John-Paul Flintoff

Daniel Defoe, author and spy

Daniel Defoe is best known today as the author of Robinson Crusoe, one of the first novels published in English. As a young man, Defoe is widely believed to have taken part in the Monmouth rebellion against James II, a treasonable act for which, after the rebellion was suppressed, many others were tortured and executed.

When William and Mary took over the throne, Defoe worked as a propagandist and spy, reporting directly to the king, whom he greatly admired. And when Anne succeeded, Defoe did the same work for her most senior ministers. (He was heavily involved in laying the groundwork for the Act of Union between England and Scotland.)

His propaganda was not always as successful as he might have liked. Outraged by the persecution of non-conformists like himself, he once wrote a satirical pamphlet suggesting that the best thing to do with non-conformists was to put them to death. He was prosecuted, and put into the stocks.

Along with everything else, Defoe worked at times as a merchant – importing (among other things) tobacco, beer, wine, silks, muslins, cochineal, wax, dates, tea and ostrich feathers. He was not always successful here, either, and cash-flow problems got him prosecuted and imprisoned, too.

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