Happy birthday Robinson Crusoe: the fictional author of a “History of Fact”

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Daniel Defoe’s book was published 295 years ago today [25 April], marking the birth of the author Robinson Crusoe and a seriously playful entanglement of fact and fiction.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Frontispiece and title page from original 1719 edition

I hope plans are afoot to celebrate the tercentenary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 2019. With five years to go, however, 2014 also seems an apt time to take a look at this famous book, not least because this year is a celebration of all things Georgian: marking the accession of George I, we have the BBC’s Georgian Season, and exhibitions at the British Library and Queen’s Gallery. Signed just before George’s arrival, was the 1714 Longitude Act, the tercentenary of which is being marked with a Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich.

Robinson Crusoe sits perfectly in the midst of this, highlighting new literary forms available to a growing reading public, and the interest in travel and the exotic at a time of expansion of maritime trade and empire.

While the book is seen today as an important precursor to the novel, as part of a new genre of realistic fiction, it was designed, at least in part, to confuse and to question. Robinson Crusoe was its purported author, not its title. The actual title of the first edition placed the book squarely in the realm of genuine (if sometimes embellished) travel narratives:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself.

Full of geographical detail, with the “author” clearly identified, there was nothing to distinguish this as fiction. The picturesque image on the frontispiece pointed to the remarkable experiences to be related, but would have reminded readers of images of peoples from other parts of the world, shown as “other” but rendered strangely familiar by European artists, used to depicting European faces, landscapes and dress.

Defoe’s title is worth comparing to those of other travel and adventure narratives. For example, that published in 1681, by a real sea captain: Robert Knox of the East India Company. Alongside the experiences ofAlexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an uninhabited island until being rescued in 1709, Knox’s adventures and narrative have been seen as one of Defoe’s inspirations:

An Historical Relation Of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies: Together, With an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and of the Author’s Miraculous Escape. Illustrated with Figures, and a Map of the Island. By Robert Knox, Captive there near Twenty Years.

Knox’s book had been published by Richard Chiswell, identified on the title page as “Printer to the Royal Society”. As was typical of that Society’s tactics for underscoring the trustworthiness of new knowledge, emphasis was placed on the status of the author, the importance of eye-witness accounts and personal observation, told in plain writing and, as a bonus, supported by a map and illustrations.

Knox’s “Truth”, “Integrity” and “Credit” were attested to in statements from the very credit-worthy Christopher Wren and the Governor, Deputy-Governor and 24 named members of the Court of Committees of theEast India Company, who included a fair sprinkling of baronets and knights. A preface by Robert Hooke lauded Knox’s efforts, not least for doing what the Royal Society repeatedly asked of travellers by sharing potentially useful observations and experience of foreign lands with the public.

Defoe naturally also made use of such devices, playing with his readers’ understanding of truth and credibility in a way that alarmed some but was so popular with the public that the book went through several editions in its first year. In a preface the book’s “editor” commended it to the public as “a just History of Fact”, noting that “The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to which Wise Men always apply them”.

Rather than as simply a novel, then, Robinson Crusoe should also be read as a hoax or, perhaps more accurately, as a satire on travel narratives and other texts attempting to present reliable knowledge. Whether readers took his fiction as truth, or they doubted it effects, it raised questions about the acceptance of the words put down, however plain the language, by other travellers, experimenters and observers. This uncertainty was, as much as the adventure and exoticism, part of the book’s appeal.

Crusoe is our perfect guide to this year of Georgian exploration.

Captain Cook and Australia Day: invasion, exploitation and science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this was first posted on 27 January 2014.

Captain Cook’s contested reputation casts him as imperialist villain or man of science. Whatever we think of him, the two roles are not mutually exclusive

Statue of Captain Cook at Greenwich
Statue of Captain James Cook outside the National Maritime Museum. Photograph: David Iliffe/Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday [26 January] was Australia Day and, thanks in part to social media, it seems to have been more overtly contested than ever before. As a much-shared piece on this website stated, for many Australia Day is a time for mourning, not celebration. Marking the anniversary of the arrival of the 11 British ships known as the First Fleet in 1788, its choice as a national holiday has long been contested. In my Twitter feed, #invasionday was more prevalent than the trending Happy Australia Day.

As a historian of science working on the history of 18th-century navigation, I’ve noticed how often Captain Cook appears as the symbol of the British invasion. Yesterday, for example, Australian comedian Aamer Rahman joked on Twitter that he had a Cook-shaped piñata to celebrate the holiday (that wept white tears when hit) and, earlier in the week, Cook’s family cottage was graffitied with slogans, including “26th Jan Australia’s shame”.

This is odd, in some ways, as Cook died nearly a decade before the Fleet sailed. He did not invade or settle, nor, even, was his ship the first European contact with Australia. However, the fact that his cottage was vandalised in Melbourne, having been moved from Yorkshire in 1934, perhaps tells us almost everything we need to know about how Cook’s reputation has been welded to his brief visit to Australia and has been both near-deified and villainised ever since.

In illustration of the complexity of Cook’s legacy, ex-pat New ZealanderVicky Teinaki alerted me to a film on display at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Yorkshire. The museum’s website describes it as “recording the reaction of contemporary communities to Cook’s legacy” and these, Vicky said, could be generalised into three groups: “acknowledging he was a great & brave explorer, anger at the white man diseases he brought, or ‘better English than French’”.

The reaction from this side of the world depends, I think, on whether Cook is viewed as the military man – a blue-coated, gun-toting officer of the Royal Navy – or the explorer and man of science. He was, of course, both, for the categories are not mutually exclusive. On the Endeavourvoyage he was paid by and carried out the instructions of the Navy andthe Royal Society of London. He was both a vessel commander and one of two astronomers charged with carrying out a range of observations, including the 1769 transit of Venus and longitude determinations.

Those who cast Cook as a man of science note not only his ability in astronomical observation and mathematical calculation, but also his careful observation of the new lands, flora, fauna and peoples he encountered. Regarding Cook’s journal descriptions of the latter, theNational Library of Australia is careful to note that “Lord Morton, President of the Royal Society, had advised Cook by letter to treat with respect the Indigenous people he encountered and to communicate peacefully with them.”

Yet it is obvious that all the science undertaken on his and similar voyages was part and parcel of the process of exploration and colonisation. The transit of Venus observations were bound up with attempts to improve navigation and cartography, which, along with botany, geography and ethnography, provided information about how best to exploit new territories.

Cook is, perhaps, less directly worthy of vilification than those who developed policies for colonisation and who governed societies that forgot the caution and respect that Morton had urged. Equally, however, he is among those to whom we might attach collective guilt for their role in making empire and exploitation possible.

If Cook is guilty in this way, were not also many of those who stayed at home? Morton and the Royal Society, who linked their enterprise firmly to Britain’s imperial interests? John Harrison and the Commissioners of Longitude, who looked for ways to make long-distance sea voyages and the data they brought home more reliable?

This train of thought led me to recall an interview I recently heard on Radio 4, with a scientist brought in to discuss the Moon’s potentially exploitable natural resources. How might we manage the claims of different nations (limited, in theory, by international agreement) and private companies (currently unlimited in law) to these minerals? Might this lead to conflict, injustice and over-exploitation?

The planetary scientist pushed the questions away. We do not yet know if anything useful is there, he said, and no one yet has the resources to make lunar mining profitable. His aim is simply to find out what is there, not to worry about the consequences. Given what history tells us, it might seem better to resist looking. At the very least, it seemed shockingly blasé to say that any future conflicts, rivalries and ruination would have nothing at all to do with the curiosity-driven likes of him.

Cook could not foresee the results of his actions. Understanding of the transmission of disease or the consequences of introducing alien species was limited; rivalry for worldwide empire was, as yet, in its infancy, and belief in the virtue of spreading European knowledge and values was firm. Cook is blamed because of hindsight, a little of which should always prompt a greater sense of responsibility today.

Inside a Herbarium

This week I had the pleasure of seeing inside the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. I have, very often and from earliest childhood, enjoyed walking in the gardens and hothouses, but this was the first time I had entered the Herbarium buildings – the real heart of the enterprise, as my host rightly stressed.

The New Herbarium is pleasing 1960s architecture, that does not look out of place among the wide range of historic and modern buildings in the gardens. A place that serves the needs of modern science, described by the RBGE as “a collection of preserved plants stored, catalogued and arranged systematically for study by both professional taxonomists (scientists who name plants), botanists and amateurs”, it is a working reference collection, arranged by modern taxonomy and geographical area. Each species is represented by many examples including, of course, type specimens – the reference point for a newly discovered species. There is an online catalogue and an expanding digitisation project.

It is also a treasure-trove of history. The list of major collectors who contributed to the Edinburgh herbarium cross more than two centuries. While is was not founded until the mid-19th century, it incorporated collections from the University and Botanical Society that dated back significantly earlier. I was there to see specimens collected in the Arctic on the voyages of scientific exploration led by William Parry (below) in the 1820s. On the first expedition he led, aimed chiefly at locating the North West Passage, Parry and his crew received a reward of £5000 for reaching 110⁰ West within the Arctic Circle, as specified by the 1818 Longitude Act. Like other Arctic voyages of this period, the Board of Longitude also lent and advised on instruments and techniques.


As with all such high-status voyages, they combined strategic, political, commercial and scientific objectives. They undertook to observe, record and collect whatever they could, both relying on newfangled instruments and subjecting them to test. Naval officers and crew were supplemented with astronomers and surgeons acting as naturalists – although the officers too were becoming specialists, with many contributing not only to surveys but to the botanic, zoological and oceanographic work, and Parry himself returning to become Hydrographer of the Navy.

Indeed, it is notable that the Navy seems by this date to have taken on much of the scientific expertise that, in the days of Cook, had been brought in from outside. Trevor H. Levere’s Science and the Canadian Arctic tells us that it was Parry, rather than the Royal Society or Board of Longitude, who drafted the scientific instructions for the voyage and superintended work during the voyage. He insisted on careful field notes, saying “nothing is to be trusted to memory”.

It was, presumably, this instruction that led to a number of field notes that I was able to see in Edinburgh. While many specimens have been remounted on standard-sized paper to form part of the main Herbarium collection, thus losing a sense of the original mounting and sometimes related notes, there are three small collections relating to Parry voyages that – as duplicates of other specimens at Edinburgh and the Natural History Museum – were left on their original small-sized sheets.

In this sheet, you can see four small folded-over sheets containing specimens. The one opened reveals that it was collected at Repulse Bay in 1821, on Parry’s second Arctic expedition. The species name, Epilobium Latifolium, appears in a different ink, presumably written shortly after. It is, Wikipedia tells me, the former name of Dwarf Fireweed (Chamerion latifolium), said to be an extremely nutritious supplement to meals of blubber. (In the Herbarium itself, I was also shown the locker of specimens of some anti-scorbutic member of the cabbage family, many also collected in the Arctic, and still smelling of old school dinners!).

The closed specimen folders on the sheet in my photograph carry the brief field notes, some evidently written in retrospect, although perhaps still on board ship: “Found in most places that we visited”; “Not very abundant, but generally met with in our visits to the shore” etc. The notes, presumably, were kept by the person recorded at the front of this collection, Lieut. William Harvey Hooper, the expedition’s Purser. His expedition journals are at the the Royal Geographical Society, I note, so further detail on his process of collecting and recording could, no doubt, be uncovered.

You might just spy in this photograph another label, dated 1944. This relates to some former cataloguing of the specimens, and is very typical of Herbarium collections. This is another reason why they are historically so fascinating. Not only can we recapture something about the particular expedition – information of use to historians of science and to scientists studying changes in plants, their distribution and climate over time – but we can also learn about the afterlife of the specimens themselves.

Although now in the same place, sheets in the Herbarium show us that specimens from expeditions were distributed to a variety of locations. They reveal the networks of collectors, academics and institutions that mattered, both for official purposes and sometimes more personal ties. These maritime expeditions could amass and transport enough specimens for a number of deposits, personal collections and friendly exchanges. The added notes and labels also tell us about the history of herbaria themselves – many being left by bequest, closed or amalgamated – and practices of the botanists who worked in them. A single box of a single species might cross centuries and paint a complex geographical picture, not only reflecting the origins of the various specimens, but the veritable dance each undertook as it was transferred from collector to collector, collection to collection.

There is much there that appears ripe for analysis by historians of science. The initial impression of historical information lost in the act of scientific cataloguing is overcome when early catalogues, correspondence and information on the specimen sheets themselves are brought together. Such work has been done for some of the most famous collections – the most high profile example perhaps being the Hans Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum – but what of these relics of the work, collections and networks of 19th and 20th-century botanical collectors and taxonomers?


Edit: I have also written a post relating to this visit over on the Longitude Project Blog, with some other and further thoughts linking more precisely to the project and exhibition work. It has another image of a Parry specimen, this time from the Herbarium proper.