|Published in April 2019 to mark the 300th anniversary of the first publication of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.
To legitimise and maintain their hierarchy, tribes worship ancestors, looking back more than around or forward. How far back? Three hundred years, say: look through a telescope, back through the smoke of industry and the blood of empire, and you see a white man, no woman in sight, building a wall and training a black man to be a servant.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, recounting the adventures of a man who traded in slaves and despised women and was good at DIY, was first published in 1719. The novel became a mainstay of children’s literature and was incorporated into an educational system designed to promote imperialist ambitions.
Good Morning, Mr Crusoe looks back to boys’ boarding schools in the 1960s, surveys Crusoe’s fictional descendants in a range of 20th-century novels, and questions the sacred status of Eng Lit. The legacy of Defoe’s novel: racism and misogyny embedded in the fabric of British society.
‘Exactly 300 years ago, in April 1719, Robinson Crusoe was published. Given the national nervous breakdown we are living through, literary anniversaries are easily overlooked, but Jack Robinson has remembered his namesake’s birthday and in this cheeky polemical essay he celebrates it with a vengeance …
‘The novelty here is the way Jack Robinson uses Crusoe to analyse the mad act of self-maiming we call Brexit. As he demonstrates, all the blinkered mental preconditions for the Leave campaign exist in the novel. Crusoe fancies himself the monarch of his paltry terrain, although his only subject is the enslaved Friday: “sovereignty” is for him a mystical value, as it remains for atavistic fogeys such as Jacob Rees-Mogg. The alien footprint on the beach alarms Crusoe because it announces that his realm is about to be besieged by migrants, probably of a different race …
‘Crusoe’s staunchly Anglo-Saxon identity is manufactured and this insecure fiction explains his prickly mistrust of others. In one of his acutest perceptions, Robinson says that this autocratic man has a “sense of embattlement” that is “the obverse of his sense of entitlement”. Hence his bristling paranoia: he spends years reinforcing a stockade to keep out imaginary enemies, labouring over a wall that is an almost Trumpian hallucination.
‘We are all marooned on Crusoe’s island and our self-proclaimed leaders seem determined to ensure that we will never be rescued.’
– Peter Conrad, Observer