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Crimes et criminels

The Ambiguities of Captain Singleton, Defoe’s Piratical Novel

Robert Clark


Captain Singleton, roman de Daniel Defoe, a jusqu’ici peu intéressé la critique, peut-être parce le récit, qui soutient la piraterie en utilisant des arguments peu convaincants, peut paraître sans grand intérêt, et parce qu’il passe sous silence les terribles actes de violence pour lesquels les pirates étaient connus et détestés. Ce texte est problématique. Le présent article met en lumière le contexte historique dans lequel le roman parut en soulignant l’attitude ambiguë de l’État britannique à l’égard de la piraterie à l’époque. L’État la tolérait quand elle servait les intérêts mercantiles de la Grande-Bretagne, mais la condamnait lorsqu’elle menaçait le commerce colonial. Une autre ambiguïté vient de la fascination qu’éprouvait personnellement Defoe pour l’accumulation de richesses par des moyens immoraux ou illégaux. Cet article montre en quoi ces deux contradictions sont au centre de l’idéologie mercantile qui sous-tend l’essor du capitalisme : le discours autour du commerce honnête et harmonieux masquait la violence épouvantable entourant l’accumulation de capital, violence tantôt officielle et soutenue par l’État, tantôt exercée par des individus quand l’occasion se présentait. L’article montre également comment Captain Singleton contribue à l’appropriation par l’imaginaire de l’Afrique, de l’océan Indien et de l’océan Pacifique, ouvrant la voie à la domination hégémonique de ces territoires par l’Empire britannique ainsi qu’à leur entrée dans la littérature britannique au cours des deux siècles qui suivirent.

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I that was, as I have hinted before, an original Thief, and a Pyrate, even by Inclination before, was now in my Element, and never undertook any Thing in my Life with more particular Satisfaction. (Defoe, Singleton 140)

Piracy, in fact, with or without some form of official licence, was the logical extension of trade in the same sense as war has been said to be the logical extension of diplomacy. (Murphy 211)

The methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic. (Marx 668)

1As a lifelong promoter of free trade and honest trade, Daniel Defoe was bound to criticise piracy, but his position was ambiguous and conflicted: firstly, piracy was officially criminal, but it was at times positively encouraged by the same state that criminalized it; secondly, piracy could enable the accumulation of enormous personal fortunes, albeit immorally, thus satisfying the primary concern of capitalists like Daniel Defoe. The latter conflict is felt throughout Defoe’s work, notably in Moll Flanders and Roxana.

2The tension between lusting after great wealth and the need for repression is already apparent in Defoe’s Review essay of 18 October 1707 in which he observes that “Madagascar has for a few Years past been a Receptacle for Pyrates, of all Nations […] and long Tales we have had told us of their Wealth, and the immense Treasure they have heap’d together there, by their Piracy” (Defoe, Review). Defoe then announces that some of these pirates now want to cease “their roving trade [and] become honest Freeholders” (425) and are offering “a great sum of money for their Pardon.” Defoe satirically asks why the pirates should be refused this deal when there are so many pirates of an “Allegorical” kind who “pyrate upon fair Trade at home”: the “Custom-stealing Pyrates who pyrate upon the Government,” “the Owling Pyrates, who rob the Manufacturers,” “the privateering Pyrates who rob by Law” (425-26). This kind of sally is typical from Defoe at this time: he was a vigorous scourge of hypocritical men in high places:

All these sorts of people when they get Estates in Jamaica or Barbados, or any of our Colonies or Factories abroad […] they seek to come home and spend them; in order to do this they lay off the Out-side, adjourn the Thief, and putting the Badge of Gravity on, they come home for Great Merchants, and live unquestion’d. And why should you deny this, Gentlemen, to your brothers in Madagascar? (Review 426)

3Defoe considers as the same kind of felony both the colonial officials who had been politically instructed by London to do so, and the politicians who directed them, along with those who on their own account would take suitable bribes (as was well-known to infect Barbados and Jamaica at this time), but also seems quite carelessly to tar with the same brush the entire colonial system, an argument which might seem outlandish until one considers just how closely piracy was woven into the fabric of British colonial endeavours.

4In the specific instance of the pirates of Madagascar, Defoe advances a number of powerful arguments. Firstly, the vast amount of money some of the pirates possess – as much as “3 or 4 millions,” a sum which he says, even if exaggerated by a factor of two or four, would be astonishing, and very welcome to the British treasury. Secondly, if the maritime nations decline the pirates’ proposal, they risk attracting more and more pirates to “form a Nation, a State, at War with all the World.” They could then “turn their Hand against every Man […] and be thus Great and Wealthy.” What will then “become of Trade, and what of such Nations as we, who have no Subsistence but by Commerce?” Since rooting out the pirates will be enormously expensive, Defoe concludes that “the best and cheapest way would be to accept their offer.”

  • 1 “[T]he Romans themselves were at first no better than such a Gang of Rovers as we were; and who kne (...)
  • 2 The same consideration is discussed by Quaker William and Captain Singleton in the last pages of th (...)
  • 3 The medieval grounds for legal jurisdiction over the sea are finely described by N.A.M. Rodger, as (...)

5Against this, what can be said? “Pardon such a Gang of Villains! Say they.” After such a pardon “no Body ought to die for Robbery.” It would be like “selling Vengeance, and approving all the Blood they have shed” and it would mean “mixing the stolen goods of others with our own, and fathering that Crime upon the Nation.” (These words find echoes in Roxana’s desire to keep her immoral fortune separate from the honest fortune of her husband, the Dutch merchant). In this case, he argues that accepting such a bribe would in effect be “prostituting general Justice to the Bribe of a Sum of Money.” But those who refuse the pirates’ offer on such ethical grounds should remember that “Just thus began the Roman Empire […] a Parcel of Roving Africans that had no Habitation, no Refuge, and fixing themselves in Latium, they encouraged all the loose People in the World to joyne with them” (426). This is of course a garbled history of the rise of Rome, but it is one which Defoe repeats a decade later in Captain Avery.1 The biggest objection Defoe raises to selling pardons to the pirates is how to handle the claims of the original owners from whom the pirates had stolen this loot: “would you set up a Court of Claims [...] that all People who had lost anything should have their Goods again?” (428).2 There were in fact legal precedents for such restitution, but in this case, especially given the international extent of the criminal acts, Defoe argues it would suffice to accept that the “Goods of Robbers […] by the Law of Nations is forfeited to Justice.”3

6The ethical and pragmatic contradictions which Defoe negotiates in this Review essay are very much those negotiated in Captain Singleton. In the heyday of mercantilism (1630-1776), the need of the State to preserve and, if possible, increase its stock of bullion was a primary concern of State policy. Trading at an advantage, disrupting the trade of competitor nations, and where possible stealing their ships and their capital, were primary State objectives and caused Oliver Cromwell to pass the Navigation Ordnance, 1651 (later called the first Navigation Act), which required all trade to and from British colonies to be carried in English ships, and all other imports to come either in English ships or ships of the producing country. The Act led to a radical increase in investment and profit for the English merchant marine and shipbuilders, and such maritime services as finance and marine insurance, vastly increasing the size of the English/British economy across the next three hundred years. It immediately worried the Dutch, whose dominance of global maritime trade it very much threatened. It also eventually produced legal grounds for the Royal navy to inspect ships’ cargoes in ports under English jurisdiction and on the high seas, thus facilitating British world-domination.

  • 4 Rodger helpfully explains the origin and legal difference between the “letter of reprisal,” the “le (...)

7Mercantilist doctrine also excused covert or overt State encouragement of piratical-privateering predation on competitor nations’ trade, and made it possible for the power-elite of European states to benefit personally, officially through their lawful percentages on sales of seized vessels and cargoes and their legitimate investment in “cruising voyages” such as those of Francis Drake and Woodes Rogers, as well as unofficially through bribes for turning a blind-eye to smugglers and pirates. Such ambiguous or corrupt conduct had a long history in England where, since at least the 1300s, the Devon coast in particular had been a haven to many pirates who preyed upon British and French trade alike, with the connivance of the aristocracy who were supposed to control the land and the sea in the name of the sovereign.4 Technically, the sea was a space of uncertain jurisdiction, not securely covered with any kingship, so its legal navigation was decided simply by main force. On the sea, a pirate boat, a major investment of capital, constituted that force, but it needed port-facilities and landside back-up by a local patron, who might even own the boat. Such a man was the Duke of Exeter, Henry VI’s Admiral of England, who somehow managed to own pirate vessels at the same time as being “Chief of Police.” Contradictions within contradictions – or just personal greed in alliance with the State’s complex interests, not very different from the Somalian and Nigerian coasts today where piracy still flourishes.

  • 5 Avery’s behaviour followed a pattern inaugurated by Vasco da Gama who, during the first European na (...)

8Defoe was devoted to writing on trade and making money – “writing on trade is the whore I really doated on” as he said closing the last issue of The Review (Vol 9, No. 106. Thursday June 11, 1713, 214) – so could not but be interested in pirates, and also find in them his own personal conflict between greed and morality which is a constant concern in his writing. Six months before publishing Captain Singleton, Defoe had published The King of Pirates; being an Account of the famous Enterprises of Captain Avery, the mock King of Madagascar in the form of two letters, supposedly written by Avery and intended to correct the errors in the “ridiculous and extravagant” accounts already published. One particular error which Avery (or Defoe) said he wanted to correct involved Avery’s capture in 1695 of a flotilla bringing home from a pilgrimage to Mecca the daughter of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and many courtiers, and other poorer people. The tale was famous and grim. Avery and his cohort of about 400 pirates in a flotilla of six vessels seized between £ 350,000 and £ 600,000 (about £ 200m to £ 400m today) from this ultra-rich pilgrim fleet. As the boats drifted together over several days, the pirates raped hundreds of women of the court and their servants. Some court officials were also tortured.5 Avery was said to have raped the Emperor’s daughter, but Defoe’s biography begins with a preface explaining that Avery denies the charge of rape and feels he has “been impos’d upon in the former and ridiculous and extravagant Accounts which have been put upon the World” whereas in this text the “account given of Captain Avery’s taking the Great Mogul’s Daughter, ravishing and murdering her, and all the Ladies of her Retinue, is so differently related.” Some modern historians believe that indeed the Emperor’s daughter was not on board (Earle 116-18), so Avery would be vindicated, but if she was not there why does Avery (or Defoe) continue to say that “except plundering that Princess of her Jewels and Money […] the Lady was used with all the Decency and Humanity, and perhaps, with more than ever Women, falling among Pirates, had found before”? Even Avery’s own account, as printed by Defoe, does not deny the rape of the “Women of inferior Rank who were in Number almost two hundred” (Defoe, The King of the Pirates II.198-287):

I cannot answer for what might happen in the first Heat; but even there, after the first Heat of our Men was over, what was done, was done quietly; for I have heard some of the men say, that there was not a woman among them but what was lain with four or five Times over, that is to say, by so many several Men; for as the Women made no Opposition, so the Men even took those that were next them, without Ceremony, when and where Opportunity offer’d. (Defoe, The King of the Pirates II.256).

  • 6 The first frank account of Raleigh’s behaviour at Smerwick is found in Sir Walter Raleigh in Irelan (...)

9It is intended to be reassuring that the rapes were conducted “quietly,” but this incompetent exculpation points to a consistent feature of such accounts: so as not to shame the victims, such piratical atrocities are normally passed over in silence, albeit everyone knows what the silence means. Similarly, other atrocities of similar kind. Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, extravagantly lauded by Defoe in the Historical Account […] of Sir Walter Raleigh, had a reputation as a notoriously brutal privateer earned when he was responsible for the slaughter of many hundreds of disarmed soldiers, and women and children at the siege of Smerwick, Ireland, in 1579. Some of the women were in fact pregnant, but hung up for all to see. Even an event so notorious was usually passed over in silence by historians (Nicholls & Williams).6 Defoe might therefore have pleaded ignorance when he expressed his “Resentment at the Injustice done this Great Man” for his failed Orinoco adventure, a man whose “Undertakings, Discoveries, Conquests, and Improvements […] made for the Glory and Interest of his sovereign, and of his Country” so valuably contributed to the “Immense Wealth, Commerce, Power and Extent of Empire which the British Nation now enjoys in Consequence of his Immortal Labours” (Historical Account […] of Sir Walter Raleigh 4). The silence about what kind of man Raleigh really was, like the silent rape of Muslim women by Avery’s pirates, conveniently occluded the human and moral costs of empire.

10In 1729 Defoe’s A General History of the Murderers and Robberies of the most notorious Pyrates the silence is loud. Beneath the would-be enticing title, Defoe provides a dull series of synoptic profiles of the most notorious pirates of the age, usually ending with their public execution. Defoe’s accounts are factual, flat, uninteresting, entirely commercial ventures, profiting from the public fascination with notorious villains which Defoe often fed with his journalism. On the other hand, his similarly motivated profile of Jack Sheppard (1724), a famous thief, departed from dullness because Sheppard (sometimes Shepherd) was a master of trickery and ruses, skills which Defoe lambasted in politicians, financiers, stockbrokers, and yet at which he himself excelled as a very amphibious, hard-to-locate journalist and satirist, and persistently wove into the fabric of his fictions.

11Because the popular fascination with piracy is the context into which Captain Singleton was inserted, it is worth indicating how well-established the interest was. It first became well-established in the English imagination with Francis Drake who in 1577 sailed around Cape Horn, up the west side of South America, and back to England. Drake was from the English point of view a privateer, and from the Spanish point of view a pirate (lionized and vilified as such in Lope de Vega’s La Dragontea, 1598). Drake’s voyage was undertaken under a secret commission of the State to raid along the west coast of South America and to bring back what he could steal. He was officially a pirate, whilst funded by private investors, including Queen Elizabeth. When he returned in 1580 with a fortune in booty, his backers made a profit of 4,700%, despite the loss of four out of his five ships and two-thirds of his men. Queen Elizabeth knighted him on the deck of his ship, the Golden Hind, in April 1581, elevating him from common cut-throat to gentleman.

  • 7 On the representations of Drake, see Jowitt, The Culture of Piracy and “The Hero and the Sea”, as w (...)

12Drake had already proved his mettle in 1571-73 by attacking the Spanish silver route across the Isthmus of Panama, even though Spain and England were not then at war, and in 1588 he helped defeat the Spanish Armada in the English Channel. Thereafter he carried on sacking Spanish settlements in the Caribbean, notably Santo Domingo, Cartagena and St. Augustine. He died in 1596 after leading a fleet of 27 vessels in an attack on Puerto Rico (Rodger 1997, 243-44). After his death Drake’s reputation grew and grew, venerated as an icon of Empire into the 1960s for his combination of Protestant heroic leadership, bellicosity and financial success.7

13Drake’s example became a pattern for later buccaneers such as Avery, their real brutality often more hinted at than fulsomely described because the English State found them so financially valuable. The only major breach in this wall of silence was provided by a Dutchman, Alexandre Exquemelin [or Esquemeling], who served with Henry Morgan from 1669 to 1674. In 1686 the English translation of his Buccaneers of America was published in London and gave its readers the grim details of the assault on Panama City in January 1670, commanded by Morgan with a fleet comprising 37 ships and 2000 hardened pirates. A contract drawn up before the assault set out the shares to be paid to each, with bonuses for those showing particular courage, and a scale of indemnities for those injured, so much for an arm, so much for a leg, and so on. There was no indemnity for the hundreds of people they raped, murdered and tortured. Morgan sailed under letters of marque issued by Sir Thomas Modyford, governor of Jamaica, in line with British policy of harassing the Spanish colonies and seizing bullion. In fact, since it had been seized in accordance with Oliver Cromwell’s “Western Design” in 1655 Jamaica had become a State-piratical venture the purpose of which was to disrupt Spanish trade and make considerable profits for England (Wallenstein 158-62).

14As a privateer, Morgan paid an agreed percentage of the proceeds to King Charles II and to his brother James, as Lord High Admiral. After the attack on Panama, Morgan was arrested to appease Spanish fury, shipped back to London, fêted at Court, and knighted, and returned to Jamaica in 1675 as Sir Henry Morgan, Deputy Governor. The historian J. H. Parry gave this trenchant verdict: “There ensued thirty years of extraordinary anarchy and violence, in which the leading figures were not so much the colonial governors as the buccaneer leaders with whom they allied themselves. […] Rarely in western history can a few thousand desperadoes have created a reign of terror over so vast an area, or influenced so strongly the conduct of civilized states” (Parry 266).

15The two-faced policy of the English crown was driven by its frustration at the refusal of the Spanish to allow British traders into the Caribbean, a frustration experienced since the time of Drake but growing as Spain seemed to become both richer and more incompetent. The English fleet, having been evidently weak in the 1570s had by 1700 matured to rival the Dutch and French for world-wide domination. As is apparent when reading Captain Singleton, English naval vessels and merchant fleets could be expected to turn up nearly anywhere in the world, whether in the south seas, the Indian Ocean, or near China. Only the Dutch kept them at a respectful distance, in part by atrocious executions, such as the one at Amboyna (in 1623), referred to in Singleton (191), designed to warn European interlopers to respect Dutch control over the spice trade. Maritime conflict thus took two strategic forms, struggle between grand fleets, which were relatively rare, and constant skirmishing by privateers and naval vessels to disrupt the enemy nations’ trade. In Defoe’s lifetime, the destruction by privateers was impressive: in 1688-97 Britain lost 4,000 merchant vessels, and during the War of the Spanish Succession 3,250, many to the French. By the same token, English privateers and naval cruisers took over £ 1million in prizes during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14; Brewer 197-98).

16During the interlude between the wars with Spain and France (1697-1701) privateers lost their letters of marque and began preying upon all comers, creating considerable problems for the American colonies, albeit the corrupt governor of New York, Benjamin Fletcher, sold privateering commissions to notorious pirates and welcomed them at his dinner table. In particular he would be paid not to send pirates back to England for trial. In 1698 Fletcher was replaced and sent back to London to face charges of conniving at piracy and in 1699 Parliament passed the second Act of Piracy which set up Vice-Admiralty courts in the colonies empowered to try cases locally (Thomson 50). However, with the outbreak of the War of Spanish Succession in 1701, the enemies of all mankind became once again privateering patriots, and in 1708, concerned to encourage more privateering, Parliament passed the Cruisers and Convoys Act, radically simplifying the way in which prizes were “condemned” and making the whole value available to the owners and the crews of privateers (whereas previously the government reserved 20% to itself). This change of attitude is reflected in Woods Rogers’ preface to his Cruising Voyage round the World entitled “An Introduction Concerning the South-Sea Trade” in which he writes:

The Spaniards were always so jealous of this Commerce, that they would never allow the least Share of it to any other Nation, but opposed them with Force whenever they attempted it. Their Inclination to engross all the Trade of the West-Indies to themselves, was so very great, that they have depopulated their own Country to people that; and in their treaties with foreign Princes they were so very cautious, as not to allow their Ships so much as to touch those Coasts, but in cases of extreme Necessity, and even then under very severe Restrictions. (Rogers v)

17As Defoe scholars know, Woodes Rogers’ account within the Cruising Voyage of the discovery and rescue of the marooned Alexander Selkirk from his solitary life on the island of Juan Fernandez was one of the inspirations for Robinson Crusoe, so it is particularly resonant to find in this preface a statement of what motivated and quasi-legitimated privateering activity against Spanish vessels and colonies, and indeed the kind of argument made by Defoe himself in many of his writings in favour of the South-Sea Company: it seemed to Britons in Defoe’s time that it was simply unjust for Spain to keep all the wealth of the Indies to themselves. No doubt incentivised by this ideology, and the improved terms of the 1708 Act, Woodes Rogers’ voyage was a capitalist adventure funded by a consortium of Bristol merchants who benefited from a return of 800% (Starkey).

Repression of piracy after the Treaty of Utrecht

  • 8 Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American (...)
  • 9 See also Parry, Trade and Dominion where he discusses the capture of an East India Company ship, th (...)

18After the Treaty of Utrecht, privateers’ letters of marque expired and they became pirates again. There was an enormous number, augmented by those cast off by the navy whose total complement plunged from 49,860 men in 1713 to 13,475 by 1715 (Rediker 254-87).8 By 1716-18 there were about 1800-2400 pirates in about 30 companies, many concentrated on the Bahamas, and inclined to feed off any vessel they came across, not just those of “enemy” powers. In order the extirpate this nest of misrule, in 1717 and 1718 George I offered amnesty to those who turned themselves in, but many did not, and some did so but soon reverted to their old ways. In the same years, the Attorney General of South Carolina, Richard Allen, declared the pirates hosti humani generis,the enemies of “all mankind, their own species and fellow-creatures, without distinction of nations or religions” (Rediker 275). Probably 500-600 Anglo-American pirates were executed in 1716-26. Under new laws, anyone who trucked, bartered or exchanged with pirates, furnished them with stores or even consulted with them might be punished with death. Woodes Rogers, the former privateer now turned pirate-catcher for the British government, was sent to eradicate the Bahaman base and eventually succeeded after a decade-long campaign. The Royal Navy pursued pirates vigorously. Corpses dangled in chains in British ports around the world and there was a vigorous propaganda campaign throughout the British colonies to cleanse the seas, supported by clergymen, royal officials, and publicists who sought through sermons, proclamations, pamphlets and the newspaper press to create an image of the pirate that would legitimate his extermination. The repression of Caribbean piracy increased the attractions of cruising the Indian Ocean and around the Spice Islands, and the growth of pirate communities on Madagascar where Singleton is based (Thomson 51).9

Pirate Communities

  • 10 Quoting Manuel Schonhorn ed., History of the Pyrates, 1972.

19As naval captains and executioners killed more and more pirates, the years 1718-22 saw an intensification of violence perpetrated by pirates, resisting to the death. One notorious pirate, Philip Lyne, boasted he had killed 37 masters of vessels (Rediker 171) as well as a number of their crew members. At the same time, a counter-narrative gained force. As Marcus Rediker observes, in A General History of Pirates, Captain Charles Johnson recognizes that pirates are seen by some to be “Marine Heroes, the Scourge of Tyrants and Avarice, and the brave Asserters of Liberty.” He made the point with sarcasm but the implications were clear: many of his contemporaries held precisely this view. Avery was seen, as Johnson says, as the “maritime Robin Hood” (Rediker, Villains 606, 608).10

20Just as we find today in certain spy dramas, when it suited them competitive nation states used privateers as disposable, highly-paid, licensed hit-men, but when they were no longer needed they were represented as an unlicensed mob of rebels, outcasts, subversives and common criminals. And this characterization was not far wrong: Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have argued that the antithetical demonization and lionization of pirates by the periodical press was based in their social composition and anti-authoritarian stance (see also Schonhorn, “A Reassessment of Defoe’s Captain Singleton” 41). The contradictions condensed into the idea of legitimate expropriation are compounded by those of the emergent class system: everyone admires the rich and powerful, and pirates who were feared as rapists and killers were admired by the exploited underclass when they meted out justice to bullying captains and ships’ officers, often asking the crew when they took over a vessel whether they should hang the captain or treat him with respect. In Captain Singleton we observe an echo of such sentiments when the pirates come across a vessel drifting out of control in mid-ocean. Its captain and crew have been murdered by the cargo, a consignment of slaves who were particularly provoked by the rape of one slave’s wife, and then his daughter (161). Defoe’s sympathetic description of the plight of these slaves, and Quaker Williams’s skill in healing their wounds, are an indication of how much Defoe knew, and how well he can represent the awful actual conditions of slavery and violence at sea. Yet the episode concludes with Quaker William selling “the Women as the Men, and at a very good Price too” (165). Once again, orderly fair-trade resolves things nicely.

  • 11 Woodes Rogers reprints his pirate agreement in the preface to his Cruising Voyage. On social compos (...)
  • 12 These conditions are described in the anonymous pamphlet Piracy Destroy’d (London: John Nutt, 1701) (...)

21The deeper oddness of this representation is that the crews of pirate ships typically comprised escaped slaves, political rebels, mutineers from military service, dispossessed smallholders, peasants who had rebelled against landlords, unemployed and alienated mariners, survivors of races exterminated by European imperialists. This motley crew of the world’s dispossessed formed proto-democratic self-governing communities which drew up their own rules and regulations called “Jamaica discipline” or the “Law of the Privateers” to govern the distribution of booty, the election of ships’ officers, procedures for governing infractions and penalties to be administered.11 Not infrequently when ships were captured the entire crew would join the outlaws, so alienated were they by their low wages, bad food, harsh conditions of employment and the brutality of officers who might mete out murderous punishments for the slightest derogation of duty.12 These exiles formed their own alternative social order, shades of which are visible in Captain Singleton when the pirate crew debates its next course of action. Given such a cauldron of sentiments and histories, Captain Singleton’s ability to sublimate the repressed passions of the underclass into seemly trades and polite conduct might well be read as an attempt by Defoe to redirect these dangerous classes towards disciplined individualistic self-enrichment, a strategy still very evident in our own times.

Crossing Africa, Cruising the Indian Ocean

22Now that we have established the context, it is possible to comprehend the narrative basis and the purpose of Singleton’s actions (Singleton here being both the figure of the person and the text oriented around his figure).

23As indicated above, the primary purpose of Captain Singleton as a novel seems to have been to make Defoe some money by supplying the contemporary appetite for geographical adventure narratives, especially about anti-heroes who make large personal fortunes by illicit means. There are similar novels written at this time, notably William Chetwood’s The Voyages, Dangerous Adventures and Imminent Escapes of Richard Falconer (1720) and The Voyages and Adventures of Richard Boyle (1728), which, like Singleton, fed public interest in Britain’s global, naval, maritime and colonial activities. Such novels inserted themselves between works about pirates already mentioned in this essay and such accounts of true voyages as William Hacke’s A Collection of Original Voyages (1699), William Dampier’s New Voyage round the World (1699; reprinted in 1707 with a sequel in 1709), and Woodes Rogers’ Cruising Voyage (1718). Voyage narratives were complemented by a burgeoning publication of maps, notably by Herman Moll, geographies such as Georg Horn’s A full and exact Description of the Earth (1700) and, later, Defoe’s own Atlas Maritimus & Commercialis, or A General View of the World, so far as relates to Trade and Navigation (1728). Such works narrativize and vindicate a popular world-view of expanding trade, daring adventures, and national-imperial purpose.

24Singleton himself, like Moll and Roxana, is a focalisateur of no substance, a blank slate akin to the modern urban reader devoted to survival and personal advancement, whether by honest dealing, various forms of trickery, or, if necessary, thuggery. Finally, the novel shows how one can have a clean conscience despite the underhand means used. In a sense, Calvinist theories of the pre-destinated Elect, or more vaguely Protestant ideas of a specially Provident God, conduce to the idea that a man who makes a lot of money is probably blessed by his Maker.

25Notwithstanding the ethical problems of Divine election, Singleton has an ideal excuse for his amorality: he is a single man, stolen from his loving family at an early age, brought up by criminals to a life of crime. Homeless, deracinated, without siblings, parents or affective attachments, he is a true singleton. Indeed, in his solitariness and lack of affection and ethics he becomes rather like money itself: “I had no home and all the world was alike to me” (35). Singleton is an existential consequence of piracy, taken and sold into a kind of slavery, almost bullionized in his impersonality. Like Colonel Jack, he can be excused when he uses guises and trickery to protect himself or to expropriate others. Much of the tissue of his narrative is given to dealing, bargaining, avoiding being cheated, and exploring the ruses of guile, for example in the elaborate section devoted to using guile to release the Dutchman who has been held prisoner on Ceylon for many years (222-38). Counting up the mountains of loot is another recurrent point of satisfaction, as in all of Defoe’s novels.

26At other moments, Singleton exemplifies the fair-dealer or honest tradesman, striking reasonable bargains even with the captains of ships he has captured, taking no more than he needs and sometimes giving in exchange some of the stock in his own vessel which is surplus to his requirements (e.g. 316). Notwithstanding Singleton’s personal calm, his occasional goodness, and the total lack of violence in his human relationships (highly improbable in a pirate captain who must constantly subdue to his will his own crew and his captives), Singleton remains the personification of solitude in the crowd: without affective relationships, without emotional bonds, he does not feel, he does not admire, he reflects very little. Even Quaker William, his eventual best friend and life companion, offers no emotional colour, serving only as a yet-calmer philosophical alter-ego (as becomes the Quaker in the range of Dissenting sects). Singleton’s impersonal singularity thus provides a suitable point of identification for Defoe’s readers, many of whom are themselves solitaries, atomized by London’s urbanizing capitalizing society. (The nuclear family, made famous by Lawrence Stone, yearned for by Roxana yet also fled by her in fear, was only an option for the relatively small proportion of the population which could amass sufficient capital to enter the rising bourgeoisie. ) The novel concludes with Singleton, the initially penniless waif, ending the novel as a reformed pirate who possesses much more than £ 100,000 (260), a sum worth £ 14m to £ 200m today, and settling into just such a companionate bourgeois marriage with Quaker William’s sister.13 Like Defoe’s argument in the Review of 1707 which we considered at the beginning of this essay, the pirate has come home, laundered his money and bought his good status in life, leaving only a modest taste of corruption on his breath. It is to all intents a happy end.

  • 14 Defoe several times proposed establishing a British overland route between Brazil and Chile, eviden (...)
  • 15 The African places mentioned imply Defoe consulted Herman Moll’s map of 1710. See https://libweb5.p (...)

27This solitary Singleton has also functioned as pathfinder or pioneer, mapping out the terrain for the rising British imperium, whether in his extensive exploration of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, or in his walk across the African continent. In both journeys of exploration Singleton takes the novel where the imaginary of his nation and its readers already want their empire to go. His remarkable crossing of Africa on foot is brilliantly imagined in the novel but in reality was so difficult it would not be accomplished until 1874-77 when Henry Morton Stanley set out on his epic journey to discover David Livingstone. For Defoe-the-novelist, Singleton’s amazing walk is only motivated by his desire to return to England, a land where he owns nothing, but the deeper imaginative purpose for Defoe is having his narrative end with getting gold from the Gold Coast, which at this time was the only British colony which could rival Spain’s treasure trove of Aztec riches.14 Aided by the gunner’s maps (92),15 Singleton and his party make a trek which despite the geography is both cartographically and experientially convincing, largely because Defoe builds upon techniques he had developed in Crusoe, keeping narrow focus on practical matters to convey a sense of reality. In any other hands, it is tempting to think the narrative’s silliness would have been all too visible. But Defoe confines the narration to logistics – distances travelled, the number of days taken, the practical measures necessary for making water bags from goat skins, preparing a stock of dried and salted meat, obtaining buffaloes as beasts of burden, tying the hands of pairs of negroes to stop them running away, advancing on hostile natives in military formation. Defoe also restricts people to functions, not giving physical features or personal characteristics – no pictures of them, scant representation of how they talk to each other. Survival and wealth are the only concerns; pragmatism rules, not ethics.

  • 16 At this point Defoe illustrates the famous historical transition from passions to interests which i (...)

28Through its utilitarian focus, Singleton becomes a triumphant indication of how European imperial science is able to dominate the material world via its imaginative dematerialization of that world into words and images, a dematerialization echoed in the way Singleton is able to sustain sophisticated understanding with natives whose language none of his party can speak. This miraculous skill is perhaps supported by the power to dominate that is granted to Europeans by gunpowder: a few exemplary volleys are sufficient to bring them to reason (57-62). The natives therefore hear and understand what is said to them because they have no choice. The subjection of the natives is cloaked by the idea of the “Black Prince” seeing the rational benefits of agreeing to facilitate the white men’s travels, even if the only benefit is not being shot. This conversion of the natives to supporters of the white men’s cause is all done quietly (yet again), but happily concords with the mercantilist ideal – advanced in the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu and the Spectator – that the rational understanding of mutually beneficial interests is a universal trait. The triumph of “interests” finds an echo later in the novel when Quaker William counsels members of the crew not to send a punitive expedition ashore to revenge the wounding of 17 pirates by some other natives, by urging them to remember that “your business is money […] if you kill two or three Thousand of these poor Creatures, they have no Money, pray what will you get?” (219).16 Yes, they agree. Passion must be set to one side.

29So in the wonderfully implausible African section of the novel fantastic quantities of gold are sieved from rivers or bought by fair trade from natives who fall in love with small trinkets hammered out of sheet metal by one of the crew. Clearly the natives lack all such skills of representation. Primitive accumulation and the magic of trade (buy here cheaply, move, sell over there at a much higher price) produce social cohesion. Quite implausibly given the mountains of gold and ivory they have collected, Singleton and his companions decide not to take the direct route to the Atlantic coast across the Congo (109), but travel instead along the River Niger in a great arc north of Benin and Guinea, Singleton then going south to Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast, whilst others continue by river to Gambia and Cape Verde, all these places being identifiable on Herman Moll’s 1710 map of Africa (137). At the end of this extraordinary walk (about 8,000 km) across the entire African continent, during which Singleton and his companions have accumulated a fortune, they give the “Negro Prince” his liberty and a “Pound and a half of Gold for himself” and with this generous gift they part in “the most friendly Manner possible” (137). Nothing is said about the other Blacks who carried the white men’s burden on this enormous journey. Like the Mughal women they vanish quietly from history.

30The African narrative in Captain Singleton has thus established European supremacy via weapons, maps, and the practice of fair-dealing with the natives which is shown to lead to mutual respect even when trinkets are offered in exchange for seriously valuable goods. By such sleights of hand the difficult materiality of imperial violence and African geophysical reality is translated into a benign narrative of courage, persistence, seeing it through and – the ultimate goal – mega-profits. Defoe thus establishes at a very early date the basics of many imperial narratives which will follow, notably those of Captain Frederick Marryat and Rider Haggard. Oddly, given its much more problematic materials, the piracy narrative will achieve the same ends, removing from representation the sheer quantity of violence that must have been involved in the many seizures of ships and persons in which Singleton is involved. As in Defoe’s very questionable biography of Avery, so in Singleton, murder, maiming, torture and rape vanish from sight. Only at the very end of the novel, when Defoe is at pains to show how ill-gotten gains might be converted into legitimate wealth, do we hear Singleton regretting the “rapine and violence” (271) he has engaged in, and describing himself as a “Murtherer” (269), even though the text has been silent on this point. Rather, although murder and rapine are implicit, the text represents piratical violence as reasonable trade by other means (see 216). This curious whitewashing echoes the evasion found at the end of Roxana where she is unable to overcome her guilt at how her money was earned. At the end of Singleton, the way in which Singleton and Quaker William are able to rationalise their theft of so much wealth might be considered very realistic for such hardened rogues, but it is certainly not acceptable within the ideology of fair trade that Defoe has consistently tried to promote.

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Primary sources

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pirates (1724). Ed. Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999.

Defoe, Daniel. A Review of the State of the British Nation, October 18th, 1707. IV (107). 425-28.

Defoe, Daniel. A Weekly Review of the Affairs of France. 9 vols. (1704-13). 9.106. Thursday June 11, 1713.

Defoe, Daniel. The King of the Pirates: Being an Account of the Famous Enterprizes of Captain Avery, the Mock King of Madagascar; with his Rambles and Piracies. London: A. Bettesworth, 1719. Reprinted appended to Volume II of The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders. Oxford: Blackwell, 1927.

Defoe, Daniel. The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies, of the Famous Captain Singleton. Ed. Shiv Kumar. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.

Exquemelin, Alexander O. The Buccaneers of America. A true account of the most remarkable assaults committed of late years upon the coasts of West Indies by the Buccaneers of Jamaica and Tortuga. London, 1686.

An Historical Account of the Voyages and Adventures of Sir Walter Raleigh. With the discoveries and conquests he made for the Crown of England. Also a particular account of his several attempts for the discovery of the gold mines in Guiana, and the reason of the miscarriage, [...] To which is added an Account how that rich country might now be with ease possessed, planted and secur'd to the British Nation [...] Humbly proposed to the South Sea Company. etc. [By D. Defoe?]. London, 1719.

Rogers, Woodes. A Cruising Voyage round the World; first to the South Seas; thence to the East-Indies, and homeward by the Cape of Good Hope; begun in 1708, and finished in 1711; [...] with [...] an introduction relating to the South-sea trade (1712). 2nd edn. London, 1718.

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Brewer, John. Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London: Methuen, 2003.

Hampden, John. Francis Drake, Privateer: Contemporary Narratives and Documents. London: Eyre Methuen, 1972.

Hill, Christopher. “Radical Pirates?” The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism. Ed. Margaret Jacob and James Jacob. London: Allen and Unwin, 1984. 17-32.

Hirschman, Albert. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1977.

Hodgkins, Christopher. Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature. Columbia, Missouri and London: University of Missouri Press, 2002.

Jowitt, Claire. The Culture of Piracy, 1580-1630: English Literature and Seaborne Crime. London: Routledge, 2016.

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Linebaugh Peter and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. London: Verso, 2000.

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1 “[T]he Romans themselves were at first no better than such a Gang of Rovers as we were; and who knew but our General, Captain Avery, might lay the Foundations of as great an Empire as they” (Defoe, King of Pirates 79).

2 The same consideration is discussed by Quaker William and Captain Singleton in the last pages of the novel.

3 The medieval grounds for legal jurisdiction over the sea are finely described by N.A.M. Rodger, as is the “ambiguous” relationship of the State to piratical violence (67, 79, 115-16, 128, 146-50).

4 Rodger helpfully explains the origin and legal difference between the “letter of reprisal,” the “lettre de mark,” and the “letter of marque” issued by the English Admiralty court in times of war to empower a privately owned ship to “cruise” against the shipping of a known enemy in time of war, seize the vessel as a “prize” and have her “condemned” by an Admiralty court so the vessel could be legally sold (69, 146,199-200).

5 Avery’s behaviour followed a pattern inaugurated by Vasco da Gama who, during the first European navigation of the Indian Ocean in 1498, murdered 500 pilgrims on their way to Mecca. When news of Avery’s crimes reached London and the Mughal court there were severe repercussions. Eventually the East India Company paid enormous reparations. See Keay (185-88).

6 The first frank account of Raleigh’s behaviour at Smerwick is found in Sir Walter Raleigh in Ireland (London: Kegan Paul, 1883) written by Sir John Pope Hennessy, the first Roman Catholic Conservative Member of the Westminster Parliament, elected in 1859, and later the Governor of a number of British colonies.

7 On the representations of Drake, see Jowitt, The Culture of Piracy and “The Hero and the Sea”, as well as Hodgkins and Hampden.

8 Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World (254-87) is the most valuable account of piracy in this period.

9 See also Parry, Trade and Dominion where he discusses the capture of an East India Company ship, the Cassandra, in August 1720, by pirates who marauded around the Indian Ocean until 1723 and in a manner very much like that found in Singleton. He observes that “one striking feature is the calmness with which piracy was accepted as part of the normal commercial scene. […] European groups reacted angrily against attacks on their own ships […] but officials were rather pleased […] when their competitors were plundered, and they had no hesitation in doing business with pirates” (57-58).

10 Quoting Manuel Schonhorn ed., History of the Pyrates, 1972.

11 Woodes Rogers reprints his pirate agreement in the preface to his Cruising Voyage. On social composition, see Linebaugh & Rediker, and Hill.

12 These conditions are described in the anonymous pamphlet Piracy Destroy’d (London: John Nutt, 1701) which recommends solving the problem by a combination of religious instruction, proper financial remuneration and shares for ordinary seamen in the value of prizes captured, and the registration and certification of all mariners.

13 Last accessed on 23 August 2019.

14 Defoe several times proposed establishing a British overland route between Brazil and Chile, evidently failing to be daunted by the geophysical obstacles.

15 The African places mentioned imply Defoe consulted Herman Moll’s map of 1710. See Last accessed on 23 August 2019.

16 At this point Defoe illustrates the famous historical transition from passions to interests which is explored by Hirschman (esp. 31-66). The only other moment when the violence of the crew is graphically portrayed is when a group foraging for supplies are attacked by native islanders hidden inside a tree (Singleton 206-14). The natives are eventually blown to pieces in a way gruesomely described. Singleton concludes: “We now had our full Satisfaction of the Indians, but in short, this was a losing voyage, for we had two Men killed, one quite crippled, five more wounded ; we spent two Barrels of Powder, and eleven Days Time, and all to get the Understanding how to make an Indian Mine, or how to keep a Garrison in a hollow Tree, and with this Wit bought at this dear Price, we came away, having taken in some fresh Water, but go no fresh Provisions” (214).

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Robert Clark, « The Ambiguities of Captain Singleton, Defoe’s Piratical Novel »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 76 | 2019, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2019, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Robert Clark

Robert Clark is Founding Editor of The Literary Encyclopedia. He taught at UEA Norwich 1978-2012, focusing on the history of the English and American novel and capitalism. He has recently published essays on Roxana (Paris: Ellipses, 2017) and on Robinson Crusoe in Etudes Anglaises (2019).

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