Monday, January 3, 2011

"Oh, Those Barbaric Europeans!" -- How Slavery Is Treated In Robinson Crusoe

Note: This is not a negative assessment of the entire book of Robinson Crusoe. I actually enjoyed the book very much. This is just a literary examination into on small topic addressed in the book: slavery.

It was the age of imperialism; the era of adventure, of exploring unknown worlds, and of building vast overseas empires that demonstrated the dominant power of Europe over the rest of the world.  It was during this time period – the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – that Robinson Crusoe, the classic novel by Daniel Defoe, was written, and consequently, when it was set.  Here in this novel we see a queer attitude from the main character, Robinson Crusoe, that may have been reflective of the European culture at the time: the attitude toward slavery.  Throughout the book, Crusoe seems to find it totally normal and natural to enslave men that are “beneath” him – in other words, the non-European “savages” of Africa and the Americas – but not to be enslaved by them. 
The first indication that Crusoe has this attitude is toward the beginning of the novel, when he is taken captive by African pirates and made a slave for two years.  It is clear that Crusoe does not enjoy his experience of being a slave, for he calls it “miserable” (page 17).  This word obviously expresses his discomfort and displeasure of the situation, even though his master is not cruel to him. 

He also says, “Here [while looking after my master's ship] I meditated nothing but my escape and what method I might take to effect it” (page 17).  This quote shows that he was anxious and desperate to get out of this situation, as soon as possible.  Certainly, one would assume that someone who was “miserable” (page 17) in slavery and constantly meditating of a way to escape it, would not – once freed from his captivity – ever support such inhumane practice again in his life.  However, as it becomes apparent further on in the book, this is not the case.

 Imperialism of Africa

The second hint of Crusoe's feelings about slavery appears after he escapes from the Africans, with the help of a local boy named Xury.  When his small boat is noticed and picked up by a Portuguese ship, the captain offers to buy Xury as a slave:  “He [the captain] offered me also sixty pieces of eight more for my boy Xury, which I was loath to take; not that I was unwilling to let the captain have him, but I was very reluctant to sell the poor boy's liberty, who has assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own” (page 30). 

At first glance of this quote, one might think that Crusoe hated to sell Xury into slavery because he had recently been a slave, and could not bear to put anyone else through that awful experience.  However, upon looking at Crusoe's words more closely, one can see that he was not “unwilling to let the captain have him” (page 30).  Or in other words, he was not opposed to the idea of selling Xury in general, but because Xury had “assisted [him] so faithfully” (page 30) in securing his own freedom, he did not want to remove that freedom from Xury.  He his not opposed to slavery; Xury is just an exception.  Crusoe's views about slavery have not been changed by his own time spent in slavery. 

The fact that his views are the same is confirmed when, after he actually decides to sell Xury, he then owns a black slave in Brazil; and a few years later boards a ship bound to Africa to bring back more “negroe” slaves to South America!  While he clearly dislikes being under the yoke of slavery, he seems to have no problem with administering the yoke of slavery over someone else. 

 17th Century European ship
Source:  By artist Ray Houlihan.

Many years later, the issue of slavery arises in the book again.  Toward the end of Crusoe's twenty-plus-year exile on an uninhabited island, he finally comes in contact with other humans again.  However, these humans are not the company he was hoping for; they are cannibals who occasionally visit the island to cook and eat their enemies.  Crusoe eventually decides to rescue one of these cannibals' victims and make him his slave, so he will have both the company and someone to help him escape the island.  Although his relationship with the native ends up becoming more like a servant-and-master rather than slave-and-master, it is the word “slave” that he uses beforehand in his plans.

As he considers carrying out his plan to acquire the slave, he says: “... I fancied myself able to manage one, nay, two or three savages, if I had them, so as to make them entirely slaves to me, to do whatever I should direct them, and to prevent their being able at any time to do me any harm” (page 188). This quote shows that he is completely unhesitant, and in fact eager, to make one – or even two or three – of the “savages” his slaves.  This is partially in order to protect himself, but even if he did not need the protection, it is doubtful that he would have been any more hesitant to enslave the Carib natives. 

 Tropical island

Crusoe's attitude in the book, which is probably just reflective of the common, European way of thinking in that day, seems to consist of treating less developed peoples like they are somehow inferior, and thus deserving of being made into slaves.  It is almost as if he is saying, “Oh, those barbarians, those savages that are beneath us; let us make them into our slaves.”  It is surprising that he does not realize how this ideology contradicts itself. 

Owning, selling, and buying other human beings is just as barbaric as eating other human beings.  Many Europeans did not realize it, but because they practiced slavery, they were no different than so-called savages in Africa and America; they just wore more clothes and were a little more advanced scientifically.  In reality, they were no more advanced morally.

In the novel Robinson Crusoe, slavery is treated by the main character as a common, acceptable thing for non-European “savages” to be subjected to, but an undesirable and unnatural thing for Europeans.  This opinion is revealed by Crusoe's desperation to escape slavery in Africa, which shows that he does not enjoy being under the yoke of slavery himself; followed by his failure to even think twice about putting other people into slavery afterwards.  This possibly mirrors the culture of Europe in that day, of which Crusoe – and the author of the book, Daniel Defoe – were only products of.  

Although Europeans thought of themselves as somewhat superior to, and exalted over, much of the rest of the world, their own pride during the age of imperialism was what truly brought them down to the level of the “lowest” civilizations in the world. 

Note: All page numbers are from the Focus on the Family edition of Robinson Crusoe; Focus on the Family Publishing, Colorado Springs, CO, 1997.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also enjoy:
* What Is Courage? -- According to the Red Badge of Courage, Parts One & Two