Robinson Crusoe, colonizer or pioneer of change?
Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe stormed the world with a spirit of adventure new to its era, quickly becoming a classic piece of European literature that even today grasps the attention of both young and old. The tale, as told by a shipwrecked man on his own on an isolated island, allows us to vicariously experience an excitement and discovery that almost does not exist in our modern world, and is surely a large factor in the novel's popularity. At the same time, the book offers an entire other side of depth to a more mature level of reading; behind the adventure, there is much to delve into, both historically, socially and literarily, including aspects such as imperialism, colonialism, slavery and religion. This paper will discuss some of these ways of analyzing the book in historical context, comparing it with other works relevant to the time period and the changes that took place. The time period that both Defoe and his character Robert Crusoe (the story is set to before Dafoe’s own lifetime) lived in was that of expansion and exploration, where the still unknown areas of the world were being discovered. Consequently, it was also one of colonization and imperialism, where the major European countries of the time – England, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal - extended their power by taking over these newly discovered lands in the name of nationalism and God. The goal of expansion became an obsession and the colonizing countries fought amongst themselves for leverage and land. The greed and lust for more power drove many of the settlers and military occupants to exhibit horrible atrocities towards the local inhabitants, atrocities that eventually surfaced and created a need for explanation and mass acceptance. The ruling powers thus set in motion a system of propaganda that painted the natives of these colonies as uncivilized savages in order to stagger the opposition and doubters. While it would seem that Europeans were naturally attracted to, or able to, see the beauty of these darker complexions, their fine physiques and cleanly ways, any such admiration was quickly hushed when the darkness of their skin was explained as being a trait of their evil, hellish nature . This set them naturally apart from the purity of the white man, even to the extent that they were labeled as animals or the missing link between humans and beasts . Based on the way history unfolded, one can only say that this way of thinking made sense to the majority of commoners at the time; the strongest should rule, through the will of nature and more importantly God. It was seen as the white man’s burden to take these creatures under tow and guide them onto the path of Christianity. As described by a noble white woman by the name of Janet Schaw, in response to the flogging of slaves: “…when one comes to be better acquainted with the nature of the Negroes, the horrour of it must wear off” . Yet by carefully analyzing the literature and dramatic works of the era, we can see a parallel development of doubt, morality and soul searching. Even the world of science was trying to prove or disprove how true claims of Africans being a completely other race were. Aside from the slave issue, the age of Imperialism was an age most volatile and uncertain for the West, but even more so for the colonized natives. Vast empire building, expansion and extensive trade-routes were exposing the west to new cultures and eventually new ways of thinking, creating the conflicts and challenges that brought about change. The colonized had little experience in dealing with the hostility presented to them by the English and other armies, leaving them with little choice but to succumb to foreign control and occupation. Some natives would adapt to the new situation, like the characters Oronooko, Friday and Othello, but others proved to be more unruly like Caliban. Travel literature about the West’s dealings with the colonized...
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