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The Providence of Pirates:
Defoe and the "True-Bred Merchant"

Joshua Grasso


1. Their discussion of The General History occurs on pages 100-113 of The Canonization of Daniel Defoe, where they cast severe doubts on Moore’s attribution, chiefly because neither the style nor subject matter is unique to Defoe. However, they offer no concrete proof to support this, focusing their critique more on Moore’s over-enthusiastic appraisal of the work. For the same reasons, they discredit The King of Pirates from Defoe’s oeuvre. Though most scholars have dropped Defoe’s name from The General History, The King of Pirates fares somewhat better, with Max Novak, Hans Turley, and Richard West, among others, either defending the work or attributing it to Defoe.
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2. In her review of The Canonization of Daniel Defoe, Backsheider criticizes the authors for failure to produce nuanced readings of historical reality, as well as for their personal attacks on previous critics. Regarding The General History itself, she writes, “A third historical problem involves a lack of knowledge of the literature published before and during Defoe’s life. The authors obviously do not really know the eighteenth century periodical and pamphlet literature where so many of the attributions are argued by Defoe and his contemporaries, nor have they had time to search state papers and court documents or the published and archival correspondence. In one place, Furbank and Owens join J.R. Moore in his opinion that A General History of the Pyrates is a major addition to the list of works attributed to Defoe and is the book that created the modern idea of pirates. The truth is that many contemporary readers would have known most of the lives in the book and that a better case for the source of the modern conception of pirates can be made for The History of the Buccaneers of America” (116).
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3. In a scene that seems linked both to Captain Singleton and Robinson Crusoe, Captain Avery is prevented from hoodwinking an honest merchant by the merchant’s wife, who has a series of prophetic dreams. As he writes, “But Providence, and the good fortune of the owner, prevented this bargain…his wife had an ugly dream or two about the ship -- once, that it was set on fire by lightning and he had lost all he had in it; another time, that the men had mutinied and conspired to kill him -- and that his wife was so averse to his being concerned in it that it had always been an unlucky ship, and that therefore his mind was changed” (41). As in other of Defoe’s fictions, Providence is no vague concept but a real, tangible force expressed through dreams and visions.
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4. Many critics have noted the inconsistencies of Captain Singleton, which fudges dates and has characters disappear only to reappear a moment later (Singleton abandons his former leader, Captain Wilmot, in Madagascar only to consult him later in the voyage). These inconsistencies speak to a haste in the composition of the work which suggests Defoe’s true motive was journalism rather than repeating the success of Crusoe. Clearly he wanted to strike while the pirate vogue was still hot, capitalizing on the day’s headlines as he did with The Storm, which was quickly pushed through while the memory of the 1703 storm remained fresh in the readers’ minds.
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5. Interestingly, as Kris Lane points out in Pillaging the Empire, three of the pirates who sailed with Sharp went on to produce “what may be considered the best of the English buccaneer journals, namely those of Basil Ringrose, Lionel Wafer, and William Dampier” (135). Defoe knew all of these works, as well as the writings of a subsequent pirate who sailed with Dampier, Woodes Rogers, who recorded the fate of the marooned Englishman, Alexander Selkirk (and thus inspired Robinson Crusoe). Thus, pirates were a constant theme in Defoe’s writing, and may be largely responsible for his turn to fiction in the 1720’s.
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6. To further eradicate his profession, Dampier writes in the Preface: “As for the Actions of the Company among whom I made the greatest part of this Voyage…’tis not to divert the Reader with them that I mention them, much less that I take any pleasure in relating them: but for method’s sake, and for the Reader’s satisfaction…I would not prejudice the Truth and Sincerity of my Relation, tho by Omissions only” (3). In other words, the piracy merely provides the narrative “frame” of the work, which attests to the work’s authenticity and value. Those events which might implicate him as a pirate, though undertaken unwillingly, are necessary to prove the existence of riches which will subsequently prove “to [his] Country’s Advantage.”
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7. In his biography of Defoe, Moore cites a few lines from Defoe’s work, Reformation of Manners, where Defoe explicitly targets the slave trade: “The harmless native basely they trepan, / And barter baubles for the souls of men; / The wretches they to Christian climes bring oe’er, / To serve worse heathens than they did before” (Moore 290). It is difficult to reconcile this view with those expressed in Captain Singleton, though Moore notes that Defoe often distanced himself from the affairs of state when writing as a “social satirist,” as he is in Reformation of Manners. This changing of masks is important for Defoe, and partly explains his mercurial views on slavery, trade, and other slippery topics.
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8. Compare this to A General History of the Pirates, which virtually mirrors Avery’s sentiments: “Rome, the Mistress of the World, was no more at first than Refuge for Thieves and Outlaws; and if the Progress of our Pyrates had been equal to their Beginning; had they all united, and settled in some of those Islands, they might, by this Time, have been honoured with the Name of a Commonwealth, and no Power in those Parts of the World could have been able to dispute it with them (Preface, 6).
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9. In the work, Avery concludes that “there was no safety for us but by keeping all together, and going to some part of the world where we might be strong enough to defend ourselves, or be so concealed till we might find out some way of escape that we might not now be so well able to think of” (30). Nevertheless, he seeks the right moment to abandon the entire crew, which he ultimately does with the help of an unnamed pirate companion (which echoes the Singleton / William relationship in Captain Singleton).
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10. In one of William’s most prominent passages, he has a protracted dialogue with a Dutchman who acts as an interpreter for a native king. The dialogue becomes a fascinating study of the ties that bind Europeans amongst the native “others,” though they are otherwise enemies in trade. William slyly gets the Dutchman to “defect” to the pirates’ cause, betraying his king’s true intentions in exchange for safe passage among the pirates, which William agrees to. It is a riveting scene, full of Defoe’s deft dialogue and characterization (which, frankly, the novel could use more of). However, despite his obvious charisma, Defoe clearly wanted William to remain largely in the background, coming out only to advance the author’s agenda; Singleton, for all his anonymity, remains the true vehicle of Defoe’s message.
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11. Defoe takes great pains (despite many narrative inconsistencies) to make the work read like an authentic autobiographical travel narrative (following Dampier’s lead). Indeed, the long section devoted to Singleton’s travels through Africa carefully mines contemporary travel accounts while restricting Singleton’s movements to the as-yet-unknown portions of Africa. See Scrimgerour’s “The Problem of Realism in Defoe’s Captain Singleton,” for a more detailed account of this section.
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