Masters and Fridays

Robinson is by no means the forerunner of that model colonizer Kipling had in mind in his “White Man’s Burden” and certainly the one who actually demonstrates how right and natural the superiority of the white man can be. After many years of permanence on the desert island Robinson is eventually allowed to enjoy the pleasure of society again, well, a small society, as his new companion is a Carib cannibal he had rescued from being murdered and eaten by two of his mates.

Now, even if we have one big island for two people only, it is interesting to point out that the relationship between the two belongs, from the beginning, to the master and servant kind and, mind, it is not only a matter of gratitude as Robinson had saved the native’s life, it is natural:

“..he came running to me, laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of an humble, thankful disposition, making a many antick gestures to show it.(…..)At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.”

So Robinson doesn’t even need weapons to subjugate and submit him, he finds himself with his foot on the native’s head as he instinctively understands the white man’s superiority. This act is very potent in effect and inhuman in some way, but Robinson doesn’t feel uncomfortable with it at all, and he doesn’t even attempt to remove his foot from the native’s head. That foot is exactly where it ought to be.

It is also interesting to spend a few words of the choice of proper names. The native must have his own name, but Robinson is not interested in the least in knowing it, and let alone, learn it, so, he calls him Friday, because that was the day he had saved his life. Yet, as soon as Friday can understand him, he teaches him to call  him “Master”, rather than “Robinson”, just to underline that they will never be equal on that island.

Now that the rules of cohabitation are set, Robinson proceeds with putting successfully in place that colonizing model Kipling will outline one day. Subjugate first and then educate. Robinson starts teaching him good manners. If they had to share their meals, well, it should be done properly:

“..I gave him some milk in an earthen pot, and let him see me drink it before him, and sop my bread in it; and I gave him a cake of bread to do the like, which he quickly comply’d with, and made signs that it was very good for him.”

Of course, we teachers know that it takes a certain amount of time to learn rules and procedures properly, in fact, even if Friday seems sincerely to enjoy his bread and milk, he is still a cannibal at heart and candidly takes Robinson to the place where the two dead bodies of his captors were buried with the aim of, well, eating them, with Robinson of course:

“….at this I appeared very angry, expressed my abhorrence of it, made as if I would vomit at the thoughts of it, and beckoned with my hand to him to come away, which he did immediately, with great submission.”

What a waste of good meat, Friday must have thought, but having understood to have done something his master considers wrong, he regards wiser to keep on with those acts of submission which worked so well.

Afterwards, Robinson decides to cover Friday’s nakedness giving him some clothes ” at which he seemed very glad, for he was stark naked” he presumes. Now, I suppose, being in the Caribbean, that is, very hot, Friday must always have enjoyed his nudity, as he had never associated it to sin as white men do, so there is no real reason why he should truly be very glad, but of course, Defoe couldn’t have written otherwise. The last and final step is Friday’s conversion to Christianity. Thus, Robinson accomplishes with the task of the “White Man’s Burden”, which eventually consists in wiping out the culture of the subjugated peoples, which is wrong and evil, and replacing it with the right and good one of the white rulers.

Robinson doesn’t even undergo Kurtz’s transformation once surrounded by the power of nature and the contact with the natives. He is a son of the Enlightenment ,after all, which boasted the excellence of man and the power of his reason, rather than the weakness of his soul. Robinson sees no horror, as Kurtz eventually does. The world for him is rightly divided into two categories: Masters and Fridays.


9 thoughts on “Masters and Fridays

  1. There are a couple of uncomfortable questions we could ask but it’s difficult asking them without appearing to relish the role of “Master”.

    One is, given that cultures develop at different rates and with different pressures, can we ever say one is — for lack of better words — better or more desirable than another?

    The other question is this . . . Is there a “natural” tendency in humans to assume superiority of themselves or others based not on awareness of respective roles, but rather on apparent power being wielded?

    It seems to me that both answers should be qualified “yes”.

    We know for a fact that believing one’s culture as superior and expecting recognition of the fact by others is not unique to the white man.

    I dare say that if extraterrestrials descended tomorrow from the sky, the assumption would be they are superior both in culture and in practice and we would act accordingly (be defferential and non-confrontational if not outright submissive) no matter the color of their skin.

    It would be interesting researching the fiction of other dominant cultures to see if they reflect the same unconscious assumption of their superiority relative to others.

    • If extraterrestrials descended on the earth, they would “exterminate the (us) brutes” pretty soon. The need of feeling superior is somehow innate in any culture. And even among the white men there is always someone who feels “whiter” and more deserving than someone else.

      • See, I don’t think so. Anyone capable of interstellar travel has access to almost anything they want.

        Humans exterminated other humans in the conquering of land and the plunder of natural resources.

        Whereas, I think we might be no more than curiosities to alien civilizations.

        . . . But, they might see it as their duty (in the name of compassion and empathy) to enlighten us in the error of our ways.

        Things like, pasta should only be eaten lightly buttered and adequately salted, the only good doughnuts are those with granulated sugar, and Firefly is one of Humanity’s greatest gifts to the Universe.

  2. An interesting take on the book. Do you know the re-telling of the story from Friday’s perspective, by Michel Tournier? And there’s another take on the story that’s buzzing around in my head, but I can’t pin down at the moment. To me the most interesting thing is probably that Defoe here wrote what’s probably the first real novel in English, and what an achievement. Equally, we can see just how far the genre has yet to travel to reach our times…

  3. In my opinion the relationship between Robinson and Friday makes us understand the mentality of the XVIII century’s European man. Robinson knows exactly how to behave acconding to the rules of his world. He has no hesitations, no doubts, he knows he is doing the right thing.

  4. Daniel Defoe talks about a really important global issue. Defoe explain the different between the black race and the white one , the relation between Robinson and Friday is compare to the one between master and servant. For example he doesn’t care the name of the black man calling him Friday .
    But the real problem is that Friday recognized that he is inferior.
    In the test everthing seens like normal but now in the real life it should not be like Daniel Defoe described.
    Everyone have the same race , it is not depend from our skin color.

  5. The written relationship between Robinson “master” and Friday It is very raw, in my opinion the description for our time is very heavy and very critical.

  6. I think that Defoe had the right idea, which was that Friday be subjected to Robinson’s teachings in becoming civilized. However for me is too extreme and unjust. It is correct that the white man takes the “burden” of teaching the black man, but it’s wrong when the price to pay is slavery.

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