorians, who were historically and politically the dedicated practioneers of colonialism and imperialism in the world (Kiernan xixii;  Fieldhouse 372 ff.), it was “ a model for thought and conduct” appropriate for colonial purposes and became a guide for the families emigrating to the colonies where they expected to prosper in isolation (Fausett 2). Moreover,  as we understand from a variety of studies, edited by Spaas and Stimptson, Defoe’s fiction has recurrently been imitated , romanticized, subverted, metafictionalized, and metamorphosed through a rich variety of Robinsonade writings (1-320). In this respect, it has been pointed out that “Defoe’s tale is not a simple story but, in Bahktin’s terms, a “‘polyphonic’narrative’” (qtd. James 7). Hence, it has further been stated that “the endurance of the Crusoe story, through its apparently infinite potential for metamorphosis, is the result of it being an ‘open’ text” (James 7).  Indeed, it is in this thematic polyphony or polysemic diversity that Robinson Crusoe with its affinity with the rising British imperial ideology of its time must be situated and further metamorphosed. Although this affinity has already been noticed and referred to in other contexts, it has only received a passing remark and, hence,  needs to be revisited. Schonhorn, who has called Defoe’s text “a political fable”  (141), has complained about the neglect by Defoe scholars of this very political nature of the text; in 1991 he stated that given the scholarship of the past fifty odd years, Defoe’s great fiction appears to have everything in it but politics (141).

In fact, it was Edward Said in 1993 in his somewhat controversial Culture and

Empire, who drew attention to the colonial and, hence, imperial subtext of Defoe’s

narrative. In interpreting Defoe’s depiction of Crusoe’s mercantile and maritime

adventures, he explicitly pointed out that

Robinson Crusoe is virtually unthinkable without the colonizing

mission that permits him to create a new world of his own in the

distant reaches of the African, Pacific, and Atlantic wilderness (75).

In reiterating this view in a broader context of the rise of the novel in England, Said

further argued with Ian Watt’s dated views in mind that

the novel is inaugurated in Englnad by Robinson Crusoe, a work whose protagonist is the founder of a new world, which he rules and reclaims for Christianity and England. True…Crusoe is explicitly enabled by an ideology of overseas expansion–directly connected in style and form to the narratives of sixteenth and seventeenth-century exploration voyages that laid the foundations of the great colonial empires (83; cf. Fieldhouse 55 ff.).

Therefore, for us to demonsrate Defoe’s inclusion in his narrative of Crusoe a subtext of imperial ideology and a mythopoesis of colonial life, it would be useful and appropriate at this stage to give a concise account of the politics of colonialism and

colonial expansion in his time. Historically, colonialism and the evolution of an

imperial ideology in England had its origins in the Elizabethan and Jacobean explorations and colonization of the territories in the New World. As the beginnings

of British imperialism, this was, for Said, “a process that had started in the late sixteenth century” (84). The colonies established then in the West Indies and the eastern seaboard of North America were what Fieldhouse has referred to, in his

comparative study of European colonial empires, as “plantation” and “settlement”

colonies (57-8), which, to cite Paul Langford,

tended to be seen primarily as valuable sources of raw materials, as dumping grounds for surplus population, or as means of adding to the nation’s stock of bullion (376).

Indeed, in view of the Elizabethan and Jacobean narratives about the early explorations and colonial settlements, one may further suggest that, although the colonization process for England seemed, on the whole, to be related to the overseas expansion of trade, politically it aimed at the subjection of other peoples and cultures.

In other words, economic exploitation was enhanced and safeguarded through occupation, subjection, and cultural transplantation. If one can describe an imperial ideology as the supremacy of us in every sense over them, one can definitely see in

the sixteenth and seventeenth-century colonization policies a latent development of an imperial ideology. For instance, when on 10 April 1606 James I granted the Virginia Company its first charter and authorized the founders of the company

to make habitacion, plantacion and to deduce a colonie of sondrie of our people into that parte of America commonly called Virginia, and other parts and territories of America (“The First Virginia Charter” 1).

He also stipulated in the third paragraph of the charter that

Wee, greately commending and graciously accepting of their [the founders’] desires to the furtherance of soe noble a worke which may, by the providence of Almightie God, hereafter tende to the glorie of His Divine majestie in propagating of Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkenesse and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worshippe of God and may in tyme bring the infidels and salvages living in those parts to humane civilitie and to a settled and quiet govermente, doe by theise our lettres patents graciously accepte of and agree to theire humble and well intended desires (“TheFirst Virginia Charter” 1).

What is so obvious in this stipulation of the First Virginia Charter is the propagation

of the Christian faith among the subjected natives through mission work and, thus,

the inculcation in them of those values of English culture and civilization that would

make them civilized. What had thus been granted to the Virginia Company as two mandates were later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to become the

fundamental principles of the British imperial ideology. In fact, this civilizing

mission was also adopted into the imperial ideologies of other Eurtopean powers. As

Kiernan has put it,

it was a rooted conviction of all Europeans that their armies represented civilization, confronting the barbarism of outer darkness  (146).

For Said, on the other hand, this civilizing mission of imperialism to be fulfilled through “philosophy, religion, science, art” (12) was only a pretext since every imperialist felt that he had “a protracted, almost metaphysical obligation to rule subordinate, inferior or less advanced peoples” (12).

Yet, when we turn from the modern arguments on the aims and practice of imperialism at large to eighteenth-century England, we can suggest that the evolving imperial ideology at the time comprised not only territorial possession and political

subjection but also economic exploitation and cultural transplantation, which all pointed out to the establishment in the world of an imperial hegemony. Obviously,  this was the ultimate goal in the long run, which the mercantilist policies of both the

Tory and Whig governments under the Hannoverian dynasty of George I aimed to

achieve through new capitalism and laissez-faire commercialism (Langford 364 ff.).

The establishment in 1711 of the South Sea Company, which had the monopoly, in

the southern hemisphere of the Pacific, of territorial colonization and all kinds of

trade activities including the slave trade, was a major step taken in this direction.

Even the collapse of this company nine years later, causing a national economic

catastrophe mockingly called “the South Sea Bubble” (Langford 364 ff.) had no

restrictive impact at all on the revolutionary process of the British imperial ideology.

What Said has aptly called the “mercantile ethos” (14) was becoming dominant at the

time and provided the enterprising British merchant with the vision that the lands

overseas unexplored and uncolonized offered “unlimited opportunities for

commercial advancement abroad” (14).

It is in this context that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe must be situated for us to

perceive its subtext of the British imperial ideology. This contextual point has been

brought home in Fausett’s following account:

From the late seventeenth century onwards British and French

commercial interests had focused on the American and South Seas

trade routes to the east, seeking to displace the Spanish hegemony

there. This led to officially-condoned piracy, and many maritime

careers…straddled both the navy and the life of the privateer, itself a

rich source of literary images. Highly individualistic men were thus

active in an enterprise of economic piracy, which was an extension of

trends at home in the direction of laissez-faire capitalism. Caught up in

this storm were many ordinary seamen, some of whom met with

experiences like that of Selkirk. This matrix of real events and

underlying socio-economic causes was a major element of the

background to Crusoe. Among its commercial effects was the South

Seas Bubble, a rush of investment in the expected commercial

opportunities under a new financial System created by John Law,

which collapsed in 1720. These developments and their social and

moral implications were keenly studied by Defoe (5).

Obviously, Crusoe was a perfect representation of the merchant adventurers

and privateers who were actively involved in the colonial and commercial activities of

Defoe’s time. Their experiences and stories, like the actual story of the Scottish sailor,

Alexander Selkirk, who had been left behind by his captain and marrooned for years

on a desert Pacific island, were well known to Defoe and provided him with inspiration and material (Fausett 3 ff.). In fact, in a short preface which he wrote for

his fiction, Defoe pointed out that his narrative was “a just history of fact” (25)

designed for “the instruction of the reader” (25), which was provided not by precept

but “by…example” (25). Hence, in view of its political, social, and economic context,

Robinson Crusoe was obviously intended as an allegory of the imperial prospects of

the period. Actually, the narrative of this allegory can be divided into three parts,

which are thematically complementary to each other and represent the underlying

principles of the imperial ideology.

The first part, which introduces Crusoe as a restless young man determined in

“going to sea” (27) and extensively describes his profitable trading activites in West

Africa and Brasil (27-65), is in a sense a celebration of laissez-faire commercialism.

In this respect, it is a deliberate tour de force Defoe achieves through the depiction of

Crusoe as the child of a wealthy father who is himself a Hanseatic descendant of the

German origin:

I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, tho’

not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled

first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his

trade lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother,

whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that

county, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer (27).

Historically, it is a fact that, like Hamburg, Bergen, Gdansk and a number of other

Baltic and North Sea ports, Bremen was a very thriving and busy port through which

the Hanseatic merchants of Germany had carried out their commercial operations

since the Middle Ages. Thus, by linking his hero geneologically with a Hanseatic

background, Defoe not only prepares the reader for a narrative account of Crusoe’s

trading adventures but also gives a thematic emphasis to the idea of commercialism

best represented by a historically reputable trading community.

Through the second part of his allegory, in which Crusoe is portrayed as homo

economicus, settling in the island after a fatal shipwreck and using all the techniques

and skills in order to shelter himself and produce food for his own survival (65-204),

Defoe presents an example, in miniature, of colonization and colonial exploitation.

Indeed, Crusoe has usurped the island from its natives which are the goats, dogs, cats,

parrots and other birds. He has possessed it as the new territory which he now owns:

I descended a little on the side of that delicious vale, surveying it with

a secret kind of pleasure (tho’ mixt with my other afflicting thoughts)

to think that this was all my own, that I was king and lord of all this

country indefeasibly, and had a right of possession; and if I could

convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a

manor in England (113-14).

Since colonialism is what Said has described as “the implanting of settlements on

distant territory” (8), Crusoe’s reference to his right of possession becomes a fictional

representation of the colonialist attitude in Defoe’s time. Again, later on, when

Crusoe surveys the island, he reiterates the same attitude as follows:

If I pleased, I might call myself king or emperor over the whole

country which I had possession of. There were no rivals. I had no

competitor, none to dispute sovereignity or command with me (134).

Already the idea of subjection as another principle of the imperial ideology is voiced in these words. Crusoe’s practice of subjection constitutes the third part of his

allegory of this ideology. This is the part where he encounters Friday, kills the

cannibals, and rules over the Spaniards after he has rescued them from the pirates

(204-74). Subjection has thus been achieved through force, instruction, missionary

work, cultural dissemination, and rule of justice. As the native other and the

culturally alien one, Friday is converted, through instruction in Christianity and

English culture, into a relatively civilized man though he still retains some of the

values and habits of his indigeneous culture. With the Spaniards and the pirates

Crusoe establishes the rule of justice and his political hegemony over them.

Thus, to conclude, through all these scenes and events described extensively

in his fiction, Defoe presents an allegory of the imperial ideology which was in the

making in his time. Indeed, through his commercial adventures, colonialist

approaches and practices , and cultural transplantation, Crusoe becomes a memorable

emblem of this ideology, which constitutes the political subtext of Defoe’s fiction.

Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. 1719. Ed. and introd.

Angus Ross. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1965.

Fausett, David. The Strange Surprizing Sources of Robinson Crusoe. Amsterdam:

Rodopi, 1994.

Fieldhouse, D.K. The Colonial Empires: A Comparative Survey from the Eighteenth

Century. 2nd ed. 1966. Houndmills, Eng.: Macmillan, 1982.

“The First Virginia Charter.” 17 July 2000. The University of Oklahoma Law Center.

18 July 2000 <http://www.law.ou.edu/hist/vchart1.html>.

James, Louis. “Unwrapping Crusoe: Retrospective and Prospective Views.” Spaas

and Stimptson 1-9.

Kiernan, V.G. Colonial Empires and Armies 1815-1960. Rev. ed. 1982.

Montreal:McGill-Queen’s UP, 1998.

Langford, Paul. “The Eighteenth Century (1688-1789).” Morgan 352-418.

Macaree, David. Daniel Defoe’s Political Writings and Literary Devices. Studies in

British Literature Series, 14. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1991.

Morgan, Kenneth O., ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Rev. ed. 1984.

Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.

Schonhorn, Manuel. Defoe’s Politics: Parliament, Power, Kingship and Robinson

Crusoe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.


Spaas, Lieve, and Brian Stimptson, eds. Robinson Crusoe: Myths and

Metamorphoses. Houndmills, Eng.: Macmillan; New York: St Martin’s, 1996.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. 1957.

London: Hogarth, 1987.