On This Day: 'Crusoe' rescued
February 1st, 1709: Alexander Selkirk, believed to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel ‘Robinson Crusoe’, was rescued after being marooned for over four years on the Juan Fernandez Islands.
Who? Alexander Selkirk (also spelled Selcraig) was born in 1676 in Largo, Fife, Scotland. The son of a shoemaker, Selkirk ran away to sea in 1695 whereupon he joined a band of buccaneers in the Pacific . By 1703 he was sailing master of a galley on a privateering expedition . In September 1704, after a quarrel with his captain, he was put ashore at his own request on the uninhabited Más a Tierra Island.
Where? The Juan Fernández Islands (Spanish: ‘Islas Juan Fernández’) are a small cluster of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, situated about 650 km (400 miles) West of, and administratively part of, Chile. They consist of the 93 km2 (36 mile2) Isla Más a Tierra (also called ‘Isla Robinson Crusoe’); the 53 km2 (33 mile2) Isla Más Afuera (also called ‘Isla Alejandro Selkirk’), 161 km (100 miles) to the west; and an islet, Isla Santa Clara, southwest of Isla Más a Tierra.
The islands are volcanic peaks rising from the Juan Fernández submarine ridge. Robinson Crusoe has a summit 915 m (3,002’) above sea level, and Alejandro Selkirk rises to 1,650 m (5,415’). Bahía Cumberland (Cumberland Bay), on the northern side of Robinson Crusoe, and Bahía Padre, at the western extremity, are the only fair anchorages.
The islands were discovered about AD 1563 by Juan Fernández, a Spanish navigator, who received a grant and lived there for some years, stocking them with goats and pigs. After his departure, the islands were visited only occasionally until 1704 when Selkirk was put ashore at Bahía Cumberland. The islands passed into Chilean possession in the early 19th-century. Since then, they have been used as penal settlements on many occasions, particularly for political prisoners. Isla Santa Clara is now uninhabited. Robinson Crusoe and Alejandro Selkirk are sparsely populated, most of their inhabitants being concentrated in the village of Robinson Crusoe, on Bahía Cumberland. Their principal occupation is fishing for lobsters. In 2018 the Chilean government created Juan Fernández Islands Marine Park, a protected area that encompasses over almost 260,000 km2 (100,000 miles2) of ocean around the islands.
Survival At first, Selkirk remained along the shoreline of Más a Tierra, foraging and eating spiny lobsters. Reputedly suffering from loneliness, misery and remorse at this time, Selkirk scanned the ocean daily hoping for rescue. When hordes of raucous sea lions gathered on the beach as part of their mating season, however, Selkirk was forced to retreat to the island's interior (Steele, 1713, 169-171). Here life took a turn for the better. For starters, more foods were available. The goats introduced by Juan Fernández, now feral, provided Selkirk with meat and milk, while wild turnips, the leaves of the indigenous cabbage tree and dried Schinus fruits (pink peppercorns) offered him variety and spice. Plagued by rats at night, Selkirk was able to sleep soundly and in safety by domesticating and living near feral cats (Rogers, 1712, 127-128).
He proved resourceful in using materials found on the island: he forged a new knife out of barrel hoops left on the beach (Rogers, 1712, 128), he built two huts out of pepper trees, one of which he used for cooking and the other for sleeping, and he employed 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 helpless and unable to move for about a day. That his prey had cushioned his fall probably spared him a broken back (Rogers, 1712, 126-127).
Childhood lessons learned from his father, a tanner, now served him well. For example, when his clothes wore out, he made new ones from goatskins using a nail for sewing. As his shoes became unusable, he had no need to replace them as his toughened, calloused feet made such protection unnecessary (Rogers, 1712, 128).
Rescue During Selkirk’s sojourn on the island, two vessels did anchor off the coast, but unfortunately for him both were Spanish. As a Scotsman and a privateer , he would have faced a grim fate if captured and therefore hid until the Spanish sailed away. Selkirk remained alone on Isla Más a Tierra until February 2nd, 1709 with the arrival of two English privateers, the Duke (Rogers, 1712, 124-125) and its companion ship the Duchess (Rogers, 1712, 6).
After four years and four months without human company, Selkirk was almost incoherent with joy (Rogers, 1712, 129) when he met the landing party led by Thomas Dover (Rogers, 1712, 124). The ships’ crews were suffering scurvy but with Selkirk’s help - the agile castaway caught two or three goats a day to feed them - they were restored to health (Rogers, 1712, 131-132). Presumably in gratitude, the Duke's captain and leader of the expedition, Woodes Rogers, rescued Selkirk returning him to England in October 1711. Rogers’ account ‘A Cruising Voyage Round the World…’, which includes a description of Selkirk’s life on the island, was published the following year.
Privateering After a spell as second mate on Duke, Rogers gave Selkirk command of Increase one of their prize ships (Rogers, 1712, 147). When it was ransomed by the Spanish (Rogers, 1712, 220) Selkirk returned to privateering with a vengeance. At Guayaquil in present-day Ecuador, he led a boat crew up the Guayas River where a number of wealthy Spanish ladies had fled and looted the gold and jewels they had hidden inside their clothing (Rogers, 1712, 178-179). His part in the hunt for treasure galleons along the coast of Mexico resulted in the capture of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño (Rogers, 1712, 294), renamed Bachelor, on which he served as sailing master under Captain Dover to the Dutch East Indies (Rogers, 1712, 312). Selkirk completed the around-the-world voyage by the Cape of Good Hope as the sailing master of Duke (Cooke, 1712, 61), eventually arriving off the English coast on October 1st, 1711 (Rogers, 1712, 427). He had been away for eight years (Funnell, 1707, 3).
Six years later and Selkirk was back at sea having enlisted in the Royal Navy. Somewhat ironically given his history of privateering Selkirk was serving as master's mate on board HMS Weymouth, engaged in an anti-piracy patrol off the west coast of Africa, when he died. On December 13th, 1721, Selkirk succumbed to the yellow fever that had plagued the voyage. He was buried at sea.
Legacy Selkirk's ordeal was mentioned by fellow crewmember Edward Cooke his book chronicling their privateering expedition, ‘A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World…’ (Cooke, 1712). A more detailed recounting was published by the expedition's leader, Woodes Rogers, within months (Rogers, 1712). Selkirk’s story was also told by the essayist Richard Steele in ‘The Englishman’ of December 3rd, 1713. It was from these accounts that Daniel Defoe evidently drew inspiration for his The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe published in 1719.
Cooke, E., (1712), ‘A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World, Performed in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711’, London: B. Lintot & R. Gossling.
Funnell, W., (1707), ‘A Voyage Round the World, Containing an Account of Captain Dampier's Expedition into the South Seas in the Ship St George in the Years 1703 and 1704’, London: W. Botham.
Rogers, W., (1712), ‘A Cruising Voyage Round the World: First to the South-Sea, Thence to the East-Indies, and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope’, London: A. Bell.
Steele, R., (1713), ‘Alexander Selkirk, an Account of His Living Alone Above Four Years in a Desolate Island’, The Englishman, 1 (26), December 3rd, pp. 168-173.
1. Buccaneers were pirates who attacked Spanish shipping in the Caribbean Sea during the 17th century. The term buccaneer is now used generally as a synonym for pirate. Originally, buccaneer crews were larger, more apt to attack coastal cities, and more localised to the Caribbean than later pirate crews who sailed to the Indian Ocean on the Pirate Round in the late 17th-century.
2. Privateers, or 'private men-of-war', were individuals or privately-owned ships authorised by a King or government by Letters of Marque and Reprisal to attack and capture enemy vessels and shipping during wartime. Pirates, in contrast to privateers, commit warlike acts at sea without the authorisation of any nation.