The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honorable Col Jacque, Commonly Call'd Col Jack

by Daniel Defoe

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1910

First published: 1722

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque adventure

Time of work: Late seventeenth century

Locale: England, France, and Virginia

Principal Characters:

Colonel Jacque (Jack), a waif

Captain Jack, his foster brother

Major Jack, another foster brother

Will, a pickpocket

Colonel Jacque’s four Wives

The Story:

The illegitimate son of a gentleman and a lady, Colonel Jack, as he was later known, was early in his life given to his nurse to rear. There he was brought up with her own son, Captain Jack, and another unwanted child, Major Jack. She treated the boys well, but she had little money and so they were forced to fend for themselves. When Colonel Jack was ten years of age, the good woman died, leaving the three boys to beg for their food. Lodging did not bother them; they slept in ash piles and doorways in the winter and on the ground in summer. Captain Jack soon turned to picking pockets for a living and was so successful that he took Colonel Jack into partnership. The two young rogues preyed on wealthy men who were careless with their money. One of the boys would take the money, extracting only a small note from the whole; then the other would return the rest to its rightful owner and collect a reward for its return. One of the duped men was so grateful to honest-seeming Colonel Jack that upon the return of his wallet he agreed to keep the reward money for the boy and pay him interest on it. Since Colonel Jack had no place to keep the stolen goods safely, he had asked the gentleman to do him that service. Later, Colonel Jack took more stolen money to the same man for safekeeping and received his note for the whole amount, to be paid only to Colonel Jack himself. After the scamps had robbed a poor woman of all her savings, Colonel Jack was so ashamed that he later returned her money with interest.

Captain Jack, a real villain, was apprehended and taken to Newgate Prison. Colonel Jack then became a partner of a thief named Will, a vicious rogue who plundered, robbed, and at last killed. He also was caught and taken to Newgate to be hanged, a fate that Colonel Jack knew Will deserved but that made his heart sick and his conscience a heavy burden.

Captain Jack escaped from prison; Colonel Jack was also in danger because of his deeds. The two journeyed to Scotland. They were almost caught many times, but on each occasion, Captain Jack’s foresight enabled them to elude capture. When they were ready to return to England, they took work on a ship bound for London, or so they thought. Since they were deserters from the army, which they had joined to save their skins, they could not afford to risk regular means of travel; but the two who had cheated so many were themselves duped. Instead of sailing for England, they found themselves on the high seas bound for America and servitude. Colonel Jack, knowing himself for a villain, accepted his fate calmly, but Captain Jack stormed against it. The defiant Captain Jack abused his master, escaped back to England, resumed his old ways, and some twenty years later was hanged.

In Virginia, Colonel Jack was the property of a good master who told him that after he had served five years he would be freed and given a small piece of land. Therefore, if he were industrious and honest, he might benefit from his ill fate. Jack respected his master and worked diligently for him. Soon he was made an overseer, and his kind heart and keen mind were responsible for changing the black slaves from rebellious fiends to loyal workers. His master was so fond of Jack that he bought him a small plantation nearby and lent him the money to supply it. He also arranged for Jack to secure his money left in keeping in London. The money was converted into goods for the plantation, goods that were lost at sea. The master offered Jack his freedom before the five years were up, but Jack was loyal and continued to serve until his master’s death.

Jack’s plantation prospered. The original two slaves given to him by his old master were increased by several more slaves and bonded white workers. Always a kind master, Jack won the loyalty of his workmen. He could neither read nor write and wanted to improve his education. He took one of his bonded men as a tutor and soon grew to admire him as he himself had been admired by his former master.

Resolving to return to England after an absence of almost twenty years, he tried to get his tutor to travel with him. When the man refused, Jack made him the overseer of his large plantations. It was some time before Jack arrived in his native land. He was first tossed about at sea, then captured by the French, and at last exchanged for a prisoner held by the English.

Soon Jack’s heart was taken by a lady who lived nearby, and they were married; but she proved unfaithful to him, as well as being a gambler and a spendthrift, and shortly after the birth of their child, he left her. He first attacked her lover, however, and so had to flee for his life. He later learned that she was to have another child, and he divorced her and went to France. There he joined an Irish brigade and fought in France, Germany, and Italy. Captured, he was sent to Hungary and then to Italy, where he married the daughter of an innkeeper. Eventually, he was allowed to go to Paris with his wife. There he recruited volunteers to fight against the English. Tiring of war, he returned to Paris unexpectedly, only to find that his second wife had also taken a lover. After almost killing the man, he fled to London and then to Canterbury, where he lived as a Frenchman with the English and as an Englishman with the French.

Still desiring a happy home life, he married again. His wife, at first beautiful and virtuous, became a drunkard and finally killed herself. They had had three children. Wishing to provide for them, Jack married an older woman who had cared for them and whom they loved as a mother. After bearing him children, however, the good woman died from a fall, leaving him a widower once more. After smallpox took all but two of his children, he returned to Virginia. He left his daughter with her grandfather and took the remaining son with him.

In Virginia, he found his affairs in good order, the tutor having been a faithful overseer for twenty-four years. Several slaves and servants had been added to the plantations, and Jack found one of them to be his first wife. Since she had repented wholly of her sins, he married her again and lived happily with her for many years.

Nevertheless, he was not always to live in peace. Several captive servants who knew of his part in the rebellion, when he had served with the Irish brigade, were brought to neighboring plantations. His part in the rebellion became known, and he had to leave Virginia until he could secure a pardon from the king. He and his wife went to Antigua, from which she later returned to Virginia to await the news of her husband’s pardon. Pardoned, he was on his way home when he was captured by the Spanish. After many long months as a hostage, he was released, having turned the experience into profit by trading with some of his captors. He continued the trade, which was illegal in the eyes of the Spanish government, and made thousands of pounds. He was often in danger during his voyages, even taken, but each time he turned the situation to his own advantage.

At last, he left danger behind, returned to England, and sent for his beloved wife. There they remained, leaving the Virginia plantations in the hands of the faithful tutor. In his old age, Colonel Jack spent many hours contemplating the goodness of the God he had formerly ignored. He believed that his story was one to make others repent of their sins and mend their broken ways.

Critical Evaluation:

Although Daniel Defoe is remembered chiefly for ROBINSON CRUSOE, in its own time, THE HISTORY OF COLONEL JACQUE attained great popularity. Defoe declared that his twofold purpose was to show the ruination of youth through lack of proper training and to prove that a misspent life may be redeemed by repentance. The novel opens on a theme similar to that of OLIVER TWIST but follows a line of development modeled after GIL BLAS. Although a rogue, Colonel Jack aspires to win back his good name, and in the end, he succeeds. Defoe, in the fashion of his day, gave the novel a grandiose title: THE HISTORY AND REMARKABLE LIFE OF THE TRULY HONOURABLE COLONEL JACQUE, VULGARLY CALLED COL. JACK, WHO WAS BORN A GENTLEMAN, PUT ’PRENTICE TO A PICK-POCKET, WAS SIX AND TWENTY YEARS AS A THIEF, AND THEN KIDNAPPED TO VIRGINIA; CAME BACK A MERCHANT, WAS FIVE TIMES MARRIED TO FOUR WHORES, WENT INTO THE WARS, BEHAVED BRAVELY, GOT PREFERMENT, WAS MADE COLONEL OF A REGIMENT, CAME OVER AND FLED WITH THE CHEVALIER, IS STILL ABROAD COMPLETING A LIFE OF WONDERS, AND RESOLVES TO DIE A GENERAL. The end of the novel does not fulfill, however, the promise of the title.

At its very commencement, the English novel indicated the direction of its subsequent development. In THE HISTORY OF COLONEL JACQUE as well as in his other novels, Defoe detailed the adventures of the rogue, society’s outcast, in his attempt to find station, security, and identity in culture. Therefore, even at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the novel was a democratic, middle-class genre, growing out of the political and social rise of that class. It is middle class in its concern for wealth and station; it is democratic in its insistence that power, which lay in aristocratic hands, be dispersed and allowed to filter down to the parvenus.

Typically, Colonel Jack is an unwanted child who is excluded by his birth from the goods of society. Simply but accurately put, his aim during his adventures is to accumulate wealth, which, he soon discovers—and this is of course the edge of Defoe’s moral satire—will give him power and place. It is also, however, a part of Defoe’s wisdom, which is as well that of the middle class, that the pleasure goods afford gives man a fundamental nobility. It is a dignity achieved when he frees himself from poverty and gains substance in the eyes of society. Those goods, Defoe also tells the reader, make possible the pursuit of virtue; for if material security does not necessarily lead to virtue, the moral life is impossible without it.

Colonel Jack’s conversion, therefore, like the more famous one of Moll Flanders, should not be seen as mere hypocrisy. It is a knowledge won at the expense of suffering and deprivation. If one condemns Jack’s means to his end, one should be prepared to honor his middle-class sagacity that if man cannot live by bread alone, neither can he live without it.

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