Magic lantern slide


Materials: Litho print onto glass
Dimensions: 9 centimeters square
Place acquired: Antiques fair, London
Place of manufacture: probably Britain

I found this little image on an antiques stall in a box full of assorted victorian-era magic lantern slides. It shows a scene from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, and originally it would probably have been part of a set of twenty or so images designed to accompany someone reading out loud from a children’s version of the story. It’s a simple square of glass with a colour illustration printed on to it using an offset litho technique. I can only guess at the date of the slide, but the litho printing must put it sometime in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The word ‘magic’ in the name hints at the awe that must have been created in Victorian audiences when these slides were inserted into a lantern and projected across a darkened room onto a screen.

The illustrator of the slide has carefully conflated a dramatic episode that takes up six or seven pages in Defoe’s narrative. Crusoe and his trusty native servant Friday, both armed with assorted muskets, knives and pistols, liberate a captive white man who is about to be eaten by cannibals. At the end of the episode in the book Crusoe, with a pedantry that is typical of his character, provides the reader with a final body count of the natives. It amounts to quite a slaughter:

‘ 3 kill’d at our first shot from the tree.
2 kill’d at the next shot.
2 kill’d by Friday in the boat.
2 kill’d by ditto, of those at first wounded.
1 kill’d by ditto in the wood.
3 kill’d by the Spaniard.
4 kill’d being found dropp’d here and there of their wounds, or kill’d
   by Friday in his chase of them.
4 escap’d in the boat, whereof one wounded if not dead.
21 in all.’

This slide picture was created roughly 150 years after Defoe’s story was first written, and at the height of Britain’s empire. In this interval of time it’s probably fair to say that Robinson Crusoe had subtly changed from an adult book into mainly a children’s story and it was seen as a forerunner for a growing Victorian genre of boy’s adventures stories that took place in foreign parts. These boys' books (and magazines) acted virtually as a recruiting ground for service in Britain's empire. Looked at in this way the magic lantern slide image, with its well-armed white master, black servant and an untrustworthy, expendable populous, can be read almost as a blueprint for British imperial policy towards its colonial subjects in the Victorian period and after.