Robinson Crusoe as Promotion Literature: the Reality of English Settlement in the Chesapeake, 1624-1680

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In the seventeenth century a minimum of one hundred thousand English indentured servants emigrated to the Chesapeake Bay of North America. Virginia and Maryland plantations used indentured servitude in the production of one important colonial crop: tobacco.
Compared to their countrymen and women at home, the English suffered extremely high mortality rates. To understand possible causes and material conditions, my method involved reviewing both historical literature and material evidence. I interviewed the Director of Education of the Godiah Spray tobacco plantation at the historic colonial capital of St. Mary’s City, Maryland. The Godiah Spray is a working seventeenth century plantation that replicates the work and management of tobacco. I also drew information from archaeological studies of skeletal remains in Chesapeake colonial graves examined by forensic anthropologists of the Smithsonian.
This study examines three promotional emigration tracts written by Englishmen in that century. I also examine other monuments of literary promotion that came to embody the myth that anyone could succeed in the New World: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Why was there such a large disconnect between the high mortality rates in the Chesapeake and the supreme confidence of immigrant success authored by Defoe?
I will argue that in his novels Defoe was handing his audience a script which demonstrated how to work and become rich in the New World. Robinson Crusoe, along with many other of Defoe’s works, functioned as propaganda to counter the dismal reputation of the colonies and to convince the English to emigrate.





Dowdy, Beverly (2019). Robinson Crusoe as Promotion Literature: the Reality of English Settlement in the Chesapeake, 1624-1680. Capstone project, Duke University. Retrieved from

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