Castaway Alexander Selkirk: The Original Robinson Crusoe

Selkirk reading his Bible in one of two huts he built on a mountainside

Castaway Alexander Selkirk was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” spending four years on the deserted Juan Fern├índez Island.

Alexander Selkirk was born, as all of us are at some point, in 1676 in Fife, Scotland. Fife was at the time a small fishing village, and the harbor was typically packed with herring boats. His father was a shoemaker and tanner. Known in his youth as a bad-tempered bad apple who lived on the wild side, Selkirk eventually ran afoul of the church elders and their wagging fingers. On one occasion, Selkirk beat up his father and both brothers after they played a harmless prank on him. Apparently Selkirk could not take a joke. He had also had two wives, both of whom he ended up deserting.

So, it’s the late 17th century, life is dull, most people hate you and the church elders are on your case. Also, there’s this strong smell of herring pervading your village and you feel that there is a very real possibility that you might end up smelling like herring for the rest of your life. What do you do? You go to sea.

A South Sea Island All to Himself

The year 1703 found Selkirk on board the good privateering ship Cinque Ports as a sailing master attacking Spanish ships and coastal towns up and down the coast of South America. The ship was commanded by the famous English privateering captain and explorer William Dampier (1652-1715). By 1704, the Cinque Ports had reached Juan Fernández Islands, an island group about 667 km from the coast of Chile in the South Pacific.

Selkirk, who knew an unseaworthy ship when he saw one, made his complaints known– in his usual quarrelsome manner– and refused to sail further, preferring to stay on the uninhabited islands– specifically, the largest one.

“Fine, then,” said the captain. “Whatever you say, Selkirk. You just stay here then.”

No sooner had the vessel begun to sail away, when Selkirk regretted his decision and waded and flopped out into the ocean, begging to be taken aboard.

The ship sailed on.

Living on an Uninhabited Island Is an Acquired Taste

At first Selkirk suffered terribly from loneliness and want, but things took a more rosy turn when he moved further inland and discovered, for example, wild goats as well as cabbage, turnips and other crops growing wild. At night, rats, formerlly the residents of ships, would gnaw on him until he kept close to the cats, which had also arrived there by ship.

Selkirk’s worldly possessions on the island included carpenter’s tools, a musket and gunpowder, a Bible and a knife.

He built two Robinson Crusoe-type houses, read frequently from the Bible and made clothes from goat skin after his own clothes wore out. On one occasion he fell from a cliff while chasing his prey. He awoke after 24 hours of unconsciousness and was lucky to have survived.

Two Spanish ships arrived during the time he spent on the island; in both cases Selkirk made himself scarce. As a former privateer on board an English ship, he could expect an unpleasant fate if he made his presense known.

Ah, Home at Last

Finally, in February, 1709, his big day came. A non-Spanish ship, that is, an English privateer ship, the Duke, landed. It was again commanded by William Dampier, it being a small New World. After some shouting, laughing and heel-kicking, Selkirk was on his way home.

Once home, Selkirk got up to his usual high jinx, running off to London with a 16-year-old milkmaid, for example. Predictably, she was abandoned by Selkirk after a few months. Not long after that he married a widowed innkeeper in Plymouth before going off to sea again.

Death, as happens to all of us, came to Selkirk in the year 1721 while at sea.