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In April, it will be 300 years since Robinson Crusoe was published: the first British novel, which tells the story of an Englishman who becomes shipwrecked on a remote desert island and establishes a successful colony there. According to literary scientist Elisabeth Bekers, the book emphasises the superiority complex of the British Empire. Three centuries later, is that complex raising its head again, in the shape of Brexit?
Equating Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe with Brexit? Elisabeth Bekers, a professor in British and post-colonial literature, is not entirely convinced. “The similarity isn’t in your face, but it is a fun intellectual exercise,” she says.
“Robinson Crusoe is the prototype of the British coloniser, who lands on an island and enforces his laws,” she says. “It’s the first British novel, published in 1719, when the British Empire was in full expansion. In the following century, a quarter of the world’s population would be ruled from London. Even after independence, the Commonwealth remained. And in their aversion to Europe, Brexiteers too are driven by a nostalgic urge for self-sovereignty or imperialist dominance.”
Like some Brexiteers today, Robinson Crusoe had a sense of his own superiority, according to Bekers. “On the island, Robinson meets Friday. Technically, he’s not a slave, but because Robinson saved him from cannibals, Friday subjects himself to his coloniser out of gratitude. Robinson is entirely uninterested in Friday’s language or culture. He considers himself better than him, just like he considers himself better than the Catholic Spanish and the Moors.”
While Defoe’s novel is based on the tales of a real explorer, Robinson Crusoe is a product of fiction – though three centuries ago that wasn’t always clear. “Defoe presented the story as an autobiography, written by Robinson Crusoe. The book was incredibly popular, which led to numerous reprints,” says Bekers. “It even led to a new genre, the Robinsonade [in which individuals or small groups are involuntarily stranded on a remote island]. The Victorian novel Treasure Island (1882), for example, or much later Lord of the Flies (1954), as well as contemporary TV series such as Expeditie Robinson or Lost.”
What not many people know is that Robinson Crusoe is full of religious references. Robinson interprets his years-long stay on the uninhabited island as a punishment from God because he chose the open sea against his parents’ wishes and ignored God’s warnings during the ill-fated voyage. It is only after this penance that he can return to Britain, where he finds he has been left nothing in his father’s will, and his investments in a Portuguese estate can only be claimed after an epic journey across the Pyrenees.
The Brexiteers have been warned.