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Friday, August 17, 2012


There are times in all our lives that we wish we could just get away from everything and everybody; for a little while at least. Or maybe we have wanted to put someone else on that deserted island and out of our hair. Western literature is teeming with tales of castaways. They include “The Swiss Family Robinson”, “In Search of the Castaways”, “The Blue Lagoon”, and the most iconic of all, “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe (pictured here). What do these works have in common? They were all fiction and none of the characters were marooned alone.

But there was once a real person who was cast away, by himself, and his story is true. That person was Alexander Selkirk, and most people believe that he was Defoe’s inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk was born in Largo, Scotland, in 1676. His father was a successful leather tanner but Alexander was unsuited to shoemaking. An adventurer at heart, he ran away to sea at eighteen. Over the next eight years he joined in privateering expeditions in the Pacific preying on Spanish merchant ships, under the command of William Dampier.

In September of 1704, the hotheaded Selkirk bitterly quarreled with the ship’s Captain over his orders and the seaworthiness of the vessel, that Selkirk believed couldn’t round the Horn and return safely to England. Alexander demanded to be put ashore on the nearest island rather than continue to endure any more. The Captain gladly obliged, happy to be rid of this troublemaker. Selkirk went ashore this uninhabited island with a musket, gun powder, a few carpenter tools, a little clothing and bedding, tobacco, a hatchet, and a Bible. As soon as the ship was under sail, Alexander realized what he had done to himself, regretting his hasty and headstrong abandonment of his crewmates. He ran screaming down the beach after the ship, but they refused to return.

He found a cave near the beach to live in for the first few months but was too scared by isolation and loneliness to leave the shore. He considered suicide. Selkirk was fearful of the strange sounds emanating from the interior jungle; imagining wild creatures wandering about. He survived by eating some fish and turtles. One day his beach was invaded by hundreds of sea lions. They were so numerous and massive that Selkirk was afraid to approach to shore. He had no choice but to venture inland.

The valley behind the beach was flourishing with vegetation and feral goats were abundant. As long as his gun powder lasted he would hunt and shoot the goats for food. After that, he learned to run down goats on foot to capture them. The island was overrun by rats who would gnaw at his feet and hands while he slept. As good luck would have it, the island also had a large population of cats, left by earlier expeditions. Selkirk domesticated them, feeding them meat and milk from the goats. At night, his loving cats would gather around him keeping the rats away. Sometimes, as a diversion, he would sing and dance with his goats and cats.

As that first winter drew near, Alexander realized that a shelter would be necessary. He built two huts on high ground well back from the beach. He used pimento tree wood and island grasses for construction. The one knife he brought ashore wore out. He fashioned a replacement by heating and hammering an iron barrel stave he found washed up on the beach. He made clothing out of goat skins, using a nail as a sewing needle.

He read his Bible daily speaking its verses aloud so that he wouldn’t lose his power of speech. His daily routine consisted of daily Bible readings, running down goats, and frequent trips to the lookout point on the island’s highest point. He searched and prayed for a ship, but none came. Except for one Spanish ship, with whom the English were still at war, he never saw another vessel or human being for the next four and a half years.

In February of 1709, an English ship sighted Alexander’s island. His deliverance was close at hand. He saw them too. He rushed down to the beach and built a signal fire. William Dampier, the man who put Alexander ashore years earlier, was the ship’s commander and sent a boat to investigate. Upon meeting his rescuers, Selkirk was so excited that he was unable to speak. He was dressed in goat skins and hadn’t cut his hair in years. They took him as a Wildman. They invited him to sail with them and he, this time, agreed instantly. But the English ship and crew had just begun their journey and wouldn’t return to England for another two years, in late 1711.

Alexander Selkirk did finally return to Scotland; but the sea was in his blood so he returned to the nautical life in 1720. He died one year later, on board ship and off the coast of Africa. Most scholars are convinced that Daniel Defoe used the real life experiences of Alexander Selkirk to develop his character Robinson Crusoe.

“I am monarch of all I survey; My right there is none to dispute;

From the centre all round to the sea; I am lord of the fowl and the brute.”

(from “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk” by William Cowper, 1782)

The tradition of the castaway has remained strong even today. From Gilligan and the passengers on the “Minnow” to the Tom Hanks’ film “Cast Away” to TV’s “Lost,” our fascination with stranded people remains compelling.

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