Alexander Selkirk is usually credited as being the original of the character of Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719. Although Defoe’s book was fictional, and owed much to the author’s vivid imagination, it did contain elements of fact which relate to the life of Alexander Selkirk, as relayed by word of mouth and written accounts at the time of his rescue from having been marooned on a remote island for more than four years.
Alexander Selkirk’s early career
Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676 in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland. He was the seventh son of a shoemaker. He made it clear at an early age that he wanted to go to sea, which he did in August 1695.
In May 1703 he was appointed master of the privateer “Cinque Ports”, which was under the command of Captain Charles Pickering. Together with the “St George”, commanded by William Dampier, the renowned explorer, the ship set sail for the South Pacific Ocean on 11th September. Britain was at war with France and Spain (the War of the Spanish Succession), and privateers were being encouraged to capture and raid ships belonging to those two countries.
When Captain Pickering died after reaching Brazil, Thomas Stradling was appointed to succeed him. Selkirk seems to have found the new commander difficult to deal with and may have been among those officers and crew who mutinied after the ships reached the Juan Fernandez islands, some 400 miles west of Chile.
However, the crew seems to have been pacified following a successful engagement with a French ship, after which both British ships continued to explore northwards in the hope of finding more rich pickings, although these proved hard to come by.
By the end of May 1704 the two commanders found that they could no longer work together so the two ships parted company, with Selkirk staying on Stradling’s ship.
How he became “Robinson Crusoe”
The “Cinque Ports” sailed up and down the coast of Central and South America until August, with relations between Selkirk and Stradling becoming increasingly fraught. When they returned to Juan Fernandez in September for repairs, Selkirk declared that the ship was not in a seaworthy enough condition to continue its voyage and that he would rather stay ashore than sail in her. He therefore gathered together some essentials and disembarked. The list of items he took with him was later given as:
‘his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books’.
It would appear that, once he had realised what he had done, he changed his mind almost immediately but Stradling refused to let him back on the ship. However, Selkirk’s move turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the “Cinque Ports” sank a month later. He had been correct in his assessment of the dangerous condition of the ship.
Selkirk now had to survive as best he could on his own. The island in question (renamed “Robinson Crusoe Island” in 1966; another island in the group being named “Alejandro Selkirk Island”) was large enough (nearly 40 square miles) to support him in terms of food, especially as it had a population of wild goats which he could hunt, firstly using his musket and later catching them on foot. When he had been on the island for some time he tamed some of the goats and “farmed” them for milk and meat. His fear was that he would never leave the island and that he would eventually be too old to catch anything wild.
He also bred cats from the feral specimens that had escaped from ships that had called in the past. These not only provided company but helped to keep him safe from the rats that had also populated the island thanks to the occasional visits of sailors.
Having nobody to talk to was one of his worst privations, and he preserved the power of speech by reading his Bible aloud to himself and singing psalms to tunes that he remembered from his boyhood days in the church at Largo.
On one occasion he was lucky to survive a fall over a precipice when chasing a goat. When he came round he found that the goat was lying dead underneath him, having cushioned his fall and probably saved his life.
His hopes of being rescued lay with the possibility of a ship visiting the island, much as the “Cinque Ports” had done. When two Spanish ships did so, he was spotted by the sailors who sent a boat ashore and fired a gun in his direction. His knowledge of the island, and his physical agility, enabled him to escape and hide until they gave up the chase.
Rescue and further voyages
Selkirk was eventually rescued when two privateers from Bristol, the “Duke” and the “Duchess” called at the island in February 1709 in search of water. Selkirk had a fire burning, and this was seen by an observer on the “Duke”, whose commander, Captain Woodes Rogers, sent a boat ashore to investigate. When Selkirk was brought aboard the ship, dressed in goatskins and barely able to speak coherently, he was recognised by the man who was acting as pilot on board the ship, none other than William Dampier.
Dampier remembered Selkirk as having been an excellent ship’s master and recommended that Captain Rogers should make use of his services. Selkirk was thus not only rescued but he also found himself with a job, namely as mate of the “Duke”.
The two ships made a capture on 26th February which was renamed the “Increase”, with Selkirk being appointed by Rogers to be its master. In December an even richer prize was seized, this being the “Nuestra Señora”, a Spanish galleon which was renamed the “Bachelor”. Again, Selkirk was given the job of being its new master, with Captain Thomas Dover in command.
On 10th January 1710 the fleet of four ships then set sail to cross the Pacific, a voyage of 6000 miles. They arrived in Batavia (modern Jakarta) in June, where the booty was shared out and Selkirk received 80 pieces of eight.
After the ships were refitted they sailed on to Cape of Good Hope where they stayed put for three months before heading home as part of a larger fleet, eventually reaching the Shetlands in July 1711 and London in October. When Alexander Selkirk eventually stepped ashore he had been away from Britain for more than eight years, with four years and four months of that time spent in total isolation.
He found it very difficult to adjust to a normal life. After telling his story to anyone who was willing to listen, and there were many such, he eventually returned to Largo, where he found it necessary to build a cave in his father’s garden where he could be alone and meditate.
However, he also became infatuated with a local woman, Sophia Bruce, with whom he eloped back to London, living with her for some time (possibly as husband and wife) and making a will in her favour in January 1718.
The call of the sea eventually became too strong for him and he embarked on HMS Weymouth on 20th October 1720, as master’s mate. A factor in his decision may well have been the appearance in 1719 of Defoe’s novel, and the extra attention that would have come his way. For a man who had become used to solitude it must have seemed that this was going to be denied him for ever and it was time to escape to the world he knew best, namely that of ships and the sea.
HMS Weymouth was based at Plymouth, where Selkirk appears to have forgotten all about Sophia Bruce in that he married Frances Candis, a widow, on 12th December 1720, when he also drew up a new will that left everything to his new, maybe bigamous, bride.
From March to December 1721 Selkirk served aboard HMS Weymouth in operations against pirates off the coast of Africa. He died of disease aboard ship on 13th December, leaving the two women in his life to fight over his will, a fight which Frances Candis won.
Apart from those four years and four months spent on Juan Fernandez, Alexander Selkirk’s life was not all that remarkable, in that many sailors of that time could have told a very similar story of sailing around the world and serving on privateers and naval ships. However, it is as the original of Robinson Crusoe that he has gained immortality.
The most accurate account of his “Crusoe years” is in Woodes Rogers’s “A Cruising Voyage Around the World”, which was published in 1712 with a second edition in 1718, but the best-known is clearly Defoe’s novel, despite its fictions. Defoe almost certainly met Selkirk in London, and there were stories that he tricked Selkirk into allowing him to use Selkirk’s own journal, but there is no evidence that this is true.
There is an unproven report, that may well be true, that Selkirk once complained that, although he was now a wealthy man, he was much happier when he did not have a farthing to his name. Even if this was an invention it would not have been out of character for a man whose best years, in retrospect, were spent entirely on his own on an island in the Pacific Ocean.
© John Welford