The Rescue of the "Real" Robinson Crusoe - Alexander Selkirk on Juan Fernández Island

2 February 1709, the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk was rescued by Captain Woodes Rogers’ in “Duke” from Juan Fernández Island, 420 miles off the Chilean coast, probably being the inspiration for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, published ten years later.

“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.“ (William Cowper "The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk")

An illustration of Robinson Crusoe by the American artist N.C. Wyeth

Some ha'e a hantla fauts, as the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay noted in his “Collection of Scots proverbs”, and ye are only a ne'er-do-well and young Alexander Selkirk obviously was. The first record of his life is from a record stating that he failed to appear before his elders for his "indecent conduct in church" because he ran away to the sea. When the War of the Spanish Succession broke out, he sailed with Dampier on his privateering expedition to the South Sea after showing his dear family what’s what and beating up his brothers, leaving Kinsale in Ireland in September 1703. Selkirk finally was a member of the crew of Stradling’s “Cinque Ports” after a few more or less successful raids against French and Spanish shipping in the Pacific and when they sighted land off Chile, the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernández, he stated that he was to be set on land because the ship was a barely floating death trap. As soon as he realised that nobody would join him when he sat with his personal belongings on the beach,  Selkirk said to Stradling he’d changed his mind. The skipper answered: “Fine and dandy but I didn’t” and Selkirk became a castaway on Juan Fernández. The “Cinque Ports” sank a couple of weeks later.

Selkirk catching a goat, illustration from the 19th century edition of
"The Life and adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe: a narrative founded on facts"

The ne'er-do-well obviously fared quite well on the island. He preyed on the local wildlife, harvested titbits from the insular botany, trained feral cats to keep the rats that plagued him from his hut, made an escape from a Spanish landing party into the interior and, since his father was a tanner, tailored his famous goatskin wardrobe until Dampier, now navigator on board of Woodes Rogers’ privateer “Duke”, accompanied by “Duchess”, found him five years later. The crews of the two ships were quite plagued by scurvy but could be nursed back to health with Selkirk’s help and they left the place to continue privateering in the Pacific, the former castaway became second mate of the “Duke” and personally led a boat raid at the coast of Ecuador, robbing Spanish ladies of their jewellery. Selkirk returned to Dover in 1711 in “Duke”, having completed his round-the-world-voyage after eight years. He probably spent two years in the clink for assaulting a shipwright afterwards, married a widow, ran away with a 16-years-old dairy maid and finally died as master’s mate aboard the good ship “Weymouth”, succumbing to yellow fever off West Africa and was buried at sea in 1721.

"The rescued Selkirk (seated, right) being taken aboard the Duke”, from Robert C. Leslie: “Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors” (1859)

Defoe always claimed he’d known the first-person narrator of his famous novel personally and that was not Alexander Selkirk. However, his contemporaries noticed the similarities of the Scottish castaway’s adventures on Juan Fernández, published in Woodes Rogers’ “A Cruising Voyage Round the World”, dated 1712, and ”The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates.“ published in 1719 and Defoe was met with a bit of doubt by his audience but “Robinson Crusoe” became a classic nonetheless – and even if other likely candidates come into question for being the real-life-Robinson, such as the surgeon Henry Pitman, becoming a castaway after fleeing from a Caribbean penal colony, whom Defoe might indeed have met personally, but Selkirk in his goatskin suit still remains a very likely candidate for Defoe’s original inspiration.

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