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.

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The White Man’s Burden

wm1When Theodore Roosevelt read  Rudyard Kipling ‘s poem: “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands”, was so very favourably impressed that he copied the poem and sent it to his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge with the following comment : “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view“. The publication of the poem in McClure’s Magazine in February 1899  coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. In his poem Kipling invited the U.S: to take up the “burden” of the empire, as Britain and other European nations had done. Kipling thought that the white man had the duty to help the less fortunate peoples of the empire and the goodness of their civilizing mission would have crushed any resented opposition even if, choosing the word “burden” to define this glorious accomplishment, Kipling somehow underlined that it was not such a simple task. More than one hundred years after the publication of this poem, just reading through the pages of any newspaper, we know there must have been something underrated in that optimistic vision.

wm2The fact is that the “civilising mission” consisted not only in expanding a more modern economic and social system – certainly more for the sake of the civilizers rather than the  civilized – but imposing those values and habits typical of western cultures without caring much of the sensibility of the “captives” that Kipling defined in the poem “half devil and half child”. In these last two expressions there is all the blindness and hypocrisy of an age. The natives were seen as devils, that is “sullen”, dark , evil; therefore, they needed to be redeemed. At this point we should remember the role of the Church in promoting the idea of the expansion of the empire as fundamental for the spreading of the Christian faith. Since the discovery of America, economic and religious issues had always gone hand in hand, in fact. However, that childish trait should have made easier the “salvation” of those poor souls, because of their “natural” naivety and gullibility. Needless to say that such representation earned Kipling bitter accusations of racism.

wm3Certainly in those words there was nothing new, but a prejudice which had been commonly shared for ages; therefore, the civilizing mission of the white man was deliberately indifferent of those values expressed by the cultures of the subdued peoples of the empire, which were considered inferior. Even Robinson Crusoe, after all, was a prototype of this vision. He feeds Friday, teaches him British good manner and even if they are alone on a desert island the master and servant relationship is preserved: Robinson wants to be called “Master” and names his companion “Friday”, rather than giving him a proper name; therefore, he does not seem to consider him a person, he just wants him to remember the day Robinson/ the Master saved him and then he proceeds with his own private civilizing mission. Had he been interested, he would have made the effort to ask his name, but maybe it sounded too democratic for the time.

Sikh officers of the British 15th Punjab Infantry regiment, shortly after the Indian Mutiny, 1858But is it really possible to cohabit just fixing the rules of a master/servant relationship based on an alleged superiority, without caring about the nature of that servant? There is a great risk, in fact. It could happen that  the Fridays in the world one day might rebel, just because of the carelessness of a Robinson for whom a little detail may be meaningless, while it is, actually, so meaningful for them, just like a trivial cartridge, for instance. We are talking about the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. The British had issued the Sepoys, the native Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army, with new gunpowder cartridges. To load their rifles, the soldiers had to bite the cartridge first, but this simple action was considered an insult to both Hindus and Muslims, as they believed that the cartridges they were supplied with were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims and tallow (cow fat) which angered the Hindus, as cows were equal to goddess to them. The Sepoys’ British officers regarded these claims unimportant, and suggested to grease a batch of the new cartridges with beeswax or mutton fat.  For the Sepoys this was evidence that the original cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow. Hence, a meaningless cartridge became the cause of a meaningful uprising that in all Indian History books is regarded as India’s first War of Independence.

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Man Friday

rob 1

Was Robinson Crusoe…….ehm, gay????”  “Eh?” was my astonished reply, as the question had been seriuosly posed by one of my brightest and most diligent, sensitive students; it didn’t actually look like a kind of joke. She was also so confident about her intuition that she wanted to know whether the Puritan reading public of the age had favourably accepted the character of Robinson Crusoe. This serious statement made me giggle a little, as I found unlikely and somewhat daring that Daniel Defoe, the Dissenter, the author who is commonly regarded as the father of the English novel , would have openly exposed his very first fictional hero to a discussion on his sexuality or sex in general without a moral implication. A certain prudery, in fact, pervades the novel. I remember an episode in particular that struck me. As soon as Robinson recovers from the shock of the shipwreck and understands to be all alone on the desert island, his very first concern, before thinking about food, water or even a safe shelter, is actually his own nakedness, as his clothes are ragged and has no change. He had not realized that there were no pleasures of society to be enjoyed on a desert island yet, and clothes were, actually, quite unnecessary.

rob2However, there must have been something that had nourished the suspects of my student and the passage indicted was Robinson’s description of Friday. Friday is a twenty-six-year-old  native Caribbean and cannibal, Crusoe had saved from the hands of other cannibals. Very likely Defoe wanted his readers to favourably accept him, therefore when it came the time to introduce him, he made a very accurate but implausible portrait of a native savage, who was not so like the other savages. Crusoe tells us that Friday was “comely” and “handsome, words that, I am pretty sure, were the origin of my student’s confusion, and soon invites the reader not to listen to his prejudices, because the man is NOT what everybody would believe. He does NOT have ” a fierce and surly aspect” , but “a very good countenance” and when he smiles he has “all the sweetness and softness of a European“. His hair is NOT “curled like wool“, but long and black; his nose is NOT “flat like the negroes“, but small ; his lips are strangely thin and he can admire his beautiful set of teeth as white as ivory; his skin is NOT “quite black“, but “very tawny“, NOT  “the ugly, nauseous tawny as the Brazilians the Virginians, and other native Americans are”, but something “very agreeable“. A very tanned Italian in short. Defoe crashes even the last prejudice, telling us that Friday must be also a clever, young man,  because Robinson notices a certain sparkle in his black eyes and his forehead is very large and high, the distinctive trait of an intelligent man.

rob 3Robinson, is not attracted by Friday the man, but rather, Friday the potential slave. Robinson used to trade slaves and looks at him with the eyes of somebody who could have made a good profit from that young man standing in front of him, as he is “ perfectly well made, with straight long limbs, not too large, tall and well-shaped”, therefore strong and those beautiful set of white teeth are a sign of his good health. Therefore, the only relationship possible between Robinson and Friday, and that we are allowed to know,  is that of master and slave. It is really interesting to remark that Robinson does nothing to subjugate Friday, but rather the latter instinctively understands that the white man is naturally superior. Robinson teaches him good manners and gives him the name of Friday, because that was the day he had saved his life and as soon as he can understand him, teaches him to call “Master”, rather than “Robinson”, just to underline that they will never be equal on that island.