Alexander Selkirk

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Alexander Selkirk : biography

1676 – 13 December 1721

Later life

A furry Crusoe shows the influence of Selkirk Selkirk’s story aroused great interest in England. In 1712 Rogers wrote a book about their privateering odyssey, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, in which he included an account of Selkirk’s ordeal. The following year, the prominent essayist Richard Steele wrote an article about him for The Englishman. Claiming his share of the Duke plunder—about £800 (equivalent to £ today)—Selkirk appeared set to enjoy a life of ease and celebrity. Nevertheless, with legal disputes making the amount of any payment uncertain, the sea continued to beckon him.

After a few months in London, he began to seem more like his former self again. In September 1713 he was charged with assaulting a shipwright in Bristol, and may have been kept in confinement for two years. He returned to Lower Largo, where he met Sophia Bruce, a young dairymaid. They eloped to London early in 1717 but apparently did not marry. He was soon off to sea again, having enlisted in the Royal Navy. While on a visit to Plymouth in 1720, he married a widowed innkeeper named Frances Candis. He was serving as master’s mate on board the , engaged in an anti-piracy patrol off the west coast of Africa, when he died on 13 December 1721, succumbing to the yellow fever that plagued the voyage. He was buried at sea.

When Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, few readers could have missed the resemblance to Selkirk. An illustration on the first page of the novel shows, in the words of modern explorer Tim Severin, "a rather melancholy-looking man standing on the shore of an island, gazing inland." He is dressed in the familiar hirsute goatskins, his feet and shins bare. Yet Crusoe’s island is located not in the mid-latitudes of the South Pacific but away in the Caribbean, where the furry attire would hardly be comfortable in the tropical heat. This incongruity supports the popular belief that Selkirk was a model for the fictional character.

Castaway

In September 1704, after the Cinque Ports and St George had parted ways, Stradling brought the Cinque Ports to an island known to the Spanish as Más a Tierra in the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernández off the coast of Chile for a mid-expedition restocking of fresh water and supplies.

Selkirk had grave concerns about the seaworthiness of his vessel. He would rather be left on Juan Fernández, he declared, than continue in a dangerously leaky ship. He likely wanted to make the needed repairs before going any further. Instead, Stradling decided to grant his request, and he was landed with his personal effects on the island. Selkirk regretted his rashness, but Stradling refused to take him on board again.

The Cinque Ports did indeed later founder off the coast of what is present-day Colombia. Stradling and some of his crew survived the loss of their ship but were forced to surrender to the Spanish. The survivors were taken to Lima in Peru where they endured a harsh imprisonment.

Life on the island

Selkirk remained at first along the shoreline of Más a Tierra. During this time he ate shellfish, and scanned the ocean daily for rescue, suffering all the while from loneliness, misery and remorse. Hordes of raucous sea lions, gathering on the beach for the mating season, eventually drove him to the island’s interior. Once inland, his way of life took a turn for the better. More foods were now available: feral goats—introduced by earlier sailors—provided him with meat and milk, while wild turnips, cabbage and dried pepper berries offered him variety and spice. Although rats would attack him at night, he was able, by domesticating and living near feral cats, to sleep soundly and in safety.

He proved resourceful in using items brought from the ship as well as materials that he found on the island. He forged a new knife out of barrel hoops left on the beach. He built two huts out of pepper trees, one of which he used for cooking and the other for sleeping. He employed his musket to hunt goats and his knife to clean their carcasses. As his gunpowder dwindled, he had to chase prey on foot. During one such chase he was badly injured when he tumbled from a cliff, lying helpless and unable to move for about a day. His prey had cushioned his fall, likely sparing him a broken back.