Man Friday


It was after this some considerable Time, that being upon the top of the Hill, at the East Side of the Island, from whence as I have said, I had in a clear Day discover’d the Main, or Continent of America; Friday, the Weather being very serene, looks very earnestly towards the Main Land, and in a kind of Surprise, falls a jumping and dancing, and calls out to me, for I was at some Distance from him: I asked him, what was the Matter? O joy! Says he, O glad! There see my Country, there my Nation!
I observ’d an extraordinary Sense of Pleasure appear’d in his Face, and his Eyes sparkled, and his Countenance discover’d a strange Eagerness, as if he had a Mind to be in his own Country again …
Defoe, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, vol. II

Saved at long last through Him whose power to save
Kept from the walking, as the watery grave,
Crusoe returned to England and his kind,
Proof that an unimaginative mind
And sober industry and common sense
May supplement the work of Providence.
He, no less providential, and no less
Inscrutably resolved to save and bless,
Eager to share his fortune with the weak
And faithful servants whom he taught to speak,
By all his years of exile undeterred,
Took into exile Friday and the bird.

The bird no doubt was well enough content.
She had her corn—what matter where she went?
Except when once a week he walked to church,
She had her master’s shoulder as a perch,
She shared the notice of the crowds he drew
Who praised her language and her plumage too,
And like a rational female could be gay
On admiration and three meals a day.

But Friday, the dark Caribbean man,
Picture his situation if you can:
The gentle savage, taught to speak and pray,
On England’s Desert Island cast away,
No godlike Crusoe issuing from his cave
Comes with his thunderstick to slay and save;
Instead from caves of stone, as thick as trees,
More dreadful than ten thousand savages,
In their strange clothes and monstrous mats of hair,
The pale-eyed English swarm to joke and stare,
With endless questions round him crowd and press
Curious to see and touch his loneliness.
Unlike his master Crusoe long before
Crawling half-drowned upon the desolate shore,
Mere ingenuity useless in his need,
No wreck supplies him biscuit, nails and seed,
No fort to build, no call to bake, to brew,
Make pots and pipkins, cobble coat and shoe,
Gather his rice and milk his goats, and rise
Daily to some absorbing enterprise.

And yet no less than Crusoe he must find
Some shelter for the solitary mind;
Some daily occupation to contrive
To warm his wits and keep the heart alive;
Protect among the cultured, if he can,
The ‘noble savage’ and the ‘natural man’.
As Crusoe made his clothes, so he no less
Must labour to invent his nakedness
And, lest their alien customs without trace
Absorb him, tell the legends of his race
Each night aloud in the soft native tongue,
That filled his world when, bare and brown and young,
His brown, bare mother held him at her breast,
Then say his English prayers and sink to rest.
And each day waking in his English sheets,
Hearing the wagons in the cobbled streets,
The morning bells, the clatter and cries of trade,
He must recall, within their palisade,
The sleeping cabins in the tropic dawn,
The rapt, leaf-breathing silence, and the yawn
Of naked children as they wake and drowse,
The women chattering round their fires, the prows
Of wet canoes nosing the still lagoon;
At each meal, handling alien fork or spoon,
Remember the spiced mess of yam and fish
And the brown fingers meeting in the dish;
Remember too those island feasts, the sweet
Blood frenzy and the taste of human meat.

Thus he piled memories against his need:
In vain! For still he found the past recede.
Try as he would, recall, relive, rehearse,
The cloudy images would still disperse,
Till, as in dreams, the island world he knew
Confounded the fantastic with the true,
While England, less unreal day by day,
The Cannibal Island, ate his past away.
But for the brooding eye, the swarthy skin,
That witnessed to the Natural Man within,
Year following year, by inches, as they ran,
Transformed the savage to an Englishman.
Brushed, barbered, hatted, trousered and baptized,
He looked, if not completely civilized,
What came increasingly to be the case:
An upper servant, conscious of his place,
Friendly but not familiar in address
And prompt to please, without obsequiousness,
Adept to dress, to shave, to carve, to pour
And skilled to open or refuse the door.
To keep on terms with housekeeper and cook,
But quell the maids and footmen with a look.
And now his master, thoughtful for his need,
Bought him a wife and gave him leave to breed.
A fine mulatto, once a lady’s maid,
She thought herself superior to Trade
And, reared on a Plantation, much too good
For a low native Indian from the wood;
Yet they contrived at last to rub along
For he was strong and kind, and she was young,
And soon a father, then a family man,
Friday took root in England and began
To be well thought of in the little town,
And quoted in discussions at ‘The Crown’,
Whether the Funds would fall, the French would treat
Or the new ministry could hold its seat.
For though he seldom spoke, the rumour ran
The master had no secrets from his man,
And Crusoe’s ventures prospered so, in short,
It was concluded he had friends at Court.

Yet as the years of exile came and went,
Though first he grew resigned and then content,
Had you observed him close, you might surprise
A stranger looking through the servant’s eyes.
Some colouring of speech, some glint of pride,
Not born of hope, for hope long since had died,
Not even desire, scarce memory at last,
Preserved that stubborn vestige of the past.

It happened once that man and master made
A trip together on affairs of trade;
A ship reported foundered in the Downs
Brought them to visit several seaport towns.
At one of these, Great Yarmouth or King’s Lynn,
Their business done, they baited at an inn,
And in the night were haunted by the roar
Of a wild wind and tide against the shore.
Crusoe soon slept again, but Friday lay
Awake and listening till the dawn of day.
For the first time in all his exiled years
The thunder of the ocean filled his ears;
And that tremendous voice so long unheard
Released and filled and drew him, till he stirred
And left the house and passed the town, to reach
At last the dunes and rocks and open beach:
Pale, bare and gleaming in the break of day
A sweep of new-washed sand around the bay,
And spindrift driving up the bluffs like smoke,
As the long combers reared their crests and broke.
There in the sand beside him Friday saw
A single naked footprint on the shore.
His heart stood still, for as he stared, he knew
The foot that made it never had worn shoe
And, at a glance, that no such walker could
Have been a man of European blood.
From such a footprint once he could describe
If not the owner’s name, at least his tribe,
And tell his purpose as men read a face
And still his skill sufficed to know the race;
For this was such a print as long ago
He too had made and taught his eyes to know.
There could be no mistake. Awhile he stood
Staring at that grey German Ocean’s flood;
And suddenly he saw those shores again
Where Orinoco pours into the main,
And, stunned with an incredible surmise,
Heard in his native tongue once more the cries
Of spirits silent now for many a day;
And all his years of exile fell away.

The sun was nearly to the height before
Crusoe arrived hallooing at the shore,
Followed the footprints to the beach and found
The clothes and shoes and thought his servant drowned.
Much grieved he sought him up and down the bay
But never guessed, when later in the day
They found the body drifting in the foam,
That Friday had been rescued and gone home.

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