The belief that ancient family lineage enables a person to claim a superior legitimacy of national belonging has been given a shocking airing recently. So it’s worth remembering that Daniel Defoe punctured this poisonous myth over 300 years ago.
The True-Born Englishman. A Satyr was initially a counter-response to John Tutchin’s The Foreigners: an attack on William III’s rule by focusing on his Dutch origins. Yet it catalysed a much wider-ranging satire on xenophobia and the idea of ethnic purity. Defoe’s poem starts with the idea of ingratitude towards what he views as the nation’s saviour (William III) and accuses the English nation of pride. He aims to prick this ‘bubbled Nation’ (27):
To Englishmen their own beginnings show,
And ask them why they slight their neighbours so.
Go back to elder times, and ages past,
And nations into long oblivion cast;
To old Britannia’s youthful days retire.
And there for true-born Englishman enquire.
Britannia freely will disown the name,
And hardly knows herself from whence they came:
Wonders that they of all men should pretend
To birth and blood, and for a name to contend. (43-52)
National pride based on lineage gets a rough ride. Defoe’s scorching reminder that England’s history is one of continual invasion from Romans, Picts, Scots, and Normans:
From whose mixed relics our compounded breed,
By spurious generation does succeed;
Making a race uncertain and unev’n,
Derived from all the nations under Heav’n.(171-75)
The English, then, are an illegitimate race whose claim to ‘ancient pedigree’ is based on nothing more that,
’Tis that from some French trooper they derive,
Who with the Norman Bastard did arrive:
The trophies of the families appear;
Some show the sword, the bow, and some the spear,
Which their great ancestor, forsooth, did wear. (212-18)
Defoe’s energy is focused on undermining pride in status and lineage: with each repetition of the phrase ‘true-born Englishman,’ the emptier it becomes. To this end, one of the most repeated ideas that drives Defoe’s satire links illegitimacy and mixture:
Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogenous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes and, a furious lust begot,
Betwixt and painted Briton and a Scot. (334-37)
This, Defoe scornfully cries, is the source of the ‘well-extracted blood of Englishmen’ (347). His incredulity, then, is to hear such people attack the non-English:
The wonder which remains is at our pride,
To value that which all wise men deride,
For Englishmen to boast of generation,
Cancels their knowledge, and lampoons the nation.
A True-Born Englishman’s a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction. (368-73)
So, next time you begin to argue about what it is to be English (or indeed what being British means), just think on Defoe’s poem