Defoe, Woollen Manufacture and the Island as Economic Eldorado

The ideas of Eldorado, a place where untold riches are effortlessly secured by anyone brave and adventurous, have been a significant motif through much of human history. Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece is a similar idea; the brave adventurer that returns with the fleece can claim a kingdom. The Spanish demonstrated the profitability of exploration and conquest and returned to Europe not only gold but also the idea of more wealth awaiting the European explorer.

It is suggested that one man’s obsession predetermined a wider and less considered imagination of the islands. It is argued that Daniel Defoe used all his skill as a journalist and author to promote his scheme to strengthen the English economy through trade. For this paper Defoe’s ‘An Essay on the South-Sea Trade.

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With an Enquiry into the Grounds and Reasons of the Present Dislike and Complaint Against the Settlement of a South-Sea Company'(1711) (‘Essay on South-Sea Trade’) and the exert from A New voyage Round the World, By a Course Never Sailed Before (1724)(A New Voyage), in Richard Lansdown’s Strangers in the South Pacific: Readings, will be used in an attempt to show that although these works are separated in time and style, Defoe continued to push his plan, a scheme that remained essentially the same for most of his creative life. Daniel Defoe was born the son of a London merchant in 1660.

He was educated at a dissenter’s school and ‘as a child of his age’ he was influenced by such philosophers as Locke, Hobbes and Bacon (Novak 1963: 2). Professor Novak claims ‘Mary Astell accused him of being a follower of Hobbes’ (1972: 193). As a London merchant Defoe was, undoubtable, one of Hobbes’s selfish individuals, and as a journalist and pamphleteer he follows Bacons direction for the use of clear, unadorned prose style (Vickers 1996). Early in the extract from ‘An essay on South-see trade’ Defoe betrays his allegiance to Baconian scientific method;

To come at this Question in a Posture that may render the Answer intelligible it seems necessary to state the Thing itself question’d about, and to lay down in as clear Terms as possible what this Thing call’d the South-Sea Trade is (1711: 40). Although it would be interesting to examine the influence of Seventeenth Century philosophers on Defoe’s writings, as Ms. Vickers (1996) has done, for this paper the two texts will be examined to illustrate the consistence of Defoe’s economic design.

It was originally intended that this paper was to argue that Defoe was merely a mouth piece for ‘his political master Harley’ (Damrosch 1997:158). It is now contended that although Defoe shared a vision of economics, and trade in particular, with Robert Harley he continued to promote the same scheme well after Harley’s political demise. Novak notes that Defoe was ‘accused of being a mercenary scribbler’ (1972: 192). He was, with out question, a ‘professional writer’ (Novak 1972: 216).

Defoe’s political allegiances changed through his life and Novak claims Defoe was ‘writing on both sides or for causes he could not possibly have supported fully’ (1972: 210-211). Although Defoe ‘relied upon his pen for his livelihood’ (Curtis 1997: 26), Vickers notes that ‘on many central issues Defoe defended the same view over a period of more than thirty years’ (1996: 3).

Defoe’s view of trade, it is argued, remains basically the same for the fifteen years that separate the two texts that will now, finally, be discussed. Defoe in A New Voyage states clearly his view: T]he people in the southern unknown countries, being first of all very numerous, and living in a temperate climate which requires clothing, having no manufactures or materials for manufactures, would consequently take off a very great quantity of English woollen manufactures, especially when civilised by our dwelling among them and taught the manner of clothing themselves for their ease and convenience (1724: 47). The issue of ‘dwelling among’ or colonising ‘the people in the southern unknown countries’ will be discussed below.

In the first instance Defoe’s interest in ‘English woollen manufactures’ will be examined to demonstrate an essential component of Defoe’s economic view. Downie notes that Defoe believes ‘trade is the lifeblood of the nation’ (1997: 88). In ‘An essay on South-Sea trade’ Defoe states ‘we are to find or discover some Place or Places’ and ‘to settle, plant and inhabit the same as a Colony, erecting there such trade with the adjacent Countries’ (1711: 40) but preferably, in Defoe’s imagination, trade with England.

Defoe maintained that these colonies will require the ‘Importation… of European Manufactures’ (1711: 41) and ideally English woollen manufactures. Downie quotes Defoe to illustrate his belief that ‘the woollen manufacture ‘is the soul of our trade, the top of all manufacture” (1997: 88). In ‘An essay on South-Sea Trade’ Defoe states enthusiastically; Trade is not only probable to be Great, but capable of being the Greatest, most Valuable, most Profitable, and most Encreasing Branch of Trade in whole British Commerce (1711: 40).

Defoe ‘s view was that Britain needed to settle new colonies ‘to stimulate demand for the woollen industry’ (Downie 1997: 88). According to Downie, Defoe’s ‘answer, then, to the stagnating British economy… was an increased imperialistic drive’ (1997: 88). In ‘An Essay on South-Sea Trade’ Defoe asserts that; ‘our Business is to seize and possess,… and to keep it for our own… keeping it implies Planting, Settling, Inhabiting, Spreading, and all that is usual in such Cases’ (1711: 41). Downie suggests that the ‘link between empire and industry… s crucial to Defoe’s world view’ (1997: 93). Defoe states the link, once a colony is established ‘we are to trade to it, and from it’ (1711: 41). In A New Voyage Defoe lists the English Manufactures a new colony would need in an attempt to ‘excite adventurous heads to search out a country’ (1724: 47) to colonise. Novak argues that ‘Defoe’s writings are routed in the real and specific’ (1972: 219) and much of Defoe’s writing was ‘deliberately aimed at … those interested in trade’ (1972: 197).

Defoe was using imperialistic propaganda to promote a trade scheme ‘which would be such an increase of, or addition to, the wealth and commerce of our country’ (1724: 47). Defoe’s imperialistic theme, as Downie has noted, is profoundly practical (1997). Keane suggests that Defoe’s ideas of colonisation and trade are derived from pragmatic economics (1997). Although an ‘insistence on imperialism runs throughout Defoe’s writing on economics’ (Downie 1997: 87) his image of a British Empire ‘is mundane rather than ideological’ (Downie 1997: 85).

In ‘An Essay on South-Sea Trade’ Defoe states that expanding the British empire would be ‘well worth all the Hazard, Adventure, Expence, and Pains of the Undertaking; sufficient to encourage us in the Prospect, and reward us in the Execution’ (1711: 40). Defoe illustrates his practical economics when he suggests that trading with English colonies would be ‘infinitely more advantageous to England’ (1724: 47) than East India trade. He is arguing that to benefit the English economy the trade deficit needs to be reduced or that the balance of trade needs to tip England’s way.

He suggests; our East India trade is all carried on, or most of it, by an exportation of bullion in specie and a return of foreign manufactures or produce and most of these manufactures also … are injurious to our own manufactures (1724: 47). Again Defoe’s view is that importing foreign manufactures and exporting English bullion is injurious for England, a view that would be shared by modern economists. It has been suggested that Defoe’s economic vision was practical; it is also argued that his use of propaganda was practical.

It has been noted that A New Voyage ‘was designed to enlist the sympathy of its readers for a serious scheme of colonisation and commerce’ (Downie 1997: 84). Although Defoe admits trade ‘may be less than the Golden Mountains some people have form’d Notions of in their Imagination’ (1711: 40). He still tries to create an image of the South-Seas to promote his View; ‘Our men so fond of this place and so pleased with the temper of the people, the fruitfulness of the soil and agreeableness of the climate’ (1724: 46).

Defoe is attempting to create the ideal, to instil in his reader’s mind’s eye the image of the island as fruitful with a good climate, a place where Englishmen can prosper (Downie 1997). Defoe was creating the expectation that explorers of the South-Seas will ‘never fail to discover new worlds, new nations, and new inexhaustible funds of wealth and commerce, such as never were yet known to the merchants of Europe’ (1724: 47). Vickers notes that with A New Voyage ‘Defoe created for himself the opportunity of making his long-cherished dream come true in the reality of fiction’ (1996: 142).

Defoe, it is argued, hoped to recreate this dream in the imagination of his readers. It is because of Defoe’s ‘political insight, which he derived from his supreme knowledge of the English people’ (Schonhorn 1991: 1) that he was ‘recognized as one of the foremost political and economic pamphleteers and journalists of his day’ (Curtis 1997: 26). In this capacity both the texts here discussed should be viewed as attempts by Defoe to establish English expectations of the South-Seas.

Downie quotes Novak to suggest that a ‘close relation between fictional and economic propaganda exists throughout A New Voyage’ (1997: 83). Many have suggested that Defoe was a ‘tireless propaganderist’ (Downie 1997: 84), it is argued here, that on issues close to his heart like trade, Defoe was also steadfastly committed to his schemes for many years. It has been argued that Daniel Defoe maintained a consistent viewpoint for at least the thirteen years separating the texts discussed. The view was that settling new colonies and then trading English manufactured good to them would benefit Englishmen of all classes.

He employed his skill as a writer to promote his plan, in the political propaganda piece ‘An Essay on South-Sea Trade’ and in the fictional idealisation of his scheme A New Voyage. Although it is of interest to evaluate possible influence on Defoe’s writing in this instance it is sufficient to highlight his conformity to contemporary social and political thought. It has been argued that Defoe was attempting to generate expectations of the islands as Economic Eldorado and contributed to the creation of the image of islands as ideal places.