Monday, December 13, 2010

Deathday: "Robinson Crusoe" Alexander Selkirk 1721

Alexander Selkirk (1676 – 13 December 1721) was a Scottish sailor who spent four years as a castaway when he was marooned on an uninhabited island. It is probable that his travels 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. Summoned on 27 August 1695 before the Kirk Session for his "undecent carriage" (indecent behaviour) in church, he "did not comper [appear], having gone away to þe [the] seas: this business is continued till his return"[sic].

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 galley Cinque Ports, the St. George's companion, as a sailing master serving under Thomas Stradling.


In October 1704, after the ships had parted ways because of a dispute between Stradling and Dampier, the Cinque Ports was brought by Stradling to the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernández off the coast of Chile for a mid-expedition restocking of supplies and fresh water. Selkirk had grave concerns by this time about the seaworthiness of this vessel (indeed, the Cinque Ports later foundered, losing most of its hands). He tried to convince some of his crewmates to desert with him, remaining on the island; he was counting on an impending visit by another ship. No one else agreed to come along with him. Stradling, who was tired of Selkirk's troublemaking, declared that he would grant him his wish and leave him alone on Juan Fernández. Selkirk promptly regretted his decision. He chased and called after the boat, to no avail. Selkirk lived the next four years and four months without any human company. All he had brought with him was a musket, gunpowder, carpenter's tools, a knife, a Bible, some clothing and rope.

Life on the island

Hearing strange sounds from the inland, which he feared were dangerous beasts, Selkirk remained at first along the shoreline. During this time he ate shellfish and scanned the ocean daily for rescue, suffering all the while from loneliness, misery and remorse. Hordes of raucous sea lions, gathered on the beach for the mating season, eventually drove him to the island's interior. Once there, his way of life took a turn for the better. More foods were now available: feral goats – introduced by earlier sailors – provided him meat and milk, wild turnips, cabbage, and black pepper berries offered him variety and spice. Although rats would attack him at night, he was able, by domesticating and living near feral cats, to sleep soundly and in safety.

Selkirk proved resourceful in using equipment from the ship as well as materials that were native to the island. He built two huts[1] out of pimento trees. He used his musket to hunt goats and his knife to clean their carcasses. As his gunpowder dwindled, he had to chase prey on foot. During one such chase he was badly injured when he tumbled from a cliff, lying unconscious for about a day. (His prey had cushioned his fall, sparing him a broken back.)[2] He read from the Bible frequently, finding it a comfort to him in his condition and a mainstay for his English.

When Selkirk's clothes wore out, he made new garments from goatskin, using a nail for sewing. The lessons he had learned as a child from his father, a tanner, helped him greatly during his stay on the island. As his shoes became unusable, he had no need to make new ones, since his toughened, callused feet made protection unnecessary. He forged a new knife out of barrel rings left on the beach.

Two vessels had arrived and departed before his escape, but both of them were Spanish: as a Scotsman and privateer, he risked a terrible fate if captured. He hid himself from these crews at one point in a tree at the bottom of which some of the Spanish crews who were pursuing him urinated but did not discover him.[3]

His long-anticipated rescue occurred on 2 February 1709 by way of the Duke, a privateering ship piloted by the above-mentioned William Dampier. Selkirk was discovered by the Duke's captain, Woodes Rogers, who referred to him as Governor of the island. Now rescued, he was almost incoherent in his joy. The agile Selkirk, catching two or three goats a day, helped restore the health of Rogers' men. Rogers eventually made Selkirk his mate, giving him independent command of one of his ships. Rogers' 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 and included an account of Selkirk's ordeal.

Journalist Richard Steele interviewed Selkirk about his adventures and wrote a much-read article about him in The Englishman.[4]

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

Several people who spoke to Selkirk after his rescue (such as Captain Rogers and the journalist Steele) were impressed by the tranquillity of mind and vigour of the body that Selkirk had attained while on the island. Rogers stated that "one may see that Solitude and Retirement from the World is not such an unsufferable State of Life as most Men imagine, especially when People are fairly call'd or thrown into it unavoidably, as this Man was".[3] Steele noted that "This plain Man's Story is a memorable Example, that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural Necessities; and he that goes further in his Desires, increases his Wants in Proportion to his Acquisitions."[4]


In 1863, the crew of HMS Topaze placed a bronze tablet on a spot called Selkirk's Lookout on a hill of the island in memory of his stay.[5] On 1 January 1966 Selkirk's island was officially renamed Robinson Crusoe Island. At the same time, the most western island of the Juan Fernández Islands was renamed Alejandro Selkirk Island although Selkirk probably never saw that island (97 miles west).

On 11 December 1885, after a speech by Lord Aberdeen, Lady Aberdeen unveiled a bronze statue and plaque of Alexander Selkirk outside a house on the site of Selkirk's original home on the Main Street of Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland. David Gillies of Cardy House, Lower Largo, a descendant of the Selkirks, donated the statue and T. Stuart Burnett ARAS designed it[6].

Archaeological 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 part of an early eighteenth (or late seventeenth) century nautical instrument that almost certainly belonged to Selkirk.[7]

Research by Dr. David Caldwell purports to have found his camp on the island.[8]

Selkirk in other literary works

William Cowper's The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk is about the feelings of Alexander Selkirk as he lived all alone on the island. This poem gave rise to the common phrase "monarch of all I survey" via the verse:

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.

In Allan Cole and Chris Bunch's Sten science fiction series, Book Two, The Wolf Worlds, the Scottish character Alex bemoans their predicament after crash landing; 'A slackit way f'r a mon,' Alex mourned to himself. 'Ah dinnae ken Ah'd ever be Alex Selkirk.'

Selkirk is mentioned in Sailing Alone Around The World by Joshua Slocum. During his stay on the Juan Fernández Islands, Slocum runs across a marker commemorating Selkirk's stay.

Charles Dickens used Selkirk as a simile in Chapter Two of The Pickwick Papers: "Colonel Builder and Sir Thomas Clubber exchanged snuff–boxes, and looked very much like a pair of Alexander Selkirks — 'Monarchs of all they surveyed.'" This probably refers to William Cowper's poem.

In his poem "Inniskeen Road: July Evening", the poet Patrick Kavanagh likens his loneliness on the road to that of Selkirk:

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

In Etiquette, one of W.S. Gilbert's Bab Ballads, Selkirk is used as a model for the English castaways:

These passengers, by reason of their clinging to a mast,
Upon a desert island were eventually cast.
They hunted for their meals, as Alexander Selkirk used,
But they couldn’t chat together – they had not been introduced.


1.^ Lloyd Parry, Richard (1 November 2008). "Dig finds camp of 'real Crusoe'". BBC News.
2.^ Rodgers, Woodes, Providence display’d, or a very surprising account of one, p. 6.
3.^ Rodgers, Woodes, A Cruising Voyage round the World Diary entry for Feb 2nd
4.^ Article, dated 1 December 1713.
5.^ Kraske (2005), p.100
6.^ Notable Dates in History by Scots Independent
7.^ "In an ill hour I went on board a ship bound for London". The Times (London). 17 September 2005.,,3-1783811,00.html. Retrieved 2008-07-14.
8.^ Alleyne, Richard (30 October 2008). "Mystery of Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, solved". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2008-10-30.


Selcraig, B. (July 2005). "The Real Robinson Crusoe". Smithsonian, p. 82-90.
Robert Kraske. (2005). Marooned: The Strange But True Adventures of Alexander Selkirk. Clarion Books. ISBN 0618568433.

Further reading

Diana Souhami, Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe, (2001) ISBN 0-15-100526-5
Daisuke Takahashi, In Search of Robinson Crusoe, (2002) ISBN 0-8154-1200-2
Evers, Marco (2009-02-06).

Marooned: The Strange but True Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson CrusoeSelkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson CrusoeIn Search of Robinson CrusoeAlexander Selkirk-The Real Robinson Crusoe (Short books)Crusoe's Island: A Ramble in the Footsteps of Alexander SelkirkThe life and adventures of Alexander SelkirkDaniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Alexander SelkirkThe Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe: A Personal View of Alexander Selkirk

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