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  • Union Jack: Amnesia and the Law in Daniel Defoe’s Colonel Jack
  • John O’Brien* (bio)

The eponymous hero of Daniel Defoe’s The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col. Jacque, Commonly Call’d Col. Jack (1722) frequently worries the question of being “the same man.” When his friend and tutor, a felon transported from Bristol who is now working as a “Slave” on Jack’s American plantation, testifies to Jack through his “Grief and his Tears” that he prefers the “Life of a Slave in Virginia . . . to that of the most prosperous Thief in the World,” Jack supposes that his tutor’s belief has been produced by his circumstances, and that were the tutor’s freedom to be returned to him, he would probably revert to his first identity. “What would be your Case,” Jack asks, “if you were deliver’d from the miserable Condition of a Slave sold for Money, which you are now in? should you not, think you, be the same man?” 1 His tutor is appalled at the prospect: “Blessed be God, says he, that if I thought I should, I would sincerely pray that I might not be Deliver’d, and that I might for ever be a Slave rather than a Sinner” (162). What has allowed the tutor to make an irreversible break from his former identity as a “prosperous Thief” is the “favor of being transported” (165) that has been granted to him by the English court; while all previous attempts to reform, he attests, had always left him “the same Devil as before” (164), being shipped to the American plantations, a penalty that entails both exile and, crucially, a full pardon for his crimes, has given him the opportunity to become a fundamentally different kind of person than the man he had been. By means of such a pardon, a criminal becomes what William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765) described as “a new man” under the law, a man given “a new credit and capacity.” 2 [End Page 65]

What is odd about Jack’s question is that because he, too, has been guilty of many crimes—although never caught—we might have expected him to fish for something close to the answer that he got rather than for the reassurance that a person will remain “the same man” regardless of any changes in his underlying “Condition.” Why does Jack seek that reassurance? Elsewhere in Colonel Jack, continuous identity over time serves his interests because it meets the demands of the laws pertaining to contracts. Earlier in the story, for example, Jack worries where he can stash several years’ worth of illicit earnings without putting anyone else at risk for being a receiver of stolen property. He hits upon the idea of going to an old friend: a banker who had years before drawn up a bill of exchange representing Jack’s reward for turning in the bills and notes contained in a businessman’s letter-case that Jack and his partner had ostensibly found, but which they had in fact stolen themselves. Relieved to discover that his banker-friend is “just the same honest Gentleman as ever,” (75) Jack adds new value to his bill, bringing his savings, including interest, to the total of £94. That bill, carefully preserved throughout Jack’s subsequent travels, is in turn the foundation of his eventual prosperity in America when, in another tearful scene, he uses it as evidence to convince his master that he is not like the other transported felons but is rather a free man, a property-owner in his own right who should be permitted to retrieve his money from London. The contract embodied by the bill requires both Jack and his London banker to be the same men as they were several years before; in effect, they must be as self-identical as the bill itself in order to enable the change in station that Jack will shortly undergo as the happy result of his master’s buying into his story. Promoted in one bound from slave to overseer, Jack is handed a new set of clothes, pointed to a “little Room...

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pp. 65-82
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