The Guardian • Issue #2067

Marx and Robinson Crusoe: British Imperialism and the slave trade

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel de Foe. Cover artist: A F Lydon.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel de Foe. Cover artist: A F Lydon. This edition published by Groombridge and Sons. Date Published circa 1865.

Marxist literary criticism explains a literary work, a novel, through an analysis of the human-social relationships which reflect the economic base of the story, rather than the social institutions from which they originate. It analyses the class division, racism, exploitation, alienation, and the means of production presented in the novel. The class struggle and the relations of production are the central instruments in this analysis. Culture is governed by historical conditions and the relations of dominance and subordination prevalent in the writer’s society. All cultural products, such as the novel, are directly related to the economic base of the society in which they are created.

Karl Marx outlines the historical process by which the means of production is concentrated in the hands of the Capitalist, leaving the workers no alternative but to sell their labour to the owners of the means of production. This wage labour force was created through the expropriation of the tenant farmer’s property and labour. At the same time, the genesis of industrial capitalism began with the looting of Africa, Asia, and the Americas by European Imperialism.

The Capitalist class to which Daniel Defoe belonged, was concerned with trade, entrepreneurship and colonial rule. The massive profits of the Transatlantic trade enriched mercantilists and the growing Capitalist class. Defoe invested £800 (his wife’s inheritance) in Britain’s Royal African Company, founded in 1672. He argued in his political pamphlets that slavery was an economic necessity for Britain and criticised those who would restrict the profitability of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1692, he was arrested for debts amounting to £17,000, forced to declare bankruptcy and sentenced to the debtors’ prison. Ironically, Defoe died in 1731 with little money, unlike his fictional character.

The Life and Adventure of Robinson Crusoe Written By Himself was published by Daniel Defoe in 1719. The novel was a political treatise, laying out the assumptions of the period: that the slave trade was acceptable under Christianity, because it makes the slave owner rich; women should be “proper for service” to their men; and the Indigenous people of the Americas were “savages.” The allegory of Robinson Crusoe provides the reader with an insight into the workings of the Transatlantic slave trade.

In Grundrisse (1857-1861) and volume one of Capital (1867) Marx describes Robinson Crusoe as a pre-capitalist, working within the early capitalist system and Imperialism, which Lenin argues is the highest stage of Capitalism. Without the Atlantic slave trade, Crusoe would have had no reason to leave England. That he was able to sail the Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of profit is because European shipping enabled the slave trade to function and prosper. Slavery financed the Atlantic Triangular Trade, the Middle Passage, with its trade in people, sugar and goods between Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and North America. Here was the origin of British Imperialism.

Robinson Crusoe begins with Crusoe’s capture off the Barbary Coast (Morocco). He spends two years as a slave. Crusoe escapes with Xury, whom he sells to a Portuguese sea captain for 60 Pieces of Eight (Spanish coins) to finance the purchase of a sugar plantation and two slaves in Brazil. As commodities slaves can be bought and sold, their potential labour supplied to the slave owner as a monetary value and future derived profit. In 1659 Crusoe joins merchants to buy slaves in Guinea (West Africa) and is marooned on a remote island near the mouth of the Orinoco River, now Trinidad and Tobago. When he sees Caribbean islanders, “cannibals,” he dreams “to make them entirely slaves to me.” The killing of the Indigenous “cannibals” and gaining a servant, Friday, is Crusoe’s rise to bourgeoisie individualism.

During Crusoe’s solitude his accumulated goods (gold, weapons and tools from the ship, his clothes and furnishings) have no monetary use value, nor exchange value, as there was no market for his commodities. It was only when he obtained the servant Friday, and later the Spaniards, that these goods attained value, with the creation of an economy. Crusoe uses force – his guns – to control the labour of others. He established a plantation and settler economy, such as was initiated by Capitalism in the colonies of the non-European world. Money and capital are social relations representing the social power over others.

In 1686, twenty-eight years after being marooned, Robinson is saved and the ship takes him to Brazil. The trustees of his plantation “had given in the account of the produce of my part of the plantation. He discovers he is a wealthy man, having accumulated £5,000 sterling and an estate worth a thousand pounds a year. He receives a very high rate of return on his initial capital of £40, a profit he had earned not through hard work, but by being part of the capitalist class in the Portuguese colony of Brazil.

The novel illustrates the economic background to colonialism and international trade. The story of Robinson Crusoe, is one of sovereignty, trade and slavery, and maintaining a Christian way of life through force of arms. Crusoe is punished by God for disobeying his parents, first becoming a slave and then stranded on a desolate island, where he reads his Bible daily. Crusoe becomes a land owner in Brazil and the master of an island, where he maintains an unequal structure and reward system established and maintained through force. Crusoe’s world is one of the structural violence of poverty, the symbolic socialisation of slavery and master, and physical violence, killing those who threaten his way of life.

Britain’s international trade is based on a division between the metropole and the periphery of Capitalism – England and the frontiers of the Americas and the Caribbean – between the colonisers and the colonised, the masters and the servants/slaves. Its relationship of capital to labour, is based on the bourgeoisie controlling the means of production and the labourers doing the work. Robinson Crusoe is a study in Capitalism.

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