Why I Am a Christian

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Robinson Crusoe's Anonymous Friends

     They didn't go in for dramatic book titles in the old days. For example, if I had written a novel about a man who spent twenty-eight years alone on a desert island, I would probably have given it a title which would leap out at you from the book stand, like "Castaway!", or "The Island of Despair", or even "28 Years Alone on a Desert Island". Instead, in 1719 Daniel Defoe attached to his novel the title, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of  Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner. Admittedly, the title was then followed by what can only be called a blurb, detailing what it was all about. Then, at a time before mass communication and mass marketing, based solely on word of mouth advertising, it became a runaway best seller, and has never been out of print. Not only that, within three months he had produced a sequel, which is little read today because, basically, it reads like a sequel which has been run up in just three months in order to make money.
    Personally, I have read the original novel three times, and the sequel once, and I have noticed something peculiar about them. Defoe does not provide names for the other key characters. What's that you say? There are no other key characters except Man Friday. If that's what you think, then you haven't read the book.
     First of all, the book starts with his birth in York, but we are not told the names of his parents. Strictly speaking, of course, they are not relevant to the plot, and I seldom mention my own family in my blogs. A couple of pages from the end, when he had returned home, he mentioned that he had got married and sired three children - without providing any names. Again, it is is not relevant to the plot, but one might note that Gulliver at least told us the name of the bride he took when he got tired of wandering.
     However, his adventures start very early in the book, when he runs away to sea at the age of nineteen, and narrowly avoids being drowned when his ship sinks on his first voyage. You would think that a sailor who suffered such an experience would have the name of the ship permanently in his memory, and would readily cite it in his mémoires. Not so!
     On his second voyage he prospers, but his captain dies. We are not told his name, but Crusoe does leave his possessions in safekeeping with the captain's widow, and this becomes very important later on. On his third voyage his ship is captured by Barbary pirates, and he is sold into slavery in Morocco. How could a sailor not mention the name of the ship which led him to such a disaster? Neither does he mention the name of his master. Perhaps Defoe did not know any Moroccan names, but I don't think that was the real reason. Crusoe manages to make an escape on a small boat, with only an Arab boy as companion. At last, a name! The boy is called Xury. Even allowing for the "x" bearing the Portuguese pronunciation of "sh", this doesn't sound like a Moroccan name to me, but at least the author got it from somewhere.
     Eventually, in mid-ocean they are rescued by a Portuguese ship, whose name he does not mention. The captain of this ship plays a very important part in the novel. He is generous to a fault, and sets him up financially in Brazil, and even arranges for him some investments in England. Such a great benefactor he proved to be that, at the end of Crusoe's long absence as a castaway, he went out of his way to look him up in Lisbon. But we are never told his name. Perhaps Defoe didn't know any Portuguese names, but it wouldn't have been difficult to find some.
    Crusoe buys a plantation in Brazil. Now at last we come to another name, for his neighbour and soon-to-be partner is a Portuguese of English parents called Wells. Next comes the crucial element in the story: the slave buying expedition which leads to his becoming the sole survivor of a shipwreck, followed by twenty-eight years on a desert island, using only the materials which he has been able to strip from the wreck. Wouldn't you think he'd tell us the name of the ship?
    During his lonely vigil on the island Man Friday is not his sole companion. Towards the very end he manages to save Friday's father and a Spaniard - anonymous, of course - from cannibals. His escape from the island involves a complicated series of adventures involving a mutiny, the rescue of the captain and loyal crew, and the overpowering of the mutineers, a couple of whom are actually named. But the name of the ship and its captain which return him to civilisation are not given.
    Back in England, he finds that the captain's widow, now widowed a second time, with whom he had entrusted his money and investments, was still alive and still holding on to his property for him. He knew exactly where to find her, but he never deigns to mention her name.
    What did Daniel Defoe have against names? Mind you, there are other things most readers probably notice. It describes a time more callous than our own. The fact that some of the mutineers are flogged and "pickled" ie had salt or brine rubbed into their wounds, receives only a casual mention, as if it were all routine. Perhaps it was. So is the fact that, in Brazil, he buys a slave and a couple of indentured white labourers. But the supreme irony is that the author sees nothing untoward in his protagonist being wrecked on a slave buying expedition when he himself had previously escaped from slavery.
     But the days of the slave trade were full of such ironies. In 1724, a Dutch slaver called the Keyserinne Elizabeth set out for Africa, only to be taken by Barbary pirates, and the crew of a hundred sold in Algiers. Likewise, Robert Drury was wrecked on Madagascar in 1703, where he lived for fifteen years as the white slave of the black Malagasies - until he was taken home by a British slaver! Ironically, it appears Daniel Defoe assisted him in writing his mémoires.