ONE OF the most dramatic moments in Robinson Crusoe, written in 1719, is when Crusoe sees the cannibals’ lunch slip out of their grasp and run for freedom. “Now was my Time to get me a Servant, and perhaps a Companion, or Assistant; and that I was call’d plainly by Providence to save this poor Creature’s Life.”
When Crusoe has helped the man to evade capture (he would probably have got away anyway), his first act is to give him a name, Friday. “I likewise taught him to say ‘Master’, and then let him know, that was to be my Name.”
This instant association — black man equals servant — was unremarkable at the time. Crusoe had been engaged in a spot of private-enterprise slave trading when he was shipwrecked. Defoe does not write as if he expects censure from his readers. It is interesting to reflect whether Crusoe’s attitude would have been different had the captive been white. The association of ideas might well have been the same: poor white man equals servant. In England, unpropertied labourers sold their labour in order to survive, and the practice of holding them in bond was generally accepted. It is important not to downplay the interracial contempt at the bottom of the slave trade; but a lesson would be lost if it were not seen as symptomatic of a greater sinfulness: the corrupt relationship between the powerful and the powerless.
Biblical teaching on slavery has been presented as unsatisfactory. Although in the early Christian community there was to be no distinction between slave and free, the system remained unchallenged. Slaves were commanded not to be lazy or disrespectful; masters were enjoined to treat their slaves kindly. There were no revolutionary instructions, and, as a consequence, slave owners could claim biblical support. In defence of St Paul and the other New Testament writers, they recognised the inevitability of an unequal contract between rich and poor, landowner and labourer. The Christian revolutionary idea was that each must treat the other as a brother. This was a direct instruction concerning the return of the runaway slave Onesimus in the Letter to Philemon.
This mutual duty of care, where charity obviates the need for social reform, works perfectly in a functioning Christian community, particularly when material wealth is disdained. History has shown, however, that human sinfulness, when coupled with a lack of accountability, exploits imbalances of power, and can lead to grotesque abuses.
The world is now such an unequal place that there is as yet little prospect of escaping the grip of material goods and the power that attaches to them. The poor do not know how to get them; the rich do not know how to do without them. Deep within the Gospels is the message that service is perfect freedom. The legacy from the past is that the present generation has no means of grasping this.