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Alexander Selkirk
1676 - 1721


Alexander Selkirk, born Alexander Selcraig, was a Scottish sailor who spent four years as a castaway on an uninhabited island. It is probable that his travails provided the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe.
 

 

Early life

The son of a shoemaker and tanner in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland, Selkirk was born in 1676. In his youth he displayed a quarrelsome and unruly disposition, and having been summoned on 27 August 1695 before the kirk-session for his "undecent carriage" (indecent behaviour) in church, "did not appear, having gone away to ŝe sea: this business is continued till his return" (quotation in original spelling).

At an early period he was engaged in buccaneer expeditions to the South Seas, and in 1703 joined in with the expedition of famed privateer and explorer William Dampier. While Dampier was captain of the St. George, Selkirk served on the galleon Cinque Ports, the St. George's companion, as sailing master serving under Thomas Stradling. The following year in October, after the ships had separated because of a fight between Stradling and Dampier, the Cinque Ports was stopped over at the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernández for a mid-expedition restock of supplies and fresh water. At this point, Selkirk had grave concerns about the seaworthiness of his vessel (the Cinque Ports later sank, losing most hands) and tried to convince some of his crewmates to desert with him and remain on the island, banking on an impending visit by another ship. No one agreed, and Stradling, tired of Selkirk's troublemaking, decided that he could have his wish and stay on the island—alone. Selkirk almost immediately began to regret his position. He chased and called after his boat to no avail; Selkirk spent a solitary residence of four years and four months on Juan Fernández. He took with him a musket, gunpowder, carpenter's tools, a knife, a Bible and his clothing.


Castaway

Selkirk initially stayed on the beach, because he was afraid of sea creatures and was very paranoid about most aspects in his life. He feared strange inland sounds, which he assumed to be dangerous beasts. During this period, he camped in a small cave, consumed shellfish for nutrition, surveyed the ocean each day for a possible rescue, and suffered from deep loneliness, depression and regret. Eventually hordes of noisy sea lions, collecting on the beach for their mating season, drove him into the island's interior.

There, his life became significantly better. A bevy of new food sources became available: wild goats, introduced by earlier sailors, provided meat and milk; uncultivated turnips, cabbage, and pepper berries offered diversity and spice. Rats, also not native, were an initial problem—they made a habit of gnawing on Selkirk during the night. However, by domesticating and living near equally feral cats, he was able to sleep soundly. (After his rescue, Selkirk lived with cats in Lower Largo.)

Selkirk made extraordinary use of the equipment he took from the ship and that which he later made from island materials. He built two huts out of native Pimento trees and employed his musket and knife to hunt and clean goats. However, when his gunpowder dwindled, he had to resort to chasing his prey on foot. This resulted in a major injury when he tumbled off a cliff and was rendered unconscious for about 24 hours. (His prey had unwittingly intervened, sparing him a broken back.) He also read from the Bible frequently, finding it beneficial to his emotional state and grasp of English.

When Selkirk's clothing wore out, he fashioned new garments from goatskin using a nail to sew. His father was a tanner, and the lessons he had learned as a child helped him greatly on the island. Selkirk's feet became so toughened and callused that when his shoes were no longer usable, he found them unnecessary. He forged a new knife out of iron barrel rings left on the beach.

Two vessels arrived and departed before his escape; both were Spanish. As a Scotsman and privateer, he faced a fate worse than death if captured. Thus he hid from both crews.

The long-awaited rescue occurred on 2 February 1709 by way of privateer Duke, a ship piloted by the same William Dampier mentioned earlier. Selkirk was discovered on the island by the Duke's Captain, Woodes Rogers, who called him the Governor of the island. Upon being found, the four-year castaway was completely incoherent with joy. The agile Selkirk caught two or three goats a day, helping restore the health of Rogers's men. Rogers eventually made Selkirk his mate and gave him the independent command of one of his prizes. Rogers's A cruising voyage round the world: first to the South-Sea, thence to the East-Indies, and homewards by the Cape of Good Hope was published in 1712, with an account of Selkirk's ordeal.

The journalist Richard Steele interviewed Selkirk about his solitary stay and Steele wrote a famous article about Selkirk in "The Englishman".

In 1717 Selkirk had returned to Lower Largo, but only stayed a few months. There he met Sophia Bruce, a sixteen year old dairymaid, and they eloped to London but apparently did not marry. In March, 1717, he had again gone to sea. On a visit to Plymouth, he married a widowed innkeeper. According to the ship's log, he died at 8 p.m. on December 13, 1721 while serving as a lieutenant on board the Royal ship Weymouth, probably succumbing to the yellow fever which had devastated the voyage. He was buried at sea off the west coast of Africa.

The Juan Fernández Islands

On 1 January 1966 the island on which Selkirk stayed was officially renamed Robinson Crusoe Island. At the same moment, the most western island of the Juan Fernández Islands was renamed Alejandro Selkirk Island although Selkirk probably never saw that island.


Archeological finding of the camp of Selkirk

Around 2000 an expedition led by the Japanese Daisuke Takahashi, searching for Selkirk's camp on the island, found an early 18th (or late 17th) century nautical instrument that almost certainly belonged to Selkirk.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008