DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719):Money

From Marteau

Overview and first orientation

Money plays an important role in DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe – even though the islander repeatedly celebrates his triumph over the whole attribution of value to money, a medium of no value to him, who is deprived of all human commerce. Crusoe keeps a continuous account of his wealth and he is finally overwhelmed when he has to realise how rich he became in the time of his isolation. His computations mention:

  • English pounds sterling,
  • Portuguese Moidors and Cruisadoes, i.e. gold moedas and silver cruzados,
  • Spanish Doubloons and Pieces of Eight, i.e. gold doblóns and pesos, silver coins of eight reales,
  • unspecified (gold) ducats
  • unminted gold

All coins mentioned matched specific amounts of gold and silver and one knew how to calculate between these coins. Our marginal notes offer the equivalents in English money at the rates valid in 1719.

The computations for 1719 are not a weak compromise. A gold Moidore minted in 1670 would not contain one gram less gold in 1719 – its value as a gold coin would hence remain stable. The value of gold in silver money was, however, unstable. None of the European currencies could fix a price at which gold could be converted; and all currencies gave sums on national silver standards. The problem increased where a country failed to stabilise its silver money (by failing to issue new silver coins of the expected quality). The 1680s and 1690s thus saw the English public unwilling to continue changing their gold guineas into silver shillings at the established rate of 20 shillings the guinea. The guinea rose from 20 to 30 shillings in 1694, it was successfully fixed at 21s, 6d in 1698; the rate was modified to 21 shillings in a new attempt to stabilise the monetary system in 1717, and it was to remain at this ratio till 1816.

One will avoid the historical problems of the unstable gold/silver ratio by handling both moneys separately. We have given therefore equivalents of gold coins in grams fine gold. The additional computation in pounds sterling silver follow the assessment DeFoe’s readers would have made in 1719: So and so many moidors (or ounces of gold) would have been such an amount of (silver) money in 1719, so the logic behind the computations.

The far more problematic question will be that of values in modern moneys. Any such computation will be historically misleading. An 18th century income was a family and houshold income. Modern incomes have changed their function. It will here be better to keep an eye on contemporary prices and wages. Was the amount mentioned much money? That depends on the perspective - it might have been much for a man with a yearly income of £45 and little for someone with an estate of several hundred pounds per annum. Visit the following two pages for