SHORTLY after he is marooned on the island that will serve as his home for the better part of the next three decades, Robinson Crusoe fortuitously rescues three bibles before the ship goes down. Although it takes him a full year to begin to read the scriptures, this miraculous provision will prove to be the guiding principle of his life throughout the coming years. With the later arrival of Friday, he begins to teach his only companion to read, as together they embark on a series of discussions about what he takes to be the spiritual implications of its meanings.
In The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a sequel written by Defoe in the same year, the protagonist returns to his island to find the inhabitants he has left there in what he sees as a degraded condition. One tells him that, although they have endeavoured to commune with the Almighty, they have been unable because Robinson had neglected to leave a bible, remarking on its ‘inexpressible value . . . the privilege and blessing . . . to nations, families, and persons’. Before he leaves, Crusoe sets out to rectify the situation, part of a reconstruction plan that he intends will set the island on a higher moral footing,
A Miracle in Ceylon
Crusoe was certainly not the first to find a source of identity and stability in isolation through his encounter with the Bible. Homi Bhabha comments on a trope that has ‘played out in wild and wordless wastes of colonial India, Africa, the Caribbean,’ namely the ‘sudden, fortuitous discovery of the English book throughout the history of colonial settlement.’ In fact Defoe was probably reworking an idea derived from Robert Knox’s 1681 An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, which made the explicit connection between his own discovery of a bible in the wilderness and the delivery of the Law to Moses:
The sight indeed of this Bible so overjoyed me, as if an angel had spoken to me from heaven; to see that my most gracious God had prepared such an extraordinary blessing for me, which I did, and ever shall, look upon as miraculous; to bring unto me a Bible in my own native language, and that in such a remote part of the world—where His name was not so much as known, and where any Englishman was never known to have been before. I looked upon it as somewhat of the nature with the ten Commandments He had given the Israelites out of heaven.
Like the delivery of the sacred tablets to the Israelites, Knox detected the divine hand in the event. The discovery of the printed word in such a strange and remote situation Knox took not only as a direct connection between the old dispensation and the new but as nothing short of an implicit commandment from God to propagate the gospel under strange skies.
The Pitcairn Bible
It was an idea that was to find its nineteenth-century apotheosis in the myth of the Pitcairn Bible. In the early years of the century it was discovered that the isolated island of Pitcairn in the South Pacific had been settled by a number of Europeans who had found refuge among the Polynesians after the notorious mutiny on the Bounty. Rumours of the colony began to percolate after its discovery in 1808, by which time it seemed that the chief mutineer, Fletcher Christian, had fathered, with Mi’mitti, a native woman, a child whom he named—in imitation of Crusoe—Thursday October Christian. Shortly after the community was rediscovered it was believed that, by using a bible that had been rescued from the Bounty, one of Fletcher’s surviving countrymen had taught the Polynesians to read and to observe the rites of Christian religion. In the 1830s John Barrow described the sensational myth of this theocratic paradise:
How the patriarch Adams contrived to instil into the minds of these people the true principles of religion and morality is quite surprising. He was able to read, but only learned to write in his latter days: and having accomplished this point, he made a scheme of laws by which he succeeded to govern his little community . . . The celebration of marriage and baptism were strictly observed according to the rites of the Church of England . . . He taught the children the church catechism, the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the creed, and he satisfied himself that in these were comprised all the Christian duties.
The Pitcairn Bible sits today in a glass case in the island’s museum as a sacred relic to the foundations of that little society. Its symbolic importance was commemorated in a postage stamp (pictured here) on the opening of the island’s post office in 1951.
There has been a lot of talk in the past few years, particularly in the United States, about the revival of religious dominionism on the political landscape. There is nothing new about the insistence, by some, on the need to measure the constitution of a political state by an adherence to what they perceive as religious standards. Whatever we might think of such gestures, when the President of the United States choreographed a photo opportunity with a bible during the George Floyd protests in Washington DC last year, he was reenacting a familiar gesture. In its talismanic status, even for those who may never have read it, the identification of social identity with a sacred book is something that has permeated the long history of political culture. The German sociologist Max Weber, describing the tendency to regard the Bible as not just a spiritual and moral guide for its readers alone but the agent of a social and political mandate for a whole Kultur, called it ‘bibliocracy’. While Weber was referring directly to modern European protestantism when he coined the term, the regard for a nation or a sect as a People of the Book can be seen throughout the history of societies and their religions.