The Instrumentalization of the Cannibal in Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2016

16 Seiten, Note: 1.7



1. Introduction

2. Cannibalism
2.1 Definition and Origin of the Term ‘Cannibal’
2.2 Cannibalism in Literature

3. Robinson Crusoe’s Fear of Being Eaten

4. Crusoe’s Encounters with the Cannibals

5. The Representation of Friday

6. The Relationship between Crusoe and Friday

7. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) revolves around the Englishman Robinson Crusoe, who, after suffering shipwreck in a storm strands on a deserted island as the sole survivor of an expedition. After twenty-four of his total twenty-eight years on the island he discovers that native cannibals occasionally visit the island in order to kill and eat their captives. When Crusoe rescues one of them the captive is grateful and stays with Crusoe as his servant. Crusoe names him Friday after the day of their first encounter and teaches him the English language and eventually converts him to Christianity.

Robinson Crusoe is considered a classic which has been issued in at least 700 editions and translated into several languages. Moreover, it has been the source of inspiration for later colonial romances such as those by H. Rider Haggard, Robert Michael Ballantyne, Robert Louis Stevenson and most other adventure writers (Brown 22 f.). The story has been made into several movies from the earliest version in 1916 to the most recent animated movie Robinson Crusoe (2016)[1] indicating its cultural significance until today. Alex Mackintosh names Robinson Crusoe “perhaps the novel about cannibalism” (24) which lodged cannibalism as a characteristic of primitive peoples in popular culture and was even recommended regularly for the education of children (Malchow 23).

I want to argue, that the motif of the cannibal is instrumentalized in Robinson Crusoe in order to justify the conquering and civilizing of savage natives by the dominant Western world. By depicting dreadful cannibalistic acts and evoking horror and revulsion the subjects of colonialism are intended to be dehumanized. I will begin the seminar paper with a contextual chapter on cannibalism by presenting the definition and origin of the term ‘cannibal’, as well as the existence of cannibalism in literature by giving various examples from classic epic to contemporary novels. Then, I will focus on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and illustrate the protagonist’s constant fear of being eaten. In a next step, I will focus on Crusoe’s encounters with the cannibals and in a further step on his meeting of Friday and his representation of the latter. Before drawing the conclusion, I will analyze the relationship between Crusoe and Friday.

2. Cannibalism

2.1 Definition and Origin of the Term ­‘Cannibal’

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the eating of human flesh by human beings is called ‘anthropophagy’ by anthropologists deriving from the Greek word anthropophagos for ‘man-eating’ (67). Hence, ‘anthropophagus’ is the term for a person eating human flesh, especially found in legends and fables (ibid.). The noun ‘cannibal’ also describes “a person who eats the flesh of other human beings” (ibid. 255). Its origin can be found in the mid 16th century deriving from the Spanish word Canibales which is a variation recorded by Christopher Columbus (1450-1506) of Caribes, a West Indian tribe believed to eat human flesh (ibid.).

According to Pramod K. Nayar, the term ‘cannibal’, which is as well a stereotype, has entered Europe’s racialized vocabulary in the 14th century with stories of man-eating humans in the travel memoirs of John Mandeville (1300-1371) and later Christopher Columbus (21). Jennifer Brown even calls “the word ‘cannibal’ a corruption of the word Carib” (8) by Columbus and the man-eating West Indian people a legend based purely on the interpretation of sign language between Columbus’ crew and native women at the shore who have supposedly indicated that the inhabitants of the island eat men (ibid.). In Mandeville’s fictitious travelogue cannibals are described “as one of many strange and grotesque species of humanity and monsters he supposedly encountered” (Nayar 21). The legend of the man-eating Caribs grew including many stereotypes of the colonized, native or Non-European in their representation (Hulme 83 ff.). The inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands were divided into the fierce, barbaric cannibal Caribs and the Arawaks who conformed to the ideal of the ‘noble savage’[2]. Nayar calls the association of ‘Carib’ with ‘cannibal’ an absurd semantic shift which enabled the Europeans to depict the Caribs as intruders who needed to be banished (23).

In European discourses of travel, cannibalism functioned as “the single and most dominant marker of all things primitive and pagan” (ibid. 21) being the opposite of European civilization. As examples of these discourses which added to the cultural classification between ‘savage’ and ‘modern’, Montaigne’s 16th century essay ‘Of the Caniballes’ and the records of James Cook (1728-1779) in the South Seas where he encountered cannibals can be named (ibid.). According to Kristen Guest, cannibalism was a marker for cultural boundaries serving the purpose to dismiss not only the Caribbean, but also the African and even Asian cultures as primitive and savage (2). Consequently, it served the colonial discourses by justifying racial oppression and the civilizing of pagan savages from, in the eyes of Europeans, their superstitious beliefs and evil practices. However, this was based on very poor evidence about actual practices of cannibalism.

2.2 Cannibalism in Literature

As has been shown in the previous chapter, cannibalism is used for the representation of the Other, who is usually considered to be the enemy. According to Brown, throughout history cannibalism was attributed to enemies such as to Christians by Romans, as well as to Jews by Christians and of course to ‘savages’ by Europeans (8). These accusations included both, “the actual belief in the Other as man-eating and cannibalism as a metaphorical defiling” (ibid.) of the enemy.

In literature, the motif of the cannibal can be found in classic epics to cotemporary novels, but also in the Bible. In the second Book of Kings during the siege and famine in the city Samaria two mothers agree to satisfy their hunger by eating their sons. One of the women complains to the King of Israel that even though they “boiled [her] son and ate him” (2 Kings, 6:29), the other woman would hide her son.

The theme of eating one’s own children also occurs in William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, written at the end of the 16th century, when the Queen of the Goths Tamora is tricked into eating her own children. In general, the eating of children by the parents is considered to be an unnatural act of cruelty.

In the ninth book of Homer’s Odyssey the reader encounters the Cyclops Polyphemus who is depicted as a savage giant who “stuff[s] his enormous gut with human flesh” (9, 333 f.) living on an island at the edge of the known world. Although a Cyclops is a supernatural being and therefore would not fulfill the definition of a cannibal, he can be regarded as a “monstrous, quasi-human” (Buchan 13). In general, Cyclopes are described as “lawless brutes” (Homer 9, 120) and uncivilized beings having “no meeting place for council, no laws either” (ibid. 125) and “liv[ing] in arching caverns” (ibid. 126). Furthermore, they blaspheme claiming that they “never blink at Zeus […] or any other blessed god” (ibid. 309 f.) having “more force by far” (ibid. 311). Before Ulysses can trick the Cyclops and escape with his remaining men, Polyphemus has not only killed but eaten six of Ulysses’ companions.

Quite often in literature, cannibalism is found associated with evil creatures such as witches or demons who eat children. In his treatise on the prosecution of witches Malleus Maleficarum (1487) German clergyman Heinrich Kramer claims that when witches who are also midwives fail to cause an abortion they “either devour the child or sacrifice it to a devil” (66). Another intended act of eating children occurs in the German fairy tale Hänsel und Gretel published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm. The siblings Hänsel and Gretel are confronted with a “gottlose Hexe” (Grimm 58) who plans on battening and eating the boy and later his sister. But before she can “ihn schlachten und kochen” (ibid.), Gretel tricks the witch and burns her in the oven which had originally been prepared for the children.

In addition to the representation of supernatural, evil and godless creatures feasting on men and children, the representation of pagan savages eating the flesh of their enemies has emerged due to travelogues of the voyages to the New World between the 15th and 17th centuries. According to Annerose Menninger, a myth of the cannibal was created due to these travel reports which had already its origin in literature such as the Homeric Epics or fairy tales being passed from generation to generation (268 f.). By labeling the New World native as cannibal the “colonizers’ identity as hero, bringer of civilization and light” (Brown 11) was reassured. These tropes were used among others in H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. According to Brian Street, in English fiction from 1858 to 1920 cannibalism was used to distinguish between the savage and the gentleman whose instincts would prevent him from practicing cannibalism (75). Contemporary literary examples of cannibalism can be found in the novels such as Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (1988) featuring the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991) or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), just to name a few.

3. Robinson Crusoe’s Fear of Being Eaten

It is known that Daniel Defoe himself has been an enthusiastic reader of travel reports (Novak 200). Therefore, it is not surprising that his protagonist is constantly worried that the Caribbean island he stranded on is populated by cannibals. Yet already long before Crusoe is shipwrecked and his first encounter with cannibals, he is convinced of their existence. However, it is not only Crusoe who believes in man-eating savages but also his contemporaries and travel companions. Arens calls the conquerors’ fantasies about the inhabitants of the New World the “man-eating myth” (205), which is omnipresent during Crusoe’s entire journeys. When Crusoe and his companion Xury have to go onshore to fill their water supplies during their escape from Sallee along the coast of Africa, Xury suggests to go alone in order to protect Crusoe because he is convinced that “[i]f wild mans come, they eat [him]” (Defoe 22). But Crusoe insists on going with him promising to “kill them, they shall eat neither of [them]” (ibid.). However, the natives they encounter at the African coast turn out to be as much afraid of Crusoe and Xury as they are of them, peaceful and friendly supplying the two travelers with food (ibid. 25).


[1] Targeted mostly at kids, the cannibal theme is completely omitted. Instead, the movie features speaking animals who serve the protagonist as companions as well as pirates as enemies. For a full list of all movies and TV series based on the novel Robinson Crusoe see

[2] The noble savage is an idealized concept of an uncivilized man symbolizing the innate goodness because he has not been exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization.

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The Instrumentalization of the Cannibal in Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe"
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
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instrumentalization, cannibal, daniel, defoe, robinson, crusoe
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Daria Poklad (Autor:in), 2016, The Instrumentalization of the Cannibal in Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe", München, GRIN Verlag,


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