British Elitism and Imperialism in “She” and “Robinson Crusoe”
Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and H. Rider Haggard’s “She” are not simply comparable in their elaborate tales of adventure, but also in their underlying themes of English imperialism and racial superiority. Published in 1719,” Robinson Crusoe” recounts the shipwreck and isolation of Crusoe as he learns to survive while retaining his British identity. Written over a century later, “She” follows the journey of Horace Holly and his companions as they similarly find themselves shipwrecked on the coast of Africa as they encounter the barbaric Amahagger people and their queen Ayesha. Although written decades apart, their similar underlying themes provide substantial insight into Britain’s ideas of elitism and expansion.
Throughout both adventures we see multiple occasions in which the protagonists flaunt their British superiority. Both Holly and Crusoe make appoint to declare the ethnicity of the people that surround them on their journey, while usually admiring other Englishmen. “Just then Job came up, looking very stout and English in his shooting-suit of brown flannel, and with a sort of perplexed appearance upon his honest face that had been very common with him since he got into these strange waters” (Haggard 57). Similarly, Crusoe states, “I had a neighbor, a Portugueze of Lisbon, but born of English Parents, whose Name was Wells, and in much such Circumstances as I was. I call him my neighbor, because his Plantation lay next to mine, and we went on very sociably together” (Defoe 27). These quotes depict the characters’ staunch English prudery and their belittling views of other ethnic groups. Holly’s description of Job’s outfit as “stout and English” next to his description of the waters being “strange” reveals his superior view of his British identity.
Holly believes these waters to be strange simply because they are not British, and must then reassure the reader that the people aboard the ship are oppositely very British in lineage and appearance. Likewise, Crusoe finds himself aboard a ship of Europeans, many who speak other languages than he, but befriends Wells because he was “born to English parents” and like Crusoe owns a plantation. It is apparent that English ancestry holds critical importance in the mind of Crusoe, especially because he refrains from befriending others aboard the ship including the French and Spanish men. It is here that we see Crusoe’s English snobbery through his declaration of Wells’ English parentage before mentioning that they went on sociably together.
Ideas of imperialism can also be seen in both texts although somewhat differently. Crusoe, although stranded on a deserted island, continually projects English imperialist ideology. “My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked…I was absolute lord and lawgiver, they all owed their lives to me, and were ready to lay down their lives, if there had been occasion of it, for me” (174). On the other hand, we see imperialist ideas in the character Ayesha who is the white skinned queen, resembling Queen Victoria, ruling over the dark skinned Amahagger people.
While Crusoe demonstrates the idea of British expansion and colonization in other areas of the world and upholding English ideology, Ayesha alludes to the expansion of the British Empire in Africa under the rule of Queen Victoria specifically. These two stories accurately represent the prudish ideology of the English Empire, and like most works of literature written at the time, contain undercurrents of English superiority and expansion.
Defoe, Daniel, and Michael Shinagel. Preface. Robinson Crusoe: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1994. 3. Print
Haggard, H. Ridder. She. Ed. Patrick Brantlinger. London: Penguin, 2001. print