Sort-of Based on a True Story: Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Dafoe based Robinson Crusoe’s survival on the genuine Alexander Selkirk and used the marooned privateer to add creditability and marketing to his novel. The story is almost entirely truth-based including Crusoe’s appearance, faith, and the fauna of the island, but does differ in dealing with the Spanish, his settlement of the island, and his liberation from the island and this fine line of truth and fiction allowed the novel to become the lasting work it is today.
Alexander Selkirk is the basis for Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe. “After an argument with the master over the seaworthiness of the ship Cinque Ports” (Burgess) Selkirk is marooned on his island, in contrast with Crusoe being stranded after a terrible storm en route to acquire slaves from Africa. Dafoe changed this to build rapport with his reader as Selkirk voluntarily went ashore while Crusoe was forced to survive by fate. While Crusoe thrived on an unidentifiable Caribbean Island in sight of the South American mainland, Selkirk survived “on the island of Mas a Tierra- now renamed Robinson Crusoe Island – part of the Juan Fernandez group 470 miles off Chile” (Burgess) in the South Pacific which has been confirmed by modern archeology. Although Crusoe foresaw himself a slave merchant, Selkirk, a Scottish sailor, privateered under the English flag, to harass French and Spanish ships.
The Spanish are also involved on both islands. Selkirk encountered the Spanish as they likely came to the island for fresh water and supplies. After viewing the shore in search of rescue, he noted the Spanish standard and immediately began running inland because “the Spanish never allowed sailors who’d seen their New World treasure ports to return home” (de Foy.) Fortunately for Selkirk he was not discovered and the Spanish soon sailed away. Crusoe, however, rescued and subjected a Spaniard and was willing to bring more under his domain. Defoe departed from Selkirk’s history to give Crusoe an air of superiority that reflected the British Empire by implying the notion that even a shipwrecked Englishman can spread the dominion of England while surviving tribulations.
Crusoe’s misfortune has a brilliant silver lining by his island being populated with feral goats to provide him with food and leather. Goats are not indigenous to either the Caribbean islands or the Juan Fernandez Island, but it is possible the previous sailors left behind enough goats, cats, and rats to populate the island as “ships had occasionally harbored at the island in the past” (de Foy) ahead of those destined to be marooned. Crusoe tames the local feline populace as well as goats, identical to Selkirk’s time on the Mas a Tierra. This animal husbandry that Crusoe masters elevates Dafoe’s imperialist message. Before taming the goats, both sailors hunted them, and Selkirk would “when his Powder fail’d, he took them by [speed] of foot” (Rogers) before later taming them. Although catching a goat on foot his quite impressive to a modern reader, contemporary people of the time would consider the idea of catching a wild animal by hand uncivilized and Dafoe removes this element from Crusoe’s story to continue the British ideal of dominance.
On the matter of liberation, Crusoe continues this ideal of mastery of his misfortune by saving an English captain of mutineers. While this fiction is wholly entertaining, it is a large separation from Selkirk’s rescue and Dafoe took notice. Rogers landed at the island to take in supplies and his men returned “with a Man cloth’d in Goat-skins, who looked wilder than the [first] Owners of them” (Rogers). This powerful image captivated audiences and Dafoe was sure to use it directly in the novel as Crusoe’s attire and as the cover art for his work.
A second large import from Selkirk to Dafoe’s fiction is the pastime of the two stranded sailors: reading the bible. After Selkirk completed his tasks for the day, he “employ’d [himself] in reading, [singing psalms], and praying; [for] that he [said] he was a better Christian while in this Solitude than ever he was before, or than, he was afraid, he [should] ever be again” (Rogers). Crusoe is equally attracted to religion and even converts Friday, an indigenous cannibal who becomes Crusoe’s first subject. While Selkirk certainly read his bible to cure his loneliness, Dafoe uses Crusoe to continue the idea of an Englishman surviving with nothing but his strength and his bible, notwithstanding sheer luck. This strength and will to survive lead Crusoe to become one of the most popular works of fiction in the 18th century.
Part of the success to Dafoe’s work is the claim that is was a true autobiography and this continued to push sales. This isn’t the first assertion of truth, but “the strategy of Defoe’s prefaces and their insistence on the ‘factuality’ of the spurious autobiographies they purport to introduce is well known. It was a marketing ploy which seems to have worked.” (Downie) People of the day entertained the idea, whether fact or fiction, that a man could certainly survive and thrive for three decades. It was a new form of entertainment, and Dafoe’s thesis, a novel, capitalizes well on exploiting “contemporary uncertainty about fact and fiction” (Downie). An additional connection to his successful work is that “Dafoe’s narratives had captured a market for ‘authentic’ rather than” (Downie) unbelievable fiction. Using a believable narrative, a catching image, the English Imperialist mindset, and a market ready for such a work, Dafoe struck the same luck as the character of his famous novel.
Defoe struck literature fame by using Selkirk’s survival as the frame for Crusoe, embellishing the facts that he felt would add to believability and subduing, or removing entirely, facts that did not fit the narrative of British Imperialism well. This mixture of fact and fiction, with a claim of authenticity, allowed the novel to become famous and lasting.
Burgress, Kaya. “Found at Last … Camp of the Real Robinson Crusoe.” The Times 31 Oct. 2008. Web. 15 Sept. 2014. Web.
De Foy, Karen. “A Man Cloth’d in Goat-Skins.” Cricket Jan. 2012: 18-22. Web.
Downie, J.A. “Mary Davys’s ‘Probable Feign’d Stories’ and Critical Shibboleths about ‘The Rise of the Novel’.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Reconsidering the Rise of the Novel. Ed. David Blewitt. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 2000. 309-326. Print.
Literature with a Laugh. 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.wepsite.de/literature_with_a_laugh(6), Robinson Crusoe(1).htm>.
Rogers, Woodes. A Cruising Voyage around the World: First to the South-seas, Thence to the East-Indies, and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708, and Finished in 1711. Containing a Journal of All the Remarkable Transactions; Particularly of the Taking of Puna and Guiaquil, of the Acapulco Ship, and Other Prizes; an Account of Alexander Selkirk’s Living Alone Four Years and Four Months in an Island; and a Brief Description of Several Countries in Our Course Noted for Trade, Especially in the South-Sea. With Maps of All the Coast, from the Best Spanish Manuscripts Draughts. And an Introduction Relating to the South-sea Trade. London: Bell and Lintot, 1712. Print.