Gulliver as Slave Trader: Racism Reviled by Jonathan Swift
It may be true that after centuries of critical readers, one such scholar would uncover something not-so-new about Gulliver’s Travels. In her recently published book, Gulliver as Slave Trader: Racism Reviled by Jonathan Swift, Elaine L. Robinson shines light onto a text that many scholars believe they have “figured out” within the past three hundred years. After decades of research and interest in Swift’s magnus opus, Robinson has unleashed the African Slave Trade and Real Christianity into the once-stable literary canon surrounding Gulliver’s Travels. She is so bold as to announce, on the second page of her introduction, the purpose of her book. Her purpose, she says is “to demonstrate that Swift himself, in ”Gulliver’s Travels,“ tells us his meaning.” (p.2) Easier said than done. Robinson’s text is infiltrated with historical, theological and cultural implications and references that support her initial claim. These implications are like clues, Robinson says, that function like allusions, providing their own self-contained evidence of Swift’s meaning. To put her point bluntly: Gulliver is an active participant in the African Slave Trade.
In this light, Robinson’s text treats Gulliver’s Travels as a text of history rather than a work of fiction. For her purposes, I think this view helps to push her text toward a meaning that, although thoroughly convincing, dismisses the literary aspects of Swift’s opus. Though she uses literary terms and references (i.e. form mirroring content) to elucidate her extensive research, it seems as though she has forgotten that this text, and any other texts deep within the literary canon from the Age of Enlightenment are as much a work of fiction as they are a reflection of the social constructs in which Swift and others were writing. She works well within the fictional structure of Gulliver’s Travels, using Swift’s metaphors and creativity, to serve her purpose: that “white-everyman-Gulliver” (as she dubs him, the literary Gulliver) has substituted “Real” Christianity for “nominal” Christianity. To put it plainly, if the white-everyman of Gulliver’s time understood that Christianity was more about treating people as the same under God, despite skin color, or nationality, the African Slave trade might not have happened, or rather, it might not have happened to the extent that it did and thus the course of “history” may have changed.
Perhaps Robinson is right. I think that her text provides relevant evidence to suggest that Gulliver symbolizes the “white-everyman” of his time. Her historical substantiation presents ample proof of the presence of racism in Gulliver’s Travels, although, thankfully for Robinson, Swift’s work is, and always will be, one of the greatest satires in literary history.
Jennifer C. Werner is a recent graduate of Franklin and Marshall College, having received her B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing in May 2006. She is currently playing the waiting game, having applied to multiple MFA programs in Poetry. She resides in Princeton, NJ.