Image credit: John Dunstall’s representations of the plague and its aftermath, 1666/Wellcome Images
As we enter COVID-19 year three and try to predict its impact on our collective future, we naturally look to the past for clues. 2022 is the 300th̨̨ anniversary not of the 1665–1666 Great Plague of London itself, but of Daniel Defoe’s narrative account of it—a work of fiction based on historical fact that he passed off as a genuine, first-hand record of the worst public health crisis the city had seen for centuries. It isn’t hard to see why A Journal of the Plague Year has enjoyed renewed attention in recent times. But to invoke it without considering Defoe’s support for British imperialism and the expanding Atlantic slave trade is to make literary history complicit with colonial and racial injustice.
Ostensibly written by a tradesman who watched the “great visitation” of plague unfold from week to week and spread mercilessly from parish to parish, A Journal of the Plague Year is subtitled “observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences . . . written by a citizen who continued all the while in London.” But at 5 years old in 1665, Defoe himself was almost certainly too young to remember the horrors of that year firsthand.
Instead, he gathered enough information—probably from family members, coffee house acquaintances, and the weekly “bills of mortality” recording the number of dead—to recreate the experience of living in a plague-infested city.
His book’s narrator, known only as “H.F.,” shows readers up close the agonizing symptoms that afflicted victims of the plague. He describes the sounds of grief that rose from each parish as the numbers of the infected and dead grew higher, the gruesome spectacles of death carts and pits into which huge numbers of bodies were cast, the terror of parents whose children fell ill, and the misery of children whose parents died. He explains how businesses failed and supply chains ruptured, meaning that many other people died from starvation. He recalls the efforts of city magistrates to contain the spread of infection by confining the sick to their homes, and the failure of such measures, as countless household members fell ill after fleeing, before their own symptoms had become apparent.
H.F.’s descriptions of these (for us) resonant miseries are cumulative, even repetitive, as he returns to scenes whose horror it seems he cannot shake. His account, in effect, mimics the experience of living through the plague itself: alternating dread and denial, followed by overwhelming horror and disbelief, as every familiar landmark of the city becomes a site of suffering. His confidence that the disease is contained, or that it has moved elsewhere, or that the worst is over, repeatedly fails in the face of fresh horrors and more deaths.
In April of 2020, when New York and New Jersey were setting up temporary morgues and crematories were overwhelmed, one well-regarded online publication, The Conversation, suggested that we read Defoe’s “true” account of London’s last and greatest battle with the plague as a meditation on inequality: those who claimed that COVID-19 does not discriminate were simply blinding themselves to the reality that severe infections and deaths directly correlate with standard of living.
Other commentators online observed that the COVID-19 pandemic resembled Defoe’s plague-ridden London in its transformation of the urban and commercial world, and in the way that selfishness, charlatanism, and fake news were mixed with expressions of empathy and compassion in Defoe’s story, just as they are in our own reactions to the pandemic.
In implicit tribute to Defoe’s own media-savviness, a curatorial collaborative initiated by Arizona State University—A Journal of the Plague Year: Covid19archive.org—invites contributions in the form of text, video, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram or Snapchat memes, screenshots of the news and emails, photos, and even lesson plans or videos to document “how the pandemic has affected our lives, from the mundane to the extraordinary”—all of which will simplify the work of future H.F.s.
It is history in the making, the kind that Defoe pretended to capture in his Journal, despite writing his account more than fifty years after the event.
Why did Defoe write this story in 1722? There had been a flare up of plague in Marseilles in 1720, but two years later, it posed no threat to Britain. Defoe made his living through his writing. Why would he think a blow-by-blow account of a 50-year-old public health catastrophe would sell?
I believe a clue lies in the opening pages of A Journal, when H.F. reveals that he does not leave London for the country, as most prosperous Londoners did during the plague, because he is a tradesman whose dealings are “chiefly . . . among the merchants trading to the English colonies in America.”
The want of timely “measures and managements,” to prepare for the plague, and the susceptibility of frightened Londoners to astrologers, conjurers, and quacks who made money out of predictions and potions very likely reminded his eighteenth century readers of a rather different, but much more recent catastrophe.
Like London’s 1665–1666 plague, this more recent calamity briefly posed an existential threat to the city. Early in 1720, shares in the South Sea Company, a joint-stock enterprise formed in 1711 to help finance the national debt, began to rise sharply in value. The Company’s Parliament-backed proposal to absorb the entirety of the debt, combined with unscrupulous insider trading, led to six months of frenzied speculation followed by an equally dramatic collapse in stock value. Fortunes were made and lost; stability was only restored when the Government intervened, arranging for the Bank of England and the East India Company to absorb South Sea’s losses. This happy resolution to the affair notwithstanding, the bubble had threatened to impoverish ordinary investors, to render the nation insolvent, and even to destabilize the constitution (since disgust at the roguery of the “moneyed interests” could be mobilized to support a Catholic claim to the throne).
But, more importantly, the collapse of the South Sea Company would have significantly disrupted Britain’s slave trade.
The company had been formed in 1711 with the dual purpose of reducing public debt and supplying slaves to the Iberian colonies in South America. Anticipating that Britain would be awarded the prized Asiento, or exclusive right to sell slaves in Spanish America under the terms of the upcoming 1713 Treat of Utrecht, the Crown awarded the company a trading monopoly in the Spanish New World. Under the terms of the treaty, the company was contracted to supply 4,800 slaves annually for a period of 30 years to the Spanish colonies. It also competed with private traders in the delivery of slaves to plantation owners in the British Caribbean.
In Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, the narrator, H.F., cares at least as much about his business interests as he does about the suffering poor. Those interests “among the merchants trading to the English colonies in America” would inevitably have bound him to the trade in human beings that was to rise exponentially during the early decades of the eighteenth century.
Of course, we can’t be sure that colonialism and slavery were on Defoe’s mind even as he wrote about something ostensibly quite different. But we do know that a year before the crash, he had published Robinson Crusoe—a tale of colonial adventure, also set in the seventeenth century, in which the hero is shipwrecked during a slaving expedition to Africa. Notwithstanding many years of enterprising planting and the successful taming of “savages” during his castaway existence, Crusoe is ultimately restored to a comfortable life thanks to the profitability of his slave plantation in Brazil.
Defoe’s recent, unflinching celebration of the profits to be had from the trade in human flesh makes H.F.’s horror at the spectacle of widespread human suffering during London’s plague year seem more than a little hypocritical.
While we can turn to the past to interpret our present woes, we must be careful not to do so at the expense (paradoxically) of history.
Reading A Journal of the Plague Year might humble us as we recognize our enduring biological vulnerability. It might remind us that poverty is a leading cause of death during periods of national and international health crisis. It may also model a form of archive building that puts the voices of ordinary people at the center of a lived catastrophe.
What it should not do is collapse the middle 1660s into the early 2020s without considering what was truly at stake in Defoe’s very eighteenth-century story. This matters especially because the coordinates of our current pandemic were being mapped three hundred years ago. The world being reshaped by European powers in 1722 is visible in today’s neocolonial legacies of empire, including the global inequities of vaccine distribution. It is that past that haunts us through the proliferation of ever more efficient variants of a virus that has resurrected the terrors, losses, and uncertainties of the plague.
Anna Neill is a professor of English at the University of Kansas and the author of three books: British Discovery Literature and the Rise of Global Commerce (Palgrave, 2003), Primitive Minds: Evolution and Spiritual Experience in the Victorian Novel (Ohio State, 2013), and Human Evolution and Fantastic Victorian Fiction (Routledge, 2021).