CRUSOE: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth
By Katherine Frank
Pegasus. 338 pp. $27.95
THE WRECKING of a vessel on a remote island, from “The Odyssey” to “The Tempest” to “Lost,” is an evergreen beginning for stories about what makes us civilized and human. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe may be the archetypal survivor, who endures his desert island by imposing his values on inhospitable surroundings. When “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” was published in 1719, true stories of seafaring adventures, run-ins with pirates, and encounters with strange lands and peoples were so popular that Defoe’s fictional book was touted as a true-life tale. The proposed candidates for the “real Robinson Crusoe” would have crowded him off his island, but in her intelligent and surprising new book, “Crusoe,” biographer Katherine Frank focuses on Robert Knox, a young sailor whose story arises at the intersection of adventure, commerce and colonialism.
In choosing Knox rather than Alexander Selkirk — the Scottish castaway usually put forward as the “real” Crusoe — Frank makes it clear that she considers the state of captivity, whether in a far-off land or a grim London prison, to be more central to the Crusoe myth than the desert island. Knox and Defoe never met, but their entwined stories of imprisonment give a fascinating glimpse of a world stirring into modernity.
In November 1659, the same year Defoe’s Crusoe washed up on his island, 19-year-old Knox was a crew member on board the Anne, an East India Company ship captained by his father. Battered by a storm while at anchor off the south coast of India, the ship had to limp to Kottiyar Bay in Ceylon for repairs, where word of its presence soon spread. After a series of confused negotiations with the small native army sent from the interior kingdom to investigate, young Knox, his father and 14 other men found themselves kidnapped, on the improbable-sounding authority of the King of Kandy. The men were marched inland, split up — although Knox and his father were kept together — and moved from village to village. For months they awaited an audience with the king that never came. Capt. Knox succumbed after less than a year to an acute tropical fever, and although his son survived, it was 20 years before he saw his home again.
In his book, “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon,” Robert Knox described how he gradually became accustomed and acclimatized to the life of a Sinhalese villager. The book was published in 1681, a year after he and a fellow captive finally managed, through “calculation, cunning, patience and stamina,” to escape the king’s watchmen — and the odd wild elephant — and make it to a Dutch stronghold. The book was the work of a writer with extraordinary powers of observation and memory, confronting an environment that sometimes seemed touched with magic: “His silver pocket watch had long since stopped, and he now reckoned time as his neighbours did, by a plant called the ‘four o’clock flower.’ This was a deep purple or white blossomed flower that opened every day at four o’clock in the afternoon and remained open ‘until the morning, when it closeth up it self till four a clock again.’ ”
There’s no evidence that Defoe ever traveled outside Britain, but his imagination ranged wide and deep, and his wrecks and captivities were many. His business ventures and failures landed him in dizzying debt, in the pillory and in prison, where inmates had to pay for everything, down to the sixpence for “an earthen pisse-pot.” Writing was his savage revenge, especially the five years of frenetic creativity in the wake of “Robinson Crusoe,” when he published at least 48 works, including the novels “Moll Flanders” and “Roxana.” Frank draws on a wide range of Defoe’s writings to argue that the creation of Crusoe was driven by lessons he learned the hard way, such as the moral of his “Hymn to the Pillory” (1703) that “Survivors are those who create in the face of all the dark forces that seek to destroy them.”
Knox, however, was neither a mythmaker like Defoe nor a creature of myth like Crusoe. His experience was extraordinary, and Frank is a sensitive reader and earnest narrator of his life, but Knox comes more vividly to life in his querulous old age, obsessively expanding and rewriting the story of his captivity, than as the young sailor trapped in an alien world.
One reason for this is that he resolutely was a company man. The East India Company was globally powerful but locally vulnerable: “its far-flung outposts were connected by wooden ships that sailed like toy boats through thousands of miles of ocean.” Its tentacles were busily establishing trading posts wherever wealth could be squeezed from the soil or the inhabitants of a foreign land, and the story of shipwreck is therefore also the story of the company’s ruthless economic colonialism.
The great irony that, in 1684, Knox was made the captain of a slave ship at the company’s behest is not one he seems to have noted. It’s true, of course, that he “would have had to be a much more unconventional man than he was” to object to the slave trade at this point in history; but it makes him an occasionally frustrating hero for such an unconventional, surprising and thoughtful book.
Joanna Scutts , who teaches literature at Columbia University, is an editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
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