Robinson Crusoe

The novel by Daniel Defoe commonly known as Robinson Crusoe was first published 300 years ago, on 25th April 1719. Robinson Crusoe is the only survivor of a shipwreck who spends 28 years on a remote tropical island before he is finally rescued.  He has only what he can salvage from the wreckage: tools, weapons, money, books, a dog and two cats.  In his time on the island he learns to cultivate barley and rice, raise goats and make pottery. The best-known elements of the novel include the calendar he keeps to mark his time on the island, the pet parrot, Poll, that he teaches to talk and his discovery of a footprint in the sand, an event which causes great anxiety as he longs for company, but fears attack.  Friday, the companion he rescues from cannibals, remains one of the most recognisable characters in English literature.  Widely cited as the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe has been translated into over a hundred languages and continues to be retold in book and film form with its themes of the desert island and the castaway.

Plate from the 1st edition, RW.30.28

Defoe published his work anonymously, presenting his book as though Robinson Crusoe were the author. Many of the first readers believed, therefore, that the book was the autobiography of a real person describing actual events. Indeed, Defoe’s book is significant in the development of the English novel in that it used actual events to provide the basis for fictionalised account.

Title page of the first edition
Title page, 1st edition, R.30.28

The book sold quickly and had such an impact that imitations immediately appeared and questions arose concerning the author. This satirical parody of Robinson Crusoe produced by rival Charles Gildon ridicules the novel as implausible and addresses it to Mr D- de F- , a London hosier thereby asserting Defoe’s authorship.

Title page, Grylls 20.252

Daniel Defoe had a long and varied life. He wrote Robinson Crusoe when he was in his late 50s. Before this he had worked as a wholesale hosiery merchant, factory owner, political journalist and secret agent. His writing career began in 1688 with his first pamphlet A Letter to a Dissenter from His Friend at the Hague. In 1703 he was committed to Newgate Prison and subjected to the pillory on a charge of sedition for attacking High Church extremists in his satirical pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters.

Robinson Crusoe’s popularity was such that it was reprinted four times in 1719. Defoe wrote two sequels to his story: Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe published in August 1719 and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World in 1720. Most modern readers, though, are only familiar with the first book, which has never been out of print.

Title page, Grylls 20.250. Note that a reader has added Daniel Defoe’s name as author.

There is much debate on the sources for Defoe’s novel. The most popular suggestion is that Robinson Crusoe was based on the experiences of Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721). In 1703, Selkirk was appointed Master of the privateer the ‘Cinque Ports’ which set sail from Kinsale along with the ‘George’ commanded by William Dampier. Both vessels were headed for the South Seas, but parted company in May 1704. The ‘Cinque Ports’ was refitted on the island of Más a Tierra, one of the Juan Fernández Islands in the south Pacific off the coast of Chile. Selkirk, believing the vessel to be unseaworthy, asked to remain on the island. Selkirk’s experiences on the island were described by Captain Woodes Rogers commander of the Bristol privateer that rescued Selkirk over four years later. Coincidentally, Dampier was serving as pilot on this privateer and was able to confirm the identity of the abandoned man.

NQ.9.14. A cruising voyage round the world … by Captain Woodes Rogers. London, 1712.

The page above describes the moment when Selkirk was abandoned on the island: “He had with him his Clothes and Bedding, with a Firelock, some Powder, Bullets, and Tobacco, a Hatchet, a Knife, a Kettle, a Bible, some practical Pieces, and his Mathematical Instruments and Books”. Rogers describes how Selkirk built shelter, hunted goats, bred cats for company and undertook daily religious exercises in order to preserve his powers of speech and thought.

Another possible inspiration for Defoe was the account by Robert Knox of his captivity on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In 1658 under the auspices of the East India Company, Knox set sail with his father (the captain) for India. The ship’s mast was lost during a storm off Masulipatam and they put into Ceylon to build a new mainmast and to trade.

The island was ruled by the King of Kandy, Rajasinha II, in a tense alliance with Dutch settlers who controlled the cinnamon trade. Already disenchanted with European influence, when Knox failed to inform him of their arrival on the island and present gifts, Rajasinha’s troops took several of Knox’s crew members captive. Robert Knox and his father were kept separately from the other captives in open detention and the elder Knox died of malaria in 1661. Thereafter Robert Knox moved around the island working as a farmer and moneylender. Finally, after a captivity of over 19 years, he escaped to the safety of a Dutch fort in 1679.

Knox found his way back to London, arriving in September 1680. During the voyage home he wrote the manuscript which eventually became An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon. It was published in 1681, became an instant success and was translated into three languages. Knox’s detailed study of the topography, economic and social life of the Sinhalese people means that his book still remains an important anthropological study of seventeenth-century Ceylon.


A small exhibition of the books featured in this blog is currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.

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