Alexander Selkirk and the Real-Life Island of Robinson Crusoe

For three centuries, people from around the world have been regaled by the tale of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the 1719 tale of an Englishman who becomes a shipwrecked castaway for 27 years on an isolated island near the mouth of the Orinoco River.  While there is no ‘Island of Despair’ off the Venezuelan coast, there is indeed an actual Robinson Crusoe Island in South America; one with its own castaway tale that may have actually inspired the novel.

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The island in question is the largest of the two main Juan Fernández Islands, a Chilean archipelago located 600 km (370 km) off the coast of Valparaiso (the islands are actually part of Valparaíso Region, forming a commune within Valparaíso Province) in the South Pacific Ocean.  Measuring 93 km2(36 sq mi) in area and surrounded by numerous small islets, Robinson Crusoe Island is a mountainous, forested island; its highest point reaching 916 m (3 005 ft) above sea level.  The island was indeed discovered by Juan Fernández and claimed for Spain in 1574.  Fernández called the eastern island that was closest to the South American mainland Más a Tierra (‘More to Land’, this was modern Robinson Crusoe Island) and the western island Más Afuera (‘More to the Outside); Más Afuera being located 181 km (112 mi) west of Más a Tierra.

Although uninhabited, over the course of the 17thcentury the islands became a remote hideout and restocking outpost for many of the pirates that sailed up and down the South American coast.  One of these pirates was the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who had left his hometown of Lower Largo in Fife at the age of 21 in 1695.  Known for his refutation of authority, Selkirk joined in with various privateer expeditions against Spain in the South Seas, and by 1703 was sailing for the English explorer and privateer William Dampier in the War of the Spanish Succession.  While Dampier commanded the St. George, Selkirk served as sailing master on the sister galleon Cinque Ports.  After a year or so of sailing and battling the Spanish up and down the Pacific coast as far north as Mexico, the seaworthiness of the Cinque Ports had deteriorated.  The ship’s captain, Thomas Stradling, had fallen into a dispute with Dampier (likely over the condition of the boat), and as such separated from the expedition sometime in 1704.  Evidently Selkirk felt the same way as Dampier, for when the ship stopped at Más a Tierra in October 1704 to restock, Selkirk demanded to be dropped off on the island for later rescue rather than possibly sink at sea on the ailing ship.  As Selkirk failed to convince any of other the other crew members to join him, he decided not to abandon ship and asked to rejoin the crew.  Stradling responded to the request by stranding Selkirk alone on the islandwith just a few articles of clothing, bedding, a musket and gunpowder, some tools, a Bible and tobacco.  Less than one month later, the Cinque Ports would sink off of the Colombian coast, taking most of the crew with her; the seven survivors, including Stradling, would be captured and imprisoned by the Spanish.

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The cover of an 1835 book on Selkirk’s life.

Selkirk would spend the next four years and four months alone on Más a Tierra.  Initially sticking to the coast and reading his Bible to pass the time while awaiting rescue (a great irony as when he had left Scotland in 1695, he had failed to appear at a Presbyterian Session where he had been summoned for indecent conduct in church).  Selkirk eventually settled inland once he realised the shores were occupied by countless sea lions during their mating season.  Inland, he found the major sources of food that would keep him alive during his stay: a large colony of feral goats that earlier sailors had abandoned on the island (when he eventually ran out of gunpowder, he learned how to successfully run after and tackle goats to kill them using knives he fashioned out of barrel rings, although he did once fall off of a cliff and knock himself unconscious for nearly a day doing so).  Wild cabbage and turnips were also present, and the feral rats that initially attacked him at night were kept at bay by the feral cats he domesticated.  When his clothing became unusable, he fashioned new garments out of goatskin (Selkirk’s father had been a tanner, and so Selkirk had knowledge of the trade).  In true pirate fashion, Selkirk had plundered the resources left behind on the island by other sailors to keep himself alive. Selkirk only saw two ships land on the island in his four years there.  Unfortunately for him, they were Spanish ships, and the landing party intended to capture him (even firing shots at him) so he hid in a treetop rather than draw attention to himself, and eventually they left.

Incredibly, it would be Dampier, now piloting the Duke for fellow privateer Woodes Rogers, who would eventually rescue Selkirk when Rogers, Dampier, and their crew stopped at Más a Tierra to restock in February 1709.  Selkirk fed the crews with goats he had killed, and helped the scurvy-ridden crew recover.  Dampier took Selkirk back into his crew as a mate, eventually making him a commander of one of his ships.  The tale of Selkirk’s ordeal as written by Rogers in 1712 and as published in The Englishman in 1713 made him a minor celebrity in Great Britain, and it was from these accounts that Daniel Defoe is believed to have taken his inspiration for a novel about a British castaway.

Selkirk would eventually return to Scotland (surprising his family, who had thought him dead; Selkirk was now also quite wealthy from his resumed career in privateering), but not for long as he was now much more comfortable at sea than in the confines of civilisation.  Joining the Royal Navy, Selkirk would die off the west coast of Africa in 1721 while serving as a lieutenant on the Weymouth, likely from yellow fever, and would be buried at sea.  In 2008, a team of Scottish archaeologists found evidence of two shelters built by Selkirk built from pimento trees, as well as a pair of navigational dividers.

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The plaque in Lower Largo commemorating Alexander Selkirk.  Source: S. Stanley, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_Selkirk_Plaque.jpg.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

It was not long after Selkirk’s rescue from Más a Tierra that settlement of the island began.  Noting the isolation and difficult conditions on the island, in 1747 the Viceroyalty of Peru (of which Chile was a part) inaugurated a penal colony on the island, sending 170 colonists and prisoners there along with livestock.  A small community would eventually develop, centered around the east coast port of San Juan Bautista, the lone village of the island.  An attempt to create a similar colony on the east coast of Más Afuera between 1907 and 1930 failed and the island remains uninhabited, but approximately twenty buildings remain intact.  In 1966, the Chilean government renamed the Juan Fernández islands in an effort to promote tourism in the area (the community is largely dependent on the lobster hunt): Más a Tierra became Robinson Crusoe Island, while Más Afuera became Alejandro Selkirk Island.  Selkirk, of course, never actually stepped foot on the island that was named for him.

The uninhabited Alejandro Selkirk Island, the westernmost of the Juan Fernández Islands.

Robinson Crusoe Island, and the village of San Juan Batista in particular, were greatly affected by the tsunami that resulted from the February 2010 Chilean earthquake.  A 5 m-high (16 ft) wall of water crashed into the Juan Fernandez Islands, killing 16 people in San Juan Bautista and wiping out most of the buildings in the village, including all its civil institutions and shops.  No warnings were given from the Chilean Navy to the islanders due to a miscommunication between the Navy and tsunami warning services, leaving a 12-year-old girl who noticed the fishing boats rocking back-and-forth in the harbour to rush to the village’s warning gong and ring it in hopes of warning the populace in time.  Since the tsunami, the population of the island (recorded as 633 people in the 2002 census) dropped by one-third.

Further Reading

BBC Scotland (n.d.).  The European Lifeline – History Oddities: Two Extraordinary Travellers.  In Search of Scotland.  Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/europe/oddities_europe.shtml.  Accessed 22 June 2012.

Bodenham, P. (2010).  Adrift on Robinson Crusoe Island, the forgotten few.  The Independent, 9 December 2010.  Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/adrift-on-robinson-crusoe-island-the-forgotten-few-2154919.html?action=Gallery.  Accessed 22 June 2012.

Clark, P. (2008).  Dig finds camp of ‘real Crusoe’.  BBC News, 1 November 2008.  Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/7703375.stm.  Accessed 22 June 2012.

Ministerio de Buenes Nacionales (n.d).  Archipiélago Juan Fernández Circuito – Isla Robinson Crusoe.   Valparaiso: Secretaria Regional Ministerial Region de Valparaiso.  Available at http://www.thisischile.cl/Recursos/documento/08.pdf.  Accessed 22 June 2012.

Rogers, W. (1712).  A Cruising Voyage round the World.  Excerpt available at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_18c/defoe/selkirk.html#rogers.  Accessed 22 June 2012.

Steele, R. (1713).  Alexander Selkirk.  The Englishman.  Available at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_18c/defoe/selkirk.html#steele.  Accessed 22 June 2012.

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