Alexander Selkirk

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Alexander Selkirk : biography

1676 – 13 December 1721

The lessons he had learned as a child from his father, a tanner, now served him well. When his clothes wore out, he made new ones from hair-covered goatskins using a nail for sewing. As his shoes became unusable, he had no need to replace them, since his toughened, callused feet made protection unnecessary. He sang psalms and read from the Bible, finding it a comfort in his situation and a prop for his English.

During his sojourn on the island, two vessels came to anchor. Unfortunately for him, both were Spanish. As a Scotsman and privateer, he risked a grim fate if captured and, therefore, he tried to hide himself. Once he was spotted and chased by a group of sailors from one of the ships. His pursuers urinated beneath the tree that he was hiding in, but failed to discover him. Frustrated, his would-be captors gave up and sailed away.

Rescue

Selkirk’s long-awaited deliverance came on 2 February 1709 by way of the Duke, a privateering ship piloted by William Dampier, and its sailing companion, the Duchess. The landing party that met him was led by Thomas Dover. After four years and four months without any human company, he was almost incoherent with joy. The Duke captain and leader of the expedition, Woodes Rogers, mischievously referred to him as the governor of the island. The agile castaway, catching two or three goats a day, helped restore the health of Rogers’ men, who were suffering from scurvy.

Those who met him after his rescue were impressed not only by his physical vigour, but also by the tranquillity of mind that he had attained while living on the island. As Rogers observed, "One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was." He made Selkirk the Duke second mate, later giving him command of one of their prize ships, the Increase, before it was ransomed by the Spanish.

Selkirk returned to privateering with a vengeance. At Guayaquil in present-day Ecuador, he led a boat crew up the Guayas River, where a number of wealthy Spanish ladies had fled with their valuables, and relieved them of the gold and jewels they had hidden inside their clothing. His part in the hunt for treasure galleons along the coast of Mexico resulted in the capture of the Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, renamed the Batchelor, on which he served as sailing master under Captain Dover to the East Indies. Selkirk completed the round-the-world voyage by the Cape of Good Hope as the sailing master of the Duke, arriving at the Downs off the English coast on 1 October 1711. He had been away for eight years.

Early life

The son of a shoemaker and tanner in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland, Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676. In his youth he displayed a quarrelsome and unruly disposition. Summoned in August 1693 before the Kirk Session for his "indecent conduct in church," he "did not appear, being gone to sea." He was back at Largo in 1701 when he again came to the attention of church authorities for beating up his brothers.

Early on he was engaged in buccaneering. In 1703 he joined an expedition of the English privateer and explorer William Dampier to the South Seas, setting sail from Kinsale in Ireland on 11 September. They carried letters of marque from the Lord High Admiral authorising their armed merchant ships to attack foreign enemies, as the War of the Spanish Succession was then going on between England and Spain., The National Archives (13 October 1702). While Dampier was captain of the St George, Selkirk served on the Cinque Ports, the St George companion, as sailing master under Thomas Stradling. By this time Selkirk must have had considerable experience at sea.

In February 1704, following a stormy passage round Cape Horn, the privateersmen fought a lengthy battle with a well-armed French vessel, the St Joseph, only to have it escape to warn the Spanish of their arrival in the South Seas. A raid on the Panamanian gold mining town of Santa María also failed when their landing party was ambushed. The easy capture of the Asunción, a heavily-laden merchantman, revived the men’s hopes of plunder, and Selkirk was put in charge of the prize. After taking off some much needed provisions of wine, brandy, sugar and flour, however, Dampier abruptly set the ship free, believing the gain was not worth the effort. In May 1704 Stradling decided to abandon Dampier and strike out on his own.

In film

A stop motion film by Tournier Animation based on Selkirk’s life, Selkirk, el verdadero Robinson Crusoe (Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe), premièred simultaneously in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay on 2 February 2012., Cine Nacional (2011). Distributed by The Walt Disney Company, it was the first full-length animated feature to be produced in Uruguay., El País (8 April 2012).