Conference Abstracts | ASECS 2009

“New People in a New World"?: Defoe’s Ambivalent Narratives of Emigration

Joseph F. Bartolomeo
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack, both published in 1722, have customarily been read as propaganda for emigration, transportation of criminals, and involuntary servitude, by an author who advocated all these policies in his non-fiction writing and a businessman who had himself transported others to America. Both title characters indeed find financial security and social status after being transported as indentured servants, and eventually return to England. Each protagonist, however, makes an additional transatlantic journey out of choice rather than necessity, which paradoxically leads to greater risk and a more coercive atmosphere. Defoe complicates matters further by reversing the order of these journeys in the two novels, thus qualifying and in some respects subverting a purely optimistic view of colonial prospects. And while both Moll and Jack clearly distinguish themselves from African slaves, each is subject to more subtle forms of “enslavement” because of the connectedness of a transatlantic world that proves surprisingly small.

Moll Flanders’s transportation to Virginia not only saves her from a death sentence, but also results in material prosperity and a reunion with a son she had left behind. Yet her status is hardly typical of transported convicts, since the proceeds of her criminal career enable her to immediately purchase freedom for herself and her fallen aristocrat/highwayman husband, not to mention an “English Woman-Servant” and a “Negro Man-Servant,” and to establish “a sufficient Plantation to employ between fifty and sixty Servants.” The son, who adds to her wealth by passing along a plantation left her by her mother, is also the product of her first, disastrous journey to America, in which her ostensibly more privileged position as the wife of a successful planter is quickly exploded by her reunion with her mother (a transported felon) and the revelation that she has married her brother. The incest, which has been aptly characterized by Elizabeth Dillon as “the result of excessive circulation in the colonial economy,” leaves Moll repulsed but in the completely dependent position of the feme coverte, and her powerlessness is magnified by her isolation in the colonies. Once she finally convinces her husband to let her return to England, she vows never to leave, and only juridical coercion compels her to break the promise, making Virginia an almost accidental utopia.

The circumstances of the two transatlantic journeys—the status of the immigrant, colonial activity, and psychological trauma—are reversed in Colonel Jack, resulting in a more equivocal ending. Kidnapped and sold into indentured servitude as a young man, Jack initially fares no better than the African slaves beside whom he labors, but later attracts the attention of his master through tears of sympathy for another English convict, who was a pick-pocket like himself. The ensuing dialogue leads to his promotion to overseer, a position from which, as George Boulokos has demonstrated, he thrives by “articulating racial differences” and controlling slaves through psychological fear rather than brute force. Eventually given his freedom and his own plantation, he returns to England—and many years (and adventures) later, back to Virginia, the “only place [he] had been bless’d at.” Accumulated riches and marriage to a penitent former wife who is herself a transported servant are tempered by the presence of transported Jacobites in Virginia, which leads Jack to fear that he will be exposed as a fellow rebel, and compels him to flee. For Jack, as for Moll, the seamlessness of the British transatlantic world renders colonial life both liberating and inhibiting, and promises both riches and shackles.

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