Robinson Crusoe Without the Whitewash

My recollections of the 20th-century film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe don’t include slavery. In the source material our hero is on a ship taken by Moorish “pirates” and he is made a slave.

(Pirates in quotes because they’re just doing the same shit as the Europeans.)

But slavery’s not so very bad, right?

While the rest of the crew is sent off God-knows-where, our narrator enjoys a fairly benign period of servitude. He’s technically a slave, but the degradation is absent. It’s just an involuntary job that Robbie executes well, and he is never beaten to an inch of his life, or raped, or humiliated in any of a thousand ways for the pleasure of someone else.

Then there is the escape. A pretty easy escape, really, but let’s just allow that literature was young and even the greats back then leaned on the gullibility of the bad guys. Crusoe escapes with another young slave named Xury who immediately becomes Robbie’s sidekick and biggest fan.

Free! Except of course they are on the open sea in a small boat and that is not sustainable. They have a few adventures along the shore, proving both the power of gunpowder and the stupidity of a hungry European deciding that lions aren’t fit to eat. Xury shows bravery and resourcefulness, and they continue to survive.

More than once, Crusoe said he was heading “south and east”. I checked the map, checked it again, and that just doesn’t work. South and east puts him right ashore. Which is weird, because otherwise Defoe’s descriptions of the geography are accurate.

As Crusoe is heading down the African coast bearing south and west, he reaches a point where Dakar now sits, thrusting out into the ocean. It is here that Robbie and his crew of one spot the sails of a Portuguese (slave) ship. They risk everything to give chase and attract the attention of the men on the ship, and eventually they are rescued.

The Portuguese captain is impressed with Crusoe’s little boat, and offers a nice chunk of cash for it. The captain is also impressed with Crusoe’s sidekick Xury, and offers almost as much for the kid as he did for the boat.

Before I tell you Crusoe’s response to that offer, let’s review. Crusoe has been a slave. He and the kid gained their freedom together, and have struggled together to stay alive. They have been partners, and Xury has shown some moxie in the process. Safe to say, without Xury, Crusoe would have died.

Yeah, you got it. Robbie sells his sidekick — but with a caveat! If the kid accepts Christianity he will only be a slave for ten years.

Well, all right then. I guess that makes it OK.

It was a different time. I get it. Slavery was to maritime trade what porn is to the Internet: The thing no one wants to talk about that funds the rest. But while Robinson Crusoe’s fortunes seem to be rising at this point in the narrative, I just don’t like the guy. Not at all.

I think the writer, Defoe, at a gut level, realized that his main guy was being a complete asshole. Friends don’t sell friends. So in the end Defoe (the writer) compels Xury himself to agree to the terms of the deal, where Crusoe (the character) could not consummate the deal alone without moral compromise. But if it was Xury’s choice, then he should have been the one to get paid.

In my previous episode about this story, I remarked on the lack of visceral detail during the scary times. Perhaps it’s this same detachment that allows Robinson to fucking sell his friend. Perhaps Crusoe doesn’t actually feel anything. That would explain a lot.

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