Diary: A Letter to Robinson Crusoe, from Jamaica Kincaid

The true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe, who, cast away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-­maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage, who arrives on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races. The whole Anglo­-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-­balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.

—James Joyce

Dear Mr. Crusoe,

Please stay home. There’s no need for this ruse of going on a trading journey, in which more often than not the goods you are trading are people like me, Friday. There’s no need at all to leave your nice bed and your nice wife and your nice children (everything with you is always nice, except you yourself are not) and hop on a ship that is going to be wrecked in a storm at night (storms like the dark) and everyone (not the cat, not the dog) gets lost at sea except lucky and not-nice-at-all you, and you are near an island that you see in the first light of day and then your life, your real life, begins. That life in Europe was nice, just nice; this life you first see at the crack of dawn is the beginning of your new birth, your new beginning, the way in which you will come to know yourself—not the conniving, delusional thief that you really are, but who you believe you really are, a virtuous man who can survive all alone in the world of a little god-forsaken island. All well and good, but why did you not just live out your life in this place, why did you feel the need to introduce me, Friday, into this phony account of your virtues and your survival instincts? Keep telling yourself geography is history and that it makes history, not that geography is the nightmare that history recounts.

Perhaps it is a mistake to ask someone like me, a Friday if there ever was one, a Friday in all but name, to consider this much loved and admired classic, this book that seems to offer each generation encountering it, sometimes when a child and sometimes as an adult who becomes a child when reading it, the thrill of the adventure of a man being lost at sea, then finding safety on an island that seems to be occupied by nobody, and then making a world that is very nourishing to him physically and spiritually.

I was a ravenous reader as a child. I read the King James version of the Bible so many times that I even came to have opinions early on about certain parts of it (I thought of the Apostle Paul as a tyrant and the New Testament as too much about individuals and not enough about the people); I read everything I could find in the children’s section of the Antigua Public Library, situated on a whole floor just above the Government Treasury. If there was something diabolical or cynical in that arrangement, I never found it, but if it does turn out to be so, I will not be at all surprised. Among the many things that would haunt me were these three books: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley, and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Yes, yes, my early education consisted largely of ignoring that native Europeans were an immoral, repulsive people who were ignorant of most of the other people inhabiting this wonderful earth. Also, they were very good writers, that was true enough.

What made a native of Europe, less than two hundred years after Christopher Columbus wandered into the mid­-Atlantic Ocean (where he found a paradise and proceeded to undo it), imagine himself alone on an island far away from his home? Had his world, the world of Europe, become so burdensome to him, and the presence of the all those new people and the things to be done to them in their “New World” become so overwhelmingly burdensome, that “all alone” became a heaven and a haven, a metaphor for becoming a new person, a perfect person? What makes such a person imagine himself (for it would be a him) the only survivor of a catastrophe at sea, and finding himself alone on an unknown island (unknown to him) construct a self that is confident, complete, and reasonable (within such boundaries), assured of his place in the order of things, in command of the order of things? For there are no real moments of doubt in this narrative that all will be well, or that he will emerge from this catastrophe enhanced in all the ways his enhancement requires.

Alone is always accompanied by loneliness, at least if you are an English person of a certain time. There doesn’t seem to be a single one of them who does not need a companion. Somebody has to polish his shoes or make her tea or at least listen to tales of things the listener will never know. An English person of a certain time must have a Friday. Christopher Columbus ambled into the Caribbean archipelago on a Thursday in October 1492. He met people who seemed to look remarkably like Friday. Columbus immediately began to make a detailed list of their physical characteristics and their ways (they were so amiable, even their dogs didn’t bark) and immediately judged them beneath him: Columbus gave a man a sword; the man, having never seen a sword before, held it by the blade.

So just how did Daniel Defoe conceive of a parable for the 1492 adventure? What if Christopher Columbus and his gang of hardened criminals and cold-hearted adventurers had arrived in the Antilles and found themselves stranded with no way of going back whence they came? Would Columbus then have been a refugee dependent on the kindness of these strangers? Crusoe though is that rare kind of refugee: the refugee who is not suffering from hardship of the usual kind attached to a refugee: economic hardship, political persecution; he is having an existential crisis, a crisis seemingly known only to the privileged person from Europe, having come along with their Enlightenment. You know who doesn’t have such a crisis? A person living quite comfortably in a climate that is called paradisiacal and who has no need for much clothing, with, not far away in the background, a jungle, not a forest.

Ennui, a domesticated, localized version of an existential crisis, is not for the Fridays of  this world. We are vulnerable to the insane needs and greed of our own Other, that native of Europe; we have our flaws, but at this point we Fridays, when we are spoken of, are not regarded as part of the vast array of human experience, we are regarded as wanting, as illegitimate forms of the human family, as forms of Being meant to tend sugar cane and reap cotton, mastering the role of performing in perpetuity the Other, the Other that is always lacking in the full form and dignity that is the human condition.

The vivid, vibrant, subtle, important role that the tale of Robinson Crusoe, with his triumph of individual resilience and ingenuity wrapped up in his European, which is to say white, identity, has played in the long, uninterrupted literature of European conquest of the rest of the world must not be dismissed or ignored or silenced. Quite the opposite: it is evidence of the ignorance, the absence of moral knowledge and feeling, the realization once again that the people who lay claim to the “Enlightenment” needed enlightenment and that the rest of us were perfectly okay and that because of them we are in search of something that some of us already knew: when confronted with a sword, accept it by the blade, for the handle only leads to more blades, and the more blades and better blades that await in the long run—and life is the long run—are of no use at all.

So Dear Mr. Crusoe,

Please don’t come. Stay home and work things out, your soul, a property you value very much, will be better off for it.


Jamaica Kincaid

This Letter to Robinson Crusoe will appear as an introduction to a three-hundredth-anniversary edition of Robinson Crusoe, with illustrations by Eko, to be published by the independent, global-literature-focused house, Restless Books, on August 27. Book Post is sharing a booth with Restless Books at the American Library Association Annual Convention! Visit us at Booth 707.

Jamaica Kincaid is the author of nine books of fiction and memoir, including A Small Place, a reflection on her native Antigua, and, most recently, the novel See Now Then. She is writing a series of gardening posts for Book Post; find them here.

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Illustration from Robinson Crusoe (Restless Books, 2019), by Eko
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