This colour lithographic card is number thirteen from a set of twenty-four which retells the famous story of Robinson Crusoe in French. The card depicts Crusoe exploring the island in a small boat which he constructed. In this action, Crusoe feels sadness in light of his solitude and suffering and longs to see England once more.
SignificanceThis French diorama card is a novel form of entertainment based on a well-known adventure story of shipwreck, isolation and rescue. It demonstrates its enduring cultural appeal and the extent to which the story impacted readers across the world from when it was first published in 1719, right up to the 19th century.
HistoryDaniel Defoe's novel was first published in 1719 under the long title 'The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates.' It was a bestseller and since then, the novel has never been out of print.
Crusoe's character is widely accepted to have been based on Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who was abandoned on the Isla Más Afuera in the Juan Fernández Islands near Chile, from 1704 to 1709. Selkirk was eventually found by the English explorer and privateer William Dampier along with Captain Woodes Rogers sailing on board the DUKE. Their meeting was later described in Rogers' work, 'A Cruising Voyage Round the World' published in 1712.
The few insights Rogers provides in his accounts reveal interesting clues about Selkirk's experience on the island. Selkirk sailed on the English galley, CINQUE PORTS, under Captain Thomas Stradling. Convinced that the vessel was not seaworthy he attempted to persuade his shipmates to stay with him on the uninhabited island. Though unsuccessful in his efforts, after he was abandoned Selkirk went on to prove a resourceful survivor, much like his literary counterpart. This is confirmed by Rogers' assessment of the situation:
'...whatever there is in these Stories, this of Mr. Selkirk I know to be true; and his Behaviour afterwards gives me reason to believe the Account he gave me how he spent his time, and bore up under such an Affliction, in which nothing but the Divine Providence could have supported any Man…Necessity is the Mother of Invention, since he found means to supply his Wants in a very natural manner, so as to maintain his Life….'
Like Crusoe, Selkirk is seen as a lucky survivor and a prime example of the adaptable castaway. Ironically, CINQUE PORTS foundered after Selkirk's marooning. As Rogers concludes, 'one may see that Solitude and Retirement from the World is not such an unsufferable State of Life as most Men imagine, especially when People are fairly call’d or thrown into it unavoidably, as this Man was; who in all probability must otherwise have perish’d in the Seas, the Ship which left him being cast away not long after.'
It is clear from Rogers' language that Selkirk was held in high esteem. Much in the same way that Crusoe is revered for his survival skills, Selkirk is praised for his actions as he hunted goats and presented them to Rogers' sick crew. This admiration is further evidenced by Selkirk's assigned status as 'The Governor', though Rogers felt they ‘might as well have nam’d him the Absolute Monarch of the Island’.
Aside from the surface parallels between Selkirk and Crusoe's isolation, the recurring theme of survival and the castaway as a state of being seems to have been the main source of fascination for 18th and 19th century observers. This diorama and its twenty-four cards stands as a lasting testament to this cultural obsession with Defoe's narrative of survival and the terror of the unknown. It depicts the story in twenty-four snapshots and would have been a colourful form of entertainment for its readers. Like a pictorial exhibition, it may have provided an engaging storytelling exercise for children, scattered about a 19th-century room.
Primary title: Card 13 of Historie de Robinson
Web title: Card 13 of Histoire de Robinson