Tarring the Blacks (facing p. 513) — Phiz's fifth illustration for Defoe's Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, including A Memoir of the Author, and an Essay on his Writings (London and New York), 1864. Steel engraving for Chapter XII, "The Carpenter's Whimsical Contrivance." Vignette: 8.1 cm high x 14.2 cm wide.

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.]

Passage Illustrated: Brutal Comedy

I have observed above that our ship sprung a leak at sea, and that we could not find it out; and it happened that, as I have said, it was stopped unexpectedly, on the eve of our being pursued by the Dutch and English ships in the bay of Siam; yet, as we did not find the ship so perfectly tight and sound as we desired, we resolved while we were at this place to lay her on shore, and clean her bottom, and, if possible, to find out where the leaks were. Accordingly, having lightened the ship, and brought all our guns and other movables to one side, we tried to bring her down, that we might come at her bottom; but, on second thoughts, we did not care to lay her on dry ground, neither could we find out a proper place for it. [Chapter XI, "Warned of Danger by a Countryman," pp. 510-511]

The first man they laid hold of was an English seaman, a stout, strong fellow, who having a musket in his hand, never offered to fire it, but laid it down in the boat, like a fool, as I thought; but he understood his business better than I could teach him, for he grappled the Pagan, and dragged him by main force out of their boat into ours, where, taking him by the ears, he beat his head so against the boat's gunnel that the fellow died in his hands. In the meantime, a Dutchman, who stood next, took up the musket, and with the butt-end of it so laid about him, that he knocked down five of them who attempted to enter the boat. But this was doing little towards resisting thirty or forty men, who, fearless because ignorant of their danger, began to throw themselves into the longboat, where we had but five men in all to defend it; but the following accident, which deserved our laughter, gave our men a complete victory.

Our carpenter being prepared to grave the outside of the ship, as well as to pay the seams where he had caulked her to stop the leaks, had got two kettles just let down into the boat, one filled with boiling pitch, and the other with rosin, tallow, and oil, and such stuff as the shipwrights use for that work; and the man that attended the carpenter had a great iron ladle in his hand, with which he supplied the men that were at work with the hot stuff. Two of the enemy's men entered the boat just where this fellow stood in the foresheets; he immediately saluted them with a ladle full of the stuff, boiling hot which so burned and scalded them, being half-naked that they roared out like bulls, and, enraged with the fire, leaped both into the sea. The carpenter saw it, and cried out, "Well done, Jack! give them some more of it!" and stepping forward himself, takes one of the mops, and dipping it in the pitch-pot, he and his man threw it among them so plentifully that, in short, of all the men in the three boats, there was not one that escaped being scalded in a most frightful manner, and made such a howling and crying that I never heard a worse noise.‚Äč [Chapter XII, "The Carpenter's Whimsical Contrivance," pp. 512-513]

Commentary: Physical Comedy Racially Tinged

The scene is the Gulf of Siam, and (despite Phiz's depiction of them and his pun in the title of the full-page steel-engraving) the attackers are "Cochin Chinese" rather than Siamese or "Blacks." The ship is grounded in the southern part of Vietnam at the time called Cochinchina by most Europeans, so that Phiz should have depicted the "inhabitants" as oriental rather than aboriginal. The attack on the English ship seems to be the result of a misunderstanding, for the "inhabitants" incorrectly assume that the ship is derelict and therefore legitimately an object to be appropriated by the local authorities. In fact, the crew under Crusoe's direction have partially beached the vessel in order to caulk its leaking seams without having to put it into drydock.

In contrast, the Cruikshank realisation of this very scene, Fighting off the attackers with boiling oil involves local inhabitants with quasi-oriental features and hats, with long-trunked tropical trees in the distant background. Whereas Cruikshank includes Crusoe himself as a spectator on the upper deck of the ship, Phiz does not depict Crusoe. Rather, he focuses exclusively on the seaman and the carpenter, distinguished by his paper hat. Both English illustrators seem to regard the trouncing of the local people as harmless fun, and have overlooked the fact that one of the Vietnamese has been killed and a number seriously injured. The physical comedy is more intense in the Phiz illustration owing to his depiction of the attackers as scalded natives and the wielders of the boiling pitch as jolly tars having a little innocent fun at the expense of aborigines, who are only getting what they deserve for menacing the European vessel. Phiz's attackers in loin-cloths and leafy head-dresses tumble out of the long-boat pell-mell, howling in pain under the appreciative glances of the spectators and the canons of the ship.

The Parallel Scene from Cruikshank (1831) and from Cassell's (1863-64)

Above: Cruikshank's amusing, half-page illustration of Crusoe's sailors' getting the best of the presumptious orientals, Fighting off the attackers with boiling oil. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Above: A far less animated full-page illustration of the ship's carpenter and his assistant using boiling pitch to combat the "inhabitants," who look again like South-Sea islanders rather than Cochin Chinese: Tarring the Blacks. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Related Material


De Foe, Daniel. Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, including A Memoir of the Author, and an Essay on his Writings. Illustrated by Phiz. London & New York: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1864.

Lester, Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.

Last modified 17 February 2018