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View Madagascar or Robert Drurys Journal

Type: Undetermined. Probably not a hoax.
Summary: There has been continuing debate about whether a popular tale describing survival in eighteenth-century Madagascar was truth or fiction.

Ask your average eighteenth-century Englishman about the faraway land of Madagascar, and all you’d get was a blank stare. For the English, Madagascar was about as distant as it was possible to get. It was a land shrouded in mystery and the unknown.

So when in 1705 a young man by the name of Robert Drury showed up at the London docks claiming to be the survivor not only of a shipwreck off the coast of Madagascar, but also of subsequent hair-raising adventures, it sparked quite a bit of curiosity.

A notice in a newspaper reported that:

“A boy lately arrived in a galley from the Indies gives account that the Degrave, an East Indian Ship of 800 tun, valued at 100,000, sprung a leak some time since on the coast of Madagascar, where the men landed, with their effects, and also carryed their guns on shore, but could get no provisiions of the inhabitants, who said ‘twas not customary to supply strangers till they delivered up their arms; which they had no sooner done but those barbarous people killed them all but the boy now come over.”

Twenty-four years later Robert Drury apparently got around to writing a book about his adventures. The book, published in 1729, was titled Madagascar; or Robert Drury’s Journal, during fifteen years captivity on that Island.

The book offered a sensational account of the shipwreck off the coast of Madagascar and the subsequent slaughter of his shipmates by the hostile islanders. Drury then described how he spent the next fifteen years living as a slave, fighting in local wars, taking a wife, and eventually escaping on a slave ship back to England.

It was a thrilling story. But the question is: were Drury’s adventures actually real? Had Drury been to Madagascar? Or was the whole story just made up? Did Drury himself even exist, or was he just the creation of a skilled author?

A preface to the book, written by a Captain William Mackett, vouched for the authenticity of Drury’s adventures, and during the eighteenth century few seemed to doubt that the account was legitimate. In fact, it served as one of Europe’s main sources of information about the faraway island of Madagascar. But during the nineteenth century scholars started to question almost everything about it.


Daniel Defoe, thought by many to be the author of Drury’s Journal
Emile Blanchard in 1872 and Captain Pasfield Oliver in 1890 both argued that Robert Drury’s Journal was probably written by the novelist Daniel Defoe. They pointed out numerous similarities between the style of the Journal and the style of Defoe’s writing, while also detailing various inconsistencies in the Journal (such as the fact that Drury, who had no education at all, appeared to be an extremely learned linguist).

Defoe, who served as a spy for many years, was well-known as an inventor of travel tales that stretched credibility. In addition to writing Robinson Crusoe (1719), he also penned a memorable account of piracy titled History of the Pyrates that took quite a few liberties with the truth.

In 1939 and 1943 Professor J.R. Moore found numerous sources that Defoe could have used to write the detailed account of the culture of Madagascar that appears in Drury’s Journal.

But just when it seemed to be established that Drury’s Journal was a literary hoax perpetrated by Defoe, the historian Arthur Secord revealed in 1961 that after searching public records in England, he had discovered that a man named Robert Drury actually had existed, and Secord was also able to verify many of the claims made by Drury in his journal.


Mike Parker Pearson, archaeologist at Sheffield University. He has argued for the authenticity of Drury’s Journal.
The case for the authenticity of Drury’s Journal came full circle in 1996 when Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at Sheffield University, published evidence suggesting not only that Drury had lived, but that his description of early 18th century Madagascar was highly accurate. Parker Pearson was researching burial customs in southern Madagascar and initially turned to Drury’s Journal as a source of historical background. As he travelled through Madagascar, researching its history and customs, he was impressed with how many obscure details about island life and geography Drury’s account described correctly, and he became convinced that the work could not have been a hoax written by Defoe.

While it now appears certain that Drury’s Journal is not one of Defoe’s hoaxes, the possibility still remains that Defoe aided Drury in the composition of the work.

References

  • Gavron, Jeremy. “Late Rescue for History’s Castaway,” Guardian, January 30, 1999.
  • Parker Pearson, M. 1996. Re-appraising Robert Drury’s Journal as a historical source. History in Africa 23: 1-23.
  • Secord, Arthur. Robert Drury’s Journal and Other Studies. University of Illinois Press. 1961. 1-71.

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