Cannibals dancing around a fire by George Cruikshank as the title-page vignette for the John Major edition of The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1831). Vignette: 3.7 cm high by 6.5 wide, p. 190. [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.]

  • Frontispiece and title-page with vignette: With thirty-seven illustrations by George Cruikshank
  • Passage Illustrated: The Grisly Dance

    About a year and a half after I entertained these notions (and by long musing had, as it were, resolved them all into nothing, for want of an occasion to put them into execution), I was surprised one morning by seeing no less than five canoes all on shore together on my side the island, and the people who belonged to them all landed and out of my sight. The number of them broke all my measures; for seeing so many, and knowing that they always came four or six, or sometimes more in a boat, I could not tell what to think of it, or how to take my measures to attack twenty or thirty men single-handed; so lay still in my castle, perplexed and discomforted. However, I put myself into the same position for an attack that I had formerly provided, and was just ready for action, if anything had presented. Having waited a good while, listening to hear if they made any noise, at length, being very impatient, I set my guns at the foot of my ladder, and clambered up to the top of the hill, by my two stages, as usual; standing so, however, that my head did not appear above the hill, so that they could not perceive me by any means. Here I observed, by the help of my perspective glass, that they were no less than thirty in number; that they had a fire kindled, and that they had meat dressed. How they had cooked it I knew not, or what it was; but they were all dancing, in I know not how many barbarous gestures and figures, their own way, round the fire.

    While I was thus looking on them, I perceived, by my perspective, two miserable wretches dragged from the boats, where, it seems, they were laid by, and were now brought out for the slaughter. I perceived one of them immediately fall; being knocked down, I suppose, with a club or wooden sword, for that was their way; and two or three others were at work immediately, cutting him open for their cookery, while the other victim was left standing by himself, till they should be ready for him. In that very moment this poor wretch, seeing himself a little at liberty and unbound, Nature inspired him with hopes of life, and he started away from them, and ran with incredible swiftness along the sands, directly towards me; I mean towards that part of the coast where my habitation was. I was dreadfully frightened, I must acknowledge, when I perceived him run my way; and especially when, as I thought, I saw him pursued by the whole body: and now I expected that part of my dream was coming to pass, and that he would certainly take shelter in my grove; but I could not depend, by any means, upon my dream, that the other savages would not pursue him thither and find him there. However, I kept my station, and my spirits began to recover when I found that there was not above three men that followed him; and still more was I encouraged, when I found that he outstripped them exceedingly in running, and gained ground on them; so that, if he could but hold out for half-an-hour, I saw easily he would fairly get away from them all. [Chapter XIV, "A Dream Realised," pp. 189-190]


    The title-page vignette heightens readers' expectations over 190 pages as to how the protagonist will overcome the cannibals, whose superior numbers (at least thirty, distributed among five canoes) and knowledge of the place should prove distinct advantages in attacking a single colonist, albeit one armed with muskets. The illustrator's choice of subject for the keynote of his series, title-page vignette, is complicated by the fact that it refers to two different places in the book, and, unlike the other vignettes, is not surrounded by informing text. The first possible source text is that in Chapter XII, "A Cave Retreat," in which Crusoe merely reconstructs or imagines the natives dancing after the feast. The second occurs another thirty-four pages later, when the cannibals return — and Friday, one of their captives, makes a dash for freedom. The initial passage to which the illustration may refer comes two chapters ahead of the textual scene in which the illustration is embedded.

    When I was come down the hill to the shore, as I said above, being the SW. point of the island, I was perfectly confounded and amazed; nor is it possible for me to express the horror of my mind at seeing the shore spread with skulls, hands, feet, and other bones of human bodies; and particularly I observed a place where there had been a fire made, and a circle dug in the earth, like a cockpit, where I supposed the savage wretches had sat down to their human feastings upon the bodies of their fellow-creatures. [Chapter XII, "A Cave Retreat," p. 156]

    In the reiteration of the illustration that served in slightly larger scale as the title-page vignette, the reader encounters the scene in the midst of informing text. The canoes pulled up on the beach (left) suggest that the cannibals and their captives have just landed; already they have built a fire and commenced the ritual feast. For eighteen months Crusoe has been awaiting their return, and now, in both text and illustration, they appear. The prisoners are not in evidence in the illustration, and Cruikshank has included just two dugouts and just eight of the thirty-odd celebrants. More to the point, Cruikshank leaves it to the reader to construe the grisly repast. Shortly, Friday will escape, and Crusoe will come to his rescue. At this point, the saga of survival for a European castaway becomes a tale of adventure — and inter-racial friendship.

    Related Material

    Related Scenes from Stothard (1790), Phiz (1864), the 1818 Children's Book, and Cassell's (1863-64)

    Left: Stothard's 1790 realisation of the rescue scene, an illustration of which Cruikshank was probably aware, Robinson Crusoe first sees and rescues his man Friday (copper-plate engraving, [Chapter XIV, "A Dream Realised"). Centre: Phiz's steel-engraved frontispiece, with the surviving pursuer about to attack the unwitting Crusoe, Robinson Crusoe rescues Friday (1864). Right: Colourful realisation of the same scene, with a decidedly subservient and Negroid Friday: Friday's first interview with Robinson Crusoe. (1818). [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

    Left: Cruikshank's 1831 realisation of the rescue scene, Crusoe having just rescued Friday (frontispiece, Volume I). Centre: Sir John Gilbert's realisation of the rescue scene, Crusoe rescues Friday (1867?). Right: Realistic but emotionally muted realisation of the same scene, Crusoe and Friday (1863-64). [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.

    Heims, Neil. "Robinson Crusoe and the Fear of Being Eaten." Colby Library Quarterly 19, 4 (December 1983). Pp.190-193.​

    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 3 March 2018