Who Was The Real Robinson Crusoe?

CULTURE | August 20, 2019

Robinson Crusoe Island. Source: (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one of English literature’s most cherished works and is often credited as the first English novel. The 1719 story detailed the struggle for survival of the fictional title character upon a deserted island in the Caribbean. In writing the book, Defoe was inspired by the real-life travails of the Scottish privateer Alexander Selkirk.

Statue of Alexander Selkirk at the site of his original house on Main Street, Lower Largo Fife, Scotland. Source: (Wikimedia)

Alexander Selkirk, or Selcraig in proper Scottish, was born in 1676. Little is known of his early life except that he was an argumentative lout who got into trouble at church for “undecent carriage.” He had an aggressive, boorish character which seemed to be connected to domestic strife. According to an early account, he was the seventh son and his mother thought he was lucky, spoiled him, and encouraged him to follow his ambition to go to sea. His father, a shoemaker, and tanner thought that he should go into the family business. This is credited with being a source of strife in the family. Whether it is true or not, Selkirk was prone to violent outbursts. For example, on one occasion he accidentally drank saltwater out of a can and his younger brother laughed at him. Filled with indignation, Selkirk assaulted his brother with a staff, and then his father and sister-in-law who got caught up in the quarrel.   

William Dampier (1651-1715) Source: (Wikimedia)

Selkirk did go to sea and participated in an expedition of the privateer William Dampier from 1703 to 1704. Selkirk showed aptitude in navigation and was trained in it to serve on the Cinque Ports. All seemed well until November of 1703 when Thomas Pickering, the commander of the Cinque Ports died in a fever. Dampier selected Pickering’s lieutenant, the disagreeable Thomas Stradling, to take command.

The arrogant Stradling was highly unpopular with the crew and as Cinque Ports sailed south along the coast of Brazil and around Cape Horn, fights and near-mutinies constantly plagued the ship. Dampier barely suppressed a mutiny by promising to keep Stradling in check, but conditions continued to deteriorate.  

Robinson Crusoe Island. Source: (ANA FERNANDEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

In May 1704, Stradling split off from Dampier to plunder on his own. Meanwhile, the condition of the ship deteriorated with constant leaks and the need for repairs. In September they put in at a subtropical, deserted island in the Juan Fernandez islands off the coast of Chile. This island would later be called Mas a Tierra and then later renamed to Robinson Crusoe Island.  

I suppose you know where this is going.

Alexander Selkirk reading his Bible. Source: (Wikimedia)

After a month on the island and taking in of provisions, Selkirk thought the condition of the Cinque Ports still so bad that it was liable to sink. When Stradling gave the order to sail, Selkirk refused and encouraged his shipmates to do the same. A bitter argument followed. Selkirk lost his temper and found himself left on the island with bedding, basic tools, some firearms, two pounds of tobacco, some provisions, and the Bible.

Supposedly, Selkirk begged Stradling to take him back, but the captain, pleased at this refused, wished to make Selkirk an example. He was now a castaway. The mainland was over 400 miles away.

Alexander Selkirk sending signals to passing ships. Source: (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

There were elephant seals, rats, and birds to keep Selkirk company. The rats, in particular, were a nuisance and attacked him at night until he succeeded in training feral cats. Food and shelter were not so much of a problem. He subsisted mainly on crayfish and wild plants. He built two secret huts built of branches and grass deep in the underbrush -- one where he slept and the other which acted as his kitchen.

What was most challenging was the loneliness. For the first several months of his exile, he contemplated suicide

Selkirk catching a wild goat. Source: (Wikimedia)

During his exile, Selkirk quickly learned to survive. He mastered starting fires and hunting. He grew swift-running barefoot along the rocky terrain and was able to catch wild goats. He grew hairy and clad himself in untanned wild skins. His feet grew calloused, and he stank. All the same, he began to if not enjoy his exile, came to terms with it. The stark realities of survival simplified life.

The only other sign of people were the Spanish. But when Spanish ships came he hid from them out of fear that they would enslave him. Once he evaded a Spanish search party by climbing a tree.

The rescued Selkirk (seated, right) being taken aboard the Duke. Source: (Wikimedia)

Finally, on February 2, 1709, Selkirk was rescued by a privateering expedition led by Woodes Rogers. William Dampier was curiously enough the navigator of the Duke of the two-ship flotilla. Selkirk had been marooned for four years and four months.

Selkirk took some time to adapt back to English ways. Since his diet for four years were all fresh foods, he found the shipboard foods indigestible and the clothes constraining. It was during this readjustment period that Selkirk learned that Stradling’s voyage had come to a bad end. The Cinque Ports sank off the coast of Peru. All were killed except Stradling and a dozen men who ended up in a Spanish prison.

Selkirk for his part seemed a changed man. He was no longer the combative boor but had become contemplative. Rogers made him a second mate of the Duke and gave him a share of the prize money. 

An original first edition of the book Robinson Crusoe by English author Daniel Defoe. Source: (Photo by Jonathan Brady/PA Images via Getty Images)

Selkirk, in fact, did not return home until October 1711 since Rogers stayed at sea for another two years on what would become a successful voyage. In fact, the amount owed to Selkirk was a small fortune, some £800. After his return, he enjoyed celebrity, but he also seemed to slip into his old ways of combativeness. Selkirk never seemed as happy in life as he was when he was in exile.

He eventually went to sea again as part of a pirate-hunting voyage but succumbed to yellow fever off the coast of West Africa on December 13, 1721. He was history’s first celebrity castaway but more lasting, he was the real Robinson Crusoe.

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.