Crusoe builds a large dugout canoe by George Cruikshank as the realisation in vignette of the protagonist's initial effort to get himself off the island in John Major's edition of The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1831). The half-page vignette enforces the reader's belief thriough such specific details as the dense jungle, the home-made ladder, and the props for the hull. Vignette: 6.6 cm high by 6.7 cm wide, p. 120. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

The Passage Illustrated: Where Not to Build a Boat

I went to work upon this boat the most like a fool that ever man did who had any of his senses awake. I pleased myself with the design, without determining whether I was ever able to undertake it; not but that the difficulty of launching my boat came often into my head; but I put a stop to my inquiries into it by this foolish answer which I gave myself​— "Let me first make it; I warrant I will find some way or other to get it along when it is done."

This was a most preposterous method; but the eagerness of my fancy prevailed, and to work I went. I felled a cedar-tree, and I question much whether Solomon ever had such a one for the building of the Temple of Jerusalem; it was five feet ten inches diameter at the lower part next the stump, and four feet eleven inches diameter at the end of twenty-two feet; after which it lessened for a while, and then parted into branches. It was not without infinite labour that I felled this tree; I was twenty days hacking and hewing at it at the bottom; I was fourteen more getting the branches and limbs and the vast spreading head cut off, which I hacked and hewed through with axe and hatchet, and inexpressible labour; after this, it cost me a month to shape it and dub it to a proportion, and to something like the bottom of a boat, that it might swim upright as it ought to do. It cost me near three months more to clear the inside, and work it out so as to make an exact boat of it; this I did, indeed, without fire, by mere mallet and chisel, and by the dint of hard labour, till I had brought it to be a very handsome periagua, and big enough to have carried six-and-twenty men, and consequently big enough to have carried me and all my cargo.

When I had gone through this work I was extremely delighted with it. The boat was really much bigger than ever I saw a canoe or periagua, that was made of one tree, in my life. Many a weary stroke it had cost, you may be sure; and had I gotten it into the water, I make no question, but I should have begun the maddest voyage, and the most unlikely to be performed, that ever was undertaken.​[Chapter IX, "A Boat," pp. 119-20]

Commentary: Working towards a Solution to a Practical Problem

Cruikshank has chosen to illustrate Crusoe's initial attempt at boat-building, which proves a failure simply because he had chosen entirely the wrong place to construct the vessel since he found he could not move so great a weight through the jungle and down to the waterline. As he himself explains,

One would have thought I could not have had the least reflection upon my mind of my circumstances while I was making this boat, but I should have immediately thought how I should get it into the sea; but my thoughts were so intent upon my voyage over the sea in it, that I never once considered how I should get it off the land: and it was really, in its own nature, more easy for me to guide it over forty-five miles of sea than about forty-five fathoms of land, where it lay, to set it afloat in the water.

His third major attempt, illustrated by Stothard, proves far more successful because he addresses the problem of location and, with Friday's advice, chooses a more suitable species of tree with which to construct the hollowed-out canoe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau held up the novel and its resilient protagonist as examples of practical knowledge; however, determined though he may be to find a solution, Crusoe remains a complete amateur at every practical problem he attempts to solve through ingenuity, common sense, and trial-and-error. His motto might well be "If it works, it's good."

Related Materials

Parallel Scenes from Stothard (1790) and Cassell's (1863)

Left: Stothard's 1790 realisation of the formerly solitary protagonist now working alongside the ultimate "practical human being," the Noble Savage, Friday: Robinson Crusoe and Friday making a boat. (Chapter XVI, "Rescue of the Prisoners from the Cannibals," copper-engraving). Right: The parallel scene from the Cassell's Illustrated edition, Crusoe makes a Boat, in which Crusoe looks a little discouraged. (1863) [Click on the images to enlarge them.]


Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, with introductory verses by Bernard Barton, and illustrated with numerous engravings from drawings by George Cruikshank expressly designed for this edition. 2 vols. London: Printed at the Shakespeare Press, by W. Nichol, for John Major, Fleet Street, 1831.

De Foe, Daniel. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Written by Himself. Illustrated by Gilbert, Cruikshank, and Brown. London: Darton and Hodge, 1867?].

Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner. (1831). Illustrated by George Cruikshank. Major's Edition. London: Chatto & Windus, 1890.

Patten, Robert L. "Phase 2: "'The Finest Things, Next to Rembrandt's,' 1720–1835." Chapter 20, "Thumbnail Designs." George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art, vol. 1: 1792-1835. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers U. P., 1992; London: The Lutterworth Press, 1992. Pp. 325-339.

Last modified 22 February 2018