How a real-life Robinson Crusoe lasted on a deserted island for almost half a decade
How a real-life Robinson Crusoe lasted on a deserted island
Aman with a long unkempt beard, barefoot and dressed in goatskin, waves a flaming torch on the beach of a remote island, desperately trying to attract the attention of a British ship as it passes by. While this scene sounds like something out of Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, it is actually from the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish marooner who survived alone on a South American island for several years. Living at the same time as
Defoe, many have argued Selkirk – who became a celebrity when he returned to Britain – inspired the novelist’s most famous character. So who was this real-life castaway?
off to sea
Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676, in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland. His father was a shoemaker and tanner, who had expectations that his son would follow him into the business. But if his early life is anything to go by, it is clear that Selkirk had a tempestuous nature that often got him into trouble. When he was just a teenager, he was ordered to appear in front of the Kirk Session, the local ecclesiastical court, for inappropriate behaviour in church. In 1701, he found himself in trouble with the Kirk again after he assaulted one of his brothers.
Deciding to flee from justice, Selkirk went to sea. He embarked on a career as a privateer – essentially licensed pirates whose activities were government sanctioned, as long as they only targeted the state’s enemies. Joining up during the bitter War of the Spanish Succession, Selkirk attacked and looted Spanish and French ships in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
In 1703, Selkirk joined the company of
William Dampier, an Englishman who is better remembered for exploring parts of Australia, but also made his fortune as a privateer. Dampier was in charge of two ships, St George and Cinque Ports, which left England on an expedition to South America in September of that year.
Alexander, an adept navigator, quickly rose through the ranks to become the sailing master of Cinque Ports, which was commanded by the 21-year-old Captain Thomas Stradling. After a series of raids on Spanish ships along the South American coast, Cinque
Ports came into conflict with a French ship in February 1704, during which it was damaged. Soon after, the Spanish ambushed it before the English managed to capture a merchant ship for much needed supplies.
After a series of hectic battles, which had been poorly handled by Stradling, Cinque Ports was in poor condition, full of leaks and with a woodworm infestation making its way through the ship. The crew were not in a much better condition, suffering from a lack of food while the dreaded scurvy ran rife.
It was clear that Cinque Ports was barely holding itself together. Nearby was the island of Más a Tierra, which was located in the Juan Fernández Archipelago, around 400 miles off the coast of Chile. Stradling decided to head to the
“Alexander rose through the ranks to become the sailing master of Cinque Ports commanded by Captain Thomas Stradling”
island in September 1704, so that his ship could undergo the repairs that it desperately needed and set off once again.
But Selkirk had grown concerned about the state of the ship, believing that it was now unseaworthy. Attempting to reason with Stradling, Selkirk argued that Cinque Ports was bound to sink in its sorry state and that it was unsafe to continue the voyage.
The captain refused to listen and in protest, Selkirk – his temper flaring, as it did so often when he was back in Fife – demanded that he be left behind on the island, preferring to stay than head to a watery grave.
Stradling readily agreed and Selkirk gathered his belongings, hoping that the rest of the crew would join his protest, forcing the captain to listen to him.
Life on the island
As Selkirk stood on the seashore and none of his shipmates followed, the weight of his decision hit him. Selkirk ran into the water as Cinque
Ports pulled away and begged to be allowed back on board. Stradling gleefully refused, declaring that he was glad to be rid of him. Selkirk was suddenly left all alone on the uninhabited island, over 12,000 kilometres from home. As the ship sailed off into the horizon, the castaway reassured himself that another English vessel would come by within a few weeks or even months. But he was proved wrong, Selkirk would have to survive on his own for four years and four months.
Along with his personal belongings, Selkirk had a musket, a little food and a pot to boil it in, tobacco, rum, some navigational instruments and a copy of the Bible. The food was the first thing to go, but the verdant island provided him with plants and animals that he could eat. As well as picking wild berries, he would fish in the lagoons, and hunt wild goats. In fact, Selkirk eventually grew so adept at his new hunter-gatherer lifestyle, it was said that when his rescuers found him, he could catch a fleeing goat with his bare hands. He also learnt to milk the goats and even domesticated a few feral cats, who would kill the rats that attacked him while he slept.
As his clothes became ripped and torn, he took to wearing goatskins and walking around barefoot. While his ingenuity doesn’t quite compare to the fictitious Crusoe learning to make his own earthenware pots, Selkirk fashioned himself a new knife from a barrel hoop after his original one broke.
Completely alone, Selkirk became afraid that he would lose his ability to speak, so he read the Bible aloud and sung Psalms to himself. He would even talk to the animals.
As the days and months passed by monotonously, Selkirk kept track of them by carving marks into a tree. During this time, Selkirk did see several ships pass the island but refrained from drawing their intention in case they turned out to be Spanish vessels.
The one time the Spanish did come into the bay and saw Selkirk on the beach, they chased him and fired their rifles, only to lose sight of him when he escaped up a tree. Eventually tiring of their sport, the Spanish left the island and abandoned Selkirk to his fate.
“Selkirk fashioned himself a new knife from a barrel hoop”
A fortunate rescue
Rescue finally arrived for Selkirk when a British privateering ship, Duke, passed the island in 1709. Captained by Woodes Rogers, the crew noticed a bright beacon on the island that surprised them, as they believed it to be uninhabited. Who was on the island? Was it the Spanish? Rogers decided that the situation needed investigating and sent some men to explore the island.
Once they arrived on the shore, the men were astounded to discover a wild man waiting for them. Selkirk incoherently attempted to explain what had happened to him, but the men were unsure whether to believe his rather ludicrous story. They brought him back to the ship where fortunately for Selkirk, none other than William Dampier was serving as the pilot and was able to vouch for the marooner.
As it turned out, Selkirk had not been so crazy after all to leave Cinque Ports, as Dampier told him that the ship did actually sink soon after he was deserted, drowning the majority of the crew. The few that survived, including Captain Stradling, had managed to escape the vessel on rafts only to be captured by the Spanish and thrown into prison.
Before Duke set sail once more, Selkirk helped the crew gather food and fresh water from the island. Noting that it would be useful to have Selkirk and his navigational skills on board, Rogers offered him the position of mate, which Selkirk gratefully accepted. After living in isolation for such a long time, Selkirk struggled to get used to ship life and was unable to digest the food onboard Duke, which had been heavily salted to keep it preserved.
However, this journey proved to be far more fortunate for Selkirk than his previous endeavours. The privateers kept finding smaller ships and towns to raid for treasures, soon amassing a great wealth, with Selkirk even commanding one of the boat crews. Upon his return to Britain in 1711, Selkirk had earned £800 – the equivalent of £14,000 in today’s money – making him a very wealthy man.
no place like home
Pulling into port in London, Selkirk’s story was soon the talk of the capital. Playwright Richard Steele interviewed him in detail about his experiences for the monthly periodical, The Englishman. Captain Woodes Rogers also included an account of Selkirk’s adventure and time on the island in his work, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, which was published in 1712.
However, it was not long before Selkirk found himself in trouble again, being charged with assaulting a shipwright in 1713. After this incident, Selkirk finally travelled back home to Lower Largo to see his family after being away from home for over eight years. They were amazed to discover he was still alive, having given him up for dead long ago. While they were overjoyed to see him, Selkirk found it difficult to immerse himself back into the community, just like he struggled to adapt to life on a ship.
Though Selkirk had hated his time on Más a Tierra, going so far as to contemplate committing suicide, it was said Selkirk would head to a cave,
“He chose to enlist in the Royal Navy and became embroiled in a scandal after he abandoned Sophia for another woman”
located at the top of a nearby hill, so that he could enjoy the solitude that he was used to.
Deciding that he needed to make a change, Selkirk returned to London in 1717 – this time eloping with Sophia Bruce, a young dairymaid. Whether he actually married Sophia is disputed, as not long after heading south Selkirk abandoned her for another woman, an innkeeper called Frances, whom he also wed.
While embroiled in this scandal, Selkirk was officially enlisted in the Royal Navy. But he earned extra money by cashing in on his infamy, telling his story of survival far and wide.
By 1721, he had left England once again with the Navy as part of an anti-piracy initiative. While he was away, Selkirk contracted yellow fever and succumbed to the disease off of the coast of Africa that same year. He left behind two wills, one addressed to Sophia and one addressed to Frances, who subsequently became locked in a battle over his possessions.
origins of robinson Crusoe
Two years before Selkirk’s death, Daniel
Defoe published Robinson Crusoe. Many saw a resemblance between Selkirk and Crusoe but their stories actually differ greatly. For example, while Selkirk spent less than five years marooned, the character of Crusoe remained on his island for 28 years. Selkirk had also been deliberately left behind on Más a Tierra while Crusoe had been the sole survivor of a disastrous shipwreck. As for companionship, Selkirk was completely alone on the island, while Crusoe eventually gained a friend in Man Friday. Crusoe was also stranded in the Caribbean, not the Pacific Ocean.
Whether Selkirk and Defoe ever actually met is still debated, but it seems unlikely that a member of the London literati like Defoe could not at least have heard of Selkirk’s story. In fact, we know that Defoe did draw on The Englishman interview and the Rogers account, but they were far from his main source.
Rather Selkirk’s tale was one of many buccaneer survival stories that were popular in the 18th century, which Defoe drew upon for dramatic effect. This is why Robinson Crusoe is such a lurid tale featuring cannibals, earthquakes and tsunamis. It’s perhaps no wonder then that Robinson Crusoe turned out to be so popular that several reprints of the novel were issued in the first year alone. His story has overshadowed the fascinating real stories of castaways, Selkirk included, ever since.
Selkirk was fortunate that Más a Tierra was home to so many goats
Privateering was rife during the 17th and 18th centuries
William Dampier, the man in charge of St George and Cinque Ports
Spanish vessels often fell victim to predatory privateers
At first, Selkirk rescuers did not believe his story
Early depictions of Robinson Crusoe, like this one, look very similar to those of Selkirk
Selkirk read his Bible to remain sane in the face of solitude
Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Selkirk did not have a Man Friday for company