LITERATURE - ENGLAND - 17th CENTURY
DANIEL DEFOE, HIS NOVEL 'ROXANA', AND BRITISH COLONIALISM
In his most important work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber claimed that capitalism "educates and selects the economic subjects it needs through a process of survival of the fittest." Further, as Thomas Haskell observes, Weber, in constructing this link, recognized an "obvious ... circularity in the relationship between institutions and individual character." Capitalism, in other words, could not sustain itself without economic men, nor could economic men maintain their prestige of social place without capitalism. While this analysis may seem reductionist to late twentieth century eyes, it does demonstrate that at least certain men, and women, were swayed by the logic of capitalisms productive possibilities.
Daniel Defoe can be characterized as one of these economic men. Furthermore, in his literary work Roxana (1724), Defoe describes a woman (Roxana) who can be construed as a mirror image of himself - a woman interested in capitalist modes of production as means to transform herself and her society. She became, in her own words, "as expert" in business, "as any She-Merchant of them all" (131). A phrase which mirrors Defoes own claims to the role of "simple tradesman." He was a man whose works, as Michel Foucault may have described them, were a part of his "own biography," a recursive discussion with himself. As this essay shall discuss in greater detail, Defoe and Roxana were also intimately connected with Britains imperial expansion, and the expansion of the West in general. This is illustrated by the exotic, or as Edward Said would contend, "Orientalist," Turkish dress that comes to haunt Roxana later in life. A dress seized in warfare with Europes longest running "other," the adherants of Islam, along with the owners of those dresses - Turkish women who were turned into human chattel in an age when slavery was one of Britains most profitable industries. In light of the above commentary, this paper shall discuss, as Daniel Headrick calls them, the "tools" of that expansion as seen in Roxana by Roxana (a new economic woman), specifically trade and slavery, and how those tools were used as engines for the creation of systems of knowledge and control.
Despite Daniel Defoes often dramatic failures as a capitalist, both as a merchant, ship-owner, importer, and even writer, Defoe can be described (as this paper has already claimed) as a defender of the process Weber explicates above - as the embodiment of the homo economicus Weber found so necessary for the capitalist take-off. This is at least partly due to Defoes intense interest in capitalist modes of production, in effeciency (the trope of capitalism), "improvements," and in the exploitation and expansion of new markets along imperialist lines that would favor English trading interests. He was, moreover, a figure, who, "in the last years of life," when Britains economy had stagnated in the wake of the South Sea Bubble affair, urged his countrymen "to take to the seas and to expand" the empire and trade in a quest for "power and wealth."
Defoe was also fiercely interested in the politics of his time, and the social issues (e.g., welfare reform, religious freedom, science and society, womens education, etc.) that framed the British isles in the aftermath of James IIs dethronement. Indeed, upon his death in 1731, Tobias Smollett admitted him to the ranks of "the most remarkable political writers of his age." In the words of Nietzsche, when writing of the newly birthed capitalist man of the eighteenth century, Defoe was that "ripest fruit" he so admired and condemned as a product of the cultural process initiated by capitalism, the "sovereign individual." In other words, a person who cannot help but be aware of his "mastery over circumstances, over nature, and over all short-willed and unreliable creatures." A man who could have the confidence, despite his mediocre birth, to comment on the social, political, and economic affairs of his day, while taking part in those affairs as spy, adviser to monarchs, treaty negotiator, and political hack writer. In turn, Roxana was a woman, who, despite her reverses and her own mediocre birth, could entertain princes and kings, and set court society buzzing.
In the wake of this emerging capitalist vigor, and "consumed with a passion for social reform," Defoe was able to synchronize in his own life capitalisms vision of a new social order, of commerces role "as a force of social innovation" and change, with his Protestant-Calvinist political sensibilities, in the flurry of novels he published in the latter years of his life. While certainly only a small portion of Defoes writings during his lifetime, these novels - Robinson Crusoe, Roxana, Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, etc. - came to be Defoe the writers primary progeny for the generations that followed his death. All have proven to be rich in content and context for social critics and intellectuals from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Karl Marx to Virginia Woolf.
Of the above works, Roxana has been called by modern critics "Defoes darkest novel." Further, many critics have claimed that the greatest difference between Defoes last novel (published in 1724), and his earlier works, is Roxanas greater gravity. In fact, it seems that one of the primary judgments of the scholarship regarding Roxana has been to describe it as a novel whose primary descriptive thrust can be discovered in the psychological nature of Roxana and Amys sin. Accordingly, Roxana has most often been appraised as a story "of moral decay," in which the heroine progresses from "virtuous poverty to corrupt wealth." Roxana has also been adjudged as a woman with a "cynical attachment toward those who love her," and whose "coldly rational standard of self-interest," place her as the embodiment of Defoes "vision of a corrupt society."
Thus, for many commentators, Roxana is a heroine who marches toward material comfort and "self-transformation" at the price of her soul. In other words, Roxanas "tortured subjectivity," that is "her internal world of memory and guilt" concerning her various sexual liasons, the death of her daughter Susan at the hands of Amy, and the like, becomes the price Roxana pays for the control, as Nietzsche would claim, she assumes in the "external world of financial and sexual interests." In fact, one of Defoes most recent biographers, Paula Backscheider, has expanded this moral assessment of Roxana along feminist lines, describing her as a female character that plays a similar role to Christians in Pilgrims Progress. Defoe is able, as Backscheider says, to "spiritualize Roxanas responses to her material experiences," and to "integrate" her secular "self with her apprehension of Christian imperitives."
While these arguments certainly are important considerations in any critique of Roxana, and they richly describe the nature of Roxana as a new economic woman caught between profit and spirituality, they have overshadowed other issues - those of empire and slavery - which were not only important in the fictional life of Roxana, but also Defoes life. Defoe was, as this paper has already asserted, intensely interested in the politics of empire, and in the trade networks created via imperial designs. He was also an author committed to the Britain of the 1720s - constitutionally united and newly established as a major European power. In other words, he as a Whig.
As for Roxana, that whole paragraphs from the novel turn up almost word for word in economic works by Defoe - such as A True State of Publik Credit (1721), The Complete English Tradesman (1726), and A Plan of the English Commerce (1728) - underscores Defoes economic concerns as manifested in the character of Roxana. Each of these works dealt with Britains imperial aspirations in the aftermath of the very favorable Treaty of Utrecht (1713), as well as Britains acquisition of the coveted Spanish Assiento contract for slaves, and each clearly emphasized Defoes dual agenda of increasing the productive capabilities of Britain, while expanding her overseas enterprises. Thus, for instance, when Roxana discusses the dangers of marrying a foolish husband, her remarks repeat one of Defoes favorite maxims about the nature of commerce, while also underlining the context of commerces international nature:
I was a Warning for all the Ladies of Europe, against marying of FOOLS; a Man of Sence falls in the world, and gets-up again, and a Woman has some Chance for herself; but with a FOOL! once fall, and ever undone; once in a Ditch, and die in the Ditch; once poor, and sure to starve. (p. 96)
That she addresses her comments to the "Ladies of Europe," an inference to the nations of Europe - who were often viewed as feminine entities to be raped or wooed - and that Roxana, like so many of Defoes novels, is played out on an international stage, indicates the larger international designs at work in Roxanas warning. Another example of this imperialist economic instruction can be found in Sir Robert Claytons disquisition on prudent money management. With all the verve of a dissenter bent on showing the graces and fruitfulness of what was then called industry, Clayton claims that "if the Gentlemen of England woud but act," as he instructed Roxana, "every Family of them woud increase their Fortunes to a great degree" (p. 167), and presumably Britains national and international fortunes would rise as well.
That international commerce and empire are part of the overall fabric of Roxana is also evident in the rituals of adornment which Roxana undergoes with each of her lovers. As Laura Brown remarks, the outfitting of the "English female body" in the "dress of the exotic" is one dimension of a "powerful motif of female dressing that characterizes eighteenth-century imperialist ideology." One example of this motif can be found in the toilet scene of Popes The Rape of the Lock, where Belinda is decked with "the glittring Spoil" of "Indias glowing Gems," all that "Arabia" has to offer, as well as the products of local or European commerce in the form of "Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, [and] Billet-Doux." Like Belindas "Spoils," Roxanas "Turkish dress" also serves as an example of this motif. For example, it came into Roxanas hands by way of a "Malthese Man of War," which had captured as spoils a Turkish ship and enslaved its passengers, one of which Roxana bought, along with the slaves "rich Cloaths too," (173-174) during her tour of Italy. As one commentator has observed, this dress enables Roxana to market herself to English court culture, while also evoking the "spoils of an expansionist culture," as well as that cultures rewards for those who please or ingratiate the state. Roxana explains, "that Notion of the King being the Person that dancd with me, puffd me up to that Degree, that I ... was very far knowing myself" (177). Indeed, she was awestruck by the power of her faux-exoticness, which allowed her to even woo the king of England.
Further, this dress is also, as Roxana emphasizes, a counterpart to the slave she purchases. "...and with this Turkish slave," Roxana says, "I bought the rich cloathes too ... as a Curiosity, having never seen the like" (174). Here Roxana confronts the exotic "other" in the form of a person, and the material culture of that "other." In fact, her description of the dress itself reads like a laundry list of what Europeans had coveted of Asian societies since the journeys of travellers like Marco Polo in the middle ages. The "dress was extraordinary fine indeed ... the Robe was a fine Persian, or India Damask ... embroiderd with Gold, and set with Pearl in the Work, and some Torqouis stones" (174). Yet she is never mis-identified as a "Mahometan," even when she wants to be. As her suitor at her first ball says, despite her claim to be unable to perform English dances, "I had a Christians Face, and hed venture it, that I coud dance like a Christian" (175). Her exoticness is never complete, and this allows her to maintain the social prominence she would not have had as merely a "Mahometan."
Both the slave and the dress, as we have already seen, are also delivered to Roxana through the agency of imperialist agression - by the acts of a "Malthese Man of War" (174). Significantly, Roxana, who is without Amy on her travels throughout Italy, uses her slave as a means to put the dress, with its various accouterments, on her body. In other words, she learned how to cover herself in the dress of the exotic with the aid of an exotic. Roxana also learned from her slave the "Turkish language," their "way of ... Dancing, and some Turkish, or rather Moorish Songs, of which," as Roxana says, she made "Use" of "some years afterwards" (102). Literally, Roxana is using the local knowledge of the Turkish womans material culture in order to use that knowledge to her advantage. This is a penultimate example of the methodology of imperialist expansion, since such a process was often used in mining, agriculture, and manufacturing as a common means to gain control over the labor values of colonized peoples. Defoe uses a similar process again in Captain Singleton, where Defoes African characters point out, and then dutifully work the gold deposits which the travellers in Captain Singleton seek.
Of course, if Roxanas dress is an important metaphor for imperial expansion, so is her purchase of a slave. Defoe, like many of his contemporaries during the early eighteenth century, was ambivalent about the issue (if it can even be called an issue at this early date) of slavery. In other words, Defoe was no abolitionist. Nonetheless, in his Reformation of Manners (1702), Defoe did class the traffic in Africans as offenses similar to adultery and drunkeness. Defoe further describes it as a trade where the:
The harmless Natives basely they trepan,
And barter Baubles for the Souls of Men:
The Wretches they to Christian Climes bring oer,
To serve worse Heathens than they did before.
Defoe also characterizes American slavery as a "reproach to Christianity," and as a "unnatural" commerce, based upon excessive luxury, corruption, and materialism. However, despite his strong literary sympathies, Defoe nevertheless demonstrated his ambivalence toward the slave trade by generally giving it strong support in his political writings. In fact, Defoe was consistantly a champion of attempts to increase his nations share of the market in human chattle, and in the African trade (e.g., gold, ivory, and the export of consumer products) in general. Apparently the moral questions surrounding this unnatural commerce never outwieghed the profits of the commerce itself. And slavery was profitable in the eighteenth centruy. Fortunes were made in cities like Bristol that specialized in the trade, and many a nobleman in the nineteenth century owed his title and his goods to the trades commercial potential.
Like Defoe, it seems that Roxana was also interested in what profits she could reap from the slave trade. As we have seen, she versed herself in the culture (material and otherwise) of the Turkish woman she bought from the "Malthese," so we can assume that Roxana did not find her slave, or her slaves manners, repugnant or otherwise distasteful. In dressing for her second husband, Roxana even set his picture in diamonds above her heart, which was a "Compliment" among the "Eastern peoples," (247) to demonstrate her authenticity. In fact, in learning the language of the Turkish woman, Roxana sought to know this Turkish slave and her culture in a way that was far more intimate than most Westerners at this time could have claimed, or even imagined. The discourse between Roxana and her slave can be described then as an exercise of power, what Foucault calls the "will to knowledge," where all modes of the study and cultural depiction of the "other," produce the medium which constitutes power and via which it is exercised. In this case, the knowledge acquired by Roxana of her Turkish slave. A knowledge she uses to advance herself socially, for a time, in London court society.
For Defoe and Roxana alike then, prosperity could be found in the slave trade, and in the monies and knowledge of the world found in that trade. Like Defoe, Roxana could "give up my virtue," but "not give up my money" (147). However, as a caveat to the ideas expressed directly above, one can note here that a strength of Defoes historiographical works, is his knowledge of geography. Further, it is apparently this knowledge which at least partially allows Defoe to make the proposals he does about Africa, as well the colonization of the West Indies and the Americas. Significantly, the importance of this knowledge, that is knowledge of colonial "others," of geographic regions to be exploited, is something then that both Defoe, and as we have seen, Roxana have in common. Like Defoe, she too finds interest in the places where her travels take place (in his case mentally), and it is from these "useful Observations" in Rome, that she discovers "all the intrieguing Arts of that part of the World" which are part of her "Grand Tour" (102). Arts she would use, along with those she learned from her slave, to perform her various personality changes in the future. That she is eventually placed into a bind because of the of this knowledge by her "obstinantly bent" daughter (274), only underscores the importance and power of the knowledge itself.
In conclusion then, while Roxana is a novel with an emphasis on the psychology of sin, that psychology is informed by more than just her own guilt, and her quest for individuality. It is informed by issues that concerned her creator: trade, imperialism, and slavery. Each were used to create networks of knowledge and power over the world within sight of both Defoe and Roxana. Like any good capitalist then, they both used knowledge to further their own ends - personal or otherwise. The acquisition of this knowledge was, in turn, directed toward populations of others - Africans, Arabs, Native Americans, etc. - who could most readily serve their interests - be they in improving Britains economy and social structure, as in the case of Defoe, or in improving ones social status, as in the case of Roxana. As a creation of Defoe, Roxana thus mirrored Defoes life as a capitalist. Yet she mirrored it more as a seeker of personal aggrandizement than as a person committed to seeing Britain flourish. In conclusion then, this may ultimately explain Roxanas fall.
Note: Bibliography will shortly be added.
original piece by Stono