Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner was first published on April 25, 1719. The story of an English sailor marooned for 28 years on a deserted island off the coast of South America, it was a huge success with the public, going through four printings in its first eight months.
Defoe’s name doesn’t appear on the original editions. The book was presented as being Crusoe’s own story “Written by Himself,” as the cover page said. Many early readers took the book at its word, which may account for much of its commercial success.
Defoe (who had been born as simply Daniel Foe) had been a merchant who was forced into bankruptcy in 1692. Defoe was given to rashly speculative projects and investments, not all of which panned out. He wrote of himself that:
“No man has tasted differing fortunes more,
And thirteen times I have been rich and poor.”
To earn a living after his business career collapsed he wrote satirical political pamphlets, which often ran afoul of the authorities. He wound up being held in a public pillory three times and was occasionally jailed for his views.
Defoe was a member of the Nonconformists or Dissenters, Protestants who did not “conform” with the Church of England. Robinson Crusoe contains many passages concerning Crusoe’s religious thinking and by the end of the book Crusoe becomes a thoroughgoing Christian.
The book can also be seen as a defence of British imperialism. Crusoe imposes British ways of life on his island and creates a very colonial master/servant relationship with the native islander whom he names Friday. He also refers to himself as the island’s king.
Defoe was nearly 60 when he wrote Robinson Crusoe, and he would go on to write other pioneering novels (while the genre was still being born) like Moll Flanders, Roxana and A Journal of the Plague Year.
He died in 1731 at the age of seventy. Sadly, his final years where consumed by court actions and lawsuits over unpaid debts dating back decades.