Apr 252016


Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, was first published on this date in 1719. The first edition credited the work’s protagonist Robinson Crusoe as its author, leading many readers to believe he was a real person, and the book a travelogue of true incidents. It was originally published under the title The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

The work is epistolary, confessional, and didactic in form, presented as an autobiography of the title character (whose birth name is Robinson Kreutznaer)—a castaway who spends thirty years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad, encountering cannibals, captives, and mutineers, before ultimately being rescued. You can find the complete text here:


The story is usually conjectured to have been based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who lived for four years with his pet dog on a pacific island called “Más a Tierra”, now part of Chile, which was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966, but various other literary sources have also been suggested. I’d be inclined to say it is “inspired by” these stories rather than “based on” since most of the events in Robinson Crusoe (and also the numerous ruminations) are of Defoe’s devising.


Robinson Crusoe was well received in the literary world and is often credited as marking the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. This is an overstatement, but the book was an important milestone in the rise of the novel in the 18th century, paving the way for numerous classics, such as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Before the end of 1719, the book had already run through four editions, and it has gone on to become one of the most widely published books in history, spawning numerous sequels and adaptations for stage, film, and television.

I wouldn’t imagine the full text is read much any more, not least because people don’t read much of anything these days.  I’ve just finished a series of lessons with 4th-year high school students (18 year olds) in English classes in Italy. They don’t read more than excerpts, which is just as well.  Even for native speakers the book is a challenge. There are lengthy passages of short journal entries that move the narrative along, but are heavy weather for modern readers.  As a boy I read an abridged version (considerably amended) that gave the gist only. I expect that nowadays people know a few bits of the tale and that’s it.


Here’s a couple of representative extracts from the initial chapters of the book when Crusoe has first arrived, shipwrecked, and has to make plans for a lengthy stay. His ship has foundered near shore so that in a brief lull in the weather he is able to get to it and rescue some items:

I had been now thirteen days on shore, and had been eleven times on board the ship, in which time I had brought away all that one pair of hands could well be supposed capable to bring; though I believe verily, had the calm weather held, I should have brought away the whole ship, piece by piece.  But preparing the twelfth time to go on board, I found the wind began to rise: however, at low water I went on board, and though I thought I had rummaged the cabin so effectually that nothing more could be found, yet I discovered a locker with drawers in it, in one of which I found two or three razors, and one pair of large scissors, with some ten or a dozen of good knives and forks: in another I found about thirty-six pounds value in money—some European coin, some Brazil, some pieces of eight, some gold, and some silver.

I smiled to myself at the sight of this money: “O drug!” said I, aloud, “what art thou good for?  Thou art not worth to me—no, not the taking off the ground; one of those knives is worth all this heap; I have no manner of use for thee—e’en remain where thou art, and go to the bottom as a creature whose life is not worth saying.”  However, upon second thoughts I took it away . . .

This last piece is typical of Defoe’s examination of the nature of civilized life – the major theme of the book.  Later there is this tabulation made by Crusoe concerning the good and bad side of his situation:

Evil Good
I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island, void of all hope of recovery. But I am alive; and not drowned, as all my ship’s company were.
I am singled out and separated, as it were, from all the world, to be miserable. But I am singled out, too, from all the ship’s crew, to be spared from death; and He that miraculously saved me from death can deliver me from this condition.
I am divided from mankind—a solitaire; one banished from human society. But I am not starved, and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance.
I have no clothes to cover me.


But I am in a hot climate, where, if I had clothes, I could hardly wear them.


I am without any defence, or means to resist any violence of man or beast. But I am cast on an island where I see no wild beasts to hurt me, as I saw on the coast of Africa; and what if I had been shipwrecked there?
I have no soul to speak to or relieve me. But God wonderfully sent the ship in near enough to the shore, that I have got out as many necessary things as will either supply my wants or enable me to supply myself, even as long as I live.


Even without being shipwrecked, such a tabulation assessing one’s circumstances can be a useful exercise.  I’ve done it myself on several occasions with good effect.


I could go on at length about the themes of Robinson Crusoe as dozens of critics have done, but I’ll spare you. Read it yourself. It’s a complex, multi-layered work reflecting (not surprisingly) Defoe’s Puritan background, and the social norms of 18th-century England, yet nuanced in its general conclusions about society. For example, Crusoe is repelled by the cannibals he encounters, considering cannibalism to be an absolute moral wrong. But he does not hold the cannibals personally responsible for their actions, attributing their behavior to their own cultural history and habits – remarkably broad minded for the time.

Crusoe makes a valiant effort to replicate the cooking norms of the time in England. He grows crops, and eventually builds an oven which he can use to bake bread although he lacks yeast.  If Defoe had been more knowledgeable about wild yeasts he might have included a discourse on gathering and using them. There’s also this passage early on:

June 16.—Going down to the seaside, I found a large tortoise or turtle.  This was the first I had seen, which, it seems, was only my misfortune, not any defect of the place, or scarcity; for had I happened to be on the other side of the island, I might have had hundreds of them every day, as I found afterwards; but perhaps had paid dear enough for them.

June 17.—I spent in cooking the turtle.  I found in her three-score eggs; and her flesh was to me, at that time, the most savoury and pleasant that ever I tasted in my life, having had no flesh, but of goats and fowls, since I landed in this horrid place.


The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined by John Mollard is a good resource for 18th century recipes. In it I found this recipe for calipee, the fatty, gelatinous belly meat of the turtle that was much prized at one time. I certainly don’t advocate eating turtle, but the recipe is a period piece reflecting the tastes of Defoe’s time. I’ve seen turtle on the menu in New Orleans, and live turtles (small) are a commonplace of food markets in China. Not my thing.


Take a quarter of the under part of a turtle of sixty pounds weight, and scald it, and when done, take the shoulder-bone out and fill the cavity with a good high-seasoned forcemeat made with the lean of the turtle; put it into a stewpan, and add a pint of madeira wine, cayenne pepper, salt, lemon juice, a clove of garlick, a little mace, a few cloves and allspice tied in a bag, a bunch of sweet herbs, some whole onions, and three quarts of good beef stock. Stew gently till three parts done; then take the turtle and put it into another stewpan, with some of the entrails boiled and some egg balls; add a little thickening of flour and butter to the liquor, let it boil, and strain it to the turtle, &c. then stew it till tender, and the liquor almost reduced to a glaize. Serve it up in a deep dish, pasted round as a callipash, ornamented and baked.

N.B. I think the above mode of serving it up in a dish the best, as it frequently happens that the shell of the callipee is not properly baked.