True sur­vivor

How a real-life Robin­son Cru­soe lasted on a de­serted is­land for al­most half a decade

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Jes­sica Leggett

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

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