Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth

Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth

by Katherine Frank

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The biography of a book and its hero: the story of Defoe, the man who wrote Robinson Crusoe, and of Robert Knox, the man who was Crusoe.January 1719. A man sits at a table, writing. Nearly sixty years old, Daniel Defoe is troubled with gout and mired in political controversy and legal threats. But for the moment he is preoccupied by a younger man on a barren


The biography of a book and its hero: the story of Defoe, the man who wrote Robinson Crusoe, and of Robert Knox, the man who was Crusoe.January 1719. A man sits at a table, writing. Nearly sixty years old, Daniel Defoe is troubled with gout and mired in political controversy and legal threats. But for the moment he is preoccupied by a younger man on a barren shore—Robinson Crusoe. Several miles south, another old man, Robert Knox, sits bent over a heavy volume—published nearly forty years before. Knox’s Historical Relation was a best seller when it was published in 1681, just a year after he escaped from Ceylon and returned to England. Where did Crusoe come from? And what is the secret of his endurance? Crusoe explores the intertwined lives of two real men, Daniel Defoe and Robert Knox, and the character and book that emerged from their peculiar conjunction. It is the biography of a book and its hero: the story of Defoe, the man who wrote Robinson Crusoe, and of Robert Knox, the man who was Crusoe.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
“An unconventional, surprising and thoughtful book. Knox and Defoe never met, but their entwined stories of imprisonment give a fascinating glimpse of a world stirring into modernity. Extraordinary.”
The Wall Street Journal
“In Crusoe, Katherine Frank explores the intertwined lives of Defoe and Knox, arguing that Knox was the main model for Robinson Crusoe.”
The New York Times Book Review
“An ambitious new book about Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, and the obscure Englishman who might have been a significant inspiration for one of literature’s most famous characters. Frank’s analysis is supple and sophisticated—and convincing.”
Publishers Weekly
While authors such as Tim Severin have made the case for various models for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Frank’s well-researched if overly detailed account makes the case that his primary model was real-life voyager Robert Knox, who was detained in Ceylon beginning in 1659, the year that saw Crusoe cast away. This is no coincidence. Although Robinson Crusoe was billed as “Written by Himself,” Frank says this ruse represents one more effort by the prolific inventor of the English novel to distance himself from the source of his invention of this most enduring myth of English fortitude and adaptability. Indeed, it is virtually certain that by the time the crafty Defoe published his lesser-known Captain Singleton, writes Frank, he was quite familiar with all the events of Knox’s unpublished autobiography, not to mention the sailor’s (later sea captain’s) 1681 bestselling An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. Once it was generally ascertained that Defoe was the author of Crusoe, there was no rush to enlighten the public that, unlike Knox, Defoe may not have journeyed at all. Despite its intrinsic interest, however, Frank’s account is tedious and scattershot in drawing connections between her two protagonists. 12 pages of illus. and maps. Agent: David Godwin (U.K.) (Apr.)
The Independent
“The book captures the vigor, toughness, cruelty, romance and excitement of late 17th century England and its early imperial adventures.”
Sunday Times
“This is a beautifully constructed book and, ultimately, a moving one. But it is also more than fine literary sleuth work: it finds profound echoes between its three protagonists’ lives, echoes that make their characters seem all the more three-dimensional, and full of pathos.”
Library Journal
Daniel Defoe was a pioneer of the novel, writing his first one, Robinson Crusoe (1719), when he was about 60. What inspired that story, which, like Defoe's other major fiction, has remained in print for almost 300 years? Frank (A Voyager Out: A Life of Mary Kingsley) alternately explores Defoe's creation of Robinson Crusoe and the life of East India Company sea captain Robert Knox, who, decades before Defoe's novel, was taken prisoner on the island of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and remained captive for 20 years. The story of Knox's imprisonment, based on his own chronicle printed in 1681, is enthralling, while that of the enterprising and prolific Defoe is equally moving. Robinson Crusoe is the minor player here; what Frank is after is not simply to claim Knox's experiences as Defoe's inspiration (many see Alexander Selkirk as the source) but to bring back to us the long lives of these two compelling figures, who probably never met, demonstrating the far remove of the era and the astonishing modernity of Defoe's mind. VERDICT Defoe aficionados will enjoy the chance to argue about Crusoe's sources; serious general readers and those who love breathing the air of earlier times will be stirred by this double study.—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Alexander Selkirk's ordeal as a castaway may have seeded the plot for Robinson Crusoe, but Daniel Defoe's tale is a clear reflection of his own life's struggles. At the end of his life, Defoe labeled Crusoe more of an allegory than a novel, implying a good degree of autobiography at the same time. Biographer Frank (Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, 2002) introduces Robert Knox, once a true captive, who survived on his wits and the English practice of making your environment adapt to your needs rather than adjusting to it. Defoe mined information from a vast library, including The Odyssey, The Tempest, Pilgrim's Progress and an extensive number of published accounts of castaways. As Defoe cherry-picked incidents from different lives, he adapted them to reflect disasters he had suffered. He also had no compunction about fitting other stories neatly into his own. His Captain Singleton contained blatantly lifted passages from Knox's published story of his 19-year captivity in Ceylon. Frank parallels the lives and adventures of Defoe, Knox and Crusoe, illustrating a deep relationship between author and models. This side-by-side biography of the two men shows similarities between their lives and their attitudes toward disaster, although their personalities and moralities were markedly different. Many have said that Crusoe is much more a self-help book than a novel, while Knox's story is a treatise rather than a travel book. They both exhibit a similarly distinct philosophy of life. Defoe proselytizes on morals, lessons and their meanings while encouraging his readers to turn the challenges of adversity into advantage. Knox teaches by example. Frank wisely leaves the minutia of spotting duplication in their works to Defoe scholars while she focuses on the values and beliefs of the two men. Knox came out to be the better of the two, and his little-known story deserves reading.

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Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth

By Katherine Frank


Copyright © 2012 Katherine Frank
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4917-8


Two Writing Men

London, 1719

He sees a lone man on a beach.

January 1719. A chill, late-winter afternoon, dark closing in. A man sits at a table, writing, in a solid, red-brick house on Church Street, Stoke Newington, three miles north of the City of London.

Unlike the man on the shore, Daniel Defoe is far from alone. His wife Mary is somewhere about the house. Also three adult, unmarried daughters, Hannah, Henrietta and Sophia. Defoe's life, in fact, is crowded with people: one more grown daughter (married and settled), and two grown sons, both cause for heartache. And beyond his family, booksellers and printers waiting for copy, journalist and political enemies, business contacts, informers, merchants and creditors. Deadlines, bills, legal threats.

But for the moment, Defoe is by himself in his book-lined library in his substantial, three-storey Stoke Newington house, with stables and four acres of grounds, an orchard and gardens. A man now in his fifty-ninth or sixtieth year. By eighteenth-century standards, Defoe is on the brink of old age. He has survived 'a violent fit of apoplexy' and is plagued by gout and 'the stone'. He describes himself as bowed down by 'hints of mortality' and 'the infirmities of a life of sorrow and fatigue'.

But sitting at his table in Stoke Newington, Defoe's bare, wigless head is full of a much younger man on a barren shore, vomiting salt water, running about as though crazed, wringing his hands and beating his chest.

The younger man, of course, is Robinson Crusoe. The surname filched from a long-dead school friend named Timothy Cruso who grew up to be a Presbyterian minister, famous for his piety and published sermons.

Crusoe, the young man on the shore, stares out at a listing ship, stranded on rocks that rear like stony monsters out of the sea. Behind the shipwreck, the burning globe of the sun slowly sinks down below the horizon.

Some minutes pass. Now the younger man is cradled high up in the fork of a tree near the shore. He is asleep. The sea lions have stopped howling. The tide is so far out that you can scarcely hear the waves crash on the shore.

Or so it might have happened. This, conceivably, is how it all began.

What we know for certain is that in early 1719 Defoe's situation, ensconced in his prosperous-looking Stoke Newington residence with stables and orchard, is not all that it appears to be. He lives in a parish described by a contemporary as 'pleasantly situated, and full of fine Country Houses for Citizens, being about 3 or 4 miles from London'. Defoe has been accused of prostituting his pen to the highest bidder in order to 'repair and beautify his habitation at Newington'. But he does not, in fact, own the freehold of the house and its lands. They belong to a widow named Anne Sutton. Defoe has merely taken out a lease on the 'brick messauge, gardens, orchard etc' at a rate he cannot afford – £20 a year. He is also renting the property under an assumed name, probably to evade creditors.

From the outside, it looks like a well-to-do gentleman's residence, but within the house is 'quaint and queer ... built at several different times', with dark wainscoted walls, narrow passageways and floors made of creaking, uneven boards. There is gossip that Defoe keeps ropes and ladders handy in order to make a swift exit out of a second- or third-storey window should an unwelcome visitor call. Heavy bolts and padlocks secure the doors from the inside. The surrounding gardens and grounds are enclosed by dark, menacingly named alleys: Cutthroat Lane, Hussey Lane and Pawnbroker's Lane.

Two miles south of Defoe in Stoke Newington, an even older man named Robert Knox sits in rented lodgings in the parish of St Peter le Poer writing a letter to his cousin, the Reverend John Strype, who is the vicar of Low Leyton in Essex. Knox and Strype are both nearly eighty, the sole family survivors of their generation, as Knox often reminds his cousin. There has been a close bond between them since childhood. Occasionally they meet up, though not often enough for Knox, who knows that Strype, despite his advanced years, still crosses the River Lea to London most weeks to confer with his antiquarian friends.

Unlike Strype, Knox has no wife or children. Unlike Defoe, he is well off. He could afford to own an establishment as large as Defoe's rented house in Stoke Newington. But in 1700, when Knox retired from his career as a sea captain, he chose to settle 'in a lodging Chamber' in the home of the Bartlett family in St Peter le Poer, a parish that was once, as its name indicates, impoverished, but is now filled with 'many fair Houses, possessed by rich Merchants, and others'. Behind the Bartletts' house Knox has, 'with the Concent [sic] of the Landlord', 'inclosed a corner of the Court with a bricke wall to make me a small garden in the City of London & planted trees therein', which gives him 'great content'.

But it is a lonely life for the old man. 'Idle and droneish' is how Knox describes his days to 'Cosen Strype'. Knox spent much of his life sailing the world in the service of the East India Company. Now he is too infirm even to take the walks to Hackney Marsh that he used to relish. All his friends from his seafaring days and the Royal Society have died. He hasn't seen his adopted daughter for nearly forty years. Even the widows who pursued Knox when he first retired have given up or found solace elsewhere.

In their letters Knox and Strype exchange news of poor and ailing relations and describe the symptoms of their own illnesses. Knox reports on his 'violent frequent fitts of Gravell' and recurrent 'head ake, a disease', he remarks to Strype, 'incident to our family'. Knox has recently received news that Strype has suffered a stroke in the pulpit while preaching his Sunday sermon. Knox explains that he has been unable to visit Strype because of 'an itching disposition', but he promises to call on his afflicted cousin as soon as he is able to make the coach journey to Low Leyton. When Strype receives Knox's letter he neatly endorses it on the back: 'Capt Knox Notice of my sudden illness while I was at divine service. His present distemper An itching. Both our great Ages.'

In their frequent letters to each other, Knox and Strype also discuss the books they are writing. Strype is labouring to complete his long-delayed, updated edition of John Stow's Survey of London, first published in 1598. Knox has toiled even longer on what he calls 'my Booke of Ceylon with Maniscripts [sic] of my owne Life'. For the past twenty years, since Knox retired, his 'Booke' has occupied most of his waking hours.

Knox's An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon was originally published nearly forty years earlier, in 1681, by Richard Chiswell, Printer to the Royal Society, at the Rose and Crown in St Paul's Churchyard. The title page distils its extraordinary contents: 'An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies: Together with an Account of the Detaining in Captivity [of] the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there and of the Author's Miraculous Escape. By Robert Knox, a Captive there near Twenty Years.'

The story this book relates is amazing and unprecedented. In 1660, at the age of nineteen, Knox was stranded on Ceylon and taken captive by the King of Kandy. His father's ship, an East Indiaman called the Anne, had been badly damaged in a 'mighty storm' off the Coromandel Coast of India. Leaking badly, the ship was forced to seek refuge on Ceylon, the tear-shaped island off the south-eastern tip of India.

Captain Robert Knox (after whom his son was named) sailed into the harbour of Trincomalee on the eastern side of the island in order to repair his disabled ship. Much of Ceylon at this time was under the control of the Dutch East India Company – the great rival of the British East India Company in whose service the Anne sailed. But the native King of Kandy still ruled over a large territory at the heart of the island, and the Dutch had abandoned their fort at Trincomalee which now had a native governor. Captain Knox hoped that Trincomalee would provide a safe haven in which to repair the ship, and that he and his men would remain unnoticed – or at least undisturbed – by both the Dutch authorities and the natives.

But news of the arrival of the 'outlandish' men of the Anne soon reached the King of Kandy, Raja Sinha II, in the interior of the island, and the King sent an armed contingent to Trincomalee to investigate. At first the King's soldiers tried to entice Captain Knox and his men inland to the King's territory. But when the 'Britishers' refused to be lured, the soldiers ensnared Captain Knox, his young son and fourteen other men from the Anne and forcibly took them captive. It would be twenty years before young Robert Knox saw his 'native countrey', England, again.

When Knox's Historical Relation of Ceylon was published in September 1681 – within a year of his miraculous escape from the island and return to England – it caused a sensation and was a best-seller. Among its many early buyers and readers was a young London wholesaler of hosiery and cloth in Freeman's Yard named Daniel Foe. Years later, in 1719, the same man – who has by now reinvented himself as Daniel De Foe, Gentleman of Stoke Newington – will still have Knox's Historical Relation of Ceylon on his shelves, perhaps even open on the table before him as he writes his own castaway's tale.

By this time, Knox's Ceylon book has long been out of print. But this wasn't meant to be the case, and for Robert Knox the story is not over. The book had proved so popular when first published, that Richard Chiswell planned – and promised Knox – to publish a second edition. To this end, in September 1681, when Knox had been back in England just a year and was about to go to sea again as commander of the East India Company ship, the Tonqueen Merchant, Chiswell provided him with a special, enlarged copy of his printed book, into which had been bound many blank folio sheets. Chiswell urged Knox during his second voyage to the East Indies to expand even further his account of his long captivity and also to make revisions and corrections to his original text.

Two years later, in 1683, when Knox arrived back in England after a voyage to India, Bantam, Batavia and Tonkin, he duly delivered to Chiswell the special copy of his book with all the inserted blank pages now crammed full with his handwriting with its elaborate upper-case letters and abundant flourishes. But Chiswell, to Knox's great disappointment, did not, as promised, rush out a second edition of the Historical Relation of Ceylon. Knox's disorganised mass of new material, revisions and corrections had been written haphazardly – as memories, ideas and facts came into his head – often late at night by candlelight in his ship's cabin or in a cramped, stifling room in a remote company factory on the coast of India or Java.

The original 1681 published edition of Knox's book had been edited by his cousin John Strype and also by the scientist Robert Hooke, a leading member of the Royal Society. Now Chiswell realised how great their contribution must have been. Knox's revised and expanded manuscript was disjointed and repetitive. Hooke by this time, though still a close friend of Knox's, was preoccupied with other projects. Strype was also too busy to lend more assistance to Knox. Seventeenth-century booksellers and publishers such as Chiswell were really just printers who did little if any editorial work on the books they published and sold.

Knox, meanwhile, was due to sail again as Captain of the Tonqueen Merchant. On 4 April 1684, the East India Company commissioned him to make a voyage to buy slaves on Madagascar and transport them to St Helena, the remote island in the South Atlantic where the slaves were to provide labour for the island's plantations. (The irony of the erstwhile captive turning slave trader never, apparently, occurred to Knox or to his contemporaries.) On the eve of Knox's departure, Chiswell told him that his manuscript needed further work. And so when Knox embarked on his next voyage, his book and manuscript sailed with him once again.

But when Knox returned from this slaving voyage in late 1685 and delivered his reworked (and inevitably further enlarged) manuscript to Chiswell, the publisher was still unhappy with it. Perhaps he realised even at this stage that the more Knox worked on his magnum opus the less publishable it became. The book-seller, however, still didn't give up on the idea of a second edition. Over the next fifteen years, he repeatedly demanded more changes. Knox made three further voyages to the East Indies, and both at sea and on land he continued to work on his 'Booke'.

But when he periodically resubmitted it, Chiswell would put him off with an excuse. Chiswell was not just dismayed by Knox's prolix, disorganised manuscript material; there were other reasons for his reluctance to republish the Ceylon book now. In the last quarter of the seventeenth century and first decades of the eighteenth, books of sea voyages and journeys of discovery began to flood the market. Works such as the best-selling Voyages of William Dampier, Woodes Rogers's A Cruising Voyage Round the World and John Esquemeling's Buccaneers of America had all proved enormously popular. In Chiswell's eyes these were stiff competition for Knox's book and perhaps even superseded it.

But Knox himself remained undaunted. In 1700, when he retired from seafaring and settled with the Bartletts in St Peter le Poer, he worked harder than ever on his 'Booke of Ceylon'. He had also embarked on a separate but related project. As he confided to John Strype, in the mid-1690s he had begun to write an autobiographical account of his life covering the years before and after his captivity on Ceylon. Knox asked Chiswell for another copy of his published book with more blank pages bound into it. Into this second, enlarged folio volume – on the clean pages before and after the printed text – he wrote what he called his Memoir and made even more additions, corrections and revisions to his published Ceylon book.

In 1708, seven years after he retired, Knox commissioned an oil portrait of himself which he probably intended to be engraved for the frontispiece of his posthumously published autobiography. It is an impressive, three-quarter-length portrait signed by an artist named P. Trampon. Knox is seated, facing forward, gazing directly out at the viewer. He wears a brown silk robe over an embroidered, oriental-looking red waistcoat and white linen shirt. He has a flowing wig of brown curls that makes him appear younger than his sixty-seven years. His right hand holds a quill pen. The little finger on this hand has a gold ring on it – a simple gold band – which may be the ring that his father gave to him just before he died. Knox's left hand rests on an open volume on which is written 'Memoires of my owne life 1708'. On the wall behind him hang all the symbolic paraphernalia of a gentleman and a ship's captain: a sword, a cane, a pair of pistols, a lodestone attached to a little anchor and a quadrant.

When Knox turns seventy in 1711, he is still working on his book and autobiography with undiminished vigour. Retired life for him is empty and monotonous, but his past is vivid and palpable. It floods and fills to bursting his vacant days. He obsessively reads and rereads the printed 1681 Chiswell edition of his Ceylon book, and as he does, he remembers and adds more and more. He is physically confined to his rented lodgings in St Peter le Poer, but mentally he travels far and wide to Ceylon and to other islands – Java, Sumatra, Madagascar, St Helena and Barbados. He lives again with his long-dead father, his lost shipmates, and with his half-caste adopted daughter Lucea whom he 'loved well' and hasn't seen since he left her in Ceylon all those years ago.

Meanwhile, in the midst of Knox's unflagging industry, his publisher Richard Chiswell died. Chiswell's partner in the book-seller's firm, a man named Daniel Midwinter, was even less inclined to republish Knox's Ceylon book. Midwinter, in fact, tells Knox that the cost of paper is 'too deare' at the present rate to do a second printing. It was at some point after Midwinter's judgement that Knox turned to John Strype for help. Strype's ecclesiastical and antiquarian books were also published by Chiswell and Midwinter, and initially Knox asked Strype to intercede with Midwinter concerning the 'dearness' of paper.

But Knox was soon prodding Strype into enquiring what other reasons Midwinter might have for delaying publication. Strype spoke to the bookseller and diplomatically reported back to his cousin that Midwinter was concerned about the excessive length of the expanded material and said that Knox was repetitive and 'wrot things twice over'. As Knox pointed out in his reply, this 'cannot make ye things to be Lesse true; tho may show ye infirmity of my age'.

Thirty years earlier, when his book was first published in 1681, Knox had been grateful for the 'assistance of my Cousen John Strype ... who composed' his manuscript into 'heads and chapters for my papers were promiscuous and out of forme'.


Excerpted from Crusoe by Katherine Frank. Copyright © 2012 Katherine Frank. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Born and educated in America, Katherine Frank is the author of several acclaimed biographies—of Emily Brontë, Mary Kingsley, and Indira Gandhi. She lives in England.

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