Who Was The Real Robinson Crusoe?

By | August 8, 2019

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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.

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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.