The Real Robinson Crusoe?
Alexander Selkirk was a privateer born in the small Scottish town of Lower Large, Fife, near the sea, in 1676. He became a sailor and then a privateer, that is, a pirate sanctioned by the government.
Statue of Selkirk in his hometown in Scotland, created by Thomas Stuart Burnett in 1885.
Photo by Hopea1147 via Wikimedia Commons.
In 1704, he was raiding Spanish ships and coastal villages in the Pacific, up and down the coast of South America and Mexico. Selkirk served under the leadership of British explorer and privateer William Dampier. Captain of the St. George, Dampier was also responsible for a second ship, the Cinque Ports, on which Selkirk was sailing master under twenty-one-year-old Captain Thomas Stradling. There is little doubt that Selkirk had more sailing experience than his captain.
|Title page of 1835 book about Selkirk, public domain|
The two ships parted ways, and the Cinque Ports stopped in the tropical Juan Fernandez islands off Chile to restock their water. The island group was uninhabited, but was well known as a hideout or outpost for privateers and pirates in the 17th Century.
Selkirk’s ship was among many privateers fighting the Spanish at that time, during the War of Spanish Succession. During their year of raiding along the coast and fighting several battles, the Cinque Ports’s condition had deteriorated. Selkirk told the captain that they should stop and repair it, but Stradling disagreed. Selkirk declared that he would rather be left on the island than sail farther in the unseaworthy ship, and Captain Stradling obliged him.
You Made Your Bed, Now Make Your Hut
|Woodcut of Selkirk at his hut, reading his Bible, from 1835 biography|
Apparently, Selkirk thought other crew members would agree with him and force an overhaul of the vessel, but none of them wanted to stick their necks out. When he saw that he would be left alone, Selkirk begged the captain to take him back aboard, but Stradling would not. Selkirk was left on the shore with only a musket and a small supply of gunpowder, his clothing and bedding, a Bible, some tobacco, and a few tools.
After he was later rescued, Selkirk told how he had survived. Known as a brawler at home in Scotland, he said he sang psalms and read from the Bible every day.
He lived near the shore at first, eating lobster and other offerings of the sea, but a great number of aggressive sea lions invaded his new home, and he was driven inland. This turned out to be a good thing, as he discovered a large colony of feral goats. Apparently, some ship that had previously stopped there let their livestock ashore to graze, and a few goats escaped and remained on the island.
Illustration from the 1835 book shows Selkirk catching a goat.
He shot several goats for food. When his gunpowder ran out, he learned to outrun and outflank them and kill them with his knife. His father was a tanner back in Scotland, and Selkirk had no problem tanning the goatskins and making new clothes from them.
He also found turnips and cabbage leaves growing, and ate pepper berries. A few feral cats that had probably jumped ship when other vessels came there kept him company and kept down the rat population.
It Helps to Have a Place to Hide
During Selkirk’s sojourn, two Spanish ships dropped anchor at the island. Selkirk hid from the enemies. In one case, the sailors saw him and gave chase, but he was able to hide up in a tree until they gave up the search.
|Selkirk being taken aboard the Duke, public domain|
He stayed there alone for four years and four months. Ironically, his old commander William Dampier was pilot of the Duke, the ship that came to his rescue. Many of the crew were hungry and ill with scurvy. Selkirk, in his joy to see British men, was able to help them. He killed three goats a day for them to eat and helped the crew regain their health. The Duke’s captain, Woodes Rogers, referred to Selkirk as governor of the island. He made the castaway second mate and later gave him command of a prize ship.
The island on which Selkirk lived for more than four years is now known as Robinson Crusoe Island. Archaeologists found evidence a few years ago of Selkirk’s huts and also part of a pair of navigational dividers, a tool that would only belong to a ship’s master or navigator, such as Selkirk. The sailors who rescued Selkirk said he had some “practical pieces” and mathematical instruments in his meager personal possessions.
Selkirk’s return to England in 1711, after being gone eight years, caused a great stir. After that, he continued sailing and privateering. He became wealthy from his share in the plunder. In 1721, he was master’s mate on the HMS Weymouth. He died Dec. 13, 1721, off the west coast of Africa, probably of yellow fever, and was buried at sea.
In 1719, Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe was first published. While Selkirk was clearly one of his inspirations, it is also believed Defoe drew from other castaway accounts of the time. Selkirk is mentioned in many books and poems. Films have been made both of Selkirk’s life and the beloved tale of Robinson Crusoe.
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Susan Page Davis is the author of more than sixty published novels. She’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. Her newest books include Echo Canyon, Seven Brides for Seven Texans, The Saboteur, River Rest, and Tearoom for Two. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and the Will Rogers Medallion for western fiction, and also a winner of the Carol Award and a finalist in the WILLA Literary Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com .