Most of the people grow up reading the classic work of Daniel Defoe by the name “Robinson Crusoe”. In this novel Robinson Crusoe is stranded on a small Caribbean Island for nearly 28 years. Defoe was rumored to have based this fictional work on various castaway stories. But research proves that Robinson Crusoe drew heavily from the real life events of Alexander Selkirk, who was contemporary seafarer of the author.
Alexander Selkirk was the son of a shoemaker and born in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland in 1676. Sometime in the years between 1693 and 95 he was summoned by the local church on charges of ‘indecent conduct in church’. But he could not appear as he had already left for the sea. It is learned that this was the start of his seafaring days. In 1703, Selkirk joined an adventurous expedition led by English privateer William Dampler which was set for the South Sea. This was the time of war for Spanish Succession between the French and British. It was the ideal time for privateers to make a fortune by serving their country and raiding their enemy vessels. With this intention in mind two ships named St. George and Cinque Ports set sail from Kinsale in Ireland. Selkirk boarded Cinque Ports and served as a sailing master.
Charles Pickering was the original Captain of Cinque Ports, but he died in November that year. He was replaced by a young upper class seaman named Thomas Stradling. Stradling was not liked by his crew. In September, Cinque Ports set anchor on a secluded and uninhabited island near the modern day coast of Chile. The crew remained on the island for one month when they rested and restocked their supplies. When the Captain decided to prepare for the later voyage, there was a big confrontation between Selkirk and Stradling. Selkirk claimed that the ship was not seaworthy. After a heated discussion Selkirk stated his wish of remaining on the island rather than boarding the faulty ship. Stradling was more than happy to affirm to this proposal, as he and Selkirk were never in good terms. So, the crew boarded the ship and set sail. Selkirk was left behind on the forlorn island known as Mas a Tierra (meaning ‘Closer to Home’ or modern day Robinson Crusoe Island). Mas a Tierra was the second largest of Juan Fernandez Islands. Before leaving, the crew left a few items for Selkirk’s daily use such as clothing, navigation devices, a knife, an axe, a cooking pot, a musket and the Holy Bible.
For the next four years Selkirk led a forlorn life on the island, surviving on the resources that nature gifted him with. For food he had cabbages, wild turnips, pepper goats and feral goats. The goats had been left behind by earlier sailors to the island. For shelter Selkirk made two huts with the wood from the forest. He used goatskin for floor coverings and later on his own clothing. His time pass was reading the Bible. But one thing he could be proud of was his knowledge of Cinque Ports. Soon after setting sail Cinque Ports sank near the coast of Colombia. Though Stradling and seven other crew members survived but they were arrested by the Spanish and imprisoned in Lima, Peru.
Though Selkirk was sustaining, but he would definitely crave for human companionship. His first rescue opportunity arrived when two ships anchored at the island’s bay. Selkirk was overjoyed to see the ships. But as they drew closer his joy was converted to fear. These were Spanish ships. Selkirk was an English privateer, if the Spanish caught him he would be hanged then and there. So, Selkirk managed to hide in the interiors of the island while the Spanish camped on the island. He evaded the Spanish and continued to live on.
Second opportunity for Selkirk’s rescue arrived on February 1, 1709. He witnessed two approaching ships in the horizon, but he was more cautious this time. The ships dropped anchor on the island. Luckily this time around the ships belonged to the English privateer Woodes Rogers. The pilot of one of these ships was William Dampler who vouched for the identity of Selkirk. Thus, he was rescued. Selkirk eventually returned back to England after completing his privateering duties in 1711. Just a year later, Woodes Rogers published a book on his privateering life and in that book he mentioned about Selkirk’s life as a castaway. Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 and the main protagonist bore significant resemblance to Selkirk.
Though Selkirk was never a celebrated figure in his hometown of Lower Largo, might be due to his exploits in earlier life. Not many recognize his statue erected at the site of his house. But in all probability Defoe used the incidents in the life of Alexander Selkirk as the crux of his story and of course sprinkled some imagination into it.