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Historical Context in Robinson Crusoe

The Rise of the Novel: Before the late 17th century, the idea of “fiction” as a literary genre did not exist. Books were sold as “histories” consisting of pamphlets, memoirs, travel logs, political essays, historical accounts, and even romances and poetry. Fictional tales were considered lies. However, in the 1670s, fictional tales rose in popularity. Writers began distinguishing published histories from their own writings of “private history.” Defoe’s novel was published with the designation: a “true private history.” In fact, Robinson Crusoe’s tale is loosely based on the shipwreck and marooning of Alexander Selkirk, a sailor stranded for four years on the Pacific island of Mas a Tierra. Thus, the genre of Defoe's novel is somewhere between fiction, journalism, and personal memoir. It therefore helped create a space for the modern novel and the genre of literary fiction.

British Imperialism: England created overseas trading posts and settlements from the late 16th century to the early 18th century. With their vast fleet of ships, England was one of the premier trading, shipping, and exploring nations in the world. Expanding on their trading posts and land holdings, the British began to conquer lands across the globe, creating what would become the largest empire in history. At its height, the British Empire spanned 24% of the Earth’s total landmass and ruled over 412 million people. The early 1700s marks the beginning and rapid expansion of the imperialist mindset. Crusoe’s thirst for travel, quest for money, and disregard for the humanity of the natives he encounters serves as a snapshot of the British colonist. The unconscious cruelty Crusoe shows Friday and the idealized master-servant relationship between the two men serves as a prototype for the cultural imperialism that would come to subjugate native populations across the globe over the next two centuries.

Political Economy: At the beginning of the 18th century, the rigid social order in England began to change. The 18th century saw transitions between mercantilism and capitalism. Mercantilism was the policy that guided nation-states to monopolize areas and their natural resources in order to maximize the gold and silver holdings of the imperial state. In the 1770s, Adam Smith would theorize about capitalism, which considered resource allocation through the decisions made by rational agents in markets. While Crusoe's dreams of land are largely mercantilist, many of his readers were already participating in (and benefitting from) the dynamics of capitalist restructuring of Britain's economy, which made it possible for the middle class to develop. A person was no longer trapped by the rank and class that they were born into, they could make their fortune in trade, exploration, or import. Opportunities in the so-called “New World” also made it possible for landless citizens to become landowners. Crusoe’s desire to pursue money and travel abroad comes from this desire to gain status and rise above his station.

Historical Context Examples in Robinson Crusoe:

Chapter I - Start In Life

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"Colonel Lockhart..."   (Chapter I - Start In Life)

Notice how Crusoe establishes the importance of naming at the very beginning of his story. Historically, one’s family name, reputation, and social status was inherited. However, here we see Crusoe and his family making their own wealth and creating their own name. This establishes the fluid nature of the novel’s social setting: personal status is determined by earned or chosen names, not by family.

"we are now called - nay we call ourselves and write our name - Crusoe..."   (Chapter I - Start In Life)

Notice how Crusoe establishes the importance of naming at the very beginning of his story. Historically, one’s family name, reputation, and social status was inherited. However, here we see Crusoe and his family making their own wealth and creating their own name. This establishes the fluid nature of the novel’s social setting: personal status is determined by earned or chosen names, not by family.

"Colonel Lockhart..."   (Chapter I - Start In Life)

Sir William Lockhart (1621-1675) captured Dunkirk from Spanish forces in 1658. 

"a Turkish rover of Sallee..."   (Chapter II - Slavery And Escape)

In this context, the term “rover” refers to a pirate vessel. The word “Sallee” refers to a particular group of pirates known as the Sallee Rovers who were notorious raiders during the 17th century. Notably, piracy was a common issue for trade ships of all kinds during this century. Even groups of pirates from different nations joined forces to persecute others: for example, the Anglo-Barbary, or Anglo-Turkish, pirates, who targeted Catholic shipping vessels.

"who was an honest, plain-dealing man..."   (Chapter II - Slavery And Escape)

Crusoe’s characterization of this captain reveals much about his own character and the setting of the story. While he considers the captain “honest” and “plain-dealing,” readers should not forget that this man is participating in the slave trade. Many Europeans at the time sought their fortunes in this abhorrent practice. Since Crusoe gives this man positive qualities, it suggests that he does not condemn the practice of slavery. He chooses instead to view the voyage as an opportunity for adventure and wealth.

"Guinea..."   (Chapter II - Slavery And Escape)

A country located on the west coast of Africa, Guinea was one of the main locations for the slave trade during the 16th century when the Europeans began to increase activity in this area. When Crusoe says he goes on “a voyage to Guinea,” this means that he’s joining a slave-trading ship.

"I believe it is impossible to express, to the life, what the ecstasies and transports of the soul are, when it is so saved, as I may say, out of the very grave..."   (Chapter III - Wrecked On A Desert Island)

Since its beginnings, the novel has attracted critics who argued these books were immoral or distractions from more pious pursuits. In this light, Crusoe’s gestures of piety and the novel’s religious themes are partially an attempt to maintain some redemptive moral value. In a moment like this, defenders of the novel could even argue along somewhat Aristotelian lines that readers benefit morally from the vicarious experiences of the story’s characters.

"In a word, we sat looking upon one another, and expecting death every moment, and every man, accordingly, preparing for another world; for there was little or nothing more for us to do in this...."   (Chapter III - Wrecked On A Desert Island)

Although Defoe’s style may seem old-fashioned now, his readers would likely have found constant scenarios of danger and precarity sensational and exciting. In terms of historical themes tied to English personhood, one could also note how constantly the English body is at risk anywhere other than in England.

"my goods being all English manufacture, such as cloths, stuffs, baize, and things particularly valuable and desirable in the country, I found means to sell them to a very great advantage; so that I might say I had more than four times the value of my first cargo..."   (Chapter III - Wrecked On A Desert Island)

The common relationship between European nations and their colonies was to collect natural resources from the colonies and bring it back to Europe for manufacture, where value was added through expert labor. Countries like England could then come back and sell things to the people they colonized at prices (in this case) multiple times the original value. Because colonies were exclusively controlled zones, there was no incentive from competition to reduce the costs.

"I used often to say to myself, I could have done this as well in England, among my friends, as have gone five thousand miles off to do it among strangers and savages, in a wilderness, and at such a distance as never to hear from any part of the world that had the least knowledge of me...."   (Chapter III - Wrecked On A Desert Island)

In this moment of remembered self-reflection, Crusoe strangely does two things at once. He reinforces how important England is to his own identity, but he also suggests that places are interchangeable. The relationship between character and setting was a common theme in narratives of colonial travel, and Defoe is shaping conventions that will persist by characterizing Crusoe in this dual way.

"pieces of eight..."   (Chapter III - Wrecked On A Desert Island)

“Pieces of eight” refers to Spanish silver coins also known as 8-real.

"I began to see that the land was inhabited..."   (Chapter III - Wrecked On A Desert Island)

Crusoe notes this as if it were surprising, but archaeological records show that Africa has the longest records of human habitation of any continent.

"to think that this was all my own; that I was king and lord of all this country indefensibly, 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..."   (Chapter VII - Agricultural Experience)

Crusoe believes that he controls the land he stands on. He seems to have let go of his fear when he began to believe in his “right of possession” over the island. This is a notably imperialist mindset. Colonists generally believed that the land they encountered was theirs to own and set about replicating their homeland and culture in the new space.

"for I had heard that the people of the Caribbean coast were cannibals or man-eaters, and I knew by the latitude that I could not be far from that shore...."   (Chapter IX - A Boat)

Seeing a distant shore, Crusoe quickly assumes its inhabitants must be cannibals. If they are not cannibals, he figures they would undoubtedly by hostile toward a European like him. In such situations, Crusoe functions based on the presuppositions and stereotypes held by imperialist Europeans.

"gave me the vapours again to the highest degree..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

The “vapours” was a historical term for a variety of illnesses, most of them mental. It was thought that mental illnesses originated from mists given off by a person’s internal organs, causing distress and anxiety when they built up inside the body. Crusoe is describing his mindset as supremely troubled, as though he has contracted a debilitating disease.

"This will testify for me that I was not idle..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

For Christians, laziness is immoral and subject to divine punishment. Crusoe worries about seeming idle on the island, so he constantly devotes himself to projects that prove he is hard at work making a civilized home for himself. Notice the word choice of “testify,” which suggests Crusoe believes that he is constantly on trial and having to defend himself and his actions.

"made a Stoic smile..."   (Chapter XI - Finds Print Of Man's Foot On The Sand)

A Stoic practices the ancient Greek philosophy Stoicism, which values self-control over displaying emotion. Crusoe is making a joke that he and his group of animals are so absurd that one can’t help but be amused by them.

"How do I know what God Himself judges in this particular case? It is certain these people do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences reproving, or their light reproaching them; they do not know it to be an offence, and then commit it in defiance of divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins we commit. ..."   (Chapter XII - A Cave Retreat)

While Crusoe has thus far exhibited a traditional colonial mindset towards the natives, this passage of questioning slightly challenges the ingrained Western discourse on natives. This might be a moment in which the author places questions about this dominant colonial narrative in the thoughts of his narrator. While it does not markedly change Crusoe’s thought patterns or actions, this moment of questioning is an interesting point of contention with the overall colonial narrative.

"Sometimes I thought if digging a hole under the place where they made their fire, and putting in five or six pounds of gunpowder, which, when they kindled their fire, would consequently take fire, and blow up all that was near it:..."   (Chapter XII - A Cave Retreat)

Crusoe’s thoughts create a paradox. He wants to “save” the victims of the natives, but the method by which he might do this involves extreme violence. He would wipe out the entire population of natives in order to achieve his objectives. This should give readers pause about the colonial mission to “civilize” native populations.

"particularly I observed a place where there had been a fire made, and a circle dug in the earth, like a cockpit, where I supposed the savage wretches had sat down to their human feastings upon the bodies of their fellow-creatures...."   (Chapter XII - A Cave Retreat)

Remember that this novel was written by a European man who had limited, if any, exposure to actual natives in the so called “New World.” This portrait of the natives is entirely drawn from fabricated, European conceptions of horrific barbarism among native populations. European colonists used stories of cannibalism to justify colonialism and the brutal domination of these populations.

"would bring them over to this shore, where, according to their dreadful customs, being all cannibals, they would kill and eat them; of which hereafter..."   (Chapter XII - A Cave Retreat)

The idea that all unknown natives were dangerous cannibals was a popular European theory in the 17th and 18th centuries. The term cannibal even grew to describe all natives, even if there was no evidence of the practice in their culture. Colonists used the idea of cannibalism as an excuse to conquer indigenous populations, claiming that they would cure the “savages” of the “ungodly” diet. Most accounts of cannibalism were actually exaggerated, invented, or horrifically misconstrued. Crusoe’s fear of these natives, and the author’s choice to portray the natives as he does, reveals Europe’s unfounded fear of those different from themselves.

"I had now lived two years under this uneasiness, which, indeed, made my life much less comfortable than it was before, as may be well imagined by any who know what it is to live in the constant snare of the fear of man. ..."   (Chapter XII - A Cave Retreat)

Slave ships would land on the coasts of Africa, South America, and other continents in order to abduct people from their homes and enslave them. Crusoe’s fear of the “snare of man” mimics the fear that populations devastated by the slave trade might have felt. However, careful readers might also notice that Crusoe does not recognize this similarity; rather, he sees his experience as unique and it does not make him feel more empathetic towards slaves.

"I could not perceive, by my nicest observation, but that they were stark naked, and had not the least covering upon them; but whether they were men or women I could not distinguish...."   (Chapter XIII - Wreck Of A Spanish Ship)

That Crusoe cannot determine the basic sex of these people even as he observes them through a spyglass is a further example of his inability to see humanity in people he identifies as different. Much like the European colonizing vision, he cannot reconcile differences between bodies. The presence of this in the narrative is also further evidence of Defoe’s own lack of experience and immersion in racist thought circulating in his time.

"He had a very good countenance..."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

Friday’s racial characterization walks the line between making him so dark-skinned that Defoe’s readers might consider him savage and unredeemable or so light-skinned that making him a slave would offend their propriety.

"to endeavour to get a savage into my possession: and, if possible, it should be one of their prisoners, whom they had condemned to be eaten, and should bring hither to kill...."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

It is worth noting in this section that Crusoe's participation in enslavement is not accidental, but intentional and premeditated. Further, we see here his using a kind of reasoning where his taking ownership of another person can be construed as his simultaneously rescuing that person--a reasoning used by others in his time period that would later inform the sense of "White Man's Burden" (see Rudyard Kipling).

"I perceived presently he had a bow and arrow, and was fitting it to shoot at me: so I was then obliged to shoot at him first, which I did, and killed him at the first shot...."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

Crusoe makes a point to distinguish the Englishman from the “savages” on the island. If Crusoe were to be the first person to kill in this situation, then he would seem more savage than the savages. So the narrative presents the possibility of being attacked by lethal force to substantiate Crusoe’s own use of lethal force.

"I had no more use for it than the Indians of Peru had before the Spaniards came there...."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

It was a classical colonial argument that indigenous peoples deserved to be dispossessed of their lands and resources based on their use (or apparent lack thereof) of those resources. Colonial ideology such as this led to not only the oppression of natives, but also the exploitation of the landscape. To put this into more context, parts of Peru have now seen devastating degradation as a result of mining for the same gold that is being implied in this passage.

"I could not satisfy myself in my station..."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the noun “station” primarily referred to social place or rank. Imperialism made some new forms of social mobility available in Europe even as it depended on the lack of mobility for colonized people of the empires. While Crusoe’s journey—from sailor to plantation owner to island dweller—demonstrates social mobility to an extent, it’s more likely that Robinson Crusoe suggests that excessive mobility is not always in an individual’s best interest.

" moidores..."   (Chapter XIV - A Dream Realised)

A golden Portuguese coin equivalent to 27 shillings in England.

"he believed they would tell the people they were all killed by thunder and lightning, not by the hand of man..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

This sensational retelling of the conflict sets up a comparison between the natives and Europeans. Because the natives have not encountered gunfire before, they instead explain what they cannot understand in religious terms. To them, Europeans and Europeanized Friday appear to be powerful, vengeful gods, elevating them higher—both technologically and spiritually—than the natives. This depiction would have appealed to Europeans of Defoe’s time, as it asserts that Europeans were the most advanced civilization at that time.

"whose barbarous customs were their own disaster, being in them a token, indeed, of God's having left them, with the other nations of that part of the world, to such stupidity, and to such inhuman courses, but did not call me to take upon me to be a judge of their actions, much less an executioner of His justice..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Here Crusoe encounters a dilemma: he believes he should not punish the natives for cannibalism since they don’t know any better without the teachings of the Christian God. God, he believes, will discipline them when the time is right. He decides that he is neither the right person to judge nor decide on a just punishment. Notice how Crusoe attributes the native’s cannibalism to their location. At the time, non-European nations were thought to have been abandoned by God, which was why they had resorted to less appropriate behaviors—a lack of guidance that Europeans would be happy to provide.

"they were naked, unarmed wretches, it is certain I was superior to them..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Crusoe references two types of superiority: he’s better than the natives both militarily, since they are unarmed, and culturally. A hallmark of British culture was modesty, and the natives’ lack of clothing would have signalled to Crusoe that he was encountering uncivilized people. Nakedness would have symbolized either mental illness or a less-advanced culture.

"this creature with me..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Crusoe does not refer to Friday as a human being, but rather opts for the more animalistic “creature.” Though Friday has learned basic English and European customs, Crusoe still refuses to acknowledge him as an equal, typical of the time period when the novel was written.

"I told him then and often after, that I would never send him away from me if he was willing to stay with me..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Crusoe justifies keeping Friday as a servant because of Friday’s devotion to him. Since Friday is so attached to Crusoe that he claims he would rather die than leave Crusoe’s side. Here Crusoe shows his dominion not only over the island’s natural wonders but also its native inhabitants. Since people like Friday were seen as backwards and barbarous, it would not have surprised Defoe’s 18th century English audience that Friday was devoted to the person who brought him enlightenment.

""you teach wild mans be good, sober, tame mans; you tell them know God, pray God, and live new life."..."   (Chapter XVI - Rescue Of Prisoners From Cannibals)

Here Friday praises the English imperial system. Teaching a “wild” person like Friday the proper, “civilized,” and Christian ways of English society was a goal of imperialism, and helped justify Europeans taking over land throughout the world and replacing local cultures with their own. Friday is the perfect “liberated” native character for an English audience, in that he has embraced European ideals and wishes to spread them among people like him.

"Inquisition..."   (Chapter XVII - Visit Of Mutineers)

In 1478, the Spanish monarchy of Ferdinand and Isabella established the Inquisition, a group of militant Catholics who sought to ensure religious orthodoxy throughout Spain. Particularly, the Inquisition targeted Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism after a 1492 royal decree banished them from Spain. The period is known as an excessively violent example of Catholic repression and intolerance; however, some accounts of the Inquisition are thought to have been exaggerated during the 19th century. The Inquisition was officially abolished in 1834.

"I had rather be delivered up to the savages, and be devoured alive, than fall into the merciless claws of the priests, and be carried into the Inquisition...."   (Chapter XVII - Visit Of Mutineers)

After English King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and converted England to Protestantism, English subjects became increasingly hostile towards Catholics. In many Protestant countries, Catholics were seen as an oppressive, domineering force. Crusoe reflects this mentality with this comment as he would rather be turned over to the cannibals than to the Spanish priests.

"yield, or he was a dead man...."   (Chapter XVIII - The Ship Recovered)

“Yield” in this context refers to surrendering one’s weapons and independence to a victor in a conflict. In this case, since Crusoe and the others outnumber the single mutineer, fighting back would likely result in the mutineer’s death. Again, Crusoe is asserting control over those who attempt to set up camp on his island.

"in case I never came to claim it, one-third to the king, and two-thirds to the monastery of St. Augustine, to be expended for the benefit of the poor, and for the conversion of the Indians to the Catholic faith..."   (Chapter XIX - Return To England)

The Order of Saint Augustine is an organization of the Catholic church founded in the 13th century. During the era of European colonization, the Order of Saint Augustine became involved in a great deal of missionary work in the colonies, including those in South America and Brazil, as described in Robinson Crusoe. In the colonies owned by Catholic countries, a portion of the taxes drawn from landholders went to the Augustinian monks.

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