illustration of a man standing on an island and looking out at the ocean with the title Robison Crusoe written in the sky

Robinson Crusoe

by Daniel Defoe
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What is the theme of slavery in Robinson Crusoe?

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Slavery is treated as a normal aspect of life for those, like Crusoe, who ventured out into the wide seas. It is a hazard anyone aboard a ship faces, no matter what his race or nationality. The young Crusoe himself, who did not heed his father's warning that this would happen, is soon on board a ship captured by the Moors. He is enslaved. He writes about it both as not as bad as he had feared, yet still terrible enough to overwhelm him:

the usage I had there was not so dreadful as at first I apprehended ... I ... was kept by the captain of the rover as his proper prize, and made his slave, being young and nimble, and fit for his business. At this surprising change of my circumstances, from a merchant to a miserable slave, I was perfectly overwhelmed

However, ever resourceful, Crusoe does manage to escape and reunite with western Europeans. When his fortunes change, he takes no lesson from his distress as a slave but simply takes advantage of the resources provided by his new plantation in Brazil to buy a slave and a European indentured servant to supplement the one provided by his captain. Interestingly, he does not distinguish between the slave and the indentured servants: all are "bought."

for the first thing I did, I bought me a negro slave, and an European servant also—I mean another besides that which the captain brought me from Lisbon.

Nevertheless, the plight of the white Europeans "bought" by Crusoe is far less dire than that of the Negro, as Europeans would serve him only for a limited time.

When he discovers that cannibal "savages" are rowing to his island. Crusoe dreams of enslaving some of them:

Besides, 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 hurt.

That doesn't work, but when he saves Friday, the young "savage" feels a great indebtedness to him and functions as his slave. Friday's plight, like that of the European indentured servants, is helped by racial politics. Crusoe softens to him because he looks "European" in many ways:

he had all the Sweetness and Softness of an European in his Countenance too, especially when he smil'd. His Hair was long and black, not curl'd like Wool; his Forehaed very high, and large, and a great Vivacity and sparkling Sharpness in his Eyes. The Coulour of his Skin was not quite black, but very tawny; and yet not of an ugly yellow nauseous tawny, as the Brasilians, and Virginias, and other Natives of America are; but of bright kind of a dun olive Colour, that had in it something very agreeable; tho' not very easy to describe

Thematically, in the broadest sense, being master or slave is matter of luck. Sometimes you are on the bottom of the wheel of fortune and must adjust, as Crusoe did, to slavery, but sometimes you are on top and can enslave others. This is depicted as the byproduct of an amoral universe in which might makes right, and how much power you have amassed at a given moment determines whether you live in ease or toil. However, complicating this is the fact that looking more "savage" implicitly made the slavery situation worse for some and looking (or being) "European" made it better for others.

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In Robinson Crusoe, the title character’s attitude toward slavery is one of acceptance. Crusoe was operating as a slave trader, accompanying a ship from Brazil to Africa, when he himself was captured and enslaved. He also owned a slave, Xury, and upon selling him, worried about his subsequent treatment—but sold him nonetheless. The excesses of specific slave owners, not the system itself, are of concern to Crusoe.

It is Crusoe’s relationship with Friday that has drawn the most attention, as it occupies a sizable portion of the book. Crusoe’s generally colonialist attitude, declaring himself king of the island, is consistent with his paternalist attitude toward Friday. Convinced that he has superior knowledge and should teach Friday, his first lessons are about the word “master,” which Friday must call him. In the absence of a monetarily-based financial system on the island, and because there is no evidence that Friday previously was considered anyone’s property, Crusoe cannot technically be a slave-master to Friday in that he does not purchase him. Regardless, Crusoe’s attitude encourages and praises the alleged subservience in Friday’s behavior from the very moment they first meet:

I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me, and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this it seems was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever; I took him up, and made much of him, and encouraged him all I could (emphasis added).

Given that the novel is entirely told from Crusoe’s perspective, the reader never hears Friday’s version of this initial meeting. The idea that innately submissive attitudes were characteristic of dark-skinned people, who were grateful to white Europeans for rescuing them, was a foundation of colonialist politics and a standard trope in contemporary literature.

It has been noted that, along with not overtly criticizing slavery in this novel, Daniel Defoe rarely did so in his other published works. To the contrary, Defoe had invested in Britain’s Royal African Company, and he wrote of slavery as an economic necessity. His stated oppositions were largely economic, criticizing private slave traders who interfered with the profitable operation of the official royal company. In some writings, he endorsed owner’s violent control over slaves as their “property,” which was necessary to increase their labor.

Keane, Patrick J. 1994. Coleridge’s Submerged Politics: The Ancient Mariner and Robinson Crusoe. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

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Slavery, being a normal part of everyday life in the 1700s when Robinson Crusoe was written, is treated as simply a fact and not a moral issue. Early in the book Crusoe himself is captured and sold into slavery, but is treated well and is able to escape; from this, he takes the position that he cannot stand to be made to serve, but does not apply this attitude to other slaves. When Friday appears on the island, Crusoe initially treats him as a child-like savage, but soon discovers that Friday is as innately intelligent as himself, and is both impressed and somewhat humbled. While he continues to treat Friday like a servant, he does not treat him as a slave; in fact, Crusoe's initial defense of Friday against the cannibals is indicative of his personal convictions.

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