Daniel Defoe

Most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe, the English trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer, and spy Daniel Defoe sadly died 24 April 1731. Daniel Foe (his original name) was probably born in Fore Street in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, London. Defoe later added the aristocratic-sounding “De” to his name, and on occasion claimed descent from the family of De Beau Faux. His birthdate and birthplace are uncertain, and sources offer dates from 1659–1662. His father James Foe was a prosperous tallow chandler and a member of the Worshipful Company of Butchers. In Defoe’s early life, he experienced some of the most unusual occurrences in English history: in 1665, 70,000 were killed by the Great Plague of London, and next year, the Great Fire of London left standing only Defoe’s and two other houses in his neighbourhood. In 1667, when he was probably about seven, a Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway via the River Thames and attacked the town of Chatham in the raid on the Medway. His mother Annie had died by the time he was about ten. Defoe was educated at the Rev. James Fisher’s boarding school in Pixham Lane in Dorking, Surrey. His parents were Presbyterian dissenters, and around the age of 14 he attended a dissenting academy at Newington Green in London run by Charles Morton, and he is believed to have attended the Newington Green Unitarian Church when the English government persecuted those who chose to worship outside the Church of England.

Defoe became a general merchant, dealing at different times in hosiery, general woollen goods, and wine. His ambitions were great and he was able to buy a country estate and a ship (as well as civets to make perfume), though he was rarely out of debt. In 1684, Defoe married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a London merchant, receiving a dowry of £3,700. With his debts and political difficulties, the marriage may have been troubled, but it lasted 50 years and produced eight children. In 1685, Defoe joined the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion but gained a pardon, by which he escaped the Bloody Assizes of Judge George Jeffreys. Queen Mary and her husband William III were jointly crowned in 1688, and Defoe became one of William’s close allies and a secret agent. Some of the new policies led to conflict with France, thus damaging prosperous trade relationships for Defoe, who had established himself as a merchant. In 1692, Defoe was arrested for debts of £700, though his total debts may have amounted to £17,000. His laments were loud and he always defended unfortunate debtors. However some of his financial dealings may have been “slightly irregular”. Following his release, he probably travelled in Europe and Scotland, and it may have been at this time that he traded wine to Cadiz, Porto, and Lisbon. By 1695, he was back in England, now formally using the name “Defoe” and serving as a “commissioner of the glass duty”, responsible for collecting taxes on bottles. In 1696, he ran a tile and brick factory in what is now Tilbury in Essex and lived in the parish of Chadwell St Mary.

Defoe’s first publication was An Essay upon Projects, a series of proposals for social and economic improvement, published in 1697. From 1697 to 1698, he defended the right of King William III to a standing army during disarmament, after the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) had ended the Nine Years’ War (1688–97). His most successful poem, The True-Born Englishman (1701), defended the king against the perceived xenophobia of his enemies, satirising the English claim to racial purity. In 1701, Defoe presented the Legion’s Memorial to the Speaker of the House of Commons, later his employer Robert Harley, flanked by a guard of sixteen gentlemen of quality. It demanded the release of the Kentish petitioners, who had asked Parliament to support the king in an imminent war against France. However The death of William III in 1702 once again created a political upheaval, as the king was replaced by Queen Anne who immediately began her offensive against Nonconformists. Defoe became a target, for his pamphleteering and political activities and he was arrest and placement in a pillory on 31 July 1703, principally on account of his December 1702 pamphlet entitled The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church, purporting to argue for their extermination, in which he ruthlessly satirised both the High church Tories and those Dissenters who hypocritically practised so-called “occasional conformity”, such as his Stoke Newington neighbour Sir Thomas Abney. Defoe was arrested and charged with seditious libel. He was found guilty after a trial at the Old Bailey in front of the notoriously sadistic judge Salathiel Lovell Who sentenced him to a punitive fine, to public humiliation in a pillory, and to an indeterminate length of imprisonment which would only end upon the discharge of the punitive fine. According to legend, the publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects and to drink to his health.

After his three days in the pillory, Defoe went into Newgate Prison. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, brokered his release in exchange for Defoe’s co-operation as an intelligence agent for the Tories. In exchange for such co-operation with the rival political side, Harley paid some of Defoe’s outstanding debts. Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703, which raged through the night of 26/27 November. It caused severe damage to London and Bristol, uprooted millions of trees, and killed more than 8,000 people, mostly at sea. The event became the subject of Defoe’s The Storm (1704), which includes a collection of witness accounts of the tempest. In 1704 he set up his periodical A Review of the Affairs of France which supported the Harley Ministry, chronicling the events of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714). The Review ran three times a week without break until 1713. Defoe was involved in the Gregg Affair an unscrupulous clerk William Gregg committed treason After seeing vital state papers left lying in the open. After 1708, Defoe continued writing the Review to support Godolphin, then again to support Harley and the Tories in the Tory ministry of 1710–1714. The Tories fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, but Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government, writing “Tory” pamphlets that undermined the Tory point of view.

Not all of Defoe’s pamphlet writing was political. One pamphlet was originally published anonymously, entitled “A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal the Next Day after her Death to One Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury the 8th of September, 1705.” It deals with interaction between the spiritual realm and the physical realm and was most likely written in support of Charles Drelincourt’s The Christian Defense against the Fears of Death (1651). It describes Mrs. Bargrave’s encounter with her old friend Mrs. Veal after she had died. As many as 545 titles have been credited to Defoe, ranging from satirical poems, political and religious pamphlets, and volumes. (Furbank and Owens argue for the much smaller number of 276 published items in Critical Bibliography (1998).

Sadly by 1692 His ambitious business ventures saw him bankrupt again with a wife and seven children to support. In 1703, he published a satirical pamphlet against the High Tories and in favour of religious tolerance entitled The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church and was once again prosecuted for seditious libel and was sentenced to be pilloried, fined 200 marks, and detained at the Queen’s pleasure. He wrote to William Paterson, the London Scot and founder of the Bank of England and part instigator of the Darien scheme, who was in the confidence of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, leading minister and spymaster in the English Government. Harley accepted Defoe’s services and released him in 1703. He immediately published The Review, which appeared weekly, then three times a week, which became the main mouthpiece of the English Government promoting the Act of Union 1707. In 1709, Defoe authored a rather lengthy book entitled The History of the Union of Great Britain, which attempts to explain the facts leading up to the Act of Union 1707, dating to 6 December 1604 when King James was presented with a proposal for unification. Defoe began his campaign in The Review and other pamphlets aimed at English opinion, claiming that it would end the threat from the north, gaining for the Treasury an “inexhaustible treasury of men”, a valuable new market increasing the power of England.

In 1706, Harley despatched Defoe to Edinburgh as a secret agent to assist the Treaty of Union. Defoe was a Presbyterian who had suffered in England for his convictions, and as such he was accepted as an adviser to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and committees of the Parliament of Scotland. For Scotland, he used different arguments, even the opposite of those which he used in England, usually ignoring the English doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament. In 1709 Defoe published a massive history of the Union and also used his Scottish experience to write his Tour thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726. Defoe’s description of Glasgow (Glaschu) as a “Dear Green Place” has often been misquoted as a Gaelic translation for the town’s name. The Gaelic Glas could mean grey or green, while chu means dog or hollow. Glaschu probably means “Green Hollow”. The “Dear Green Place”, like much of Scotland, was a hotbed of unrest against the Union and The “Dear Green Place” and “City of God” both required government troops to put down the rioters tearing up copies of the Treaty at almost every mercat cross in Scotland.

In 1715 He wrote apologia Appeal to Honour and Justice, a defence of his part in Harley’s Tory ministry and in 1717 he wrote The Family Instructor, a conduct manual on religious duty; Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsr. Mesnager , in which he impersonates Nicolas Mesnager, the French plenipotentiary who negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht. In 1718 he wrote A Continuation of the Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy, a satire of European politics and religion, ostensibly written by a Muslim in Paris. In 1719 Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, which relates the story of a man’s shipwreck on a desert island for thirty years and his subsequent adventures. It is based in part on the story of the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years stranded in the Juan Fernández Islands. Defoe’s family also met someone called Crusoe in Bedford, from whence the information in these books was gathered and Defoe went to school in Stoke Newington, London, with a friend named Caruso.

Defoe’s next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), an adventure story whose first half covers a traversal of Africa and whose second half taps into the contemporary fascination with piracy. In 1720 Defoe wrote Memoirs of a Cavalier, which is set during the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War. Defoe next novel A Journal of the Plague Year was published in 1722 and accounts the Great Plague of London in 1665. Defoe’s next novel Colonel Jack was written in 1722 and follows an orphaned boy from a life of poverty and crime to colonial prosperity, military and marital imbroglios, and religious conversion, driven by a problematic notion of becoming a “gentleman.” Defoe Also wrote Moll Flanders,in 1722, Defoe another first-person picaresque novel of the fall and eventual redemption of a lone woman in 17th-century England. The titular heroine appears as a whore, bigamist, and thief, lives in The Mint, commits adultery and incest, and yet manages to retain the reader’s sympathy before finding redemption. Defoe’s final novel, Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724), narrates the moral and spiritual decline of a high society courtesan.

Defoe also wrote conduct manuals, including Religious Courtship (1722), The Complete English Tradesman (1726) in which He discusses the role of the tradesman in England in comparison to tradesmen internationally, arguing that the British system of trade is far superior. He also wrote The New Family Instructor (1727) and published a number of books decrying the breakdown of the social order, such as The Great Law of Subordination Considered (1724) and Everybody’s Business is Nobody’s Business (1725) and works on the supernatural, like The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magick (1727) and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). His works on foreign travel and trade include A General History of Discoveries and Improvements (1727) and Atlas Maritimus and Commercialis (1728). Between 1724 and 1727 he wrote A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (1724–27), which provided a panoramic survey of British trade on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

During his life Defoe was a prolific and versatile writer, producing more than five hundred books, pamphlets, and journals on various topics, including politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology, and the supernatural. He was also a pioneer of economic journalism. His novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders have also both been adapted for film and television.

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