Was Robinson Crusoe based on a real person?

A statue of Robinson Crusoe in Scotland

There are some literary characters that become part of the culture and have entered the popular imagination. A select few fictional personages have achieved great fame and even mythic status. One of these is Robinson Crusoe, the hero of an eponymous set of novels. This character has inspired many other literary works, many movies and there is even an island named after the hero of the great survival story.

It is still a popular favorite with children and those who simply love a good yarn. However, the figure of Robinson Crusoe is widely believed to have been based on a real historical figure. In this article, there is a discussion about the author who created the memorable hero, his adventures and the likely models for the immortal literary creation.


The man who created Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe

The author, who created the memorable character, led a life that was almost as colorful as Robinson Crusoe’s adventures. Daniel Defoe was born into a humble family in London in 1660. He was educated in a private school and later became an entrepreneur but went bankrupt. Defoe traveled widely in Europe. The writer was very interested in politics and he became embroiled in the bitter political battles of the Tories and the Whigs. Defoe was a supporter of the Tories and he wrote several pamphlets in support of their conservative policies.[1] He wrote a great many works that attacked Christians who were not members of the Church of England and foreigners.

In 1713, Defoe's polemics led to his imprisonment and being sentenced to the pillory. This punishment meant that he was placed in a wooden framework with holes for the head and hands and members of the public pelted him with rotten fruit and garbage. However, this made him a hero in the eyes of many Tories. Later Defoe became a spy for the leader of the Tory faction. Later in life when the Tories fell from power he began to work with the Whigs’ and he seemed to have been a double agent.

After 1714, Defoe began to concentrate more on his creative writings and less on his journalism.[2] In 1719, he wrote Robinson Crusoe, and this was a great success, so much so that he wrote a sequel a few years later. Defoe was an important figure in the development of the English novel. Among the other important novels that he wrote was Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724). He was a prolific author and was popular with the public, but he was always in debt and several times he was sent debtors’ prison. Defoe died in 1731.

The adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

Defoe wrote two novels about the life and adventures of Robinson Crusoe, who is the narrator of the story. He tells the reader that he was the headstrong younger son of an affluent family. Crusoe longs for adventure and he goes to sea, despite his parents’ objections. During a storm in the Caribbean, he is shipwrecked and is the only survivor. He narrates how he was washed up on an island in the Caribbean. Crusoe manages to salvage some items from the ship and his only companions are his dog and a goat he has tamed. He is able to become self-sufficient on the island.

However, he discovers, after 25 years to his horror that cannibals use a beach on the island for the ritual murder and eating of their victims. One day one of the cannibals’ prisoners who is going to be killed and eaten manages to escape. Crusoe saves him and decides to use him as his servant and he calls him Friday, after the day he first met him.

Later the Englishman teaches him English and converts him to Christianity.[3] Crusoe later ambushes a part of cannibals who are going to eat and kill the father of Friday. Some 28 years after he was shipwrecked, the sailor is rescued and returns to England. In a sequel, the former castaway is living on a small farm and is married. Defoe describes him as being depressed and missing his ‘island’. After his wife dies, the former sailor returns to his island with Friday, once more. During a voyage, Friday is shot and killed by an arrow fired by a cannibal. Later Crusoe travels to Madagascar, China, and Siberia. After ten years of travels, he returns to London.

The literary antecedents of Robinson Crusoe

Every author is part of a literary tradition and none can escape the influence of their peers and predecessors. There was a long-established genre in the literature concerning the adventures of shipwrecked individuals. In the 12th century, an Arab novelist Ibn Tufail wrote a philosophical novel, entitled The Self-Taught Philosopher. This novel narrates the life and the development of a young man who grows to manhood isolated from society. It portrays how he came to become a philosopher by imitating nature and animals. This book is somewhat similar to Robinson Crusoe who also becomes wise and philosophical after he is marooned on the island.

In the 17th century, the Spanish priest Balthasar Gracian wrote another philosophical novel also narrating the spiritual growth and development of a man stranded on an island.[4] This work was also translated into English in the 1680s and Defoe may have read it. Contemporary critics noted the similarities between the hero of the Spanish novel and Robinson Crusoe. Another possible influence on Defoe in the development of his most famous creation was Puritan spiritual literature. Robinson Crusoe develops spiritually on the island and this is similar to the characters in spiritual autobiographies. The creator of Robinson Crusoe was, it should be noted from a family with Puritan leanings.[5]

The Spanish Robinson Crusoe

Reputedly in the sixteenth century, during the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean and South America, a sailor by the name of Pedro Luis Serrano was shipwrecked, sometime in 1528. Most likely he was stranded on an island off Columbia and this uninhabited island has become known as Serrano Bank. The Spanish sailor was all alone on a desert island and he had no fresh water. Somehow he managed to survive by fishing and drinking the blood of birds and small animals. Miraculously he survived for an astonishing eight years. But this took a terrible toll on the Spaniard and he was quite mad by the time he was rescued. However, there is some debate as to whether or not Serrano was a historical figure.[6]

English rebel

Research in recent years has yielded another potential candidate for the model of Robinson Crusoe. One possible model for the most famous castaway in the history of literature was the rebel and surgeon Henry Pitman. He was the personal physician of the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II. The Duke launched a rebellion against the pro-Catholic James II and in order to claim the Throne of England. Pitman took part in the rebellion but after Monmouth’s defeat at Sedgemoor, he was captured and transported to a penal colony in the Caribbean. Pitman was able to escape from the colony, but during his escape, he was shipwrecked. For a period of time, he was stranded on a desert island.[7]

However, he was fortunate to be rescued and eventually after the Revolution of 1688 and the deposition of James II, he was able to return to London, and was pardoned. Pitman published a book on his adventures and this was quite popular. It is believed that Defoe may have lived in the same area as him and may even have met the former castaway.[8]

Robert Knox- captive in Ceylon

Another possible candidate for the Robert Knox (1641 – 1720) was an English sea captain in the service of the British East India Company. He served with his father on a ship that voyaged to the East Indies. However, on their return journey, their ship was damaged in a storm and was forced to dock in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). Robert Knox, his father and the rest of the crew were invited to the court of the King of Ceylon. However, one of the Englishmen, possibly the young Robert Knox, offended the monarch and he refused them permission to leave his island-kingdom.

For some 16 years, Robert Knox was confined to Ceylon and became a peddler to survive. During this time his father died. Knox was able to escape when he made his way to a Dutch trading post and from here he made his way to modern Jakarta. Then he returned to England and published a book about his adventures and became a captain with the East Indies Company.[9]

Alexander Selkirk

Selkirk was born in Scotland in 1676 and he was the son of a craftsman. He became an apprentice, but this was not to his liking and he ran off to sea. He led a very colorful life and he was a rather headstrong and independent figure. He was a sailor and was even a pirate for a period of time. During a voyage to the Pacific, he argued with the captain. There are two versions of what happened next. In one account the captain stranded Selkirk on a desert island in the Pacific. In another account, Selkirk believing that the ship was not seaworthy asked to be put ashore on the island. This was uninhabited, but Selkirk was able to survive. He was able to use some wild goats for food and even made clothes from their hides. Selkirk was also able to fish and even planted some crops.

The Scot was able to live quite comfortably, until he was rescued by a passing British pirate ship, after surviving 4 years and 4 months on the island. He later became a British captain and died on a voyage to Africa.[10] There are many similarities between Selkirk and Crusoe. Defoe seemed to have used many of the details of the Scots experiences on the desert island. However, there are also some important differences. Selkirk did not have a servant, called Man Friday and indeed was completely alone. Then the Scot was stranded on an island in the Pacific while Crusoe was marooned on one in the Caribbean.[11]

Conclusion

Robison Crusoe is an iconic character. The book is still much-loved, and it is the second most translated work apart from the Christian Bible in the world. The immortal character is one that continues to capture the imagination of both children and adults. Defoe appears to have based the character on Selkirk. There are very many similarities between the Scot and the eponymous hero of one of the first English novels. This is the popular view and it is at least partly right. There was no one model for the character who was stranded on a desert island. Defoe was a famously taciturn man, after all, he had been a spy, and did not state who was his model for Robinson Crusoe.

Based on an analysis of the two Crusoe novels it appears that there were many figures who inspired the writer. It appears that Serrano, Knox, and Pitman, and their adventures all helped to inspire the creation of famous castaway, and there may even have been others. There is also the possibility that Defoe may have been influenced by novels and even travelogues when writing his most successful work. To conclude it seems that the Robinson Crusoe was not based on a single figure but is a composite of several other real-life castaways.

Further Reading

Ellis, Frank H., and Frank Hale Ellis, eds. Twentieth-century interpretations of Robinson Crusoe: a collection of critical essays (London, Prentice-Hall, 1969).

Green, Martin. "The Robinson Crusoe Story." In Imperialism and juvenile literature. (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2017).

Richetti, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to ‘Robinson Crusoe' (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018).

References

  1. Novak, Maximillian E. Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas (Oxford, Oxford, University Press, 2001), pp 45-85
  2. Novak, p 324
  3. Novak, p. 451
  4. Van Duzer, Chet. "From Odysseus to Robinson Crusoe: a survey of early western island literature." Island Studies Journal 1, no. 1 (2006): 143-162
  5. Fishelov, David. "Dialogues with/and great books: With some serious reflections on Robinson Crusoe." New Literary History 39, no. 2 (2008): 335-353
  6. Simpson, Lesley Byrd (1929), "The Spanish Crusoe, 1528-1536", The Hispanic American Historical Review, 9 (3): 368–376
  7. Severin, Tim In search of Robinson Crusoe (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 101
  8. Severin, p 78
  9. Severin, p 117
  10. Severin, p 119
  11. Green, Martin. "The Robinson Crusoe Story." In Imperialism and juvenile literature. (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2017), pp 67-69