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Writing from a point of view that concludes “that the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other” , Edward Said views Robinson Crusoe as “explicitly enabled by an ideology of overseas expansion – directly connected in style and form to the narratives of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century exploration voyages that laid the foundations of the great colonial empires”. Alternatively, J Paul Hunter has analysed the effect of travel books on the origins of the novel and decided that “The journey is usually, however, a structure of convenience – movement through space means learning – rather than a feature formally adapted from travel books […] the novel is a product of serious cultural thinking about comparative societies and the multiple nature in human nature” . This view of the novel as being aware of the way it represents different societies and using travel as a function, is a way of reading Gulliver’s Travels that provides an insight into the objects of Swift’s satire. The difference between these two views highlights that these novels can be read from different perspectives, which do not necessarily provide a coherent and uniform picture. Ultimately, there are many forces which shape these novels, with the pursuits of travel, trade and colonialism being some of the most important, as they provided much of the dynamic for the society that was being reflected or critiqued.
The initial reason for Robinson Crusoe travelling is that he is compelled to see the world. Although this means rebellion against his father and God’s providential designs, which have combined to provide him with a comfortable middle-class life in law, Crusoe is intent on travel. However, Crusoe’s desire to travel is motivated by the opportunities supplied by the nascent colonialism of the seventeenth-century. Crusoe displays very little interesting in simply ‘seeing’ the world, he wants to prosper from what he finds and manipulate the legitimised, but not yet institutionalised, colonial practice of seizing gold and importing materials. In this respect, travel is simply a means for accumulating wealth, notwithstanding the initial glamour that a life on the seas might hold for a young man (although this appeal is short-lived for Crusoe). Throughout Robinson Crusoe, travel is a means for escape from the island, for safety when his small boat goes astray, for exploration of his island to discover the capital at his disposal, as a threat of punishment for the mutineers by bringing them back to England and for being in the appropriate places, i.e., Lisbon and London, to conduct business. The different uses of travelling mean that this process of moving through space becomes a hindrance to achieving the desired result, and Crusoe feels obliged to assure the reader that “As I have troubled you with none of my Sea-Journals, so I shall trouble you now with none of my Land-Journal” . There is an assumption of what the reader wishes to read, and consequently Crusoe’s travels are edited by an author whose intentions are to provide an instructive example rather than a description of the lands he has seen – descriptions which he acknowledges have been conducted by other travellers “with much more advantage that I” .
This distancing of Robinson Crusoe from travel books has led to its autobiographical or allegorical features being stressed. However, most of the novel occurs in regions of the world alien to its readership, and these areas are keenly observed in factual terms, so it is dangerous to dismiss the travel elements of the novel. This is because much of the significance of the novel is held in the assumptions that Crusoe makes about the world he observes. In this respect, Crusoe is one of the cultural productions that created and reinforced European views of the wider world. For instance, when Crusoe expresses surprise “that the Eyes of an infinite Power could search into the remotest Corner of the World, and send Help to the Miserable whenever he pleased” , it should be noted that his God is Euro-centric, for a universal and omnipresent deity should not distinguish Crusoe’s island – although seemingly remote to European Man – from any other place. Gulliver’s Travels seeks to satirise fiction like Crusoe that presents itself as factual, but is actually a carefully constructed work of fiction. Defoe’s preface unambiguously claims the work as fact, which can be used didactically;
The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are dispatch’d, that the Improvement of it, as well to the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same.
Swift observed this emergence of fiction presented as fact as disturbing, not only because of the deception, but because he saw that such creations would enable the promotion of one view of the world above others, even if the content was erroneous. Adventures such as Crusoe’s would sell in greater numbers if the public believed it to be true and Swift saw this as endemic of a commercialised and corrupt society. His response was to have Gulliver insist unswervingly on the truth of his wildly fantastic story, stating that “the truth immediately strikes every reader with conviction” . Whilst Gulliver’s deadpan character could have written these words, the voice of Swift comes over more clearly when he assesses his fellow writers:
I thought we were already overstocked with books of travels […] I doubted some authors less consulted truth than their own vanity, or interest, or the diversion of ignorant readers. That my story could contain little besides common events, without those ornamental diversions of strange plants, trees, birds, and other animals, or of the barbarous customs and idolatry of savage people, with which most writers abound.
Swift observes the objectification of the inhabitants of countries visited by European travellers, and even in the passing description above they are represented pejoratively. Although Gulliver goes to sea to engage in trading activities, he does so as part of a ship’s company, not as a private trader like Crusoe. When he is shipwrecked and lands on foreign soil he does not assess the land for utility, but as a curious spectator. Throughout the lands he visits, Gulliver attempts to engage with the native population and although he finds himself subjected or deemed inferior he sets out “in observing the manners and dispositions of the people, as well as learning their language” . He even informs us that he has written extensively about Lilliput for the benefit of an English audience. This desire to learn develops into an anti-travel sentiment when Gulliver wishes that instead of travelling to the Houyhnhnms, “they were in a capacity or disposition to send sufficient number of their inhabitants for civilizing Europe”. Gulliver’s role within the novel changes in relation to his surroundings and their inhabitants. He is a subject in Lilliput, a novelty in Brobdingnag, a tourist in the lands of Book 3 and a social inferior in the land of the Houyhnhnms. He is also a father and husband who leaves England “to get riches, whereby I might maintain myself and my family”. Gulliver’s relationship with the reader changes too, as he can be an informative narrator, an incompetent and comic figure, a mouthpiece for Swift or a trader and imperialist. His views are susceptible to change as Swift sought to satirise different targets. For example, Gulliver is the guardian of liberty when he refuses to assist in attacking Blefescu, but offers the King of Brobdingnag the secret of gunpowder so he can be “absolute master of the lives, the liberties, and the fortunes of his people” . Therefore, Gulliver cannot be read as a standard characterisation, but used a reference for comparison with his particular situation, enabling Swift to not only satirise contemporary society, but also to condemn man as an animal tending to corruption, pretension, oppression and avarice.
The consequences of trade are not a prominent target in Gulliver’s Travels, but the novel’s concerns arise out of a society that was increasingly being shaped on the potential benefits of trade. Questions of economic and moral good arose from the rise in trade, and writers engaged in a debate over how best to achieve both these goals. Standard economic thinking throughout the seventeenth-century was that the balance of trade should be engineered so that the maximum quantity of bullion flowed into the country and the least flowed out. This involved increasing domestic manufacture, limiting consumption and importing raw materials rather than consumable products. Consequently the role of traders and imperialists was to found colonies capable of producing capital in the form of currency or raw materials and creating new markets for English goods. Defoe devoted some of his time as a writer and thinker to economics and assumed that, in the words of Peter Earle, “more and bigger colonies were a good idea […] to provide much-needed strategic goods, but also to consume the products of England” .
The simple economic model of the previous century was continually expanding to appreciate the importance of investment in increasing production. This became evident as individual entrepreneurs, aiming to become wealthy, created wealth for others. Robinson Crusoe is an example of what Liz Bellamy describes as “the figure who was to become known as the capitalist […] These individuals began to be appreciated as essential to economic progress, rather then being represented as merely passive parasites” . Crusoe displays a pragmatic approach to his travels, taking opportunities as they arise. He is not content with simply accumulating the few ounces of gold he brings back from his first voyage, but aims to become an established trader in Guinea. After he is enslaved and escapes he finds himself in Brazil, where he raises capital by selling the skins of the animals he kills, the wax and guns he has stolen and, in the first example of treating non-Europeans as capital, his servant boy Xury. Once established in Brazil, Crusoe imports English ironwork and acquires a slave. His fortunes are in the ascent and even after over 20 years on his island he still laments the possibilities that eluded him; “I might have been worth an hundred thousand Moydors; and what Business had I to leave a settled Fortune, a well-stock’d Plantation, improving and encreasing, to turn Supra-Cargo to Guinea, to fetch Negroes” . In keeping with Defoe’s views on economic expansion, Crusoe turns his attentions to slave trading because as Earle observes, “In Defoe’s view of the world slavery was essential. Economic progress in England depended on the development of the American colonies” . The moral objections to slavery could be dismissed with the view that God had degraded natives and they were inherently subservient to White Man. Friday seems the model, in Defoe’s view, of a slave. He instantly understands his inferiority and shows unquestioning compliance with Crusoe’s wishes when he “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” . Whilst Crusoe is gratefully for Friday’s companionship, it is primarily his utility that he values. Almost immediately Crusoe ensures that he “made it my Business to teach him every Thing, that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful” .
Swift’s opposition to colonialism meant that it is the European Gulliver who becomes the object of slavery, either in the Lilliputian design to blind him and use him for labour or in his treatment by the farmer in Brobdingnag; “the more my master got by me, the more unsatiable he grew. I had quite lost my stomach, and was almost reduced to a skeleton”. Similarly, the Houyhnhnms are shocked by the use of horses in England where they are valued for their ability to labour after which they are disposed of and their bodies stripped for capital value. Gulliver comments on the Houyhnhnms’ response that “it is impossible to represent his noble resentment at our savage treatment” . Swift’s reversal of the common assumptions of nobility and savagery reveals that slavery was only possible when justified by a sense of moral superiority over colonial subjects, which was something he did not have. His anti-colonialism may have been centred on his Irish background, but there is no doubt that he abhorred the principles of economic necessity and moral superiority that underpinned the colonial mission.
One area of economic thought concerning trade that Swift and Defoe would have shared views on is the opposition to the consumption of luxuries. Not only did these products come from England’s trading rivals such as France, but they also diverted gold from the colonies and the pockets of the domestic poor. Such trade was therefore viewed as bad economic sense and morally subversive. If Crusoe is Defoe’s commercial archetype we can note that throughout the novel he reinvests his capital, lives a prudent lifestyle and moves bullion between colony and mother country, which encourages development in both. Gulliver openly attacks the luxurious and expensive tastes of the rich:
England (the dear place of my nativity) was computed to produce three times the quantity of food, more than its inhabitants are able to consume. […] in order to feed the luxury and intemperance of the males, and the vanity of the females, we sent away the greatest part of our necessary things to other countries, from whence in return we brought the materials of diseases, folly and vice, to spend among ourselves.
Trade meant that men travelled around the globe as never before and an exchange of goods ensured an exchange of culture. This is most clearly expressed in the Academy of Lagado, where there is a scheme to create a “universal language to be understood in all civilised nations, whose goods and utensils are generally of the same kind”. If goods and utensils were common internationally and were capable of expressing the meaning necessary for conducting business then the effect of trade on globalisation is evident in 1726.
If trade provided the need for colonies, then assumptions of racial and moral superiority justified them. Crusoe exhibits the confidence of the European coloniser in asserting his supremacy over the ‘Savages’ he encounters throughout his story. A glimpse of Africans is enough to petrify Crusoe, who classifies them below animals; “we should be devour’d by savage Beasts, or more merciless Savages of humane kind” . The prospect of meaningful interaction with them is not desirable for Crusoe, whose thoughts turn immediately to slaughter and enslavement when he sees humans for the first time on his island; “if there was twenty I should kill them all: This Fancy pleas’d my Thoughts for some Weeks” . This desire to kill and enslave is only made possible due to a martial superiority. It is Crusoe’s guns and his obsession with fortifying his property that allow him to confront and subject the native population. But such is Crusoe’s conviction of his right, he concludes that it is God who has armed him as a pious man confronted by degenerates, quoting as guidance “Call upon me in the Day of Trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me”. Swift’s scathing attack on colonialism in the final chapter of Gulliver’s Travels directly confronts this kind of colonialism; “free licence given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony sent to convert and civilise an idolatrous and barbarous people”. It is Gulliver that receives the uninformed classification that was conducted in European observations of native peoples. He is concluded to have fallen from the stars in Lilliput, to be a piece of clockwork in Brobdingnag and expresses “my uneasiness at his giving me so often the appellation of Yahoo”. When expressed by an English voice, this process of classification seems unjust and unwise, but for colonial subjects it served to justify their repression.
An important tool in this repression is the use of language. The first word Crusoe teaches Friday is ‘Master’, so that he can only express his servitude. This is directly reflected during Gulliver’s stay with the Houyhnhnms; “My principal endeavour was to learn the language which my master [… was] desirous to teach me”. Gulliver informs the reader that the Houyhnhnms had no words for “Power, government, war, law, punishment, and a thousand other things” , and this contributes to his ability to boast of having removed “that infernal habit of lying, shuffling, deceiving, and equivocating, so deeply rooted in the very souls of all my species, especially the Europeans”. For Friday, the principle use of his new language, after being able to understand instructions, is to read the Bible as part of his conversion to Christianity. As Defoe’s model colonial subject, Friday is thankful of his salvation and he becomes aware of the inferiority of his race;
I began to instruct him in the Knowledge of the true God […] and thus by Degrees I open’d up his Eyes. He listned with great Attention, and receiv’d with Pleasure the Notion of Jesus Christ being sent to redeem us[…] you teach wild Mans be good sober tame Mans; you tell them know God, pray God, and live new Life”
In a novel that presents itself as fact, this characterisation serves to reinforce the impression of the ‘Savage’ that it took from earlier tales and assumptions about natives. As a man of God, Swift may have wished to disassociate the spread of Christianity with the colonising mission, and although he does condemn the claim of land in the name of Princes by Divine Right, his opposition to colonialism avoids any criticism of the Church itself.
Crusoe often expresses the inherent nature of non-White Man being shaped by God as a form of punishment and he is grateful for not being similarly damned. However, Crusoe’s own religious conviction appears as a matter of expedience. Although he acknowledges his ignorance of God prior to his fever on the island, when he leaves it his mind and motivations turn to money and his plantations. In England, Crusoe’s life is expressed in financial terms where the generosity of merchants is more fateful than providence.
The assumptions of moral, religious and racial superiority act in Robinson Crusoe to justify the conduct of colonisers who seek to establish trade with England. These assumptions proved to be so convenient that they helped to form the corpus of ‘knowledge’ that subjected the non-European inhabitants of colonies to slavery and repression. Trade created a desire for wealth and the means of travel and conquest at the disposal of imperialists made that trade possible. Gulliver’s Travels presents a consistent attack on these assumptions and the form of writing that created them. Swift’s constantly changing angle of attack exposes the pretensions of Europeans and despairs at their inability to appreciate a common human fate. When considering what it would be like to be a Struldbrug, Gulliver is excited by the prospect of observing “Barbarity overrunning the politest nations, and the most barbarous become civilised” , which at a blow indicates that human existence is cyclic rather than dialectic. This acknowledges that no race or group has the right to suppress another and that the folly of mankind will ensure that poverty will follow wealth and oppression will follow liberty.
Bellamy, Liz. Commerce, Morality and the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1998
Bellamy, Liz. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.
Earle, Peter. The World of Defoe. Newton Abbot: Readers Union Group of Book Clubs, 1977.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Fabricant, Carole. ‘History, Narrativity, and Swift’s project to “Mend the World”‘, in Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Christopher Fox. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Hunter, J Paul. Before Novels. New York: Norton, 1990.
Novak, Maximillian. Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1993.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Signet Classic, 1999.
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