When Robinson Crusoe author paid tribute to Great Yarmouth’s bravery and humanity
PUBLISHED: 07:00 09 February 2020
The 25th of April, 2019, was the 300th anniversary of the publication of what is now known as Daniel Defoe’s first novel “Robinson Crusoe”.
Without any reference to the author it was first published with the title "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner; who lived for eight and twenty years all alone in an uninhabited Island off the coast of America near the mouth of the great river Orininoque (Orinoco), where he had been cast on shore by shipwreck, wherein all the men, but himself, perished. With an account how he was at last strangely rescue'd by pyrates."
Many of the original readers thought they were reading of actual events rather than fiction but its content proved to be a profound comment on survival and the human condition, and it sold well.
Daniel Defoe led an extraordinarily adventurous life before he wrote Robinson Crusoe in the sixtieth year of his life.
He witnessed the Great Plague of London in 1665 and was lucky to escape with his life when he joined the Duke of Monmouth's Rebellion against James II in 1685.
He wrote a satirical pamphlet mocking religious intolerance when he was sentenced to spend three sessions in the pillory which could be very dangerous if a victim had enemies in the crowd.
He later became an agent (or spy) for the government writing reports on various regions of the country.
My late headmaster, F.J. O'Brien, would have disapproved of Defoe's long sentences in Robinson Crusoe and his reluctance to use full stops but contemporary readers clearly did not complain.
Crusoe's adventures on the island are well known, and how he rescues Man Friday from cannibals, However, the book includes incidents happening before and after this. Crusoe's first voyage on the North Sea are of particular interest to Yarmouth people. It shows the determination of sailors to help fellow seamen in distress and the humanity of the town's people.
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The book begins with Crusoe's parents imploring him not to go to sea but he sails from Hull on a friend's ship and suffers bad sickness in a minor storm but recovers an enjoys the voyage as far as Yarmouth roads where his ship is becalmed for eight days. He goes on to describe the fate of the vessel he sailed on.
"The wind increased and the crew were called to strike topmasts in order to ride the storm but by noon the anchor had not held and the sheet anchor was deployed.
"A terrible storm blew and the sailors showed fear. The ship's captain was vigilant but I heard him praying quietly.
"The mate and the boatswain asked the captain to cut down the foremast which he eventually agreed to but the mainmast became unstable and this was also cut down.
"A sailor then reported that there was four feet of water in the hold. Even I help to man the pump.
"The ship's master ordered the gun to be fired as a distress signal at which I fainted. A lightship's crew sent a boat to rescue the ship's crew.
"This was difficult and dangerous but eventually the men were taken off and the ship was seen to sink."
Landing a small boat on a storm-tossed beach is notoriously difficult but a crowd of people onshore followed the boats progress northwards. They were able to land north of Winterton lighthouse.
They walked to Yarmouth where they were generously treated by the magistrates and townspeople receiving hospitality and money to get them home.
In spite of the shipwreck, Crusoe continued with his maritime career to survive further adventures.
- Great Yarmouth Local History & Archaeological Society's meeting at 7.30pm on Friday 21st February to be held at Christchurch will be a Lecture by Sarah Doig, author and researcher, who will speak on 'Daniel Defoe's Journey Through Eastern England'. Based on his experiences in 1724 when he was particularly impressed by Great Yarmouth and gives a graphic description of Winterton on Sea.