Colonel Jack


Daniel Defoe

SMOLLETT bears witness to the popularity of Defoe’s Colonel Jacque. In the sixty-second chapter of Roderick Random, the hero of that novel is profoundly impressed by the genius of the disappointed poet, Melopoyn, the story of whose tragedy is Smollett’s acrimonious version of the fate of his own first literary effort, The Regicide. Melopoyn tells Random that while waiting in vain for his tragedy to be produced, he wrote some pastorals which were rejected by one bookseller after another. A first said merely that the pastorals would not serve; a second advised Melopoyn to offer in their place something “satirical or luscious;” and a third asked if he “had got never a piece of secret history, thrown into a series of letters, or a volume of adventures, such as those of Robinson Crusoe and Colonel Jack, or a collection of conundrums, wherewith to entertain the plantations?” Smollett probably wrote this passage some time in the year 1747, for Roderick Random was published in January, 1748. It was twenty-four years earlier—December twentieth, 1722—that Colonel Jacque had been published, or, to give it the name set forth by its flaunting title-page:—The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Colonel Jacque, vulgarly called Col. Jack, who was born a Gentleman; put ‘Prentice to a Pickpocket; was six and twenty years a Thief, and then kidnapped to Virginia; came back a Merchant; was five times married to four Whores; went into the Wars, behaved bravely, got Preferment, was made Colonel of a Regiment; came over, and fled with the Chevalier, is still abroad Completing a Life of Wonders, and resolves to die a General. Surely a book for servants, readers of our time will be apt to think on looking at this title-page; and yet Colonel Jacque is found to-day in many a gentleman’s library. This is no reason, though, why it should still retain considerable popularity in Smollett’s day. In less time after their appearance, some books which live forever in literature have been forgotten by the great mass of readers. What was it now that kept Colonel Jacque popular a quarter of a century after its publication?

It can hardly be the story which maintained its popularity, for the inorganic tale is of the simplest kind. Jacque, like Captain Singleton, and Moll Flanders in her childhood, had almost no knowledge of his parents. He was brought up by a woman who was well paid for taking the child off his parents’ hands—a woman who, though seemingly an abandoned character, nevertheless showed the boy kindness. When he was about ten, she died. Then followed the chequered career sketched in the title given above. Jacque, trained by a comrade as a pickpocket, became in time a thief on a larger scale, but not a thief quite destitute of good feeling. After he had robbed a poor woman of Kentish Town of 22s. 6½d., his conscience was never easy till he paid her back the money, a year later; and through all his criminal life, he remembered that his foster-mother had told him he came of gentle blood, and accordingly should remember always to be a gentleman. The hope of being a gentleman was before him, even when he was kidnapped to Virginia and sold into bondage. There he became such a favourite of his master that in time he was able to set up as a planter on his own account. From Virginia he returned to England, and thence, after the unhappy matrimonial ventures mentioned in the title, he went back to Virginia, where at last he married the wife whom he had previously divorced.

Nor could the character of the hero have had much to do in keeping Colonel Jacque popular. In spite of his matrimonial achievements, in spite of the affection which he rouses in his American employer and his slaves both, Colonel Jacque is with out any attraction which a reader can perceive to-day. Like most of Defoe’s characters, he is without fine feeling; he is always looking out for the main chance. His chief interest is commerce; he is a typical “Anglo-Saxon” trader. There are thousands and thousands of such clever, prosy, cold-blooded business-men in the United States to-day, and in the British colonies, and in the United Kingdom. Though Defoe’s biographers are divided as to whether or not he shared their mercantile cleverness, there is no doubt that Defoe was heartily in sympathy with such men; and his interest in recounting Colonel Jacque’s commercial ventures shows him to have been what I have already called him—the Yankee trader of the Queen Anne writers.

It was the story of Colonel Jacque’s successful trading, no doubt, which had a large part in sustaining the popularity of his History. But even more important in this respect, was that which we have seen to be the vital force in all Defoe’s fiction—circumstantial vividness. This is less striking in the later pages than in the earlier. The vividness ceases to a large extent after Jacque goes to America, for Defoe did not know America so well as he knew his England. Yet even when the scene shifts to the further side of the ocean, Defoe makes no blunders; nothing impossible occurs; his geography is correct. In Colonel Jacque, perhaps more than anywhere else, we see that interest of Defoe’s in distant British possessions which made him, as I have said, one of the “imperialists” of his time. Even so, what vividness there is in the American scenes is too largely commercial. Not many people, other than small traders or would-be traders, could ever have read with interest such a paragraph as the following:—

“With the sloop I sent letters to my wife and to my chief manager with orders to load her back, as I there directed, viz., that she should have two hundred barrels of flour, fifty barrels of pease; and, to answer my other views, I ordered a hundred bales to be made up of all sorts of European goods, such as not my own warehouses only would supply, but such as they could be supplied with in other warehouses where I knew they had credit for anything.”

Very different are the earlier pages which deal with Jacque’s adventures as a poor criminal boy in England. Here Defoe was on ground that he knew thoroughly. Sir Leslie Stephen1 has observed that Defoe passed beyond the bounds of probability when he made his hero, an almost elderly man writing his memoirs in Mexico, remember the details of his boyish thieving with marvellous exactness. Barring this improbability—one by the way which you are not aware of while you read the scenes in question, for you do not know how long a time will elapse before the hero begins to record his experiences—the verisimilitude of the first part of Colonel Jacque could not be surpassed. Moreover, in picturing the life of the poor, neglected boy, Defoe is unusually sympathetic. And so in the early pages of Colonel Jacque, more than anywhere else, is found the power of the story, the secret of its popularity when Smollett was writing Roderick Random, and the secret of its appeal to readers to-day. Lamb was hardly overstating the case when he declared, “The beginning of ‘Colonel Jack’ is the most affecting, natural picture of a young thief that was ever drawn.”2


At the end of the second volume of Colonel Jacque will be found two of Defoe’s earlier political satires:—The True-Born Englishman and The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. The former, the most celebrated piece of verse which Defoe wrote, was published in January, 1701. The circumstances which led to its publication are set forth by the author himself in his autobiographical sketch of 1715, An Appeal to Honour and Justice.

On the first of August, 1700, according to his statement, there appeared “a vile abhorred pamphlet, in very ill verse, written by one Mr. Tutchin, and called The Foreigners; in which the author . . . fell personally upon the King himself, and then upon the Dutch Nation. And after having reproached his Majesty with crimes that his worst enemy could not think of without horror, he sums up all in the odious name of Foreigner. This filled me with a kind of rage against the book, and gave birth to a trifle which I never could hope should have met with so general an acceptance as it did; I mean The True-Born Englishman.”

The reason for Tutchin’s pamphlet was that William III., never loved by the English, became less and less popular after the death of Queen Mary. A Dutchman, he was supposed to have the interests of Holland more at heart than those of England. This supposition was strengthened by the fact that he took no Englishmen into his confidence as he did his old and trusted Dutch friends. These, naturally, shared his unpopularity, especially the Duke of Schomberg and the King’s favourite minister, William Bentinck, created Earl of Portland, both of whom are mentioned by Defoe in his True-Born Englishman.

Defoe, in this reply to Tutchin’s pamphlet, sought to prove that the king and his foreign friends had as good right to the esteem of the English as any patriots in the history of the country. In the first part of the “poem,” as Defoe called his satire, he showed that William, with his Dutch blood, was as much entitled to the name of Englishman as any of his subjects, who came of mixed British, Pictish, Roman, Saxon, Danish, and Norman blood. In short, Defoe made the English out a hybrid race, and with excellent good sense showed that their national vigour was due largely to their being so. Much of what he said might well be said to-day of the people of the United States, as for instance, the following from Defoe’s explanatory preface:—

“The multitudes of foreign nations who have taken sanctuary here, have been the greatest additions to the wealth and strength of the nation; the essential whereof is the number of its inhabitants. Nor would this nation ever have arrived to the degree of wealth and glory it now boasts of, if the addition of foreign nations . . . had not been helpful to it. This is so plain, that he who is ignorant of it is too dull to be talked with.”

The other side to Defoe’s picture (and there was another side then as now) is shown in verses which, with a few changes, would likewise be applicable to the United States to-day. Defoe is trying to prove that even with lapse of years the English race remains hybrid.

“And lest by length of time it be pretended
The climate may this modern breed have mended,
Wise Providence, to keep us where we are,
Mixes us daily with exceeding care.
We have been Europe’s sink, the jakes where she
Voids all her offal outcast progeny.
From our fifth Henry’s time, the strolling bands
Of banish’d fugitives from neighb’ring lands
Have here a certain sanctuary found:
Th’ eternal refuge of the vagabond,
Where, in but half a common age of time,
Borr’wing new blood and manners from the clime,
Proudly they learn all mankind to contemn,
And all their race are true-born Englishmen.”

In the second part of the satire, Defoe tries to describe the nature of the English, their pride, and their ingratitude to their benefactors. Among the stanzas in which he hits off the faults of his countrymen, the following, more true than grammatical, is among the most forcible:—

“Surly to strangers, froward to their friend;
Submit to love with a reluctant mind;
Resolved to be ungrateful and unkind.
If by necessity reduced to ask,
The giver has the difficultest task;
For what’s bestow’d they awkwardly receive,
And always take less freely than they give.
The obligation is their highest grief;
And never love, where they accept relief.
So sullen in their sorrows, that ’tis known,
They’ll rather die than their afflictions own:
And if relieved, it is too often true,
That they’ll abuse their benefactors too;
For in distress their haughty stomach’s such,
They hate to see themselves obliged too much,
Seldom contented, often in the wrong;
Hard to be pleased at all, and never long.”

Defoe’s satire was a success. Written, as it is, in rough verse, at times little better than doggerel, it is yet always vigorous and interesting. To-day, after a lapse of two hundred years, no verse from Defoe’s pen is so readable. That it was effective in accomplishing the purpose for which it was composed, is proved by the fact that the people, taking the satire good-naturedly, experienced a revulsion of feeling towards the king and his Dutch friends. It was natural that the piece should bring Defoe the increased regard of the king, whose favour he had already to some extent enjoyed. “This poem was the occasion of my being known to His Majesty,” Defoe wrote in his Appeal to Honour and Justice; and “I was afterwards received by him.”


Concluding the second volume of Colonel Jacque will be found the ironical Shortest Way with the Dissenters, which placed Defoe in the pillory and in prison. It was written in 1702, the first year of Anne’s reign, when the strong Tory influence in the government seemed likely to bring back the persecution of Nonconformists which had ceased in the time of William. From the early summer, when Dr. Sacheverell preached at Oxford a most inflammatory sermon against the Dissenters, High Church feeling against them grew stronger and stronger. Finally Defoe decided that the best service he could render them was to show the views of the High Church party in all their extreme savageness. The result was the pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters; or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church, which appeared on the first of December, 1702.

Defoe was so successful in imagining High Tory sentiments in his pamphlet, that it was received with indignation by the Dissenters themselves and with acclaim by the extreme Churchmen. “I join with” the author “in all he says,” wrote one of them,3 to a friend who had sent him the pamphlet, “and have such a value for the book, that, next to the Holy Bible and the sacred Comments, I take it for the most valuable piece I have.” Naturally there was a storm when the truth was discovered and the High Tories found out that what they had praised was ironical. They were immediately shamed into declaring the pamphlet a dangerous libel, intended to stir up the Dissenters to civil war. Defoe’s bookseller and printer were accordingly arrested, and a reward was offered for his apprehension. He gave himself up, was tried, and sentenced to pay a fine of two hundred marks, to stand three times in the pillory, and to go to prison for the Queen’s pleasure. How Defoe converted his punishment in the pillory into a triumph, and how profitably he employed his time during his imprisonment, have been already told in the introduction to Robinson Crusoe.

G. H. MAYNADIER.        

1.    Hours in a Library.    [back]

2.    Wilson’s Memoirs of Defoe, London, 1830, III., p. 429.    [back]

3.    Defoe mentions the letter in his Review for August 11th, 1705.    [back]

Colonel Jack - Contents    |     Author’s Preface

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