I thought Robinson Crusoe was fiction!
It is. But the author
himself, Daniel Defoe, writing as Robinson Crusoe, explains that
the story is only half fiction. The other half is the real-life
story of the author himself, woven into virtually every line of
the fictional story (see his actual words in the "Preface"
he wrote.) Defoe spoke of his own life history as being the "Original"
and the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe as being the "Emblem."
In other words, his winsome tale of life alone on an uninhabited
island is an allegory, in which the author is telling the events
of his own life by "transporting" them to a distant island
and creating a fictional character, Robinson Crusoe, through whom
he would live out those events. This, in part at least, accounts
for the vivid style and easy flow of the famous story. Defoe was
actually telling of events he had experienced and of emotions he
How does it happen
that this allegorical aspect of Robinson Crusoe story is so little
known and recognized? To me, this is a complete mystery! The Publisher's
Preface to even the first edition stated clearly, "The publisher
believes the story written here to be an accurate history of fact."
He obviously knew the man whose life formed the basis for this allegory,
and stated, "the wonders of this man's life exceed all others."
And then Defoe's
clear explanation, made publicly within a year after the first volume
was released, should have settled the question for anyone making
an honest inquiry into the matter. "There is not a circumstance
in the imaginary story that does not have its exact allusion to
the real story (the story of 'the most desolate and afflicting circumstances
that ever a man went through') and chimes part for part and step
by step with the inimitable life of Robinson Crusoe," he wrote
in the Preface to the third volume.
Some literary critics
may not have bothered to read the Preface to Volume Three. Others
knew of Defoe's clear statement but refused to accept it (an inexcusable
attitude, I think!). To still others, it may have been distasteful
to have to acknowledge the spiritual implications that would have
been involved, including the fact that Volume Three with its straightforward
Bible message (see "Deceiving Ourselves") was actually
an integral part of the whole Robinson Crusoe story.
Whatever the reasons,
literary critics and historians over the years had every reason
to freely acknowledge this element in the story-and for the most
part, did not!
I have heard that Robinson Crusoe (and therefore Daniel Defoe)
supported slavery and the slave trade. Is this true?
It is true that
when Robinson Crusoe sets out for Africa, his intention is to return
with a cargo of slaves to work the sugar plantations of Brazil.
But this would certainly
be one of the elements in his mind when he later states, at the
time of his conversion experience, "I looked back on my past
life with horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul
sought nothing from God but deliverance from the load of guilt that
bore down upon me."
He says further,
"I sincerely gave thanks to God for opening my eyes to see
the former condition of my life and to mourn over my wickedness
and to repent." In other words, things had changed! He had
left "the wicked, abominable life I had led in my past days."
"Both my sorrows and joys were changed and my very desires
had been altered. My delights were perfectly new and different from
what they had been when I first came here." This changed outlook
would certainly have included his attitude toward slavery!
This is further
seen in Robinson Crusoe's dealings with Friday, who is always treated
with the greatest of respect and not with a "slavery"
attitude. And later, when the land on his island is being divided
(in Book Two) parcels of land are offered equally to both English
and Spanish men on the one hand, and to local natives on the other.
Even those who chose not to work their own land could take employment
as paid workers if they desired, "but never as slaves."
Crusoe, following his conversion, takes an unequivocal anti-slavery
position, and of course the same can be said of the author, Daniel
Defoe-a bold position to take in England 300 years ago, when slavery
was both legally acceptable and commonly practised.
Daniel Defoe worked as an undercover agent for the government of
his day and was reputed to having been involved in a number of questionable
activities. How does this square with his reputation as a respected
author and a devoted Christian?
Daniel Defoe was
a highly respected advisor to some of the highest officials in England's
government, especially Robert Harley who rose to be the Prime Minister.
He was engaged as a writer and a spokesman, and in this capacity
helped bring England and Scotland together into the Union that basically
survives even today. Most of Daniel Defoe's activities were honest
and above board, even his information-gathering activities in behalf
of the government (which in our day are handled by formalized organizations
to keep the government well informed).
However, there apparently
were some actions on his part that were not (by his own confession)
completely honest, especially in his earlier days of public service.
And they should obviously be included in the "wicked, abominable
life I had lived in my past days," as he puts it. It can safely
be assumed that these also were the areas of his life where his
"desires had been completely altered" after his conversion
and of which he said, "I sincerely gave thanks to God for opening
my eyes to see the former condition of my life and to mourn over
my wickedness and to repent." Daniel Defoe became a changed
man, as he so clearly indicates in the Robinson Crusoe story, and
this would have included his attitude toward slavery.
Many biographers and literary critics have mocked at the idea of
Robinson Crusoe's "original sin" of leaving home and the dire consequences
this brought upon him. Isn't this concept of Divine punishment for
rebellion against parental authority going a bit too far?
Daniel Defoe in the Robinson Crusoe story makes it plain that
many of the trials and tribulations that Crusoe endured could have
been avoided if he had just listened to the parental advice that
was given him.
But in the references he makes to "original sin" he is
not talking about Crusoe's "first" or "original"
sin, as some literary critics contend. He is talking about the inbred
tendency to sin which we have all inherited from our original parents,
Adam and Eve.
It should be remembered that for most of his life, Daniel Defoe
was a faithful member of the Presbyterian church of which Dr. Samuel
Ansley (the grandfather of John and Charles Wesley) was the pastor,
and that his basic education was designed to prepare him for the
ministry. He was well acquainted with the Bible and would have known
clearly the meaning of such theological terms as "original
How can you be so sure that Tobago is the island Defoe used as his
base for the geographical features of the Robinson Crusoe story?
First of all, Defoe repeatedly stated in the story itself that the
island was near the mouth of the Great "Orinoque" River.
Tobago is the only island matching the other details of the story
that is anywhere near the mouth of the Orinoco River. Defoe even
gave the latitude of the island, and pointed to the location of
"My Island" on a map printed in the fourth edition of
his book. His latitude was off by two degrees, reflecting either
the mistaken details of maps of 300 years ago or his own poetic
license in writing a story that was both history and fiction (I
incline to think it was the second of these two reasons).
Then, Defoe clearly
describes Crusoe's ship as sailing along the north coast of Brazil
and being blown in a north-westerly direction by a violent storm.
His vessel was severely damaged and as a result headed further north
and west toward Barbados for repairs, only to be struck by a second
storm. It was then carried violently, day after day, to the west.
Putting these hints together, you have Robinson Crusoe's ship being
blown directly into Rockly Bay on the SW coast of Tobago. No other
location even comes close to meeting the requirements.
And it was in this
same Rockly Bay that a fleet of Dutch naval ships in 1684 suffered
a stunning defeat, partly through bombardment from the fort facing
Rockly Bay (the hill near Crusoe's residence from which he regularly
scanned the horizon; now Fort King George) and partly through the
treacherous rocks and shallows in the SW corner of Rockly Bay-where
Defoe would have located Crusoe's shipwreck. Details of this famous
naval battle would have been readily available to Defoe as a young
man and especially toward the time (1719) when he wrote Robinson
Thirdly, in two
personal visits to Tobago with the Robinson Crusoe book in hand,
I found that every essential feature of the island matches so perfectly
the details of the story that I could not evade the conclusion that
Defoe had this island in mind when he wrote the famous story. Even
Crusoe's discovery of numerous turtles on the north shore (he lived
on the south) was significant. That very place today is still called
"Turtle Beach" and plays host, as a major tourist attraction,
to an annual influx of turtles which have been returning year after
year to these breeding grounds.
For me, though,
the clincher was the "little plain on the side of a steep hill"
where Crusoe built his fortified residence. Today, just above the
harbor at Scarborough is a location that, with just a little imagination,
perfectly fits that description. From the little plain descending
"irregularly down to the low ground by the seaside," if
you strip away the modern Police Station, the Anglican Church and
the sprawling Fire Department, you can almost see Robinson Crusoe
standing there and looking out over the open sea, with ideal anchorage
for sailing vessels just below, within easy eye-shot (see #5 on
"A Photo Visit to Robinson Crusoe's
To my mind, the
question has been overwhelmingly settled!