The classic castaway arrives on an uninhabited island and takes possession. Anyone who comes ashore later is seen as a potential invader, and often these later arrivals are seen as ‘savages’, ‘cannibals’. In the narratives of settlement (the earlier successors to Robinson Crusoe) they are defeated or converted, so there is a clear demarcation between the castaway and later arrivals. In Robinson Crusoe, the threat comes from clearly criminal Europeans (pirates or mutineers) or from cannibals, and in both cases Crusoe not only defeats the threat but turns violence into kindness, by rescuing the sea captain and Friday respectively. Moreover, this is one point at which the text of Robinson Crusoe differs from the template that later authors took from its episodes of invasion. In Crusoe’s meditations regarding whether he has the right to kill the cannibals and in his later conversations with Friday who has himself been a cannibal, the text comes to something like an anthropological view of cannibalism. It’s a matter of culture: what Crusoe calls a ‘national’ crime. National crimes should be left to God to punish, as He once punished the national crimes of the Israelites (218-221 of the World’s Classics edition of the novel).
There is no sign of these nuances in the nineteenth-century revisions of Robinson Crusoe.1 The invasion of pirates or natives is hardly a real threat in The Swiss Family Robinson or even The Mysterious Island. It amounts to an episode that shows the power or magnanimity of the castaway or settler. Its potential to be a real threat is mobilised in later stories and – surely as part of the same impulse to question the security of settlement – it is put through a series of complex and significant variations. In this context, the rescue of Friday in Tournier’s Friday only seems to repeat the earlier pattern. (Tournier’s novel directly revises Robinson Crusoe and the main characters are named Robinson and Friday.) Friday’s function in the story is to overthrow this Robinson’s order, which is in any case excessive and parodied, and undermined already by his indulgent sexual practices; and this is for Robinson’s own good. In The Year of Grace it is in effect Friday (called Grock) who rescues Crusoe (called Daniel) when he is cast away, and later again saves him when the island is invaded by the security forces.
The narrative of settlement assumes that the castaway is civilized and makes his island civilized by his work of settlement. Latecomers are invaders and are uncivilized. In more recent versions of the castaway tale matters are very different. In Lord of the Flies, for instance, the castaways fall into murderous contest with each other, prompted by the Beast which comes from their own depths. They themselves are the savages. In Stephen King’s ‘Survivor Type’ the castaway is his own cannibal, and eats himself, limb by limb, anaesthetised and made crazy by the heroin he had been smuggling when his ship was wrecked (see ‘Survivor Type’ on this site). In The Wasp Factory the invading threat is Frank’s own mad brother, though Frank has himself been a diligent murderer, so that the phase of orderly settlement has been parodied in this novel’s phase of ingenious and successful murdering, which the approach of Eric in turn disrupts. In The Beach the protagonist Richard has disrupted the order of the commune with his feckless violence some time before the Thais invade and destroy it altogether, and from the beginning the political geography of the island has suggested that the Thais were the possessors and the Westerners the interlopers.
In The Year of Grace and in Aldiss’s Moreau’s Other Island the invasion comes from the forces of order, not from indigenes — security forces in the first and the US Navy in the second. (The island in The Year of Grace is in fact located off the coast of Scotland.) Sometimes some of the settlers ally with the ‘savages’, as happens with Prendick and the ‘beasts’ in The Island of Dr Moreau and, more emphatically, with Calvert Roberts (the equivalent of Prendick) in Moreau’s Other Island; in these, as in other cases, we can’t easily say who might stand for developed western civilization anyway.
By this point in our survey, the order that was implied by the trope of invasion as employed by Defoe or Wyss or Marryat, or Ballantyne in The Coral Island, has given way to a wild and subversive set of alternatives. The list of variations can be extended: in Conrad’s Victory (1915) Heyst’s self-exile on the island with Lena is broken by the arrival of Mr Jones, Ricardo and Pedro, pretending to be castaways but in actuality sinister invaders: a couple of very dubious Europeans and a personage who is usually described as if he were a savage or animal. The twist here, whereby castaways become invaders/savages, conforms to the broad pattern we are observing. In Golding’s The Inheritors (1955), the invaders are the ancestors of modern humans and those invaded, whose very different, peaceful thoughts and feelings we have been following, are close to being the native inhabitants, though of course this is not a castaway story, but rather a novel in which Golding revisits some of the concerns of Lord of the Flies, such as the connections between violence and the abstraction that can accompany the making of signs and symbols. And The Inheritors does serve to mark how far we have come: humans as a species are the invaders and killers.
The parts of castaway narratives that involve mapping and settlement suggest colonization not only materially but in its attitudes, insofar as nature is seen as something to be demarcated and used, but they do no more than open this as a possibility, since (for instance) naming and mapping are also natural and practical in the circumstances; the second phase of the two-part narrative established by Defoe, in which the castaway’s island is invaded, has ideological implications which become increasingly pressing. It would be too literal-minded to say that castaway narratives begin to suggest that colonization is a self-destructive process, but this is an implication that is hard to resist as castaway narratives become increasingly dark, violent and in-turned in the twentieth century, and the darkness comes from the settlers/castaways themselves or from Western rather than indigenous invaders. This is not quite the end of the story, however. The trope of invasion is absent from most of the later castaway tales that introduce an indigene as castaway; the exception that proves the rule happens with the defeat of the invasion of Cox and his warriors in Nation: indigene (Mau) and indigenous ingenuity (the cannon made from papervine which fools the invaders) defeat the villainous Westerner.
Novels and stories mentioned
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719
The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David and Johann Rudolf Wyss, 1812
The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne, 1876
Friday or The Other Island, Michel Tournier, 1967
The Year of Grace, Cristina Fernandez Cubas, 1985
Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954
‘Survivor Type’, Stephen King, 1982
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks, 1984
The Beach, Alex Garland, 1996
Moreau’s Other Island, Brian Aldiss, 1980
The Island of Dr Moreau, H. G. Wells, 1896
Masterman Ready or The Wreck of the “Pacific”, Frederick Marryat, 1841
The Coral Island, R. M. Ballantyne, 1857
Victory, Joseph Conrad, 1915
The Inheritors, William Golding, 1955
Nation, Terry Pratchett, 2008
In chapter 9 of The Great Map of Mankind, Glyndwr Williams traces the hardening of European, especially English, attitudes to non-Europeans, in particular Pacific Islanders; see for instance 292-4. Both the tendency to idealise noble savages and the effort to respond with some equanimity even to cannibalism – which can be seen in Robinson Crusoe, and in voyagers such as Joseph Banks — lost strength. P. J. Marshall and Glyndwr Williams, The Great Map of Mankind: British Perceptions of the World in the Age of Enlightenment, London: Dent, 1982.