The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Crusoe Jack, the King of the Thousand Islands (1868)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Crusoe Jack, The King of the Thousand Islands was created by George Emmett. Emmett (1834-1897) both wrote penny dreadfuls and, through his firm Hogarth House, published them.

Crusoe Jack begins with Darrell Collins, a malicious hunchback, luring a ship to its destruction with a “death-light,” a false beacon. The ship runs aground on the rocks, and Darrell plunders the wreckage. He finds a baby boy, who he takes home. Darrell and his wife Madge have a grandson, Jasper, who has a “crooked form and sickly visage”1 like his father. Jasper is Madge’s favorite, and so she hates the handsome and well-formed infant, who Darrell names Jack. As Jack grows up Madge and Jasper’s hate for him increases, but Darrell loves him and protects him from the worst that Madge and Jasper can do to him. Jack loves books and loves reading about the sea, although this infuriates Madge and Jasper all the more, since neither can read. One day when Jack is a teenager a nobleman, Sir Harold, arrives, asking those in the area if anyone survived the wreck of the ship. Sir Harold is looking for his nephew, who was on the ship. Darrell and Madge produce Jasper and show Sir Harold the clothes that Jack arrived in. Harold is not impressed by Jasper, who in addition to being unpleasant to look at is sullen, but Harold takes Jasper anyhow. Jack is not home while this is taking place; he is wandering the seashore, as he often does. He discovers a beautiful young woman stranded on some rocks, and a young noble who is too cowardly to try to rescue the woman. Jack rescues her, and she introduces herself as Mabel Meredith and the nobleman as Edgar Moreton, her cousin. Jack introduces himself as “Crusoe Jack,” since he loves Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It is immediately clear that Edgar has feelings for Mabel, but Mabel and Jack only have eyes for each other. Edgar grows increasingly angry and jealous, not least because he is a gentleman and Jack is clearly a peasant. Edgar finds a reason to slap Jack, and they fight. Jack throws Edgar away from him, and Edgar falls over a cliff into the sea. Jack, now miserable, runs away. He rows a ship out into the water, is hailed and taken aboard the Seagull by its captain, Hugh of the Red Hand. Hugh takes Jack on as a cabin boy. Hugh is about to go on a long sea trip, but before he does he meets with Madge Collins, and she pays him to get rid of Jack while the Seagull is out to sea. The boat Jack used to row out to the Seagull is found wrecked on some rocks, and everyone believes he is dead. Madge mourns him, but Edgar is sure that he is still alive and swears that he will one day avenge himself on Jack.

The Seagull goes south to Patagonia. Tom Starboard, an old sailor, takes Jack under his wing, cheers him up, and tells him strange stories about the sea. When Jack asks about Robinson Crusoe Starboard tells Jack that Crusoe didn’t exist and tells him about Alexander Selkirk, the real-life model for Crusoe. Once the Seagull reaches Patagonia Tom overhears Captain Hugh telling his first mate that he intends to strand Jack on an island, as a way to earn the money Madge gave him for Jack’s death. Tom is alarmed by this, but Captain Hugh sees Tom listening and has him put in irons. Captain Hugh has some of his crew leave Jack stranded on an uncharted island with only a little food and water and a sword. The crew of the Seagull are unhappy to do this, but they can see that if they row back to the Seagull with Jack on their boat Captain Hugh will fire on them. When Jack sees the Seagull sail away, he momentarily despairs, but soon rallies and decides to emulate Robinson Crusoe. Jack soon learns that it is not that easy. A tornado hits the island, but Jack survives. He discovers a stream of fresh water and follows it back to a large pond. He remembers the lessons of Tom Starboard about island life and applies them to his situation. He explores the island, which is beautiful and full of wildlife. He finds a huge, hollow tree, and cuts into it with his sword and sleeps inside it. He finds a young puma and begins training it to be his pet. (He calls it “Hector”). Jack begins catching fish. He notices that Hector won’t drink from the pond and after observing it notices that there is an enormous crocodile living in it. Hector discovers his mother’s body, and returns to Jack. Jack, seeing the puma’s corpse, decides to skin it and use its skin as a cloak, but before he can do so he is attacked by an orangutan. Jack kills the orangutan and makes a cloak out of its skin, and makes the puma’s hide into a cloak and coverlet.

Three months pass. Jack is now comfortably acclimated to the island, but because he has been unable to make fire, despite multiple attempts, he has been unable to eat the wide range of animals on the island, from buffalo to rabbits to turtles. Back on the Seagull Captain Hugh is uneasy, for the crew hates and distrusts him after being forced to strand Jack. Tom Starboard leads a mutiny, which fails, but the ship runs aground during a storm (the same tornado which struck Jack’s island the first night he was on the island). Tom is the only survivor of the wreck and washes ashore on Jack’s island. He looks for Jack but is captured by a group of cannibalistic natives. He eventually escapes, and rescues Jack from a jaguar. Tom and Jack live together on the island for several weeks, catching sharks, killing the crocodile, and overcoming trouble with monkeys, lions, tapirs, and peccaries.

Back home in England Sir James Moreland, brother of Sir Harold and Jack’s father, discovers that Jasper is not his son, and that Jack is. Mabel finds out that Jack is of noble blood and cherishes his memory more than ever.

Jack and Tom eventually leave their island, accompanied by Hector. They sail to another island, survive attacks at sea by sharks, attacks on land by cannibals and then attacks at sea by cannibals. Jack and Tom eventually make a truce with the natives, but they have tied a beautiful woman of another tribe to a tree, to be eaten by wild animals, for refusing the love of their chief. Jack rescues her, and the woman, Lela, the White Rose, is grateful to Jack: “Lela will cook the young hunter’s food and be his slave.” Because Jack is handsome and kind to Lela, she quickly falls in love with him. But Jack is still in love with Mabel and so does not take advantage of Lela. In England Sir Harold Moreland has died of dissipation and Sir James, sick at heart over the fate of his son, is with the Army in India, trying for a hero’s grave but surviving every battle despite his best efforts. Madge Collins, seeing an opportunity, begins scheming her way to the Moreland estates. Tom disappears, the victim of kidnapping by angry natives, and Jack and Lela go in search of him. Lela is so nice to Jack that he begins to desire her companionship and learns her language and eventually falls in love with her. An evil tribe invades the island, and Jack fights them. He is poisoned by the enemy while saving Red Plume, the chief of the local natives. Lela draws the venom from the wound with her own lips. Jack and Lela find an isolated archipelago called “The Thousand Islands,” which Jack crowns himself king of. Jack and Lela are separated. Mabel and her father and friends, who are searching for Jack, are shipwrecked, and he eventually finds them. Jack falls in love with Mabel again, and they renew their vows to each other. Lela and Hector find Jack, but Lela is not jealous of Mabel; she is just happy to be near Jack again. A number of adventures follow, with Jack and Tom fighting pirates, going to the Ice Islands of the Arctic, fighting wolves and polar bears, meeting “Esquimaux,” meeting native warriors of several different islands and proving himself to be the best warrior of them all. Jack gains the love of various native maidens, is made a Prince, becomes second mate on a ship, and eventually returns home and marries Mabel as Sir James Moreland.

Crusoe Jack is one of the quintessential South Seas Imperialist/Orientalist fantasy penny dreadfuls. The basic concept of the white hero adventuring among non-white native populations and demonstrating that he is their superior as a warrior and a man, and being awarded the love of the most beautiful native woman and a role as the native’s leader, goes back to the turn of the nineteenth century. It was popularized by the novels of James Fenimore Cooper (see: The Last of the Mohicans) but was applied in later works, especially penny bloods and penny dreadfuls and story papers, to many different native populations. A popular subgenre was the South Seas naval journey, and in most of those stories the white hero is shown to be the superior of the natives.

Crusoe Jack is in this subgenre and is an almost archetypal version of it. Individual natives are given the Noble Savage treatment, but generally they are treated in a racist manner:

Master Jack had yet to learn that the blood of a hundred princes ran in the Indian maiden’s veins, and though, until roused, the vengeful passions of her race were held in check by the natural sweetness of her womanly thought and feeling, yet there was but a frail barrier between all that was bad in the nature of that forest child.2 

The natives speak in what most Western writers imagined was the typical native speech pattern: “The aged white hunter and the young white brave have spoken with living fire to their red brethren.”3 Jack is allowed to marry a native princess, La-loo-hee-ah, but she dies at the end of the story, saving Jack’s life, and he settles down with a white wife. The male protagonists in stories like Crusoe Jack are allowed to engage in limited miscegenation, as long as their non-white mates die and give way to white wives. The reverse was never the case; white women who romanced non-white men in fiction were killed (see: Zofloya: Or, The Moor), and those who did so in reality were treated with abhorrence; when Margaret Wheeler (1837-1907), the daughter of general Sir Hugh Wheeler (1789-1857), was revealed to have survived the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and married the sepoy who saved her, the historian George Trevelyan wrote that she “was by no means of pure English blood.”4 (The Ching Ching Adventures are almost unique in being a penny serial in which a non-white protagonist has a white wife). Crusoe Jack is relatively benign in its racism; although, the natives are savages, Jack’s treatment of them is paternalistically tolerant.

Like most South Seas story penny dreadfuls, Crusoe Jack is a mishmash of the accurate and the inaccurate. The obvious inspirations for Crusoe Jack were Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Johann Wyss’ Swiss Family Robinson (1812), and Marryat’s Masterman Ready, and Emmett follows their model in providing extensive information on the real-life flora and fauna of the Patagonian islands. But Emmett also includes natives who are Amazonian rather than Patagonian, natives who use tomahawks (a weapon of North American natives), and natives who are cannibals (a cultural tendency which was much less widespread in South America than Emmett portrays it). The islands around Patagonia have, in addition to South American animals, gorillas and lions.

South Seas fiction during the Victorian era, especially later in the century when Robert Louis Stevenson was popularizing Samoa as a destination for white men, was often a vehicle for “the constant making and remaking of bourgeois identity at those colonial sites where it was most destabilized.”5 This is true of Crusoe Jack, whose primary thematic purpose seems to be the triumph of Jack in his attempt to climb the Victorian social ladder. Jack begins as a nobody and ends as an omni-competent warrior, sex idol (to the native women), and nobleman, all thanks to his experiences in the South Seas. Margaret Jolly and Serge Tcherkézoff were undoubtedly correct when they wrote “metropolitan imaginaires and Oceanic experiences were surely always in dialectical relations of mutual influence, and the borders of European fictional fantasies and factual accounts were permeable.”6 But penny dreadfuls like Crusoe Jack, created in comfort by writers in England who had never been to the islands of the South Pacific and relied on first-, second-, and third-hand accounts for their information, tended more toward readerly wish-fulfillment and less toward the recapitulation of anything factual or fact-adjacent.7 

Masterman Ready seems to have been a particular inspiration for Crusoe Jack. Tom Starboard plays the Masterman Ready role in Crusoe Jack. Starboard is omni-competent, has been everywhere and done everything, and knows whatever the plot requires him to know about life at sea and life on land. The novel is full of references to historical events and nautical facts–there is an entertaining moment when Jack is certain that he has seen the Flying Dutchman, but Starboard explains that the misty and unsubstantial vision he has seen is only the reflection or shadow of another ship.

Despite the racist elements and plot elephantiasis which were common to penny dreadfuls, Crusoe Jack is generally readable. The dialogue is, typically for the dreadfuls, overly formal: “It wanted but this to fill the cup of misery. Yet why should I repine? Since the first hour I can remember I have been beaten and treated worse than a dog.”8 But the melodrama is kept to a minimum, the early chapters in which Jack is marooned and figuring out how to survive on his own are surprisingly good, and Emmett includes several moments of realistic failure. One such is Jack’s ongoing inability, when he is first marooned, to light a fire, and another is his failure at teaching Hector how to hunt—Hector eats what he catches rather than bringing it back to Jack. Moments like these are rare in the penny serials, both as realism and as a sign of fallibility in the too-perfect heroes.

The novel’s illustrations are entertaining. They have the feel of realism–the artist clearly did their research–but the figures are horrendously melodramatic in both pose and expression. Interestingly, several of the illustrations portray naked women–never in a pornographic way, of course, but more revealingly than might have been expected.

Crusoe Jack, its racism aside, is a surprisingly readable and entertaining penny dreadful.

Recommended Edition 

Print: George Emmett, Crusoe Jack: The King of the Thousand Islands. London: Hogarth House, 1890.


1 George Emmett, Crusoe Jack, the King of the Thousand Islands (London: Hogarth House, 1875), 10.

2 Emmett, Crusoe Jack, 89.

3 Emmett, Crusoe Jack, 85.

4 George Trevelyan, Cawnpore (London: Macmillan, 1910), 255.

5 John Kucich, Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 56.

6 Margaret Jolly and Serge Tcherkézoff, Oceanic Encounters: Exchange, Desire, Violence (Canberra: ANU E-Press, 2009), 8.

7 Readers are advised to consult Sean Brawley and Chris Dixon’s The South Seas: A Reception History from Daniel Defoe to Dorothy Lamour (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015) for more on how the South Seas were received and imagined by Europeans during the Victorian era.

8 Emmett, Crusoe Jack, 9.  

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