Coast Stories #7 – The Adventures of Alexander Selkirk: The Real Robinson Crusoe

Lying on the southern coast of Fife in Scotland, the sleepy village of Lower Largo is a quiet commuter settlement which the world seems to have passed by. Heading through the village’s narrow Main Street in the historic heart of the former fishing settlement you will pass by a number of quaint fishermen’s cottages. Towards the end of Main Street, just past a row of white faced cottages is a large house, the first of a terrace of cottages. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this house, although it is pleasant to look at, except above the twin doorway is an alcove where there is a statue of a man cupping his hand to his forehead as if to peer into the distance. This man is called Alexander Selkirk. Whist this name might not ring any immediate bells in your mind, the famous literary character who was based on Mr Selkirk might just be well known to you – a certain Robinson Crusoe…

The statue of Alexander Selkirk in Lower Largo, Fife (photograph author’s own)

EARLY LIFE

Alexander Selkirk was born in Lower Largo in 1676, the seventh son of John Selkirk, a reasonably prosperous tanner (a person whose occupation is to tan hides or convert them into leather by the use of tan) and leather worker. Selkirk should have followed his father into the tanning industry, however this life wasn’t for him. Young Alexander was an adventurer at heart and was always getting into trouble, being of a unruly and quarrelsome nature.

Largo Bay (from The original Robinson Crusoe, a narrative of the adventures of A. Selkirk and others by Henry Cadwallader Adams (1877)

He wasn’t the only bad person in the family though, records of the local Kirk Sessions (the ecclesiastical court) from 1693 to 1701 mention the Selkirk family several times in relation to fighting and drunkenness. Unsurprisingly Alexander himself was ordered in front of the Kirk Session, including on one memorable occasion in August 1695 where he was ordered to appear before the Session to answer to charges of indecent behaviour in church (although what specifically that indecent behaviour was has been lost to history). Much to the annoyance of the Kirk Session, Alexander didn’t show up as he had decided to do a runner and was now serving on a ship out at sea.

Selkirk was away at sea for six years, possibly being involved in an attempt by Scotland to set up the ill-fated Darien colony in Panama (although evidence for this is minimal) or he may have been involved in a daring raid by English ships led by Henry Avery on the treasure ship Ganj-i-Sawai in September 1695 which belonged to the Moghul Emperor of India.

Portrait of William Dampier by Thomas Murray (c 1697-1698)

All that is definitely known is that by 1701 Selkirk had returned to Lower Largo where he was up to his usual mischief, a life on land not agreeing with his tempestuous nature. It wasn’t long before the Selkirk’s were back in front of the Kirk Session again, this time thanks to a serious scuffle in the family which involved Alexander assaulting his father and then two of his brothers for good measure. Alexander’s mother was so annoyed that she expressed a desire to be separated from her husband. Alexander was clearly not suited to a life on land and he was soon off out to sea again, this time showing up in 1703 as the Master of the Galley on the Cinque Ports, a ship which belonged to the notorious privateer, William Dampier.

THE CINQUE PORTS

The Cinque Ports was part of a privateering expedition consisting of two ships to the Pacific whose sole purpose was to raid merchant Spanish ships and bring the loot back to Britain. Dampier commanded the St George whilst the Cinque Ports was captained by Charles Pickering who had quite a long association with Selkirk and recognized his talents enough to promote him to the position of Master of the Galley. Unfortunately for Selkirk, Captain Pickering died on the voyage out to the Pacific and was replaced as captain by Thomas Stradling, a man who was not very popular with the crew of the Cinque Ports. The two ships headed for Mas a Terra, an island just over 400 miles away from the coast of Chile where they could replenish their food and water stocks before continuing on with their expedition.

A satellite image of the island of Mas a Terra

The expedition wasn’t much of a success and as the two captains, Stradling and Dampier, couldn’t decide on a further course of action they took leave of each other and both ships went their separate ways. The Cinque Ports returned to Mas a Terra in September 1704 hoping to pick up supplies from when the ships were there earlier in the year. The ship was badly in need of repair and so the crew rested on the island while the ship was overhauled.

By this point relations between Stradling and Selkirk had completely broken down. Selkirk had already been demoted by Stradling. Selkirk was also adamant that the ship was not ocean-worthy despite the overhaul. The hot-headed Selkirk declared that he would stay on the island rather than going back out to sea on a leaky ship, figuring that he would have a better chance of survival on Mas a Terra than on the Cinque Ports. Stradling took him up on the offer and landed Selkirk back on the island leaving him with a musket, a hatchet, a cooking pot, some clothes and a Bible.

CASTAWAY

“He never heard a sound so dismal than their parting oar” (from The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk (1841)

Selkirk immediately regretted his decision however Stradling refused to let him back on the ship despite Selkirk’s begging and so he had to watch whilst the Cinque Ports sailed off leaving him all alone. Selkirk may have taken some comfort in the knowledge in the fact that he was right about the sea-worthiness of the Cinque Ports which sank off the coast of Colombia with the loss of most of the crew. Those that survived were captured by the Spanish and taken to Peru where they received harsh treatment.

Understandably for many days after being left alone Selkirk was completely despondent. He never ate unless extreme hunger forced him too, nor did he sleep until exhaustion took over him. Every waking second was spent looking out to sea, his eyes fixed on the point where the Cinque Ports had disappeared over the horizon and out of sight.

Selkirk would refuse to remove himself from the beach in case he missed any passing ships. For food he would try and catch seals that lay on the beach and any shellfish that washed up on shore.

“Selkirk catching seals” (from The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk (1841)

Slowly as the days and weeks passed Selkirk lifted himself out of his low mood. As winter was approaching he realised that he would have to build some sort of shelter. This meant that he would have to move himself away from the beach and away from the possible sight of ships, a thought that had consumed him throughout all his time on the island. Shifting his focus onto the task of building a shelter helped Selkirk greatly as he was no longer wholly focused on being rescued.

Selkirk built two huts during his time on Mas a Terra. The larger hut was his bedroom where he was able to fashion a bedframe out of available materials on the island along with the bedsheets he had brought with him from the Cinque Ports. He also used the larger hut as a chapel carrying over a form of worship he had learned in the family home thousands of miles away in Lower Largo. The smaller hut was used as Selkirk’s kitchen. The cooking pot took pride of place here where Selkirk would cook his food, sometimes seal and other times goat from a herd on the island that he had managed to tame.

“Selkirk reading his bible” ( from The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk (1841)

Selkirk kept himself occupied by tending his flock of goats, reading the bible and as one does when stranded alone on a desert island, taming wild cats. Selkirk had a problem with the rat population on the island with the rats coming into his shelter and nibbling his legs whilst he was asleep. Rather than trying to hunt down all the rats himself, Selkirk managed the laborious task of taming the island’s wild cats and getting them to do the job for him. Once the rat problem had been eradicated Selkirk would entertain himself for hours on end by teaching the cats to dance (no really he did). The cats became his constant companion on the island and their population grew under his stewardship.

“Selkirk amusing himself with his Cats” (from The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk (1841)

Selkirk’s life on the island wasn’t all about dancing with cats and herding goats. Obviously as he was on his own any illness or injury could be fatal with nobody around for hundreds of miles ready to come to his aid. Whilst out hunting goats, Selkirk ended up on the northern side of the island which was composed of high craggy precipices and dangerous pitfalls into which an unwary hunter could fall into. One one hunting expedition Selkirk was too focused on catching a goat when he tumbled over the edge of a cliff. Fortunately for Selkirk he landed on top of the goat he was chasing which cushioned his fall somewhat although he was still seriously injured, narrowly avoiding a broken back which would have proven fatal.

“Selkirk catching a goat” (from The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk (1841)

In addition to dealing with dangerous topography, Selkirk also faced threats from people. The occasional ship did pass by the island although Selkirk couldn’t signal to them as they could be an enemy ship belonging to the Spanish or the French. Only two boats ever did come to shore. At both of these times Selkirk would hide himself whilst waiting to see if the people who had landed were friend or foe.

One one occasion, being too eager to see if the people were friendly, he got too close to them and was spotted. The men immediately chased after him and fired at him, luckily missing him. A badly shaken Selkirk was able to escape unseen up a tree where he waited out until the men returned to their boats and left the island. Selkirk later said that if the men were French he would have given themselves up to them, however as they were Spaniards he resolved to avoid capture at all costs as he could be taken to a life of slavery in the mines of Peru or just executed immediately as the Spaniards vowed to kill all Englishmen who had knowledge of the highly sought after South Seas, which Selkirk would have.

“Selkirk fired upon by the Spaniards” (from The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk (1841)

RESCUE

Late on the afternoon of the 31st January 1709 two ships appeared on the horizon. Naturally Selkirk was a bit wary after his last encounter with people and so hid himself whilst watching the ships gradually approaching the island. As they got nearer to the island he could see that they were English ships – the Duke , a privateering ship piloted by William Dampier and the Duchess. At last rescue! Due to the lateness of the day, Selkirk didn’t want the ships to pass by the island in the encroaching darkness and so set about gathering wood to create a signal fire. The fire burned throughout the night as Selkirk kept watch, too excited to even think of sleep.

Dawn arose with the ships still a great distance off the shore. The men on the ship were well aware of the fire though and had been wondering about it all through the night. They assumed that it was from some French ships at anchor and with the two countries at war they were very wary. A small boat was sent ashore from the Duke containing eight heavily armed men.

“Selkirk running to the boat” (from The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk (1841)

Selkirk was greatly excited and when the boat pulled up on the shore he ran down to greet his would-be rescuers. It must have been a strange sight for the men of the Duke. Selkirk was waving a piece of linen attached to a pole to attract their attention but he was also wearing goatskins and sporting a great big long beard which hadn’t been cut for over four years. To top it all off he was wearing a rough cap make of goatskin on his head.

Selkirk was almost incoherent with joy and could barely speak as he hugged each of the bemused men in turn. Eventually they were able to get a coherent story out of him as he told them about his life on the island. The two ships remained anchored up at the island for ten days while they refitted and some of the men were treat for scurvy, which was greatly helped by Selkirk catching three goats a day that allowed them to recover.

Selkirk, seated in a ship's boat, being taken aboard Duke.
The rescued Selkirk, (seated at right,) being taken aboard Duke. (1859)

The Duke’s captain, Woodes Rogers, was greatly impressed by Selkirk’s appearance noting not only his physical vigour but also the peace of mind he had attained whilst living alone on the island for four years. Rogers also joked that Selkirk was the governor of the island. Rogers himself would later become the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas in 1718.

FURTHER ADVENTURES AND FAME

Eventually the ships were ready to leave the island. Selkirk was made the second mate on the Duke although he did find adjusting to life on the ship quite difficult at first, keeping himself to himself and saying little. He also struggled to wear shoes, as he had been so long without them and they made his feet swell.

On board the Duke Selkirk returned to his previous privateering life. The expedition left the island behind and captured and looted a number of small Spanish vessels before launching an attack on the town of Guayaquil in Ecuador. When Woodes Rogers attempted to negotiate with the town’s governor, the folk of Guayaquil attempted to secrete their valuables away. Selkirk led an expedition up the Guayas River where a number of wealthy Spanish ladies had fled and looted the gold and valuables the ladies had hidden in their clothing.

“Captain Rogers’s People stripping some Ladies of their Jewels in the neighbourhood of Guiaquil” from A New Universal Collection of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages and Travels. (1765) Courtesy of National Maritime Museum

Later the expedition hunted for Spanish treasure galleons along the coast of Mexico. One of the ships captured was put under the care of Selkirk who mastered the vessel to the Dutch East Indies under Captain Dover. Selkirk completed his round-the-world voyage back on board the Duke as sailing master when it landed back in England on the 1st October 1711. He was back on British soil eight years, one month and three days after he left. He was also £800 richer (almost £150,000 in today’s money) thanks to the loot he had obtained on his journey.

Selkirk became famous almost overnight. Edward Cooke, a fellow crew member, published an account of Selkirk’s adventures in a book which chronicled their privateering expedition. The expedition’s leader, Woodes Rogers, later published a more detailed of the account of the expedition and Selkirk’s life on the island. In 1713 a prominent essayist, Richard Steele, wrote an article about Selkirk which was published in the newspaper The Englishman further bringing fame and fortune to the man from Lower Largo.

Robinson Crusoe 1719 1st edition.jpg
Title page from the first edition of The Life and Surprising Aventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719) showing Crusoe dressed in goat-skins which was clearly influenced by the story of Alexander Selkirk.

Perhaps the most famous account of Selkirk’s life on the island, albeit a semi-fictional one, came in 1719 when a friend of Woodes Rogers who just happened to be a famous writer, Daniel Defoe published a best-selling book The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The parallels between Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk could hardly be missed.

It wasn’t long before Selkirk returned to his former troublesome ways. He was charged with assaulting a shipwright in Bristol in September 1713 and was jailed for two years. After his release he returned to his birthplace of Lower Largo and was reunited with his family. Whilst there he fell in love with a local lady, Sophia Bruce and the two eloped to London in early 1717 but apparently they did not marry.

A voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West-Indies; in His Majesty's Ships, the Swallow and Weymouth Fleuron T087658-1.png
Etching of the HMS Weymouth taken from A voyage (in 1721) to Guinea, Brasil, and the West-Indies; in His Majesty’s Ships, the Swallow and Weymouth by John Atkins (naval surgeon) pub. 1735 Etching of the HMS Weymouth taken from

Selkirk was soon back out to sea again, this time having enlisted in the Royal Navy where he served as master’s mate on board the HMS Weymouth. Ironically the HMS Weymouth was engaged in an anti-piracy patrol off the west coast of Africa, an activity that Selkirk had previously engaged in, albeit dressed up as the occupation of privateering.

DEATH AND LEGACY

Whilst on this expedition off the African coast Selkirk sadly succumbed to the effects of yellow fever which had plagued the voyage and he died on 13th December 1721 at the age of 45. He was buried at sea.

File:Crusoe 2 (by Paget).jpg
“Robinson Crusoe” from the Czech edition of the novel (1894)

Selkirk himself has been commemorated in his birthplace by a statue unveiled by Lord and Lady Aberdeen in December 1885 which still stands in the village (as described at the beginning of this post). Sixteen years earlier the crew of the HMS Topaze placed a bronze tablet at a spot on a mountain on the island of Mas a Terra called Selkirk’s Lookout.

Perhaps the greatest honour came in January 1966 when the president of Chile renamed Mas a Terra as Robinson Crusoe Island in a bid to attract tourists to the island. Another island a hundred miles to the west of Robinson Crusoe Island was renamed Alexander Selkirk Island although it is very unlikely that Selkirk clapped eyes on this island which now bears his name.

Selkirk’s story has never been forgotten thanks to Daniel Defoe’s novel which cemented Selkirk’s place not only in the national conscience but also worldwide. In the centuries since the release of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s novel has been adapted countless times on the stage and then later on film and television, keeping the story alive and firmly rooted in people’s minds for over three hundred years, and will no doubt continue to do so for generations to come.

REFERENCES

https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/largo/lowerlargo/index.html

https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/s/alexanderselkirk.html

Bruce J.S. & Bruce M.S. (1993). Alexander Selkirk: The Real Robinson Crusoe. An account of a trip to Robinson Crusoe Island and the life of Alexander Selkirk. The Explorers Journal Spring 1993 (accessed here)

Takhashi et al (2007) Excavation at Aguas Buenas, Robinson Crusoe Island, of a gunpowder magazine and the supposed campsite of Alexander Selkirk, together with an account of early navigational dividers . Post-Medieval Archaeology, 41 (2). pp. 270-304 (accessed here)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Selkirk

The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, The Real Robinson Crusoe (1841). M. Day & Co. New York.

Henry Cadwallder Adams (1877) The original Robinson Crusoe, a narrative of the adventures of A. Selkirk and others.

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