Alexander Selkirk: The Real Robinson Crusoe

Alexander Selkirk biography, castaway on a desert island for four years. His story became Daniel Defoe's inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

In 1718, at the ripe old age of sixty, Daniel Defoe began to write his first novel, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, now known to most people as merely Robinson Crusoe. Defoe based his character on the adventures of Alexander Selkirk, whom at the age of thirty voluntarily stranded himself on a small island in the Pacific Ocean for four years.

Alexander Selkirk was born in Largo, Fife, E. Scotland in 1676. His father was a prosperous leather tanner and cobbler in the small village and likely had similar hopes for his son. Alexander, however, was a precocious and active child, not given to a calm uneventful life. He ran off to sea at an early age and by the time he was twenty-seven had landed the job of Sailing Master - First Mate - on the "˜Cinque Ports', a privateering ship captained by William Dampier.

English privateers were actually pirates sanctioned by their government to prey upon an enemy country's merchant ships. So, Alexander Selkirk became a pirate for the English government and along with the crew of the "˜Cinque Ports' headed for the Pacific Ocean to prey on Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of South America.

William Dampier was a much-admired mapmaker, but a horrendous captain completely unfit to lead men in any circumstance especially around the dangerous Cape Horn of southern Chili. Since it had first been navigated by Willem Cornelis Schouten in 1616, treacherous currents and unpredictable weather had foundered many a sailing ship trying to "round the horn". Now Captain Dampier insisted on attempting the trip during the height of the storm season. Three times Dampier undertook to sail the "˜Cinque Ports' around the horn and each time was beaten off course by ferocious wind-wiped seas. The ship had been severely battered during the attempts and the crew, along with Alexander Selkirk, was in fear that she would break apart. They also suffered with scurvy*. One man died.

The sick and exhausted men soon began to talk of mutiny. Selkirk argued with Dampier, warning him of the possibility of an uprising by the crew. Dampier refused to listen; he wanted to try sailing the horn again. Rich merchant ships plied the Pacific waters and Dampier was determined to share in the loot.

The "˜Cinque Ports' once again attempted the treacherous waters. This time luck was with them and the ship limped into the Pacific Ocean. Captain Dampier put in at Mas a Tierra, an island in the Juan Fernandez chain four hundred miles from the coast of Chili. The island was an occasionally port for pirates wanting to refit their ships and collect fresh water and fruit.

Selkirk expected Dampier to begin repairs to the crippled ship, but the captain was in a hurry to set sail. Certain that the ship was not seaworthy, Selkirk demanded he be allowed to remain on the island and await rescue. Dampier had no love for the argumentative Selkirk and happily obliged him. Returning to the ship for the last time, Selkirk packed up his bedding, a firelock rifle, some powder, bullets, tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, his mathematical instruments, and some books. He felt well prepared for what he was sure would be a short wait. The year was 1704.

As the longboat pulled away from the shore, Alexander Selkirk had a moment of doubt and ran to the edge of the water to call the boat back. The sailors were out of earshot, or ignoring him, and continued to row toward the "˜Cinque Ports'. Selkirk watched the ship's sails dip below the horizon. He had never felt so utterly alone.

For the first few days of his self-imposed marooning, Selkirk explored the area around the beach. Goats, cats, and rats, escapees from Spanish ships, populated the small island. Fresh water pools and springs were plentiful and the climate pleasantly temperate. It was truly an island paradise, but Selkirk watched the horizon line, praying to see a sail. After days of no rescue, he began to make preparations for a longer stay. He built a hut from pimento trees and covered it with long grasses. He lined the interior with goatskins. The weeks stretched out and Selkirk, melancholy sometimes to the point of near suicide, kept a fire burning on a nearby hill hoping to lure in an English ship.



Months passed. Rats tormented him at night, gnawing on his feet and clothing. He soon learned to attract the cats with goat meat and would sometimes have a hundred or more felines sleeping within the hut. They were quite effective at keeping the rat population in check. When his gunpowder ran out, Selkirk taught himself to rub pimento wood together for fire. He made clothes from goatskins and scraps of linen he'd carried from the ship and stitched them with a nail and wool thread he had unraveled from a pair of stockings. When his knife wore down to the back and became unusable, he made a new knife from the iron barrel hoops left by the "˜Cinque Ports'. The goat kids were easily tamed. After his eventual rescue, Selkirk told tales of dancing and singing with his pet cats and goats in the moonlight. In this way he survived not only the necessities of life, but also the terrifying loneliness.

Years began to pass. Alexander Selkirk ventured a bit farther from the beach although he still kept vigilance over the signal fire. He began living in a nearby cave in the hillside. His healthy diet of fruit, goat meat and milk, and vegetables that had been planted years before by the Spanish, along with vigorous exercise kept him in remarkably healthy shape. Slowly he began to revel in the solitude. After awhile, Selkirk stopped speaking altogether.

Then in early 1709, four years after he had been castaway, Selkirk saw sails on the horizon. Recognizing the English flag, he ran to meet the long boats. Woodes Rodgers captained the English privateer "˜Duke'. Interestingly enough, the pilot of the ship was none other than William Dampier**, former captain of the "˜Cinque Ports'. They were startled by the "wildman" running at them along the beach. Woodes Rodgers later remarked his amazement at Selkirk's agility, "He ran with wonderful swiftness through the woods and up the rocks and hills"¦. We had a bull-dog, which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him in catching goats; but he distanced and tired both the dog and men"¦"

So, Alexander Selkirk was finally rescued. He had not spoken in so long, he had forgotten some vocabulary and the crew of "˜Duke' had a difficult time understanding him. But his appearance and speech became of no consequence when his outstanding seamanship helped Rodgers capture a richly loaded Spanish merchant ship. Rodgers made Selkirk captain over the ship for the voyage back to England.

On his return to society, Selkirk met with the essayist Richard Steele. Steele wrote the story of Selkirk's adventures for a publication called "The Englishman". Years later, Daniel Defoe would use the story as inspiration for the character and adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

Alexander Selkirk never adjusted to civilization. He returned to Scotland a rich man from the capture of the Spanish ship, but he made his home in a cave where he lived a reclusive life for the next fifteen years. At the age of forty-five, Selkirk returned to the sea as a first mate on the English man-of-war "˜Weymouth'. He died after drinking water infected with a tropical disease.

Years before, during his interview with Richard Steele, Selkirk had remarked that the civilized world, ""¦ could not, with all its enjoyments, restore him to the tranquility of his solitude."

* Scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency characterized by bleeding gums, stiff joints, and bleeding under the skin and internal organs. It was a major cause of death in sailors before 1753 when Scottish naval surgeon, James Lind, showed that scurvy could be cured and prevented by the juice of oranges, lemons, and limes.

** After marooning Selkirk, Dampier pirated the South American Coast unsuccessfully before finally returning to England. There his crew charged him with cowardice, brutality, and drunkenness. Dampier's rank as captain was pulled. He made only one last buccaneering voyage: pilot on the ship "˜Duke'. William Dampier died a pauper in London, 1715.

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