Say ‘Daniel Defoe’ and you think of
Robinson Crusoe. But did you know that he was a failed hosiery
merchant turned failed poet who finally made it as a novelist,
journalist and travelogue writer? And yes, he was jailed for his
beliefs – the quintessential rebel that he was.
The name Daniel Defoe will never fail to conjure the picture of the
shipwrecked sailor. Daniel, the prolific writer, was born in London
in 1660, the third child and first son of James and Mary Foe. Daniel
added the prefix ‘De’ to his second name later in life.
His parents intended him to become a minister, but young
Daniel had different plans. His parents provided him with a good education.
However, he could not attend Oxford or Cambridge as this meant taking an oath of
loyalty to the Church of England, as it was then, and the Defoes were
Presbyterians. He was an excellent student, a grounding that stood him in good
stead as a journalist, writer and novelist.
Daniel graduated in 1679, by which time he had decided against becoming a
minister and instead chose to become a hosiery merchant. His business took him
on several trips to Western Europe.
On January 1, 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, an heiress whose dowry amounted to
£3,700. However, in 1692, his business went bust and he was declared bankrupt.
Defoe was actively involved in an unsuccessful rebellion against the Roman
Catholic King, James II, by the Duke of Monmouth. After the failed rebellion, he
traveled around the continent for three years and published anti-James II
Daniel tried his hands at the business of bricks and tiles, when the hosiery
business failed. He secured a government job in 1695 and in the same year wrote
An Essay upon Projects, skillfully
dissecting public issues such as education of women.
Although Defoe did not make a name as a poet, his satiric poem The True born
Englishman (1701), an attack on beliefs in racial or national superiority,
was a great success. The poem was so well known that many a time he took to
signing his name as the True-born Englishman.
Daniel followed this with The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), a
tract that satirized religious intolerance in the guise of sharing prejudices of
the Anglican Church against non-conformists, written anonymously.
Some time, during the next calendar year, it became public knowledge that it was
Defoe’s pen that had been at work and he was imprisoned for an indeterminate
period. However, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Robert Harley, got him out
of prison, reportedly on the condition that he would become a propagandist for
While he was languishing in jail, his business was ruined and he turned to
professional writing. He brought out a tri-weekly news journal, The Review,
where he strongly advocated union with Scotland.
The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe's first novel was
published in 1719. It was based on the adventures of a seaman, Alexander
Selkirk, who had been marooned on one of the Juan Fernandez Islands off the
coast of Chile.
His other novels included Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), Captain
Singleton (1720) and The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders
(1722). The last novel earned him the reputation of being a social historian.
Daniel also wrote extensively on current economic issues and the problems of
long term colonization and exploration. Some of his other well-known works
included A Journal of the Plague Year, Colonel Jack, Roxana, A General
History of the Pirates and The Complete English Tradesman.
His travelogue, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727),
was considered unusual for his time because he had actually traveled to the
places he had written about.
The world lost a brilliant journalist, prolific writer (he is said to have
written more than five hundred pamphlets, tracts, novels and other works) and
novelist when Defoe breathed his last on April 24, 1731, at Cripplegate.