Set in Tobago, Defoe's utopian vision vanishes abruptly, like the novel’s famous footprint in the sand.Literature
The following is an excerpt from Andre Bagoo's newly released collection of essays, The Undiscovered Country.
There’s an island near Chile named after Robinson Crusoe, but the name, however, is misleading. It is not really Robinson Crusoe’s island. As a matter of fact, that honor belongs to Tobago, the island situated slightly north of Trinidad. We know Tobago is the real setting for Daniel Defoe’s novel because, quite simply, he tells us so.
The book’s subtitle places the action in “an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque”. This automatically rules out any of the islands off of Chile, while more corroboration comes in the text itself. At one point in the novel (and I refer here to the 1919 edition published in London by Seeley, Service & Company), Crusoe asks his subject Friday to explain the island’s whereabouts to him. From what Friday says, Crusoe ascertains that there’s some kind of landmass and a strong current, not too far away:
“This I understood to be no more than the sets of the tide, as going out or coming in; but I afterwards understood it was occasioned by the great draft and reflux of the mighty river Orinoco, in the mouth or gulf of which river, as I found afterwards, our island lay; and that this land, which I perceived to be W. and NW., was the great island Trinidad, on the north point of the mouth of the river.” (p.111)
Look this up on any map and Tobago becomes the irresistible conclusion.
It’s true that in a sense it doesn’t matter. Any deserted island will do for the purposes of Defoe’s story. It is also true that Defoe was a writer and writers transpose things. But even if that was the case, and if, by any chance, there’s a real-life story of a Scottish seaman left marooned near Chile that inspired this tale, the author’s setting is still very clearly and carefully specified. Walking around Tobago 300 years after the novel was first published, it’s easy to see why he went through all of this trouble.
There are parts of Tobago which have been untouched for centuries. A few decades after Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, the forest that forms the spine of the island was officially declared a protected area in 1776. At the time, the island was a British colony. (It changed hands no less than 33 times as Courlanders, Dutch, English, French, Spanish, and even Swedish forces fought to colonise it.) The Main Ridge is said to be the oldest reserve in the Western Hemisphere. There are about 160 species of trees, and at least 16 of them can be found nowhere else.
When you walk through this ancient forest, the cool air is filled with the scent of woody incense. Located on a high volcanic ridge, a mist falls, a miasma, over this forest as the primeval trees stand like sentinels, guarding some dark, hidden nirvana. Wild flowers make a sap sweet fragrance, as one gets lured to delve deeper. However, parts of this mountain terrain are impassable. I can almost picture Crusoe here, trying to make his way through the dense opulence and the treacherous terrain, as small golden frogs look on from the mulch; brooding, indifferent to his fate.
But the idea of Tobago as a perfectly preserved Eden is also akin to a myth. When hurricane Flora hit in 1963, about 75 per cent of the forest was destroyed. What survives is but an echo of what was left in the aftermath. And with its international airport, roads, ports, real estate developments, and coastal resorts, the Tobago of the 18th century has been recast in concrete.
Whether situated in imagination or physical geography, the story is a fantasy. In his oft quoted analysis of the novel, James Joyce diagnoses this fantasy as a particularly English one: a colonial delusion, an imperial project, a vision of self-mastery and conquest. Perhaps, the book was meant to be a paean to privateering — work that falls under the category of conduct literature: designed to excite recruits to serve their country on the buccaneering seas.
Unlike Joyce, I perceive the Crusoe fantasy as something that sails across nationalities. It is a virus, a constellation of malarious ideas — the Utopian notion of a pure, untouched land; the image of a man-god in Eden; and the dream of the all-conquering male in virgin terrain. Crusoe’s narrative represents the idea of being singled out for survival, as he struggles to master a plot of land bestowed by divine forces. Who wouldn't get drawn to this notion of being special? Of possessing, deep down, the power to be one’s true master? As Crusoe tells us:
"I was lord of the whole manor; or, if I pleased, I might call myself king or emperor over the whole country which I had possession of: there were no rivals; I had no competitor, none to dispute sovereignty or command with me." (p. 67)
Has Defoe not given us the seed of the American Dream? The prototype for Daniel Boone? (Thomas Jefferson reportedly read Robinson Crusoe twice!) Does the Crusoe dream not underlie the desire of nations to preserve their purity? To leave larger political groupings? Is it not a good reason to oversimplify history and erase competing morals, legal claims to wealth, resources, land?
Besides, the veneration of toxic masculinity is there for all to see. In stating that he is a symbol of British conquest, Joyce observes how Crusoe is shipwrecked on a lonely island with nothing but a knife and a pipe in his pocket and yet manages to becomes an architect, carpenter, knife-grinder, astronomer, baker, shipwright, potter, saddler, farmer, tailor, and an umbrella-maker. The Anglo-Saxon soul of Crusoe brims over with virile independence, unthinking cruelty, persistence, slow yet effective intelligence, sexual apathy, practical and well-balanced religiosity, and calculating dourness. Animals are skinned, mutinies are engineered, people get killed.
The fusion between Crusoe as an imperialist as well as a male ideal is captured perfectly by Jules Fesquet’s in a drawing that he finished in 1877 where Crusoe is depicted as becoming Hercules. Instead of being portrayed as a comic figure wearing a hodgepodge of goatskins, he becomes a cocky jock holding an oversized sword which has been sketched very well. This is also outlined in the book, where all of Crusoe’s relationships are subordinate to the pursuit of maleness masked as survival. There’s so much testosterone available in the story that one barely notices when he gets married. Ultimately, the marriage is brief and his wife is quickly killed off.
J.M. Coetzee, in his fictional and symbolic re-telling of Robinson Crusoe titled Foe, is moved to invent a marginalized female character, Susan Barton, who is excluded from the original story by its writer. Her noble quest to rescue her kidnapped daughter, which sees her shipwrecked on the same island inhabited by Crusoe, is erased from the narrative by a male writer who uses his privilege of authorship to his own ends. By the same token, Friday, in Coetzee’s symbolic re-telling, is silenced when his tongue is cut out.
Unlike Prospero, there is very little to exonerate Crusoe or make us sympathize with him. Not only is he racist, describing black people as barbarians and brown people as savages, but may have brought about the drowning of a fellow slave to secure his own liberty (he casually remarks “he…swam for the shore, and I make no doubt but he reached it with ease, for he was an excellent swimmer” (p.13)). He is also involved in trafficking children and frisks a dead body for money. Willfully, he also takes advantage of the native population, trading useless trifles for gold dust.
Outwardly set in his ways, Crusoe’s story nonetheless throws up fascinating contingencies. The experiments that he conducted while moving with his camp convey how arbitrary his notion of home is. On the island, power dynamics seem amenable to change in a way that might not be possible in England. Yet, for all its newfound liberties, the final verdict on the new republic comes only with Crusoe’s departure.
There is a similar ambivalence in the book’s emotional landscape. Alongside, the machismo is a pervasive vein of tenderness. In the film adaptation of the novel, Luis Buñuel invents a scene in which Crusoe hangs a dress on a scarecrow, and then falls under the spell of his own illusion. For a moment, he lights upon the garment with excited desire only to come back to earth with recognition of his isolation. The scene works because one can imagine it happening while Crusoe’s despair is revealed by the author (Sir Walter Scott notes that Crusoe becomes “in the highest degree pathetic”). In this context, his attitude towards Friday, his servant, is changed by his desire to connect. Crusoe tells us: “I began really to love the creature; and on his side I believe he loved me more than it was possible for him ever to love anything before” (p. 110). Friday is more than just surrogate for all other people; he comes to represent an ideal bond:
For never a man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me: without passions, sullenness, or designs, perfectly obliged and engaged; his very affections were tied to me, like those of a child to a father; and I daresay he would have sacrificed his life to save mine upon any occasion whatsoever. (p. 108)
This is in contrast with Crusoe’s previous relationship with another servant, the brave and loyal Xury, whom he sells back into slavery without hesitation: “He offered me also sixty pieces of eight more for my boy Xury, which I was loath to take; not that I was unwilling to let the captain have him” (p. 19). He twice regrets the loss of Xury, not for emotional reasons but because of the additional labor which Xury would have provided – first on his plantation in Brazil then on the island.
These contradictions, contingencies and ambivalences are symptoms of a structural pattern within Crusoe’s character. His frequent veering between extremes connotes a profound fluidity in his personality. He starts off godless and only later finds his faith. After rebelling against his father, he ends up becoming his Prodigal Son. In the beginning he despairs over the black side of the island but later comes to see it as his kingdom. He is disgusted by the cannibals so much so that he wants to go home, but changes his mind after criticizing the European civilization, its history of colonial genocide, its bloody religious wars, even its terrain which he comes to regard as hazardous. At one stage he remarks: “Today we love what tomorrow we hate; today we seek what tomorrow we shun” (p. 82). Was he too mercurial? Or is his propensity for change a sign of a truly open mind?
Karl Marx sees Crusoe somewhat positively – as Adam, an independent man, the prototype for the eventual social production and distribution labor power, who is able to freely produce on the basis of needs, and not a relationship of feudal subjugation. Says Marx of Crusoe:
Necessity itself compels him to apportion his time accurately between his different kinds of work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in his general activity than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or less as the case may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. (Das Kapital, p. 50)
But we know enough about Marx’s complex ideas to imagine what he would say about figures like Xury and Friday. Both are mere cogs in Crusoe’s colonising agenda and Both are treated as commodities, fruits of his labor. In Friday’s case, Crusoe’s love threatens to disrupt the mercenary nature of the relationship. While that love takes him to Europe, it still does not transform him into a full-fledged man from Crusoe’s perspective. Instead of correcting it, love intensifies the failure of Crusoe’s imagination and underlines his inability to see human beings around him. Friday remains a servant and a creature right up to the end of the novel when his sparring with a bear literally serves as entertainment for his master. Their relationship mirrors the master-slave trope where masters, by using their abusive power, would fall in love with slaves and yet see no inconsistency between their feelings and the racist assumptions of slavery. Friday volunteers to stay with his master, but the terms of their relationship remain cast in stone.
At one stage Crusoe himself spends two years in bondage, however there is little indication of the experience that teaches him anything or provokes any sort of crisis of belief the way his island does. Though he is able to move between antinomies in his life, Crusoe disappoints gravely because of his lack of real change. The glimmer of hope is snuffed out.
This is the telltale heart of the story which gives us a tantalizing glimpse of a faraway land in which Crusoe and Friday stand side by side as equals. In this land, both are able, at last, to see each other, cross the divide, overcome divisive and limiting notions of race, nationality, creed and culture; abandon constructs that conspire to separate them. But the utopian vision vanishes abruptly, like the novel’s famous footprint in the sand.
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