Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, 1676 - 1721
"There's no smoke without fire", they say. In the case of Daniel Defoe's well-known tale of Robinson Crusoe, there's a spark of truth behind the story - it is based on the experiences of the Scot, Alexander Selkirk.
Selkirk was born in Largo, in the Scottish county of Fife, to a local cobbler. A fiery-tempered lad, he was nonetheless a keen scholar, with a good knowledge of mathematics and the principles of navigation.
Declining to join his brothers on the local fishing fleet, he enlisted on a ship bound for the South Seas. The vessel was a privateer, jointly captained by William Dampier and Captain Pickering. Its task was to raid Spanish vessels and bring the booty back for England. An excellent navigator, he was appointed sailing master aboard the Cinque Ports, but when Pickering died, his replacement, Thomas Stradling was so unpopular that the crew nearly mutinied, and Selkirk attempted to reason with Dampier to turn back, but Dampier refused and sailed on, driven by his greed for Spanish gold.
Following a series of battles with Spanish warships, Selkirk decided in September 1704 that the Cinque Ports was so unseaworthy that he requested to be put ashore on the island of Mas a Tierra in the Juan Fernandez chain. Dampier agreed, not wanting to spend time either repairing his vessel or arguing with Selkirk. Selkirk collected his his bedding, a rifle and gunpowder, bullets, tobacco, and a few tools and a kettle. In addition, he took along a Bible, his mathematical instruments and some books, thinking that he had but a short time to wait for rescue, the island being a frequent stop for privateer vessels. Dampier set sail, but the Cinque Ports sank later, with the loss of all but Dampier, Stradling and seven crew.
Life on the Island
Thus equipped, Selkirk began what was to become a stay of more than four years on the island, 400 miles west of Chile. He spent a few days exploring the immediate area and discovered goats, rats and cats, which had escaped from visting ships. There was a plentiful supply of fresh water, and he settled down to await salvation. After several days of scanning the horizon, he began to prepare for a longer stay, building a hut from pimento trees roofed with grass. Feeling alone, and despairing sometimes to the point of suicide, he kept a beacon fire burning on a nearby hillside in the hope of attracting a passing ship.
After some months, tormented by the rats attacking him at night, he attracted the local cats into his hut with meat, to keep the rats away. Flushed with this success, he began further preparations for survival, making himself clothes from goatskins, and a new knife from a barrel hoop. The cats were to become familiar friends, and ultimately, his salvation, as they provided some company in those early days. He sang and talked with them to alleviate the loneliness, and even danced with them!
He gradually became accustomed to the solitude and talked less and less, either to himself, or the cats. He became more adept at surviving not just the physical hardships, but the psychological and spiritual, too.
As more time passed, he explored further, and found vegetables which had been planted by the Spanish. This, with goat's meat and milk, completed a healthy diet, and he began not only to accept his solitude, but welcome it. Moving to a cave in the hillside, he nonetheless continued to maintain the beacon, and was rewarded after four years when he saw sails.
Rescue and Return
Rushing down to the beach to meet the incoming longboat, he was delighted to discover that the ship and crew were English, and that the pilot was Dampier. His appearance was initially frightening to the men, thinking him to be a 'wildman', they nearly withdrew, but remained at Dampier's insistence to rescue the marooned man.
Initially more intent on helping them ready the ship than being rescued, Selkirk was persuaded to join the crew. Despite some initial problems of communication (Selkirk had not spoken for some years), he became the ship's navigator, and later, the Captain put Selkirk in charge of another ship after he had been instrumental in winning a sea battle and tremendous bounty.
Returning to Largo, he was delighted to discover that he was a wealthy man - his share of the booty amounted to £800, and as a result, he was able to purchase property and married twice. Although his family and friends were delighted to have him back (they believed him dead), he was not happy. His experiences had changed him, and he had problems settling back into the social life of the town. Often going to Kincraig Point or Keil Den, he attempted to recreate the peace and solitude he had enjoyed. Building a shelter inside a cave overlooking the sea to mull over his lot in life, he eventually decided that he must return to sea.
In 1720, a year after Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, he joined the crew of HMS Weymouth to continue his voyages. Unfortunately, weak with scurvy, he contracted a fever from infected water and died in December 1721 off the coast of Africa, where he was buried at sea.
Defoe took this story, and built upon it to develop Crusoe's character, relying for much of his information on reports gained from others. It is known that Selkirk did not keep a journal, although, when asked, would talk with some enthusiasm about his experiences. The Crusoe Hotel at Largo has a few keepsakes, and local history of the tale.