In his critical analysis essay "Slavery and the Fashioning of Race in Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, and Equjono's Life," Gary Gautier examines the sociological progression of slavery from a class-based social institution to a class-and-race based servile destinction to the purely race-based property definition which the West remembers even 150 years after the final dissolution of the practice.
In Oroonoko, intra-racial African slaves are considered socially obligated to their African masters, but retain their previous social standing as defined solely through lineage and class distinctions. This nominally equitable balance of hierarchy and maintained social standing begins to derail with the outside introduction of slave-as-commodity, as introduced by white Europeans. To the culture of Oroonoko, slaves are not property, rather they are people beholden to those who captured/defeated them in war. The idea of racially defined slaves considered to be interchangeable property, with no regard for the social standing or ancestry of those enslaved, disgusts the high-class Oroonoko and showcases the tainted influence of the "all-corrupting commercial order" introduced by the European slave-traders. (Gautier)
In Robinson Crusoe, the viewpoint shifts from an outsider seeing the change in the definitions of the institution of slavery to one entrenched in its application. Crusoe repeatedly acquires slaves and even fantasizes about owning slaves, even after being himself enslaved. His immediate willingness to sell his loyal slave-boy Xury and his later voyage to acquire slaves for his fellow plantation owners both showcase the slave-commodity mindset. Still, Crusoe considers slave ownership in the context of his own social standing, that his ownership derives from his social and racial superiority and is so justified, despite his moral ambiguities on the subject at times.
Completing the narrative transition from the viewpoint of outsider to slaveholder to slave, Equiano shows how all social recognition and humanity are stripped from African slaves by their white slave traders. Ironically, this process of De-humanization cuts both ways: the slave traders themselves lose their humanity by denying the same to those they trade. Equiano focuses on reforming the Western system of mercantile slavery, desiring first and foremost to see the inhumane British colonial system of slavery to be abandoned, and if possible the African system as well.
Gautier closes by emphasizing that the transition from class-based slavery to race-based slavery resulted in the dehumanization of slaves in order for the institution itself to be socially intelligible.
After reflecting upon his analysis, an alternative interpretation presents itself, that without the mercantile expansion of slavery from Africa itself to the colonial world, slavery would not have transitioned to a race-defined, De-humanized commodity.
The raising of the market context of things and people above the social or moral permeates Crusoe. Repeatedly he stresses the economic view of his circumstances after only a cursory statement of his own emotions or the human side of the situation. From his ownership of the plantation to his tallying of the recovered supplies from the ship to his final return to England and subsequent inheritance, Crusoe always comes back to the bottom line of his personal wealth and possessions.
How does this mercantile mindset impact his other beliefs and ideals? Can his inconsistent religious observance be attributed to this "what do I get out of it" mentality, or are his beliefs more complex? Does he really value only property and wealth? If so, why? If not, how does his mercantile mindset impact his relationships with the people he meets throughout the novel?
Gautier, Gary. "Slavery and the Fashioning of Race in Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, and Equjono's Life." Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 42.2 (2001): 161+. Academic OneFile. Web. 10 Sep. 2011.