Everyone has heard of Robinson Crusoe. But how many know the real-life inspiration behind the character?
As Alex Turner explains on Quora, this would be Alexander Selkirk:
Selkirk was a Scottish sailor, born in 1676. He was a rather hotheaded man, who tended to look for exciting voyages whenever he could. In the early 1700s, he served in the War of the Spanish Succession, and after gaining valuable experience at sea, in 1704, he joined a British expedition to the South Pacific, just about as far away from Scotland as you can get.
On this voyage in 1704, Selkirk and his crewmates had made it as far as the totally uninhabited Juan Fernandez Islands, an archipelago more than 400 miles off the coast of Chile, when they discovered they needed supplies and fresh water. However, when their ship docked at Juan Fernandez Island, Selkirk realized that the ship was in bad shape and needed repairs.
Selkirk boldly told his captain that he refused to sail on the vessel until it was repaired. The captain refused to repair it, thinking the vessel was fine, and that Selkirk was exaggerating, so he took him up on his offer: he gave Selkirk a musket, hatchet, knife, cooking pot, bedding, clothes, and a Bible, and told him he could stay on the island.
Unsurprisingly, Selkirk immediately regretted his boldness, but it was too late; the captain wouldn’t take him back. So Selkirk was marooned, far away from inhabited land, although with more supplies than most castaways.
Selkirk had made a rash decision, but it wasn’t so bad: Selkirk’s captain wrecked the ship off the coast of Colombia a few months later, and he and the crew were captured and imprisoned by the Spanish.
A Long Wait
After being marooned, Selkirk stuck to the shoreline of the island, figuring that eventually another vessel will stop by the island for supplies or repairs, and rescue him in the process, but it was not to be. For weeks, Selkirk lived off lobsters and experienced depression after becoming extremely lonely. After a few months on the island, he began to lose hope that he would ever be rescued, and sea lions drove him away from the beach and into the island’s interior.
However, as soon as he was driven into the interior, Selkirk’s fortunes changed. He found wild goats, which he used for milk and meat, plus an abundance of fruits. He was plagued by rats attacking him at night, but wild cats nearby staved them off most of the time.
Selkirk became a very resourceful man by the time a year went by on the island. He fashioned himself a new knife using barrel hoops on the beach and built two huts out of trees (see image). One of these huts he used for cooking, and the other he used as a shelter. He used his musket to hunt goats, but his gunpowder ran out and he had to chase them on foot and use his knife.
When his clothes became too worn and ragged, he made new clothes with goat skins. When his shoes finally wore out, he found that he didn’t need new ones; his calloused feet had become so tough that he didn’t need anything to put on them.
Selkirk found true comfort in one thing; his Bible. He sang psalms from it, and it helped him remember how to read and speak English, as he hadn’t been able to speak to anyone for about two years at this point.
A Close Call
After a couple of years on Juan Fernandez, Selkirk finally saw a ship dock at the island. Excitedly, he rushed to the beach, but stopped himself when he realized, devastatingly, that the ship was…
Knowing he’d be captured and either imprisoned or executed by the Spanish, he had to hide from the Spanish men who searched the island for food and fresh water. At one point, he was spotted by a few Spanish sailors, and he tried to run from them, until he realized he was too weak to outrun them. As a last resort, he climbed a tree and hid there. The Spanish sailors got extremely close to catching him; one of them even urinated under the tree he had climbed, but fortunately, he managed to evade being seen again.
On February 2, 1709, at last, Selkirk spotted a ship flying British colors, and the ship approached the island. Literally jumping for joy, he greeted the British landing party with incoherent joy. The ship was led by Woodes Rogers, the future Governor of the Bahamas. Rogers jokingly referred to Selkirk as the “Governor of Juan Fernandez”, and welcomed him aboard the ship.
Rogers was very impressed with Selkirk’s agility, health, and vigor, after being alone on a remote Pacific island for four years. He made Selkirk his second mate on his ship, and Selkirk returned to being a sailor with renewed vigor.
He was so intent to return to sailing that he didn’t even return to England first. Selkirk was part of a voyage around the world in 1711, and was part of a privateering crew operating off the coast of West Africa as well.
Finally, Selkirk returned to England in 1712, after eight years away from his homeland. He wrote a book, titled A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World that same year, and became a British celebrity, renowned for his survival against the odds.
After a period of semi-retirement, Selkirk returned to sailing in the late 1710s, and in 1721, he died of yellow fever off the coast of Africa. A quiet end to such an energetic man.
A well-known privateer by the name of William Dampier was part of the expedition that rescued Selkirk and, indeed, had known him from previous sailings. Dampier’s diaries (still in publication) and accounts provided first hand experiences for a number of writers of the time, including Dafoe. I’m unsure if any of his diaries cover the time of the rescue of Selkirk so will have to look into that (most of my books are packed away in anticipation of a house move)! Dampier was quite an incredible character by all accounts as well as being quietly influential in many scientific areas. I think these men would be quite surprised to learn of their influence hundreds of years later!
I wasn’t aware of all that! Many thanks for sharing, Sarah 🙂
A very interesting story. One I would happily never experience. Visits to South Seas islands sound wonderful. Marooned, no.
Yes, I draw the line at rats gnawing at my feet 😀
I really enjoyed this post, Nicholas! What a great story and I never knew where Robinson Crusoe came from. One of my favorite childhood stories.
So glad you enjoyed it, Noelle! Thank you 🙂