Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth

Written by Katherine Frank
Review by Eva Ulett

The long title of Katherine Frank’s book harkens back to a 17th-century fashion. The book’s subject is rooted in that century and includes an interesting biography of the author of Robinson Crusoe. A colorful character, Defoe speculated in “high-risk schemes: a civet cat business… and a diving bell expedition off Cornwall.” A prolific writer of pamphlets, Defoe found success as a novelist with Crusoe. He recognized the appeal of a survivor’s story; the scope of this ‘myth’ is also discussed here.

The most fascinating part of the book concerns the life of Robert Knox, on whom Defoe surely based Robinson Crusoe. As a seaman for the East India Company, Knox was taken captive at the age of nineteen by the King of Kandy. He spent the next twenty years of his life on the island of Ceylon. Though generously treated by the native people, in 1679 Knox escaped to a Dutch settlement. On the voyage back to England, Knox wrote An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. It is an account author Frank calls extraordinary for its coverage of “geographical, biological, zoological, botanical, anthropological and ethnographic descriptions of Ceylon.” Frank’s mix of biography, history, and literary analysis makes for compelling narrative nonfiction.