robinson crusoe -- 6/21/22

Today's selection -- from Slave Empire by Padraic X. Scanlan. The novel Robinson Crusoe was a perfect complement to the aspirations of empire in Britain in the early 18th century:
"The British Library holds more than 700 editions of Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, only a fraction of the total. Enormously popular when it was published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe remains fresh and engrossing: tense and evocative of isola­tion and solitary labour, crackling with bursts of violence. The long second act of Crusoe is the famous part of the story. Stranded on an uninhabited island within sight of Tobago, and with only the salvage of his wrecked ship, Robinson Crusoe rebuilds something like a seeded English life. Over decades, he clears land, sows crops and tames animals. He reads and re-reads the few books that survived the wreck, especially the Bible. He trains a parrot to speak and learns to mark the passing of the seasons. When a party of cannibals happens on the island with a captive whom they plan to eat, Crusoe fights them off. The man Crusoe saves, whom he calls 'Friday' after the day of the rescue, becomes Crusoe's servant. Crusoe teaches Friday to worship Christ, to speak English and to forswear human flesh. More cannibals arrive, with two captives, a Spanish sailor and a man who happens to be Friday's father. Friday and Crusoe massacre the cannibals and bargain with the Spaniard, who promises to return with a ship. But before the sailor returns, an English vessel, seized by mutineers, appears. Crusoe and Friday help the loyal sailors to end the mutiny, maroon the rebels on the island and return to England.

"When it was published, Robinson Crusoe flattered British readers' sense of themselves as subjects of a powerful, confident --  and Protestant -- empire. In 1688, the Stuart King James II, a Catholic, was driven from England by an invading army, invited by a group of Members of Parliament and led by the Dutch Stadtholder, William of Orange. Taking the throne as King William III of England and reigning in partnership with James II's staunchly Protestant daughter Mary, William's 'Glorious Revolution' ended nearly fifty years of conflict between Parliament and the Crown in England. The revolution seemed less glorious to England's Celtic and Scottish neighbours, but in England the Glorious Revolution was welcomed by many as the realization of 'English liberty'. William signed laws that confirmed Parliament's right to establish succession to the throne, affirmed that the kings of England and Scotland would be Protestant, and reinforced the rights of the subjects of the Crown to 'Dissent', or non­-Anglican Protestant confession. William III and his allies in Parliament, the Whigs, believed in property. To a Whig grandee, the process of turning unenclosed 'waste' land into profitable farmland was almost devotional: Crusoe not only survives the wilderness, he domesticates it. He not only defeats the natives; he teaches them to serve him. When he fenced his fields and counted both his crop yields and his sins, Robinson Crusoe was building England from the ground up.

Crusoe, having rescued a man from cannibals, tells him his name is "Friday"

"Slavery was English liberty's foil. In early modern politics, landed Englishmen were 'free' in contrast with the 'enslaved' subjects of abso­lute monarchs. Where the Bourbon kings of France could seize land or imprison their subjects without due process, the English boasted that a subject of William III held land securely and could not be imprisoned without a right to appear in court under a writ of habeas corpus.

"Because the story of Crusoe, alone, building English life and liberty in the tropics was so compelling to readers, the beginning and end of the novel are easy to overlook. But Robinson Crusoe's time in isolation is bookended by adventures as an enslaved captive, slave trader and slaveholder. In the novel's short first act, Crusoe runs away to sea. In 1651, he joins a ship in the 'Guinea Trade' to West Africa. In that era, many English merchants went to West Africa for gold; the largest English standard gold coin was called a 'guinea' because English ships called at forts on the Gold Coast, part of present-day Ghana, and traded gold for finished goods. Pirates sailing out of the Moroccan port of Sale capture and enslave Crusoe. These 'Barbary corsairs' were a hazard of sailing off North Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of people were captured and wither held for ransom or resold as enslaved labourers.

"In 1654, Crusoe escapes from North Africa with the help of a boy named Xury, Crusoe promptly sells Xury to a Portuguese captain, who promises to set the boy free after ten years of service Then Crusoe sails across the Atlantic to Salvador de Bahia, in Brazil where he becomes a sugar and tobacco planter. By the 1650s, Portugese colonists in Brazil already relied on enslaved African labour. Spain and Portugal, however, had been united under a single monarchy from 1580 to 1640, and the slave trade was still dominated by a monopoly contract, or asiento, offered by the Spanish to supply the Americas with enslaved labourers. English merchants wanted a share of the asiento, and between 1651 ad 1660, English ships carried some 7,096 enslaved people across the Atlantic. In 1659, Crusoe and a group of his fellow Brazilian slaveholders plot to skirt the monopoly. Crusoe offered to lead an expedition to West Africa to purchase enslaved workers to smuggle into Brazil. It is this voyage that ends in the famous shipwreck.

"The third act returns Crusoe from his desert island to the plantations he abandoned. By 1688, as William of Orange landed in Kent at the head of an army, England's colonial empire in the Americas looked very different than it had when Robinson Crusoe was ship­wrecked off South America. In 1655, England had taken Jamaica, which would soon become its largest and most valuable slave colony, from Spain. In the middle of the seventeenth century, in places such as Virginia and Barbados, enslaved Africans had worked alongside European convicts and indentured labourers. Some African workers were indentured, rather than enslaved, although the distinction between 'servants', as these nominally free labourers were called, and slaves was blurry. But as the eighteenth century approached, enslaved labour became virtually universal on the plantations of Britain's growing empire in the Americas. English planters soon considered enslaved African workers -- who disembarked from slave ships very far from home, disoriented, dispirited and terrorized -- essential for growing tobacco, coffee and, above all, sugar. The English slave trade accelerated. Between 1681 and 1690, English ships carried at least 96,873 enslaved people across the Atlantic, with the overwhelming majority arriving in the 'sugar islands' of the Caribbean.

"Robinson Crusoe was marooned for three important decades in the history of European colonial slavery, and his story paced the English empire's. When Crusoe left Brazil, plantation slavery was gaining momentum; while he languished in the Caribbean, planta­tions sprung up on islands just beyond his horizons; when he returned to Europe at the end of the novel, he discovered that his plantations had made him rich. In Lisbon, he claimed a handsome dividend from his sugar plantations, and then sold them for a profit.

"In 1719, when Robinson Crusoe appeared in print, slavery was in even greater ascendance. A larger circle of planters was now carving claims to land and liberty out of human flesh in the Caribbean. 'English liberty' had become 'British liberty': The Act of Union in 1707 had united England, Wales and Scotland into a new political entity, Great Britain. The English empire became the British empire. Scotland's universities -- more progressive, rigorous and worldly than Oxford and Cambridge -- supplied the new British state with well-educated, ambitious men willing to make their fortunes abroad. The empire brought Britain's nations closer together and fuelled British imperial power. Settlers and merchants in North America and the Caribbean maintained close connections with London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. As its empire waxed, Great Britain challenged France for supremacy in Europe.

"As the British state consolidated, the Caribbean colonies came to rely almost entirely on enslaved African labour. On islands such as Barbados, other crops gave way to sugarcane. Many of Britain's 'sugar islands' imported nearly everything colonists needed, and the mainland colonies prospered by selling to them. Technically, Britain's mainland colonies were bound by the Navigation Acts, laws that forbade British colonies to trade with anyone but Britain or other British colonies. But these laws were indifferently enforced, and de facto free trade was the norm. Mainland colonies such as Massachusetts sold food and manufactured goods not only to British, but also to French and Spanish sugar colonies. This trade further bound free British colonists on the North American mainland to the enslaved economy of the Caribbean. It also gave slaveholders from across Europe a common stake in plantation slavery. Many of the mainland British colonies had substantial populations of enslaved people as well, especially in the southern parts of North America, where plantations could grow tobacco and rice. The slave trade flourished between 1721 and 1730, British slave ships carried 181,811 enslaved people to the Americas. All told, British ships carried more than 2.5 million enslaved Africans from 1701 until the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, well more than a third of the more than 6 million people who suffered what Europeans called ‘the Middle Passage’ during the eighteenth century."



Padraic X. Scanlan


Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain


Little, Brown Nook Group


Copyright Padraic X. Scanlan, 2020


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