By Will Barber Taylor
Acclaimed historian Andrew Lambert uncovers the fascinating truth about a faraway place that still haunts our imagination and culture: the island of Robinson Crusoe in the South Pacific Ocean.
Daniel Defoe’s enduring novel Robinson Crusoe famously followed the adventures of a shipwrecked sailor. Yet the complex reality is more surprising, more colourful and considerably darker. Drawing on voyage, journal entries, maps and illustrations, Lambert brings to life the voices of visiting sailors, scientists, writers and artists. There are the early encounters of the 1500s, the perilous journeys of the eighteenth-century explorers, the naval conflicts of the First World War and the environmental concerns of more recent years.
Crusoe’s Island reveals that the British relationship with this distant, tiny island extends far beyond a single book. This true history helps us to understand why the British, still a naval power but no longer a naval empire, are not yet ready to give up on the ocean – or the tiny specks of land at the far ends of the earth.
Robinson Crusoe is one of the defining works of British fiction of the last 200 years. With the 300th anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s work fast approaching, Andrew Lambert’s work is greatly welcomed. Looking at the link between the work and its effect on the British psyche, Lambert’s thesis is that Britain needs to reflect its isolation and island culture onto the nations that in the past it conquered. The phrase “No man is an island” is seemingly reversed into a projection of the island as the ideal – that the island is a base from which to spread the ideas of one’s culture. The sea, as shown by Lambert, is not shown as a boundary to trade and industry but a vital enabler in the spreading of empires and cultures.
Lambert’s thesis is backed up by reports from the time of the original shipwreck that inspired Defoe, Scottish adventurer Alexander Selkirk’s four years on the island. As he states in the beginning, it was this sense of connection which meant that Britain could “sustain… domination of the oceans”. Unlike any other nation on the Earth, Lambert implies, Britain saw the ocean and used it as a means of domination rather than self-imprisonment; it was no barrier to the might of the Royal Navy and the influence of Britain’s mercantile trade.
Some may argue that Lambert puts his analogy before the history of the island. The name of the book is certainly British focussed; the island was originally known as Juan Fernandez and the influence from Spanish and Portuguese sailors was also vital to the history of the island. Lambert could be said to be putting his analogy before the evidence; his thesis that British cultural identity is tied to island like Robinson Crusoe because they are a projection of Britain abroad is similar to Rupert Brook’s famous line “That there’s some corner of a foreign field. That is for ever England.” Yet this attempts to turn an island, a piece of topography, into the extension of a national identity might seem more romantic than historically accurate; trying to fit the history to the theory.
However, Lambert’s theory is based on more than that – the influence of Spanish and Portuguese sailors is far more minimal compared to that of the British. The Portuguese for example simply left European farm animals whereas Selkirk’s four years inspired a defining work of world fiction. Equally, Lambert is quick to make clear that the obsession with the island is uniquely British; whilst other European sailors would stop on Robinson Crusoe they mainly saw it as a pit stop than any form of reflection of their own country.
Crusoe’s Island is a fascinating examination of the nature of British naval culture and helps to partly explain the age old question of how a small island on the north western edge of Europe dominated the world for hundreds of years.
With thanks to Faber and Faber. You can purchase Crusoe’s Island here.