- Piracy, Identity, and Desire in Captain Singleton
Daniel Defoe’s novel Captain Singleton (1720) is the most important of his pirate works and particularly significant in a history of the novel that emphasizes psychological realism and domestic subjectivity. 1 Usually ignored or dismissed in Defoe studies and histories of the novel, Captain Singleton portrays a fictional hero quite different from the title character of Robinson Crusoe (1719). 2 Captain Singleton seems difficult to pin down for twentieth-century readers precisely because depictions of transgressive sexuality have been ignored in Defoe criticism. The standard view of the novel as lacking realistic psychological development fails to take into account the unspoken desires of the central figure as they exist within the framework of piratical transgression; instead, criticism focuses on Singleton as homo economicus within Defoe’s metanarrative of trade and mercantilism. In such a reading the novel seems unfocused and contradictory; Robinson Crusoe is favored as a successful negotiation of the complex relations between the rise of capitalism and the rise of the psychological subject. 3 Arguably we can see Crusoe embodying the attributes of a middle-class hero in the first volume of Crusoe because he profits economically and spiritually from his twenty-seven years on the island. 4 If Crusoe is used as a model for a realistic character then Singleton is not realistic. His character—a heroic and successful pirate—corresponds neither to early eighteenth-century nor twentieth-century notions of heterocentric identity. Defoe treats Singleton’s illegitimate business—his piracy—with grudging respect; at the same time, he constructs for Singleton an affectionate and ultimately homoerotic relationship with Quaker William. [End Page 199] As a result, the hero discovers an alternative identity which, in turn, shows the restrictions of normative desire and domesticity. It is this merging of homo economicus —“Captain Singleton,” the successful pirate—and homo eroticus —the desiring subject represented by “Bob Singleton’s” affection for Quaker William—that allows an alternative reading of the novel.
In this essay, I shall analyze the second half of Captain Singleton, generally overlooked in the criticism of the book. After I examine Singleton’s early career as a pirate, I shall pay careful attention to the relationship that builds between the title character and his companion Quaker William. The novel’s first half has received most of the critical attention in recent years because it can be seen as a precursor to such novels as Heart of Darkness and other colonial and post-colonial works. 5 This section of the novel is indeed important and I shall briefly discuss it. However, we need to consider Captain Singleton as a cohesive whole. By focusing on the second half of the novel, we can see how these two parts fit together. We shall see that Singleton’s journey across Africa, his return to England as a rich man, and finally his decision to “go on the account” or turn pirate all point toward the hero’s search for an identity. This search questions the terms for masculine sexual desire both in England and in the transgressive homosocial world of piracy.
Shortly after the novel opens, young Singleton and a group of sailors are marooned on Madagascar after they attempt a mutiny. They escape to the east coast of Africa, and Singleton relates an account of his journey across the vast, uncharted continent by boat and on foot. Nothing in the men’s journey suggests transgressive economic or cultural desire. Their wealth establishes the terms for their non-transgressive camaraderie: to reach civilization, to return to the conventional world. They are rewarded for their perseverance by the accumulation of gold and ivory, which they literally stumble over as they make their way west through jungles and across deserts. “I thought I had enough already,” the fabulously rich Singleton says just before he returns to England, “and all the Thoughts I had about disposing of it, if I came to Europe, was only how to spend it as fast as I could, buy me some Clothes, and go to Sea to be a Drudge for more” (132). For Singleton, wealth means nothing because he has nothing on which he desires...