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He lived and wrote always striving to tell it as he saw it.

The tale Robinson Crusoe, sometimes regarded as the first novel in English, is perhaps one of the best if not the best known novel in English literature. It had its genesis in the maritime maurading in a cut-throat age of three men who divided their time at sea between pirating and privateering - legalized pirating.

The first of this gang of three was a master mariner named William Dampier, a buccaneer, navigator, explorer and author who distinguished himself in various naval enterprises including twice circumnavigating the globe and then performing an encore. Dampier, who was born in East Coker in Somerset in 1651, went to sea at the age of 16 and but for brief periods spent his life on the bounding main. His observations and analyses of natural history helped Charles Darwin's and Alexander von Humboldt's development of their theories His innovations in navigational technology were studied by James Cook and Horatio Nelson. Dampier's reports on breadfruit led to William Bligh's ill-fated voyage in HMS Bounty

William Dampier (1651-1715)

When the War of the Spanish Succession broke out in 1701, England faced the forces of Spain France and Portugal as she sought to protect her interests around the world. She bolstered her fleet with privateers, the latter permissable pirates enlisted to prey for a price upon enemy ships. One of the privateers was William Dampier who was made captain of a 26-gun vessel named St. George with a crew of 120.

Cinque Ports
Sketch by Edward Wilson

St. George was joined by the 16-gun, 90-ton galleon Cinque Ports with a crew of 63 and captained by Thomas Stradling. They set sail on April 30, 1703 and durng the course of cruising about the high seas they captured three small Spanish ships and one of 550 tons. However, the fame of their foray had nothing to do with fighting or finding gold and silver. It's great significance stems from the fact that a man named Alexander Selkirk was the Sailing Master of the Cinque Ports.


Beckoned by the euphoria of finding and fleecing loot-ladened Portuguese and Spanish ships, they proceeded down the coast of South America and tempted fate by challenging the elemental forces that savaged Cape Horn. The sea off this southern-most point of Chile is filled with treacherous currents and wildly unpredicatable weather that forced a good many vessels to founder and find the deep.

Cape Horn
Photo by
G. Wilson

Calm at Cape Horn
Photo by
G. Wilson

The ships were battered by the fierce winds and raging seas as their determined captains tried again and again to make it "round the horn." After three unsuccessful attempts, Selkirk, fearing the sick and exhausted men on Cinque Ports were on the verge of mutiny, urged his captain to turn about. The stubborn Stradling refused and turned once more into the wind and the waves. This time lady luck looked kindly upon both vessels and they limped into the Pacific Ocean.

'Honest' Alexander Selkirk, as one chronicler called him, had had regular run-ins with Stradling and these finally came to a head in October 1704. The two ships became separated and Cinque Ports approached an island in the archipelago of Jaun Fernandez, 414 miles off the coast of South America to take on water and fruit. The archipelago is made up of three islands which subsequently were named: Robinson Crusoe, Alejandro Selkirk and the small Santa Clara. This remote, uninhabited archipelago was sighted by a Portuguese sailor Juan Fernandez on a voyage from Lima. He decided to settle on the first of these islands and on a second voyage put ashore four goats which flourished. Fernandez never did follow through on his plan and the island was still deserted when Cinque Ports anchored there in 1704.

Because of its earlier encounters with Spanish vessels, Cinque Port's was well riddled with shot and shell. Now battered as well by the sea, Selkirk believed the ship was seriously unseaworthy and feared it would sink with all aboard. He recommended they remain on the island and make the much-needed repairs. Stradling had no intention of losing time and prepared to press on. When Selkirk persisted with his warnings, Stradling offered him the option of taking his own advice and ordered him off the ship. Selkirk's fears were well founded regarding the unfitness of Cinque Ports for it subsequently sank off the coast of Peru with all of its crew except Dampier and seven others who avoided a watery grave by surrendering to the Spanish and suffering for a period a barbarous imprisonment.

Provisioned with a musket, gunpowder, carpenter's tools, a knife, a Bible, some clothing and tobacco Selkirk was deposited on the deserted island. Later Selkirk said he initially thought his prospective change of life would be "more eligible than being exposed to further dangers" and continuing to serve with a captain who had "used him so ill." He admitted, however, that as the Cinque Ports sailed away, "his heart yearned within him and melted at parting with his comrades and all human society at once." He dearly regretted his decision as soon as the ship sailed away from the island known today as Robinson Crusoe Island. Ironically, Selkirk never visited the other main island in the group which bears his name, so designated by the Chilean Government hoping, perhaps, to tempt tourists to land at Alejandro Selkirk Island.

Robinson Crusoe Island
Photo By
G. Wilson

Painting by
P.R. Craft

Selkirk explored about the beach and discovered his sole companions were goats, cats and rats, Fresh water was available and the warm winds and sunshine created a climate that was pleasantly temperate. Despite the fact that it had all the makings of a paradise, Selkirk feared his fate was sealed unless he was saved by a passing ship. For some days he frantically scanned the horizon for any sign of a sail and during the first eight months, he recorded that he had "much ado to bear up against melancholy."

Selkirk was to spend the next four years and 4 months on that isolated isle. He built two huts with trees covered with long grass and lined with skins of goats. At first he ate only when hungry and did not retire until he was exhausted looking about his little world. He food was confined largely to goats and fish with the flesh of the former comprising his main diet since goats were readily available in large numbers and while living on the island he slaughtered some five hundred of them. Rats also abounded and he solved the nuisance of them nibbling at him as he slept by enticing feral cats with food to frequent the area in which he lived. They quickly became pets for him and pestilential for the rats.

One More Goat To Go
Sketch by
Edward Wilson

When he had fired off the last of his ammunition, Selkirk was forced to run down his food and his feet eventually became so toughened racing through the woods that when rescued he refused to wear boots. He made his clothing from goat skins which he stitched with a nail. Without anyone with whom to converse, he discovered when he once again joined the land of the living, that he had "so much forgot his language" others could scarcely understand his jibberish.

During his sojourn on the island his regular routine was disturbed on several occasions when vessels anchored off shore and men came to the island for food and water. His initial joy at the sight of the ships was quickly quashed when he discovered they were Spanish vessels. Despite his hunger for human companionship, Selkirk laid low and warily watched the visitors for he believed that as a Scotsman and a privateer he faced a fate worse than death if they discovered him.

Scanning the horizon for help.
Photo by
G. Wilson

On the highest point on the island which he called his 'Lookout', Selkirk regularly scanned the horizon for some sign of a British ship. Today near this spot an attractive tablet commemorates the man with the following inscription.

In memory of Alexander Selkirk, mariner, a native of Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, who lived on this island in complete solitude for four years and four months. He was landed from the Cinque Ports galleon, 96 tons, 18 guns, A.D. 1704 and was taken off in the Duke, privateer, 12th February 1709. He died Lieutenant of H.M.S. Weymouth, A.D. 1721 aged 47. This tablet is erected near Selkirk's lookout by Commodore Powell and the officers of H.M.S. Topaze, A.D. 1868.

William Dampier was indirectly responsible for Selkirk's exile and ironically he was responsible also for his rescue. In 1708 Dampier convinced some Bristol merchants to fit out two vessels so he could once again cruise for gold and silver in the South Seas. One of the privateering ships, Duke was captained by a master mariner named Woodes Rogers. Selkirk's long sojourn finally came to an end on 2 February 1709 when Rogers landed at Juan Fernandez and encountered Selkirk whom Rogers named the 'Governor'.

The 'Governor' & Friend
Sketch by Edward Wilson

During his time on the island, Selkirk had lost none of his nautical knowledge and Rogers made him captain of one of the ships they captured. Selkirk resumed his career as a successful privateer and received for his share of the spoils the very significant sum of 800 pounds. When Selkirk returned to Scotland he astonished his family who had long since given up any hope of ever seeing him again, let alone seeing him stamding before them clad in costly clothes of gold and lace.

Fortunately Woodes Rogers kept a detailed journal of Selkirk's recollections about his experiences and he titled this account of Selkirk's sojourn "A cruising voyage round the world: first to the South-Sea thence to the East-Indies and homewards by the Cape of Good Hope." It was published in 1712.

The journalist Richard Steele interviewed Selkirk about his solitary stay and from it wrote a famous article called The Englishman. Steele said he found Selkirk to be quite communicative because he was "familiar to men of curiosity." While he thought Selkirk's aspects and gestures seemed as though he had been "much separated from company," there was "a strong, cheerful seriousness in his look and a certain disregard to the ordinary things about him as if he had been sunk in thought." Steele said Selkirk felt his return to company was a mixed delight and quoted him as saying even though he was now worth 800 pounds, he was never so happy as when he was not worth a farthing. Others seeking information from Selkirk about his isolation found him less willing to talk about his time on the island. One said he found Selkirk "an unsociable, odd kind of man"

In March, 1717 Selkirk went to sea once more and served as a lieutenant on HMS Weymouth. This is the last we learn of Alexander Selkirk, for according to the ship's log he died at 8 p.m. on December 13, 1721. He probably succumbed to the yellow fever which devastated the crew. He was buried at sea off the west coast of Africa.

When Alexander Selkirk was born in Lower Largo, Scotland in 1676 it was a fishing village in Fife with fewer than a thousand souls located across the Firth of Forth (an estuary of the North Sea) from bustling Edinburgh. Today it is a quiet weekend resort for harried urbanites with centuries-old sandstone row houses with orange-pantiled roofs and crow-stepped gables. Largo's tribute to its famous son consists of one bedroom-size exhibit room at the Crusoe Hotel where there are some artifacts from his long ago life on the isolated island. These include his gun, his drinking cup made out of the shell of a cocoanut and his chest made of cedarwoodwith his initial's on the top.

On Main Street there is a statue of Selkirk dressed in goat skins looking out to sea. Unveiled in 1885 by the Countess of Aberdeen, it is the town's most significant feature and is sought out by all visitors to Largo. Locals always give directions in reference to the location of "the statue."

Selkirk Statue in Largo

The world owes Selkirk's sojourn on that isolated isle to the existence of one of the best if not the best known, best loved novels ever written. Selkirk's real-life experiences and the various accounts of them became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's novel, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, now known simply as Robinson Crusoe.

Illustration of Robinson Crusoe

The son of a tallow merchant, James Foe changed his name to Daniel Defoe about 1695 to suggest a higher social status. His writings reflect his Puritan background. He was educated at Morton's academy for Dissenters at Newington Green, but he was largely a graduate of the school of hard knocks. He was in and out of prison and his various business enterprises failed dramatically including the unfortunately-timed scheme of maritime insurance in wartime and a disastrous project to breed civet cats. He served as a secret agent for eleven years for the Tory government of Robert Harley. Defoe produced some 560 journals, tracts and books many of which he published anonymously.

Defoe's reputation rests with his novels, the first of which, Robinson Crusoe, he wrote when he was fifty-nine years of age. Crusoe like Selkirk ran away to sea and after a number of adventures was wrecked on an uninhabited island where he remained for twenty years building a life for himself. He was endangered by cannibals who periodically visited the island. He rescued a native from certain death at the hands of the cannibals and he became his Man Friday. The island was eventually visited by mutinous sailors whom Crusoe managed to subdue and to rescue the officers who took him back to England.

The novel was powerful work of vivid imagination whose tale was so truth-like it was thought by many to have actually happened. The book, which became an immediate success, was translated into many languages and resulted in numerous imitations. It is not known whether Defoe ever met Selkirk but when the novel was published, Selkirk's story had been common knowledge for seven years. As previously mentioned Rogers recounted it in his book, Cruising Voyage to the South Sea and even Captain Cook made reference to it in his Voyage to the South Sea. Steele's Englishman contains a full account of Selkirk's adventures.

At that time the public was fascinated with stories about pirates and Defoe realized that Selkirk's experiences satisfied the demand for such tales. He certainly read the public right because there was widespread interest in the book when it was published on April 25, 1719. A second edition followed 17 days after the first, a third 25 days later and a fourth was released on the 8th of August.

The book is still widely read today, for as Samuel Johnson, the great English man of letters later wrote, "Nobody ever laid it down without wishing for more."

Samuel Johnson

Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe Island Today
Photo by
G. Wilson

Robinson Crusoe Island Today
Photo by
G. Wilson

Robinson Crusoe Island Today
Photo by
B. Wilson

Robinson Crusoe Island Today
Photo by
B. Wilson

Robinson Crusoe Statue on Robinson Crusoe Island
Photo by G. Wilson


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