Crusoe’s Colonialism: The Subtext of Slave/Master Interactions
Given the publication date of Robinson Crusoe, it comes as no surprise that it is a largely racist work. Ethnic groups are frequently painted as barbaric savages by the narrator, for example. Robinson’s interactions with one character in particular, however, provide a great deal of insight into the colonial process. Robinson Crusoe’s relationship with his servant Friday serves as an allegory for British imperialists disrupting other cultures and civilizing them.
This relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is illustrated when Robinson Crusoe first saves Friday from being killed. In the text, Friday “laid his Head upon the Ground, and taking me by the foot, set my Foot upon his head” (Defoe 147). This serves as a fitting illustration of the situation. Here, the white man keeps the minority group down, quite literally. Robinson, the colonizer, is clearly in charge.
It is hugely important that Robinson Crusoe chooses to name his servant “Friday.” Robinson ostensibly names him for “the Day I sav’d his Life” (Defoe 149). Interestingly, he chooses a name from Western culture. People indigenous to the island do not plan their lives according to the same seven-day week schedule used in England. So, even the assigned name reflects Robinson’s eagerness to rub English habits and norms off on his servant. In a sense, Robinson has created a new identity for the servant. After being labeled, Friday must live life answering to a name that has roots in English-speaking culture. It is noteworthy that Friday is named for a thing rather than an actual person. This further contributes to the overall dehumanization of the servant. Brett McInelly comments on this in the article “Expanding Empires, Expanding Selves: Colonialism, the Novel, and Robinson Crusoe,” stating that “Crusoe’s tendency to imagine and create through language his own reality reveals something of the nature of colonialism in general, namely, that it involves an assembly of images and cultural constructs, as well as material practices and circumstances” (McInelly 5).
A scene follows in which Robinson tries to rid Friday of his cannibalistic tendencies. Friday wants to dig up corpses and eat them, and Robinson “appear’d very angry, express’d my Abhorrence of it, made as if I would vomit at the Thought of it” (Defoe 149). Robinson’s fixed mindset regarding the customs of others is a classic example of colonial ethnocentrism. Rather than gradually weaning Friday of his lifelong habits, Robinson is extremely quick to change his servant’s cultural values. The strong words in this passage such as “Abhorrence” and “vomit” definitely display his immense hatred for the customs of the indigenous people (Defoe 149). The force at work here is peer pressure. The colonizer is discouraging Friday by making him feel self-conscious. This passage also demonstrates just how thorough and all-encompassing colonial rule can be. Even the diet of the colonized comes under scrutiny.
Soon after, Robinson Crusoe dresses Friday in new clothes. Robinson makes these clothes, fancying himself “a tolerable good Taylor” (Defoe 150). Robinson notes that Friday “was mighty well pleas’d to see himself almost as well cloath’d as his Master” (Defoe 150). To Friday, the clothes are “very awkward” and “they hurt him” at first, but soon “he took to them very well” (Defoe 150). This event serves as another example of Robinson stripping Friday of his individuality and his identity. It is an important component of expansion and colonialism that the native should be grateful for what they do. Of course Robinson would tell himself that Friday is happy to look this way. To Robinson, people should feel grateful to look like the typical idea of civilized, English people. It is important to note that Friday’s transition to comfort in western styles of clothing is painful at first. We never get to hear things from Friday’s perspective, but the implication is that the transition to western clothing is painful in a physical and an emotional way, since the awkwardness and pain is obvious to Robinson. This shows that Robinson perceives Friday’s pain, but has no regrets about causing it. The colonization techniques employed in Robinson Crusoe are borderline sociopathic.
Robinson flatters himself as the noble white person imparting favors on the savage people. For example, Robinson states that Friday’s “Affections were ty’d to me, like those of a Child to a Father” (Defoe 151). Robinson is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to see this relationship for what it really is—a stifling relationship between a slave and a master. As McInelly points out in his article, “Crusoe’s tendency to imagine himself in grandiose terms replicates something of what was occurring in the culture at large in the early eighteenth century” (McInelly 5).
During Robinson’s discussion of his attempts to convert Friday to Christianity, his language is incredibly hateful. Robinson compares the natives of the area to “the most blinded ignorant Pagans in the World” and states that their religion is a “Fraud” (Defoe 157). The narrow-minded Robinson states that his religion consists of “Knowledge of the true God” (Defoe 156). The brand of colonialism at work is the product of a fixed mindset. Robinson has no desire to understand Friday and to appreciate his beliefs fully. Robinson’s colonialism is racist and stubborn, not gradual and welcoming. Not only is his word choice hateful, it is also condescending. During this scene, Robinson frequently refers to Friday as a “poor Savage” and a “poor ignorant Creature,” thereby contributing further to the constant dehumanization of Friday (Defoe 158). Robinson views Friday as less of a person because he does not fit into this idealized civil paradigm.
From Robinson’s harsh language to the thorough changes in Friday’s life, these characters and these scenarios serve as an allegory of the colonial process. Robinson represents the discriminatory colonist, and Friday represents enslaved natives without identity. These interactions show that the colonialist process is psychologically brutal and relentless.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. Print.
McInelly, Brett C. “Expanding Empires, Expanding Selves: Colonialism, The Novel, And Robinson Crusoe.” Studies In The Novel 35.1 (2003): 1-21. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 30 Aug. 2014.
This Island Rod: 2014. Web. 28 September 2014. http://thisislandrod.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-adventures-of-robinson-crusoe-1954.html