Captain Singleton

by Daniel Defoe

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1904

First published: 1720

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: Eighteenth century

Locale: The navigable world

Principal Characters:

Captain Bob Singleton, a sailor, explorer, and pirate

William Walters, a Quaker surgeon

The Story:

Captain Bob Singleton was stolen as a child and reared by the gypsy who bought him. His first voyages, which began when he was age twelve, were to Newfoundland. On one of these voyages, the ship was captured by Turks. The Turkish vessel was subsequently captured by a Portuguese ship. After many months on shore, Singleton sailed as a cabin boy from Portugal on a voyage to Goa on the Malabar coast. At this time, Singleton began to learn the arts of navigation, and he also became an accomplished thief.

On the return voyage, a storm drove the ship to the shore of Madagascar. There Singleton enthusiastically joined a group of malcontents who plotted the harsh captain’s death, and he barely escaped hanging. However, he and twenty-six companions, with guns, tools, and provisions, were abandoned on shore. The natives were friendly and traded food with the sailors in exchange for metal charms cut out of beaten coins, as they had no knowledge of the value of currency. After exploring the island and the shore, the party was able to build a frigate and sail for the mainland. ..FT.-Landing at Mozambique, they decided to trek across the entire unknown continent to the Atlantic. They began the journey with buffaloes loaded with their provisions and with some sixty captured natives as guides and bearers. Singleton was by this time their appointed leader. At first, they marched only when travel by river was impossible. By hunting and foraging, they survived well enough until they came to the first desert. After nine days on the desert, they reached a lake, fished, and renewed their water supply. In sixteen days, they completed the desert crossing and entered another fertile region where travel was easy until they came to an impassable river—possibly the Nile.

When the chief native prisoner found gold in a small stream flowing into the main river, they panned as much as they could and agreed to share it equally. After a time, they built a garrisoned camp to avoid traveling in the rainy season. Protected by palisades from wild animals that roamed the region, the travelers remained there through the rainy season. On the subsequent march, they almost perished while crossing a further stretch of arid land. Beyond this desert, they obtained meat from a native village and soon moved into a mountainous region. While proceeding along the main valley, they were astonished to meet an Englishman who had been captured and robbed by the French. Having managed to escape inland, he had stayed in the country of friendly natives. He joined the travelers and told them where to find more gold. After two profitable years, they continued on to the Gold Coast. There the party disbanded, and Singleton sailed to England.

During the next two years in England, Singleton spent lavishly and was often cheated. When his money was gone, he sailed for Cadiz. Off the coast of Spain, he broke his journey at the instigation of a friend and went aboard a vessel whose crew had mutinied and taken possession of the ship; thus began Singleton’s career as a pirate.

Having obtained provisions in Cadiz, the pirate ship sailed for the Canary Islands and then on to the West Indies. After the capture of a Spanish sloop, Singleton sailed aboard her and arranged to meet the other ship in Tobago. He found that the crew of a captured ship was often willing to join him. One man who did so was a Quaker surgeon named William Walters. William and Singleton became friends, and the Quaker often saved him from wasteful maneuvers and bloodshed. After a meeting in Tobago, the pirates arranged to cruise separately again and later to join forces in Madagascar.

In a successful engagement off Brazil, Singleton captured and took command of a forty-six-gun Portuguese man-of-war. They acquired many slaves from the next captured ship. William persuaded Singleton and the crew not to kill these men. Instead, he sold them on the Rio Grande for gold and a fine French sloop. Continuing the voyage, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope to land on Madagascar for provisions.

During the night that followed the sighting of a wrecked European ship on the African shore, William and the coxswain both dreamed that if they landed, they would find gold. They discovered a group of their former companions who, shipwrecked on Tabago, had been taken aboard another ship and subsequently had captured several ships of their own and thereby gained much gold. The whole pirate fleet, including ships under Captain Wilmot and Captain Avery, gathered at Mangahelly. Some stayed in a camp on shore. Eventually, William and Singleton sailed for Ceylon in the man-of-war.

Off Ceylon, they captured a ship from the Mogul’s court. The vessel yielded so much gold that the sailors wished to return at once to Madagascar. Together, William and Singleton persuaded them to continue the voyage.

Singleton’s ambition was to capture ships from the Dutch Spice Islands. After sailing north of the Philippines, they finally overtook a vessel laden with nutmegs. Unfortunately, they grounded the man-of-war on a group of rocks and were forced to beach and repair her. Soon after they resailed, they were hit by a violent storm that shook the ship and momentarily so terrified Singleton that he believed the lightning to be the punishment from Divine Providence for his crimes. However, nobody was hurt, and they continued on as before with the ship only slightly damaged. ..FT.-North of Manila three Japanese ships yielded cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and some gold. From there, they sailed two months until they reached Formosa. By this time, everybody was agreed that they were rich enough. Off the Chinese coast they made contact with merchants with whom William traded spices and cloth for gold. Then they began the long journey southward and westward home.

The vessel sailed to Java for provisions and then to Ceylon, where they had great trouble with natives who nearly ignited the ship with fire-arrows. Finally, after tricking the native leaders through a Dutch interpreter who was a prisoner there, they managed to take him on board and to sail away unharmed.

William continued to trade; when he had satisfactorily disposed of most of the booty, he talked earnestly to Singleton about his crimes. Together, they agreed to abandon piracy. Furthermore, Singleton said that from then on he would be under William’s command. William made two more trading trips. On the second trip, Singleton and another surgeon accompanied him in the sloop with their accumulated treasure. William sent a letter to the man-of-war saying that they had been captured and that they must sail away to save their own lives. The men quickly obeyed. ..FT.-William and Singleton disguised themselves as Persian merchants. During this time, Singleton became profoundly troubled by his conscience. William dissuaded him from suicide by suggesting that they might be able to put their illegal fortunes to some good use. They traveled in caravan to Alexandria and then sailed to Venice.

In time, William wrote to his widowed sister in England. He and Singleton both sent her money to buy a house for her children and themselves. Finally, still disguised as merchants, they returned home. Singleton, whose repentance was complete, married William’s sister and lived with her in great contentment and quiet.

Critical Evaluation:

Fascinated as they were by tales about remote nations of the world, Daniel Defoe’s readers thrilled to such fictions as ROBINSON CRUSOE (1719), COLONEL JACK (1722), and CAPTAIN SINGLETON. Nor, of course, was Defoe the only writer of such literature. One thinks immediately of Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1726), which, if it is not altogether typical of the genre, clearly attests to its popularity.

Defoe can justly be called the first English novelist. The three outstanding works of prose fiction before Defoe wrote were Lyly’s EUPHUES, a courtly and philosophical work; Sidney’s ARCADIA, a chivalrous romance, and John Bunyan’s religious and symbolic allegory, THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS. Realistic characters and the commonsense point of view were Defoe’s contributions to prose fiction. In THE LIFE, ADVENTURES, AND PIRACIES OF THE FAMOUS CAPTAIN SINGLETON, unlike Robinson Crusoe to which it is undoubtedly inferior, character is subordinated to action. In both books, Defoe relied heavily on Dampier’s accounts of voyages, travelers’ tales, and available maps and geographies. The novel also contains a wealth of clearly imagined detail in its objective narrative, and two contrasted characters: the courageous, egocentric Singleton and the shrewd pacifist, William. Here and in the rest of Defoe’s fiction is the germ of the English novel.

CAPTAIN SINGLETON not only fulfills the requirements for travel literature of the period but does so to a fault. The emphasis of the novel is on action—at the expense of character—and colorful, incidental detail. Nearly the entire first half of the book treats Singleton’s wearisome trek from the east coast of Madagascar to the west coast of Africa; the second half, something of a non sequitur, embarks on quite a different course—Singleton’s adventures as a pirate. The novel, therefore, betrays Defoe’s tendency to indulge a tasteless reading public. It is diffuse, void of effective characterization, overly reportorial, and disconnected in its two major movements. It succeeds best in its fertile inventiveness and easy style. Only Defoe could build a lengthy episode around the idea of laying siege to a tree or cultivate such stylistic touches as: “to think of Death, is to dye; and to be always thinking of it, is to be all one’s Life-long a dying.”

This is a novel that also embraces much Puritan theology, as a reader would expect from the author of ROBINSON CRUSOE. Singleton is “homeless” in two distinct senses of the word: he has neither a physical nor a spiritual domicile, since he has been stolen away both from his earthly parents and his divine Father; therefore he is tractable and indifferent to the decisions that others make for him. After all, he has no “Pilot” to direct his life. Like Crusoe, he eschews a safe, comfortable life in order to indulge his wanderlust (in ROBINSON CRUSOE an evident sin against the “Father”) with the result that God tries him with many perils. This theological undertow in the novel is not nearly so pronounced as it is in other Defoe novels (CAPTAIN SINGLETON is scarcely an allegory), but it is nonetheless present. In the end, Bob Singleton repents of his roguish life, but predictably keeps his ill-gotten gains in order to do good with them.

There are a number of minor points in the novel that are of interest, among them Defoe’s intense dislike of the Portuguese (this surfaces in his other works) and his familiarity with eighteenth century geography. Readers today will also appreciate his attitudes toward slavery and toward so-called “natural law.” Defoe seems to have condemned strongly the idea of enslavement (though his heroes practice it) even as he believed the black race to be unenlightened. He viewed natural law in the manner of Thomas Hobbes: what exists is the principal law governing human actions.

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