Racial Hypocrisy and Colonialism in Robinson Crusoe and The Tempest

The fact that the European contemporaries of both Shakespeare and Defoe were racist should be a given. Warped views on race, which blended with a warped view on social class, were accepted as general knowledge. However, both Robinson Crusoe and The Tempest make the popular opinion of the time crystal clear: The white man is the master and the savior over the black man no matter what situation they happen to be in.

Prior to his voyages, Crusoe has enjoyed a stable, well-to-do lifestyle. Seafaring may have perhaps made him into a more humble man amongst his peers – that is, the fellow European sailors and ship captains – but once enslaved, he immediately places himself in his mind above the other slaves. He is in the exact same situation as the rest of them, yet he still feels superiority. In fact, Crusoe feels the most indignation about the fact that his captors are Moors and that his father was right more than the fact that he is a slave. He feels insulted that he is left to “do the common drudgery of slaves about his house,” even though he later attains slaves in Xury and Friday to do the exact same (Defoe 115).

Both Prospero and Crusoe take the point of view that because they are “civilized” Christian white men, they have the privilege and even the duty to take control of the natives (or in Prospero’s case, Caliban.) They both sense  that slavery of the minority is the natural order of life, even though both men themselves were in a sense enslaved – Prospero’s enslavement being more of a metaphorical enslavement to the island. The only difference between themselves and the people they have in their service is their religion and ancestry; differences which to the conquering Europeans considered the line between civilized and uncivilized and worthy of colonization.




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3 responses to “Racial Hypocrisy and Colonialism in Robinson Crusoe and The Tempest

  1. smboehm

    I completely agree with this post and found it rather enlightening that you came up with the concept that Prospero/Miranda and RC were in fact enslaved themselves to their island and state of trying to survive. It’s interesting how RC finds slaves to be almost repulsive, to the point where he is constantly talking down upon others that aren’t of English decent, yet in the situation he is left in on the island, he finds it completely acceptable to rescue one of the natives. Although he calls him a slave, it’s rather apparent that RC is also getting enjoyment out of their relationship—a companion.

  2. I agree that both stories are indicative of the common racism of the time. However, I had feelings that Shakespeare was almost parodying the common racial arrogance of the colonists. When Stephano finds Trinculo and Caliban under the cloak, he believes the figures under the cloak is one figure with four arms and two mouth. I felt the inability to distinguish a European’s body from a colored body was a subtle proclamation from Shakespeare: the “savages” are just as human as the Europeans. Also, the histrionics of Caliban’s innate evil could arguably be for satirical purposes. But I still agree, there is definitely a deluded sense of superiority in the two stories among the Eurpeans.

  3. siegvald

    The era in which Robinson Crusoe lived was the time of mass European settlement of other worlds. The said savages the Europeans found in these said worlds, were automatically looked at as inferior beings due to their customs, rituals, style of dress (or lack thereof to the taste of the proper Europeans), or the simple fact that they were not white, etc. It would be hardly unlikely for Robinson Crusoe to suddenly develop an awareness that his attitude towards these peoples is grotesquely unfair or in any way racist. The concept of racism in Robinson Crusoe’s time just did not exist as it does today: his view only reflected the acceptable world view at the time. As we discussed in class, to view or read a piece of literature which was written centuries ago from a 21st century perspective is impossible, and imparts a bias on our part towards the characters who are seemingly exhibiting these undesirable characteristics. True, his motives for saving Friday were somewhat selfish in that the idea to “get me a servant, or possibly a companion” was what caused him take action. However, Friday was also more than willing to be indebted to Robinson for the rest of his life, making the gesture to request to be in servitude to Robinson, by placing his head under Robinson’s foot.

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