The Role of Race

June 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

‘[Robinson Crusoe is] the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage who arrives on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races.’ Explore.Unquestionably Robinson Crusoe is a novel of unbridled popularity; it has generated over seven hundred editions, and been abridged, translated, adapted, and imitated variously. To many critics it is the embodiment of the origins of the British Empire; the white man explores, assumes control, and exploits the new world he has discovered. To James Joyce it seemed obvious that Friday’s enslavement was symptomatic of early eighteenth century attitudes towards other races and cultures, and it is this which is to be explored here.Race is foremost in Crusoe and Friday’s understanding of each other. For Crusoe the black man and the white man cannot meet on equal ground. The mere physical differences between them are emphasised when Crusoe first describes his new ‘companion’:He was a comely handsome fellow … but seemed to have something very manly in his face, and yet he had all the Sweetness and Softness of an European in his Countenance too, especially when he smil’d. … The Colour of his Skin was not quite black, … but of a bright kind of a dun olive Colour … and his fine Teeth well set, and white as Ivory. (page 205-6 )Compared to Crusoe’s description of himself – the goat-skinned, shaggy, wild-man, Friday is sympathetically and attractively described, but most emphatically and definably different. Crusoe remarks on the colour of his skin and the setting of his teeth as though observing a new horse or dog he has purchased; Friday is now a slave, and catalogued in the way that Crusoe notes down everything else he wins for his little island kingdom, be it gunpowder or cats. The importance placed on race can perhaps be better seen when the Spaniard is asked by Crusoe to ‘oversee and direct’ Friday and his Father in the felling of trees (page 247). Despite Crusoe’s repeated hatred of the Spanish and their almost unmentionably terrifying Inquisition, which he is at such pains to ensure the other Spanish sailors will not deliver him to, he places this almost unknown man in a position of authority over the black man who has served him so well for many years. Friday’s well-earned merit, skill, understanding of the island, and obvious loyalty are all less important to Crusoe than the consideration of Race. To Crusoe, the Spaniard is a white man and thus, no matter how cruel and abhorrent his countrymen, he is still more inherently trusted and perhaps perceived as more competent than his loyal, intelligent, and native servant. It is based upon his race also that Crusoe’s initial fear of Friday is founded: he initially makes him sleep between the inner and outer ‘castle’ walls and later he admits that he ‘wrong’d the poor honest Creature very much’ in suspecting that he would gladly return and revert to his native land and customs. It is important to note the usage of the word ‘Creature’, subverting Friday’s essential humanity to something less important, and less unique. It is also because the Spaniard is white that Crusoe abandons his policy of non-interference with the savages – it is acceptable for them to butcher their own race, but not his, and it is unacceptable for them to endanger the symbol of western civilisation.Civilisation seems to create the greatest gulf between Friday and Crusoe: as characters they come from different worlds. Friday is a very able character: Defoe often remarks on the swiftness of his running and his ability to skipper Crusoe’s canoes. In fact, where anything requiring physical dexterity is involved, Friday is the more skilled of the two men. However, it is Crusoe’s education – his understanding of tools and techniques – that allows him to assume control over situations and, ultimately, over Friday. Many times Crusoe reflects on how different his life might have been had he not been so fortunate as to be able to take supplies from two shipwrecks. Alexander Selkirk, the original marooned Scotsman on whom it has been suggested that Defoe based his tale, enjoyed a rather different life to that of Crusoe. “Being left with only a pound of gunpowder, Selkirk quickly had to revert to hunting wild goats by speed of feet; for his way of living and continual exercise of walking and running cleared him of all gross humours; so that he ran with wonderful swiftness.”This real marooned man reverted back to primitive methods of living and catching his food: his method of keeping the rat population in check was to encourage more cats to breed, and his method of catching goats is to chase them. This is a state of enforced re-naturalisation which Crusoe does not endure; instead he battles against nature, endeavouring to bake bread, make clay pots, and build furniture despite the difficulties. He endeavours to maintain his identity.Crusoe’s identity is explored with an interest and a concern on the part of Defoe which balances up the vague carelessness with which Friday is depicted. The importance of Crusoe’s identity is seen not only in his attempts to create for himself a more luxurious standard of living, but in his attention to symbols of his ‘Englishness’. He creates for himself an umbrella, a pipe, and trims his beard, worrying about how polite society would now view his appearance. Perhaps the intensity of his religious devotion in parts of the book is an example of his maintaining the Christianity so important to his cultural identity. His anti-Spanish sentiments seem designed to mark England out as the peak of civilisation – the Glorious Revolution having seen an end to the blood shed of earlier centuries and other countries. Only England is civilisation’s castle – even the Pyrenees are teeming with man-eating wolves. Crusoe, as the exponent of this Englishness abroad, endeavours to maintain his standards of morality, religion, and decency.Capitalism, as David Cody has explained, ‘can be defined as the condition of possessing capital’, and also ‘an ideology which favours the existence of capitalists’. He goes on to explain that Crusoe’s preoccupations on the island arelabour, raw materials, the processes of production, colonialism (and implicit Imperialism), shrewdness, self-discipline, and profitwhich are those of the ‘proto-capitalist’. It is not true to say that Crusoe is driven by money; when he finds some onboard his ship he begins an almost theatrical diatribe on the uselessness of money:O Drug! Said I aloud, what art thou good for, Thou art not worth to me… I have no Manner of use for thee, e’en remain where thou art, and go to the Bottom as a Creature whose Life is not worth saving. However, upon Second Thoughts, I took it away (Page 57)It is interesting that he refers to the money as a ‘Creature’, in the same way as he later refers to Friday: is it possible he values them equally? Perhaps he endows the money with the same sub-human animation that he offers to his Servant. At the very least, it is true to say that the word ‘Creature’ crops up often in his language, symptomatic of the deeply held belief of his own, and of English superiority. Richetti makes mention of the spirit of ‘realistic inconsistency’ which this quotation exposes. Although Crusoe learns thatall the good things of the world are no farther good to us than they are for our use; and that whatever we may heap up indeed to give others, we enjoy just as much as we can use and no more. (page 129)still his ‘Second Thoughts’ lead him to carry away the money. He has clearly not learned this lesson properly. Nor has he when the later shipwreck occurs and he exhibits exactly the same hypocritical behaviour:as to the Money, I had no manner of occasion for it: ‘Twas to me as the Dirt under my Feet; and I would have given it all for three or four pair of English Shoes and Stockings… However, I lugg’d this Money home (page 193)Here again we see a repetition of the value of English wares; a patriotic pride in ‘English Shoes’ and produce permeates the text. More importantly, however, Crusoe is at pains to carry his money home whilst at the same time denouncing it as useless. Perhaps this is the sign of a capitalist; someone who is drawn to wealth in spite of it’s apparent and admitted uselessness. However, seeming to refute this, Crusoe does grow only what he needs to live: he sees no virtue in growing excess which must remain unutilised and useless. Yet even this is countermanded when he later ‘resolv’d for the future to have two or three Years corn beforehand, so that, whatever might come, I might not perish for want of Bread’ (page 156). The capitalist begins to resurface, stockpiling crops and money for no reason other than their inherent value. Crusoe shows himself to be the true exponent of the English culture in the Southern hemisphere.The ‘Second Thoughts’ of these two quotations were remarked upon by David Trotter, when he saidCrusoe’s second thoughts supplement his first. They show him again in a different light, but not conclusively. They are followed … by third thoughts, and fourth thoughts. Crusoe’s character … is endlessly deferredIt seems emblematic of the English mind that it is constantly re-evaluating and re-assessing itself; and it is certainly seen to be a trait of the isolated mind. Robinson Crusoe is a story of Crusoe’s development ‘in the wild’ as it were, and the natural evolution of the solitary man. Critics have remarked on Defoe’s use of punctuation; Crusoe regularly uses a large number of semi-colons and colons, to act as ‘qualifiers’ for his decisions. Nothing is done which has not been subjected to thought and argument, and yet this serves only to undermine initial decisions, like the one not to bother retrieving the money. The realistic inconsistency of Richetti is present not in the plot, in the fact that Crusoe returns home to sudden mysterious wealth, nor in his reappearing ink, or the sex-change of his goat, or his stuffing of biscuit into the pockets of the coat he has already lost in the sea, but in the mind of Crusoe himself. A man who is constantly rethinking and lives in a state of perpetual paranoia which leads him to build vast strongholds and hide himself away at the sight of a footprint is scarcely to be trusted.The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘colonize’ as ‘to establish a colony in’, or ‘to establish control over (the indigenous people)’. Crusoe’s subordination of Friday and his adaptation of the island to his own needs is a prime example of this. He also appropriates the island for his own, reminding it’s new inhabitants that he has ‘reserv’d to my self the Property of the whole’ (305) and taking up the role of ‘Governour’. Ian Watt remarks that Crusoe’s desire to improve his surroundings is ‘really the dynamic tendency of capitalism itself’, and perhaps part of the ambition and desire for more material wealth. It is thus true to say that Crusoe is the ‘true prototype of the British colonist’ and of the emerging capitalist of the 18th Century.More interesting though are the fantasies and roles he creates for himself. He is a trader, a monarch, a religious fanatic, and a Governor:My island was now peopled, and I thought my self very rich in Subjects; and it was a merry Reflection which I frequently made, How like a King I look’d. (page 241)Crusoe creates for himself a pleasant fantasy as King, just as he has earlier created his ‘castle’ and his ‘seat in the country’. It is strange perhaps that the symbol of British development and progression in the world takes upon himself such archaic fantasies, showing him to be rooted in the past rather than reaching to the future: he is a prototype capitalist, and one who secretly longs for the past. As Adam Smith put forward the view that it is individual selfishness that is responsible for the improvement in Britain and her trade, by appealing to a man’s ‘self-love’ , so it is true that Crusoe dreams of bettering himself in the most drastic way that he can; to assume total authority and become an autocratic dictator. It is sinister, though, that by the end of the book he has assumed this authority; he is at the least self-proclaimed and ratified Governor of the Island with the power over his prisoners’ lives, apparently uncontested and accepted by the Ship’s Captain:he told them, they were none of his Prisoners, but the Commander of the Island … the Governour was an English Man; that he might hang them all there, if he pleased; but as he had given them all Quarter … except Atkins, who he was commanded … to advise to prepare for death; for that he would be hang’d in the Morning. (page 268)Here we see Crusoe’s fantasies taking lethal form. The choice of hanging as punishment corresponds with this assumption of authority. On a smaller scale, Crusoe also immediately assumes control over Friday.I made him know his Name should be Friday, … I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my Name (page 206)It is interesting here that Crusoe assumes the role of one who assumes names; Friday, the Savage, and the Spaniard are all titles set by him. Yet they are names which show his lack of understanding; the savage and Friday treat each other better than Crusoe and his own father. These are the crude labels of a falsely-superior creature.The names Crusoe creates for himself are some of the few signs of imagination, or inner workings that we see in the character. We are told that he is plagued by nightmares, including the peculiarly instructive dream that prepared him for the coming of Friday. And he sets aside barely time for leisure; we never see Crusoe dosing in the sunshine, or playing with his dog. Everything is directed to a purpose. Yet perhaps the seemingly incomplete picture of Friday, as a man about whose internal thoughts, desires, and dreams we know very little, is because as the narrator, Crusoe has little of these himself and thus does not seek for them in others.Instead of the ‘Companion’ (page 188) Crusoe claims he desires, he uses his greater education to make a slave of Friday. This is all the more surprising when it is considered that Crusoe himself has even been a slave, and yet he does not seem to deplore the subjugation of people thus. His escape is perhaps symbolic of the class mobility prevalent in the new age. Slavery is not an issue in the novel as it would be to a modern reader, simply because it is taken for granted and skimmed over. Crusoe is even on his way to illegally obtain more Negroes for the plantations when he is stranded on this Island, yet he never associates cause and effect with the wrath of providence as he does with earlier shipwrecks. Based on a dream, a desire for a subservient worker, and relatively unimportant desire for company, and sheer luck that he was in the right place at the right time, Crusoe saves Friday’s life. Friday is clearly intelligent as he learns and quickly adapts to Crusoe’s methods of carpentry, gunmanship, and life, and he obeys with an undying obedience which Crusoe does not always respect. He is initially suspicious of his new slave, and doesn’t seem to understand the culture he has come from, initially presenting him with a slice of goat meat with all ceremony and anticipation suggesting he naively expects Friday to have never eaten goat before. He assumes that Friday is a cannibal through and through – in some places Crusoe almost seems under the impression that the ‘Savages’ eat little but each other. Friday is at pains to explain they eat only prisoners captured in battle, and yet Crusoe has no desire to understand the natives. He does not even realise before it is explained to him that there is more than one tribe in the area; he sees only black men, homogenised and indistinct.Nor does Crusoe respect Friday’s cultural identity in the way he is at pains to preserve his own sense of ‘Englishness’. He begins to Anglicise his new slave; not content with sublimating the physical man into slave, he now teaches him to act as though he was English, yet paradoxically awards him none of the associated status. Friday learns to eat bread, wear clothes, pray to Jesus, and shoot his own kind in a horrific perversion of his loyalty to Crusoe.It is clear that Crusoe wants a companion on his own terms; not a friend but a follower. Perhaps though it is untrue to say that Friday arrived on an unlucky day when one considers that had he arrived at virtually any other time he would have been eaten. Instead he suffers a loss of his identity and freedom to the extent that he becomes little more than a silhouette of his Master, and an echo of his former self. Crusoe’s imposition and assumption of authority is an unsettling result of his prototypic colonialism. The narrator and the character, who begin so separately with the one deploring the mistakes of the other, align throughout the novel leaving only one speaker, blithely unaware of his own inadequacies. Upon his return to England, Crusoe’s relationships with his family consist of sending them packets of money; he has become emotionally deficient and socially inept through his long subjugation of those around him. It is laughable that when Friday questions his teachings, asking ‘if God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil, so make him no more do wicked?’ (page 218), Crusoe cannot even think of an answer, but nor can he admit that he is confounded. The question strikes at the heart of his religious doctrine, and yet he sees no flaws in what he propounds and even forces upon others. His years alone have blinded him to the needs and individualisms of those around him, and left him devoid of self-analysis – a true immoral imperialist.

Read more
Leave a comment
Order Creative Sample Now
Choose type of discipline
Choose academic level
  • High school
  • College
  • University
  • Masters
  • PhD

Page count
1 pages
$ 10