Racism and Colonial Ideals in The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe

Within both The Tempest by William Shakespeare and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe there are clear similarities when it comes to the differences between Europeans and people of other nationalities.  Although these texts were written by two very different people during two very different time periods, they both still contain a clear European bias.  Within The Tempest Caliban represents the native and lower class race, and within Robinson Crusoe Friday represents the same type of class bias.  Through the interactions of the European individuals and the two “natives” who represent those colonised these authors are able to paint a vivid picture of how race influenced and continues to influence the world and divides individuals.

In The Tempest Prospero enslaves Caliban and treats him as though he is essentially worthless.  Although both these individuals are trapped on the same island, they are portrayed completely differently and lead very different lives.  Prospero acts far superior and as though he knows so much more than Caliban simply because he is of more pure European descent.  For example, Caliban is taught English because that is clearly the civilized language and considered better than any native language someone may have learned previously.  Similarly, in Robinson Crusoe, Friday is treated as a slave after Crusoe saves his life and Crusoe takes it upon himself to completely change Friday’s lifestyle and beliefs.  Like Caliban, Friday is also taught English and Crusoe also decides to “instruct him in the knowledge of the true God” (Defoe 158).  Crusoe is so convinced that he leads a superior lifestyle that he completely disregards anything Friday has been told his whole life and convinces him to follow the ways of a European.  Not only that,  he also decides “to clear up this fraud” (Defoe 159) that Friday has been taught his whole life and believed since he was a child.

Not only do these characters decide to “enlighten” the poor naive natives that they encounter, but they also consider the lifestyles of the natives almost pathetic.  They look down upon and pity those who are not European and perfectly display the ideals of colonists which was that they were helping the natives become modern and enlightened individuals.  All the harm that they did and racism they felt towards others was cloaked in being helpful and moving the rest of the world towards and more modern lifestyle.



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3 responses to “Racism and Colonial Ideals in The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe

  1. You have made a great point here. Given the time period that the play and the novel were written in, these views that Crusoe and Prospero have towards Friday and Caliban are not surprising, but they are so different from what we see today. They really portray the colonial expeditions that were occurring at the time and expeditions in the future. As opposed to accepting the native people’s, the European man always sees himself as the superior being and the native as savage. The point you draw here about Prospero and Crusoe teaching their slaves English and even elementary religious concepts is something that has happened in many real life situations, even here in our country. Assimilating native people to European culture and humanizing them is almost always the tactic that Europeans use. In our own country’s history, the government has required Native Americans to be sent to boarding schools where they cut off their long hair, teach them English, and teach them American values at the time. So the “enlightening of the native” that you speak of mirrors many historical instances.

  2. looloo14

    I would agree that it is evident in how Prospero and Crusoe treat Caliban and Friday that they see themselves as superior. I wonder, however, if in fact Prospero pities Caliban. It seems as though Prospero despises Caliban in a way. He did, in fact, try to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. He also sees Caliban as a minor threat because Caliban has a strong desire for control over the island. This was evident in the scene where Caliban convinces Stephano to kill Prospero, thus taking control of the island: “Do that good mischief which may make this island thine forever.” If Prospero pitied Caliban, it would be implied that he has some sort of sympathy or compassion for the “monster”.

  3. siegvald

    I was under the impression that saving a life was a good thing. Yes, Robinson Crusoe wanted a servant, but (as he demonstrated) Friday was more than willing to be Robin’s servant forever. This preludes to a certain mental domesticity on Friday’s part. And for Caliban? He was not a “true” native of the island–his mother was from Algiers (“Argier”). Who knows what nationality Sycorax (and accordingly, Caliban) was: even though she was from Algiers, there was a chance she could have ethnically been of the same stock as Prospero, or African, or East Indian, or anything–just because you live in a country doesn’t necessarily mean you belong to that country’s ethnicity. And, after being “used . . . with humane care, and lodged . . . in [Prospero’s] own cell till ” Caliban attempted to rape Miranda, and brought it a little upon himself. What father would not react in rage and anger after that?

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