When Bone Talk was first published, I was surprised to find many teachers comparing it to the 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe. It is a fair comparison I guess because both stories are 'first contact' narratives. But writing Bone Talk, I wanted to turn that first contact narrative around. I wanted to see the world from the eyes of the othered.
But most of history is written by the colonizer. Thus the voices of the colonized are hard to hear, as I realised when I began researching Bone Talk and struggled to find any records of my indigenous characters' voices.
Rereading Robinson Crusoe, I wondered if young readers read it as a rollicking adventure, as I did when I was a child. I wondered if they were aware of the contexts of the novel.
Like many, the part I best remember of Robinson Crusoe is the last third of the book. Indeed, the book can be quite dull in parts (sorry!) until that final third, when our castaway finally meets Friday, a man of unidentified Caribbean origin (Crusoe names him Friday and refuses to call him by any other name).
It is Crusoe's relationship with Friday that was the indelible reason for the book's success. What we all forget is that the first part of the book is driven by tales of slavery.
Crusoe's ship is attacked by pirates near Morocco and he is enslaved by a Moor. After two years, he escapes with the help of a boy named Xury, who inexplicably agrees to become Crusoe's slave. En route to Brazil, Crusoe sells Xury – the boy who practically saved his life – to a Portuguese sea captain. The captain promised 'to set the boy free in ten years if he turned Christian'. Which was good enough for Crusoe.
In Brazil, Crusoe buys a plantation and becomes a slave owner. Other plantation owners approach him to go as their representative to Guinea in Africa to buy more slaves, offering him 'an equal share of Negroes, without my providing any part of the stock'. The only thing that upset Crusoe about this arrangement was that he had a plantation to look after ... and he spends the next paragraphs on administrative detail about leaving his business in the care of his colleagues.
When he finally sets off, he writes: 'We had on board no large cargo of goods, except such toys as were fit for our trade with the Negroes, such as beads, bits of glass, shells, and odd trifles, especially little looking glasses, knives, scissors, hatchets, and the like.'
Like many readers of my time, I accepted many aspects of the book without asking any questions. Defoe was articulating the world view of 1719, a world of the civilized versus the savage, of imperial power extracting wealth from ignorant peoples and faraway places.
Robinson Crusoe was written in another time, another place but I believe that it is a story we still need to examine today. Not for castaways and adventure, but to learn about the world that came before ours, and to realize that we must scrutinize and challenge our own.
Crusoe and Friday (1863)
wood engraving by George Housman Thomas
• DANIEL DEFOE PUBLISHES ROBINSON CRUSOE AND IT BECOMES A HUGE HIT
• BY 1900, NO OTHER BOOK IN WESTERN LITERATURE HAD AS MANY EDITIONS, TRANSLATIONS AND SPIN-OFFS.
•DANIEL DEFOE'S NAME DOES NOT APPEAR ON THE BOOK. IT MASQUERADES AS A 'TRUE HISTORY'
• ROBINSON CRUSOE MARKED MANY FIRSTS IN THE EVOLUTION OF THE NOVEL.
• AFTER DEFOE'S DEATH MANY SAID ROBINSON CRUSOE WAS BASED ON THE CASTAWAY ALEXANDER SELKIRK ... BUT HISTORIANS NOW SAY IT IS BASED ON BUCCANEER SURVIVAL TALES
• ROBINSON CRUSOE WAS SO POPULAR IT SPAWNED A NEW GENRE: ROBINSADE – ABOUT CASTAWAYS SURVIVING ON REMOTE ISLANDS
Daniel Defoe (1660 to 1731)
He came nearer and nearer, kneeling down every ten or twelve steps, in token of acknowledgment for saving his life. I smiled at him and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer. At length he came close to me, and then he knelt down again, kissed the ground, and, taking my foot, set it upon his head. This, it seems, was his way of swearing to be my slave forever.
Chapter 11, Robinson Crusoe
Corporal Quinlan swung one leg over Father's shoulder. And then his other leg. Father rose easily even though the man on his shoulders was more than a head taller than him. The American grinned, swaying ever so slightly, his hands on his hips, surveying the world, as Father stepped into the water, planting every foot with care.
I avoided Father's eyes. It would shame him to see me looking. But I needn't have bothered. Father's eyes were resolutely fixed on the
Chapter 32, Bone Talk
It was a giant, looming taller and taller as it struggled towards us, bending to avoid the grabbing trees ...As it lumbered forward a gust of wind blew the hat off to reveal a face that was the sickly white of buffalo milk. Instead of hair, the top of its head prickled all over with dirty yellow hog bristles, as did its chin and the top of its lip. Over its eyes hung eyebrows like a bird's nest, yellow, thick and tangled. Its nose was MASSIVE, speckled with orange spots like blemishes on overripe fruit. It had no lips. And its eyes! They were eerie, alien things: bright and blue like the sky.
Chapter 15, Bone Talk
... he had all the sweetness and softness of a European in his countenance, too, especially when he smiled. His hair was long and black, not curled like wool, his forehead very high and large, and there was a great vivacity and sparkling sharpness in his eyes. The color of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny, and yet not of an ugly, yellow, nauseous tawny, but of a bright kind of dun olive color ... His face was round and plump, his nose small, not flat like those of the Negroes, his mouth was very good, with thin lips, and his teeth fine, well set, and white as ivory.
Chapter 11, Robinson Crusoe
Today, we regard the scene when Crusoe teaches Friday to call him “Master” a symbol of racial injustice. But it is important to take into account the world view of 1719, when Robinson Crusoe was created. What was normal for a European of 1719? How would their beliefs differ from our own today? Below are videos explaining what was going on (with big thanks to John Green and Crash Course).
Consider: how did these historical events shape people long ago?
How do they continue to shape us today, 300 years later?
Here are a few films that evoke the narrative of Robinson Crusoe.
Reflect on how the stories of castaways are similar to Robinson Crusoe. Some, like Pocahontas, Lost in Space and The King and I show characters from different worlds meeting for the first time. How are the characters from opposite cultures represented?