CAPTAIN SINGLETON by Daniel Defoe
Daniel Foe, whose parents raised him up to the Puritan ministry, and who was out with Monmouth in the last English army ever likely to proclaim itself ‘Godly’, subsequently declined the pulpit, adorned his name with a prefix, and set out to make a fortune. And though he has lived since as a man of affairs, he yet remains devout; thus his new work, Captain Singleton, may be seen as an expression of his life, in its attempt to reconcile the spiritual with the worldly; or the securement of salvation with the getting of money.
Bob Singleton, of uncertain parentage, and scant education, goes to sea in his thirteenth year, and after several voyages falls in with a group of Portuguese mutineers. Although Bob deems these men “perfidious and debauched, insolent and cruel,” he sees that they are biddable, and wanting a leader; which part Bob takes up, and very soon suborns them into piracy. Events, however, dictate another course, as the crew find themselves cast on the hostile shores of east Africa, upon which they take the wild resolution to traverse the continent on foot. After seasons of hardship and horror, in uncharted lands and among savages who know not whether Singleton’s crew are devils or gods, (and neither does the crew care which they appear to be), they emerge upon the safety of the Dutch Gold Coast as rich men, having amassed a fortune in gold and elephants’ teeth in their way.
Bob’s boldness throughout these adventures is untempered by either religion or reflection; he has no notion of home, since all the world is alike to him; and he cares nothing for riches, since he can not conceive of how they might be used. His only thought for God arises in the presence of savages, and consists in an aversion to their superstitions rather than an inclination to religion. He seems, as yet, hardly born.
After quickly running through his money, Singleton goes back upon the cruise, or upon the account, as pirates term their business, in full earnest, and with his own command, as Captain Bob. Plying the waters from Cuba to the Spice Islands, he steadily acquires another fortune and an infamous name. His unlikely lieutenant is the Quaker, William, a man of enterprise and courage, who yet refuses to raise his hand in violence, in accordance to the injunctions of his Society. He begins to lead Bob out of his ignorance, showing him that there is more to the world than sensation and the moment at hand. As might be supposed, given his collusion in rapine and robbery, William’s morals are trickily contorted, yet they constitute some manner of a code; enough at least to institute him as Bob’s spiritual counsellor, or ghostly father.
Bob thinks on God once more when his ship is struck by such a force of lightning as terrifies him to the last degree and sends his men deaf; but it is his limitless regard for William, who is never wrong in any matter, that finally draws Bob into the Christian fold. William calls upon him to consider death, and what follows it, which Bob is first very loth to do; and he maintains that now they have made their fortune, they must break off their wicked course and repent; though in the manner of St. Augustine, he does not think they should do it yet. The prudent Quaker notes that certain transactions are pending which will top up their accounts; and that they must then arrange how to give their crew-mates the slip and make off with the money; but this done, they may, and certainly will, repent with all their hearts.
All is accomplished in due course, upon which Bob settles snug into domesticity, in household with William, whose sister he has married. For a time, he is troubled by his conscience in living on the lucre of crime; but William, who is wise enough for both of them, assures him that since they have thrown themselves on God’s mercy, and professed their willingness to atone, the rest is in His hands; and in the interim, they may give to charities.
Captain Singleton is printed by J. Brotherton, at the Black Bull in Cornhill, and costs a measure of idle scruple and superfluous guilt.