Robinson Crusoe and the forms of Modern Slavery

By Tamenech Montù, 5C

In Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719), the plot does not explicitly revolve around slavery.

The slave trade had existed for centuries and it was part of the international lucrative business in the 17th century as a very profitable business.

Before Robinson Crusoe lands on the island, he is enslaved. Having become a slave, Robinson Crusoe realizes the miseries of slavery, and he acknowledges slavery as the worst condition for any Christian to be in, but later on he becomes an owner of slaves himself.

One day Crusoe is shocked to discover a man’s footprint on the beach, sometimes later he will discover the key to the mystery: natives from the nearby islands, who practise cannibalism, have visited the island, and when they return, Crusoe saves the life of one of the victims, to whom he gives the name of Friday.

Friday soon becomes Crusoe’s humble and devoted slave.

Aligned with the colonial system, Crusoe, the master, represents the colonial power in the novel, while Friday is a sidekick character who is fully under the control of the western power.

We can see the significance of the representation of a capitalist economy in the way Crusoe builds the house in which he lives, he tames the wild animals on the island, and he prepares the fields for cultivation.

Friday has to work and follow his master’s commands.

Under the lens of the colonial enforcement, Friday represents not only the colonized but also the British working class; while Crusoe represents the capitalist middle class.

The main argument of this thesis is that one can read Robinson Crusoe as a reflection of the practices of capitalism and its expression of colonialism, with slavery and religion usually being an integral part of the set of practice and values the capitalism enacted upon its colonies.


The slave trade in world history dates back to some of the earliest organized states and farming societies.

  • The Athenians
  • The Romans
  • The Assyrians
  • The Chines and Indians
  • The Muslim world of the Middle Ages (In this system there were twice as many female slaves as men. Women were used mainly as sexual slaves in harems)
  • Some African tribes prior to the involvement of Europeans.

In the latest of the list, slave trade was an historical reality whether based on warfare, debt, religious obligation or punishment for crimes.

Under this system, African tribes did not consider slaves as a private property as they later would be under the transatlantic system. These earlier forms of slavery in Africa could develop in considering slaves as members of the hosting tribe, although secluded in the low ranks of the society.

In the Transatlantic slave trade, Slavery played a pivotal role in the earliest multinational systems of credit and trade that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries. The African slave trade also stimulated European shipping, manufacturing, and gun making.

During the earliest phases of capitalist development, planters, master artisans, and traders could not afford to pay wages. In particular, chronically in debt New World planters could exploit slave labour to meet the demands the hard work in mining and in plantations.

The slave trade became one of Europe’s largest and most profitable business.

But it wasn’t just slave traders or New World planters who benefited from the slave trade. American ship owners, farmers, and fishers also profited from slavery. Slavery played a pivotal role in the growth of commercial capitalism in the colonies.

The transatlantic slave trade was a triangular route from Europe to Africa, to the Americas and back to Europe:

  • In the first leg, merchants exported goods to Africa in return for enslaved Africans, gold, ivory and spices.
  • The ships then travelled across the Atlantic to the American colonies where the Africans were sold for sugar, tobacco, cotton and other produce.
  • They sold the Africans as slaves to work on plantations and as workers in the households. They then transported the goods to Europe. There was also a two-way trade between Europe and Africa, Europe and the Americas, and between Africa and the Americas.

The leg of the triangular trade linking Africa to the Americas was called The Middle Passage

That’s where African and European slave traders exchanged goods for enslaved people

That’s where the 12.5 million Africans who were captured and enslaved embarked on the voyage

The slaves were a wide mix of different ethnic communities from African lands They transported some of them over 1,000 miles from their homes as captives of slave traders who carried European-made firearms. They were abducted, traded, and marched toward the coasts to be put in castle-like prisons.

They were held there until European ships would sail into nearby waters across the oceans. These castles, known as “Point of no return,” were the last places on the continent that almost all of those who entered would see.


The modern Slavery may look different from the heinous Transatlantic slave trade, but we may identify many common features such as violence, mistreatment, and exploitation.

 Modern slavery happens each time we deprive an individual of his personal freedom and he gets exploited by others for personal or commercial gain, whether tricked, coerced, or forced.

In some regions, ongoing conflict, political instability, and forced displacement are key drivers of modern slavery. Transformations in the world of work, climate change, and migration increase the vulnerability of many people to potential forms of exploitation.

People can be treated as slaves by making our clothes, serving our food, harvesting our crops, working in factories, or working in houses as cooks, cleaners or nannies. 

Modern slavery takes many forms as shown below

In recent years, the number of people in modern slavery has risen by about 9.3 million. The situation is getting worse, driven in part by the social and economic shock waves from COVID-19 and wars.

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