Not just Robinson Crusoe

by Les

You’ve read Robinson Crusoe, haven’t you? Do you remember who wrote the book? No?

Daniel Defoe. He wrote that one book, a long time ago, and it became a Classic.

Daniel Defoe by Michael Van der Gucht 1706

That’s the general impression most people have about the man who wrote Robinson Crusoe. But it’s totally misleading. Daniel Defoe, who was born in about 1660 and died in April 1731, was probably one of the most prolific writers of his day. He wrote at least seven novels, and a total of several hundred published works of all kinds. Robinson Crusoe was his first novel, published in 1719, and may have been the first novel written and published in English. Defoe had a very colorful life, as a businessman, a convict, a spy, and a political campaigner.

Today I want to talk about one of his lesser known novels.

The Life Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton was first published in 1720, a year after Robinson Crusoe. Defoe wrote it as a first person narrative, the memoirs of a retired pirate.

Captain Singleton is not as unreadable as many 18th century books. True, Defoe loves long sentences, but the structure of these long sentences is usually simple, and the vocabulary consists mainly of short words. He uses few obscure words.

The book excels at development of memorable characters. Though most of the characters are villains, many of them are likeable villains. Singleton himself, kidnapped as a small child, at sea by age twelve, captured on his first voyage by Algerian pirates and set ashore in Portugal alone, manages to retain the reader’s sympathy. But the most interesting character is William Walters, the Quaker pirate.

The action takes place throughout the known world (in 1620) and a fair bit of the unknown world. Defoe manages to give quite accurate depictions of places known, such as parts of the coasts of Madagascar, Africa, and India, and then gives totally erroneous descriptions of the blank areas on the maps of the early eighteenth century. An expedition across Africa, from Mozambique to Ghana (modern names), crosses deserts where we know today there is jungle. A voyage from the Philippines to Madagascar finds a new land roughly where Queensland is, but then sails through open ocean where the Simpson Desert lies.

A sailor will appreciate Defoe’s realistic pictures of life at sea. He obviously spent time at sea himself.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for this forgotten book. Now, where do you get it? There are paper copies, available, though you are unlikely to find it in stock at your local bookstore. Why not download it from Project Gutenberg? It is available there in formats for e-readers (Kindle, Nook, and others) and computers.