What I did not know about Robinson Crusoe (and suspect you don’t either)

Posted February 16th, 2011 by

In advance of our trip to Tobago last month, my writing partner Sharon Morgan mentioned that author Daniel Defoe used the island as his model for the one upon which Robinson Crusoe had been shipwrecked. I checked the audio version out from our library and put it on my iPod. It took a couple weeks–its a long book–and I finished it on our flight from New York to Tobago.

I anticipated enjoying a classic adventure yarn; one I had never read. Crusoe is considered a literary landmark; the first novel of realistic fiction, published in 1719. I’d seen a version of the movie a few decades ago and knew the basic story. As the result of a great storm, a sailor is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. He survives exposure, wild animals, and occasional visits by cannibals for many years. At some point, one of the victims of the cannibals escapes when Crusoe attacks them. Crusoe names him Friday. Together they survive several more years before being rescued.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that several important points of Defoe’s story were missing from my knowledge bank. Robinson Crusoe was a slave-trader. I had no idea. I asked several friends if they knew this and so far they’ve all said they didn’t know it either. Apparently there have been abridged versions of the book that reduced the significance of this aspect of the story. I know for a fact that various film versions reduce or eliminate this key feature of the story.

Crusoe was also enslaved for a time until he escaped from his owner/captor. He then leaves Europe on a ship bound for Brazil, where he eventually becomes the owner of a plantation and several enslaved Africans. When fellow plantation owners ask him–based on his extensive experience and knowledge–to help them sail to Africa to bring back more slaves to help increase their success and wealth, Crusoe agrees. It was on that voyage from Brazil to West Africa that they encountered a huge storm which destroyed the ship and killed everyone on board but one.

It’s also a story of deep religious conversion and conviction as Crusoe is convinced that his being shipwrecked is God’s punishment for his sinful past.

I’m glad I listened to it rather than read it. The 300-year old language was a joy to hear. I’m not so sure it would have been as pleasurable to read.

While in Tobago, Sharon, Lindi, and I took a tour of the island. I asked Keino, our excellent guide, about Crusoe. He drove us to the home of a friend of his near Crown Point where “Crusoe’s Cave” is located. I climbed down the steps and crawled into the small cave. Though Defoe’s tale is fiction, I could imagine Crusoe hiding out in the cave to protect himself from the cannibals. It was worth our time. When you go to Tobago, be sure to call Keino to be your taxi driver and tour guide. He knows the island well and will make sure you enjoy your time there.

And if you haven’t read it (whether you’re heading for the Caribbean or not) I highly recommend Robinson Crusoe — the unabridged version.

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