Defoe’s Tale of Blood
This 17th century white English man didn’t think his race was all that…
Adopting a rather fluid construction of what makes up a “true born Englishman,” English writer Daniel Defoe offers a conception of the white man that is marked by heterogeneity and hybridity, a representation that firmly subverted rigid 18th century discourse. Conventional discourse was responsible for communicating certain qualities of whiteness that suggested purity and superiority, but Defoe vehemently disrupts that vision of perfection by flecking the canvas of history’s overarching racial narrative with a deliberate stroke: his 1701 poem, “The True Born Englishman.”
In this poem, imagery of heifers, mongrels and mixed miscegenation is shaped by the traditional scheme of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, situating a very transgressive view of whiteness within the old, conventional poetic framework. This satirizes the inflated view of white Englishmen that communicates their false biologic purity and flawed cultural perfection in favor of a history that designates the origins of the Englishman with a lusty, mixed infusion of blood from places and people that are far from clean or pure. “A mixture of all kinds,” in fact (l. 1). Such a description allows the reader to imagine the antithesis of pure, whose primary definition in the OED reads “not mixed.” To then go as far as to deem the Englishman a “het’rogeneous thing” in line 2, Defoe is deflating their exalted status of both purity and perfection by re-conceptualizing their nature as “extraordinary, anomalous, or abnormal” (OED 1b), while also demoting their status to the qualification of an unspecific “thing”, which “suggests the unworthiness to be called a person” as the OED intimates. You can see how these opening lines clearly then do their job in debunking the notion of Englishness that promotes clean, direct and traceable lineages. Nevertheless, Defoe uses the rest of the poem to attempt to trace this lineage, doing so by steadily employing derogatory language that promotes beast-like imagery. He conceives of the Englishman as having a wildly savage lineage by setting the scene “in eager rapes” with “furious lust” (l. 3). This hot, ancestral description suggests a “sinful, degrading nature of appetite and desire” which “implies moral reprobation” (OED 3,4). Not just morally, but physically impure too, Defoe divulges that Englishmen are somewhat of a mix between “a painted Britain and a Scot” (l. 4) in order to establish a strict juxtaposition of appearance between his ancestors, one that merits a clear differentiation in color as denoted by the need to qualify the Britain as “painted.” Then, Defoe writes of the Englishman’s lineage as “half-bred” (l. 7) to represent whiteness as possessing both “superior and inferior strains,” therefore complicating traditional discourse which saw only the one, superior strain (OED A1a). Having considered all these ways in which the Englishman represents a “nauseous brood” (l. 13), how then could their blood be understood to be “well-extracted” (l. 14)? It is that precise question which seems to act as the main satirical thrust at work here in these final lines.
Defoe deploys derogatory diction to disseminate a differing description of the past, one that acknowledges the cultural sameness that exists between the story of the white Englishman and stories of the racially marginalized. This language promotes an “illusion of fairness”, an idea conceptualized by racial theorist Christina Malcolmson, who uses Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to promote the concept that “the smoothest and whitest skins still look rough, coarse, and ill-coloured” up close. Such a conviction raises the possibility that the white man, despite what the cultural hegemony suggests, is just as “sordid and bestial” as all others. We must thank Defoe for such a narrative, written at the opportune turn of the 18th century, as such work certainly must have played a pivotal role in gesturing towards this “one-race theory,” of which modern discourse now engages.