Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book, Robinson Crusoe, is often labelled the first English novel. The adventurous tale of a sailor stranded on a desert island is commonly thought to be inspired by the real-life events of a Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk. For over four years, Selkirk was marooned off the coast of Chile on Más a Tierra (now known as Robinson Crusoe or Alexander Selkirk Island). This is the tale of how the son of a simple shoemaker became a famous castaway in a historical survival story that inspired one of the most translated books of all time.
‘[Selkirk] sat with his eyes fixed on the direction where he had seen his shipmates depart, fondly hoping that they would return and free him from his misery. Thus he remained seated upon his chest… still anxiously hoping the return of his vessel.’John Howell, Adventures of Alexander Selkirk
Born in 1676, Selkirk grew up in Lower Largo, Fife, in Scotland. Selkirk was often in trouble for his unruly behaviour and was much more interested in being out at sea than staying in his small hometown. In 1703, during the War of the Spanish Succession, Selkirk joined an expedition to the South Pacific to attack the Spanish. He served as sailing master on Captain Thomas Stradling’s ship, Cinque Ports, which was the companion of St George, captained by William Dampier. He was quickly able to become an experienced ship crew member.
Early 1704 saw a long battle with the French ship, St Joseph, which managed to escape and flee to warn its Spanish allies of England’s arrival in the Pacific. Dampier succeeded in capturing a merchant ship, of which Selkirk was put in charge. After taking alcohol, flour, and sugar supplies, Dampier released the vessel to avoid hindering his expedition. Following this, Stradling believed he would succeed better alone, and in May 1704, he left Captain Dampier. He took Cinque Ports, along with Selkirk, to the uninhabited island of Más a Tierra to restock supplies.
Whilst on the island, Selkirk voiced his concerns about the worm infestation in the ship’s wood and told Stradling that he believed Cinque Ports would sink before they could return home. A conflict broke out between the two, and Selkirk refused to board the vessel, stating that he would rather stay on the island than set sail without making the necessary repairs. Stradling agreed to this and forced Selkirk to remain on the island alone, with his only supplies being a musket, gunpowder, a hatchet, a knife, a cooking pot, clothes, bedding and the Bible.
Selkirk’s suspicions of Cinque Ports proved correct, and the ship sank off the coast of Colombia. Of the 63 crew members, only 18 survived. The few survivors were captured by the Spanish and tortured.
I am monarch of all I survey,William Cowper, The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk
My right there is none to dispute,
From the center all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
O Solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms
Than reign in this horrible place.
And so, Selkirk was left alone on the deserted island and immediately had to fight for his survival. He remained on the island’s shoreline living on lobster until a herd of sea lions took residence on the beach for mating season, forcing Selkirk inland. This move helped the sailor discover the island’s wealth of natural resources. From wild turnips and pink peppercorns to feral goats, Selkirk was able to live off the land and began to soothe his loneliness and melancholy. He succeeded in domesticating the island’s wild cats, who would then fight off any rats that tried to attack him whilst he slept. He hunted the goats, using them for food and milk, and the skills his shoemaker father taught him enabled Selkirk to fashion clothes from the animals’ skins. As his life progressed on the island, Selkirk built two huts from the pepper trees and used one for cooking and eating and the other for sleeping and reading his Bible. Every day he would read verses and psalms to maintain his language skills.
Two ships came to the island whilst Selkirk was stranded, but unfortunately, both were Spanish vessels, and he would have been killed or captured and tortured had the crew members spotted him. One group of sailors did spot Selkirk and proceeded to shoot at and chase after him, but he was able to wait them out by climbing a tree and concealing himself there.
In February 1709, five years after his arrival, an English ship, Duke, finally came to Selkirk’s island. After half a decade living in the wilderness, Selkirk’s feet were hard and calloused, having adapted to his feral environment. He helped the ship’s crew hunt goats and provided them with a good meal, aiding many of the men suffering from scurvy. The ship captain, Woodes Rogers, was impressed with Selkirk’s survival skills and welcomed him on board, making him Duke’s second mate. Selkirk assisted Rogers with his expedition and didn’t return to England’s coast until 1711.
Slowly the vessels rose into view… they gradually approached the island, and at length he ascertained them to be English. Great was the tumult of passion that rose in his mind; but the love of home overpowered them all.John Howell, Adventures of Alexander Selkirk
After his rescue, he spent the remainder of his life a well-known sailor, as his story had spread fast throughout the country. He returned to Scotland briefly, where he had an affair with a young dairymaid, Sophia Bruce. Unable to ignore the sea’s call, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and in 1720, whilst visiting Plymouth, he met and married Francis Candis, a widowed innkeeper. In 1721, Selkirk served on board the HMS Weymouth as master’s mate when he contracted yellow fever. On 13th December, he eventually succumbed to the disease and was buried at sea.
The miraculous survival of Alexander Selkirk lives on through many literary works, including those by the likes of William Cowper and Charles Dickens, but most prominently in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). The similarities between the fictional castaway and Alexander Selkirk are hard to miss. However, Crusoe’s solitary time on a deserted island was far more extensive than Selkirk’s, adding up to 28 years. The legacy of Alexander Selkirk remains alive through the exciting adventures and dangerous escapades packed into Defoe’s most famous novel, alongside the many commemorations to the brave survivor that are dotted across the globe.
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After being marooned for nearly half a decade, the miraculous survival story of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk has gone on to inspire many stories. This pocketbook houses the unbelievable biographical account of Selkirk’s harrowing experiences as a castaway on an unforgiving island.
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