On February 2, 1709, Scottish privateer and Royal Navy officer Alexander Selkirk was rescued by Duke, a privateering ship piloted by William Dampier, and its sailing companion Duchess, after being marooned by his captain on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean. After four years and four months without human company, Selkirk was almost incoherent with joy. Selkirk had become adept at hunting and making use of the resources that he found on the island. His story of survival was widely publicized after his return to England, becoming a major source of inspiration for writer Daniel Defoe’s fictional character Robinson Crusoe.
Selkirk spent his years of isolation on the second largest of the Juan Fernández Islands, situated 416 miles (670 km or 362 nautical miles) west of San Antonio, Chile, in the South Pacific Ocean. The island was first named after Juan Fernández, a Spanish sea captain and explorer who was the first to land there in 1574. It was also known as Más a Tierra (Closer to Land). There is no evidence of an earlier discovery either by Polynesians, despite the proximity to Easter Island, or by Native Americans. In 1966, the Chilean government renamed it Robinson Crusoe Island (Isla Róbinson Crusoe). Today, it is the more populous of the inhabited islands in the archipelago (the other being Alejandro Selkirk Island), with most of that in the town of San Juan Bautista at Cumberland Bay on the island’s north coast.
More than 20 years before Selkirk’s marooning, a Miskito pirate known as Will was left behind on the uninhabited Juan Fernández Island. On January 1, 1681, while Will was hunting for goats in the island’s interior, his comrades suddenly departed without him after having seen enemy (Spanish) ships approaching in the horizon. He survived there alone for more than three years and it is possible that Will became the inspiration for Man Friday, the cannibal character in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. According to William Dampier’s book A New Voyage round the World, Will started his life with:
“his Gun and a Knife, with a small Horn of Powder, and a few Shot; which being spent, he contrived a way by notching his Knife, to saw the Barrel of his Gun into small Pieces, wherewith he made Harpoons, Lances, Hooks and a long Knife; heating the pieces first in the fire, which he struck with his Gunflint, and a piece of the Barrel of his Gun, which he hardned; having learnt to do that among the English.”
In the beginning Will killed and ate seals but later he only killed seals “but to make [fishing] Lines, cutting their Skins into Thongs.”
According to William Dampier’s account, the only first-hand source of information on Will, Will was seen by Spanish landing parties a number of times but was never captured. He was rescued by an English party under the command of Dampier on March 22, 1684, and he is recorded to have, upon being reached by the rescuers, immediately killed three goats and served them up in the English style, with cabbage.
Alexander Selkirk was the son of a shoemaker and tanner in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland, born in 1676. In his youth he displayed a quarrelsome and unruly disposition. He was summoned before the Kirk Session in August 1693 for his “indecent conduct in church”, but he “did not appear, being gone to sea”. He was back at Largo in 1701 when he again came to the attention of church authorities for assaulting his brothers.
Early on, he was engaged in buccaneering. In 1703 he joined an expedition of English privateer and explorer William Dampier to the South Pacific Ocean, setting sail from Kinsale in Ireland on September 11. They carried letters of marque from the Lord High Admiral authorising their armed merchant ships to attack foreign enemies as the War of the Spanish Succession was then going on between England and Spain. Dampier was captain of St George and Selkirk served on Cinque Ports, St George‘s companion ship, as sailing master under Captain Thomas Stradling. By this time, Selkirk must have had considerable experience at sea.
In February 1704, following a stormy passage around Cape Horn, the privateers fought a long battle with a well-armed French vessel, St Joseph, only to have it escape to warn its Spanish allies of their arrival in the Pacific. A raid on the Panamanian gold mining town of Santa María failed when their landing party was ambushed. The easy capture of Asunción, a heavily laden merchantman, revived the men’s hopes of plunder, and Selkirk was put in charge of the prize ship. Dampier took off some much-needed provisions of wine, brandy, sugar and flour; then abruptly set the ship free, arguing that the gain was not worth the effort. In May 1704 Stradling decided to abandon Dampier and strike out on his own.
In September 1704, after parting ways with Dampier, Captain Stradling brought Cinque Ports to an island known to the Spanish as Más a Tierra located in the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago 420 miles (670 km) off the coast of Chile for a mid-expedition restocking of fresh water and supplies.
Selkirk had grave concerns about the seaworthiness of their vessel, and wanted to make the necessary repairs before going any farther. He declared that he would rather stay on Juan Fernández than continue in a dangerously leaky ship. Stradling was tired of his dissent and obliged, landing Selkirk on the island with a musket, a hatchet, a knife, a cooking pot, a Bible, bedding and some clothes. Selkirk immediately regretted his rashness, but Stradling refused to let him back on board.
Cinque Ports did indeed later founder off the coast of what is now Colombia. Stradling and some of his crew survived the loss of their ship but were forced to surrender to the Spanish. The survivors were taken to Lima, Peru, where they endured a harsh imprisonment.
The island Selkirk found himself marooned upon has a mountainous and undulating terrain, formed by ancient lava flows which have built up from numerous volcanic episodes. The highest point on the island is 3,002 feet (915 m) above sea level at El Yunque. Intense erosion has resulted in the formation of steep valleys and ridges. A narrow peninsula is formed in the southwestern part of the island called Cordón Escarpado. The island of Santa Clara is located just off the southwest coast.
Robinson Crusoe Island lies to the west of the boundary between the Nazca Plate and the South American Plate, and rose from the ocean 3.8 – 4.2 million years ago. A volcanic eruption on the island was reported in 1743 from El Yunque, but this event is uncertain. On February 20, 1835, a day-long eruption began from a submarine vent 1 mile (1.6 km) north of Punta Bacalao. The event was quite minor — only a Volcanic Explosivity Index 1 eruption — but it produced explosions and flames that lit up the island, along with tsunamis.
The island has a subtropical climate, moderated by the cold Humboldt Current, which flows to the east of the island, and the southeast trade winds. Temperatures range from 37°F (3°C) to 93°F (34°C), with an annual mean of 60°F (15.4°C). Higher elevations are generally cooler, with occasional frosts. Rainfall is greater in the winter months, and varies with elevation and exposure; elevations above 1,640 feet (500 m) experience almost daily rainfall, while the western, leeward side of the island is lower and drier.
The Fernandezian Region is a floristic region which includes the Juan Fernández Islands archipelago. It is in the Antarctic Floristic Kingdom, but often also included within the Neotropical Kingdom. As World Biosphere Reserves since 1977, these islands have been considered of maximum scientific importance because of the endemic plant families, genera, and species of flora and fauna. Out of 211 native plant species, 132 (63%) are endemic, as well as more than 230 species of insects. Robinson Crusoe Island has one endemic plant family, Lactoridaceae. The Magellanic penguin is also found there. The Juan Fernández firecrown is an endemic and critically endangered red hummingbird, which is best known for its needle-fine black beak and silken feather coverage. The Masatierra petrel is named after the island’s former name.
At first, Selkirk remained along the shoreline of Isla Juan Fernández. During this time, he ate spiny lobsters 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 inland, his way of life took a turn for the better. More foods were available there: feral goats — introduced by earlier sailors — provided him with meat and milk, while wild turnips, cabbage leaves and dried pepper berries offered him variety and spice. Rats would attack him at night, but he was able to sleep soundly and in safety by domesticating and living near feral cats.
Selkirk proved resourceful in using materials that he found on the island: he forged a new knife out of barrel hoops left on the beach, 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. His prey had cushioned his fall, probably sparing him a broken back.
Childhood lessons learned from his father, a tanner, now served him well. For example, when his clothes wore out, he made new ones from hair-covered goatskins using a nail for sewing. As his shoes became unusable, he had no need to replace them, since his toughened, calloused feet made protection unnecessary. He sang psalms and read from the Bible, finding it a comfort in his situation and a prop for his English.
During his sojourn on the island, two vessels came to anchor. Unfortunately for Selkirk, both were Spanish. As a Scotsman and a privateer, he would have faced a grim fate if captured and therefore did his best to hide himself. Once he was spotted and chased by a group of Spanish sailors from one of the ships. His pursuers urinated beneath the tree in which he was hiding but failed to notice him. The would-be captors then gave up and sailed away.
Selkirk’s long-awaited deliverance came on February 2, 1709. Thomas Dover led the landing party that met Selkirk. The Duke‘s captain and leader of the expedition was Woodes Rogers, who mischievously referred to Selkirk as the governor of the island. The agile castaway caught two or three goats a day and helped restore the health of Rogers’ men, who were suffering from scurvy. Captain Rogers was impressed by Selkirk’s physical vigor, but also by the peace of mind that he had attained while living on the island, observing: “One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was.” He made Selkirk Duke‘s second mate, later giving him command of one of their prize ships, Increase, before it was ransomed by the Spanish.
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. 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, renamed Bachelor, on which he served as sailing master under Captain Dover to the Dutch East Indies. Selkirk completed the around-the-world voyage by the Cape of Good Hope as the sailing master of Duke, arriving at the Downs off the English coast on October 1, 1711. He had been away for eight years.
Selkirk’s experience as a castaway aroused a great deal of attention in England. Fellow crewmember Edward Cooke mentioned Selkirk’s ordeal in a book chronicling their privateering expedition, A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World (1712). A more detailed recounting was published by the expedition’s leader, Rogers, within months. The following year, prominent essayist Richard Steele wrote an article about him for The Englishman newspaper. Selkirk appeared set to enjoy a life of ease and celebrity, claiming his share of Duke’s plundered wealth — about £800 (equivalent to £117,000 today). However, legal disputes made the amount of any payment uncertain.
After a few months in London, he began to seem more like his former self again. In September 1713, he was charged with assaulting a shipwright in Bristol and may have been kept in confinement for two years. He returned to Lower Largo, where he met Sophia Bruce, a young dairymaid. They eloped to London early in 1717 but apparently did not marry. He was soon off to sea again, having enlisted in the Royal Navy. While on a visit to Plymouth in 1720, he married a widowed innkeeper named Frances Candis. He 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 13, 1721, succumbing to the yellow fever that plagued the voyage. He was buried at sea.
When Daniel Defoe published The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), few readers could have missed the resemblance to Selkirk. An illustration on the first page of the novel shows “a rather melancholy-looking man standing on the shore of an island, gazing inland”, in the words of modern explorer Tim Severin. He is dressed in the familiar hirsute goatskins, his feet and shins bare. Yet Crusoe’s island is located not in the mid-latitudes of the South Pacific but 2,700 miles (4,300 km) away in the Caribbean, where the furry attire would hardly be comfortable in the tropical heat. This incongruity supports the popular belief that Selkirk was a model for the fictional character, though most literary scholars now accept that his was “just one of many survival narratives that Defoe knew about”.
Selkirk has been memorialized in his Scottish birthplace. Lord Aberdeen delivered a speech on December 11, 1885, after which his wife, Lady Aberdeen, unveiled a bronze statue and plaque in memory of Selkirk outside a house on the site of his original home on the Main Street of Lower Largo. David Gillies of Cardy House, Lower Largo, a descendant of the Selkirks, donated the statue created by Thomas Stuart Burnett.
The Scotsman is also remembered in his former island home. In 1869, the crew of HMS Topaze placed a bronze tablet at a spot called Selkirk’s Lookout on a mountain of Más a Tierra/Juan Fernández Island, to mark his stay. On January 1, 1966, Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva renamed Más a Tierra Robinson Crusoe Island after Defoe’s fictional character to attract tourists. The largest of the Juan Fernández Islands, known as Más Afuera, became Alejandro Selkirk Island, although Selkirk probably never saw that island since it is located 110 miles 180 km or 100 nmi) to the west.
An archaeological expedition to the Juan Fernández Islands in February 2005 found part of a nautical instrument that likely belonged to Selkirk. It was “a fragment of copper alloy identified as being from a pair of navigational dividers” dating from the early 18th (or late 17th) century. Selkirk is the only person known to have been on the island at that time who is likely to have had dividers, and was even said by Rogers to have had such instruments in his possession. The artifact was discovered while excavating a site not far from Selkirk’s Lookout where the famous castaway is believed to have lived.
There were many stories of real-life castaways in Defoe’s time. According to Tim Severin, “Daniel Defoe, a secretive man, neither confirmed or denied that Selkirk was the model for the hero of his book. Apparently written in six months or less, Robinson Crusoe was a publishing phenomenon.
The author of Crusoe’s Island, Andrew Lambert states, “the ideas that a single, real Crusoe is a ‘false premise’ because Crusoe’s story is a complex compound of all the other buccaneer survival stories.” However, Robinson Crusoe is far from a copy of Rogers’ account: Becky Little argues three events that distinguish the two stories. Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked while Selkirk decided to leave his ship thus marooning himself; the island Crusoe was shipwrecked on had already been inhabited, unlike the solitary nature of Selkirk’s adventures. The last and most crucial difference between the two stories is Selkirk is a pirate, looting and raiding coastal cities. Andrew Lambert states, “The economic and dynamic thrust of the book is completely alien to what the buccaneers are doing,” Lambert says. “The buccaneers just want to capture some loot and come home and drink it all, and Crusoe isn’t doing that at all. He’s an economic imperialist. He’s creating a world of trade and profit.”
Other possible sources for Defoe’s narrative include Ibn Tufail’s Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, and Spanish sixteenth century sailor Pedro Serrano. Hayy ibn Yaqdhan is a twelfth-century philosophical novel also set on a desert island and translated into Latin and English a number of times in the half-century preceding Defoe’s novel.
Pedro Luis Serrano was a Spanish sailor who was marooned for seven or eight years in the sixteenth century on a small desert island after shipwrecking on a small island in the Caribbean off the coast of Nicaragua in 1520s. He had no access to fresh water and lived off the blood and flesh of sea turtles and birds. He was quite a celebrity when he returned to Europe and before passing away, he recorded the hardships suffered in documents that show the endless anguish and suffering, the product of absolute abandonment to his fate, now held in the General Archive of the Indies, in Seville. It is very likely that Defoe heard his story, 200 years old by then but still very popular, in one of his visits to Spain before becoming a writer.
Yet another source for Defoe’s novel may have been the Robert Knox account of his abduction by the King of Ceylon Rajasinha II of Kandy in 1659 in An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon.
Tim Severin’s book Seeking Robinson Crusoe (2002) unravels a much wider and more plausible range of potential sources of inspiration, and concludes by identifying castaway surgeon Henry Pitman as the most likely. An employee of the Duke of Monmouth, Pitman played a part in the Monmouth Rebellion. His short book about his desperate escape from a Caribbean penal colony, followed by his shipwrecking and subsequent desert island misadventures, was published by J. Taylor of Paternoster Row, London, whose son William Taylor later published Defoe’s novel. Severin argues that since Pitman appears to have lived in the lodgings above the father’s publishing house and that Defoe himself was a mercer in the area at the time, Defoe may have met Pitman in person and learned of his experiences first-hand, or possibly through submission of a draft. Severin also discusses the publicized case of Will, of the Miskito people of Central America, who may have led to the depiction of Man Friday.
Arthur Wellesley Secord in his Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe (1963) analyses the composition of Robinson Crusoe and gives a list of possible sources of the story, rejecting the common theory that the story of Selkirk is Defoe’s only source.
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, commonly known as Robinson Crusoe, was first published on April 25, 1719. The first edition credited the work’s protagonist Robinson Crusoe as its author, leading many readers to believe he was a real person and the book a travelogue of true incidents.
Epistolary, confessional, and didactic in form, the book is presented as an autobiography of the title character (whose birth name is Robinson Kreutznaer) — a castaway who spends 28 years on a remote tropical desert island near Trinidad, encountering cannibals, captives, and mutineers, before ultimately being rescued.
Despite its simple narrative style, Robinson Crusoe was well received in the literary world and is often credited as marking the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. It is generally seen as a contender for the first English novel. Before the end of 1719, the book had already run through four editions. By the end of the nineteenth century, no book in the history of Western literature had more editions, spin-offs and translations (even into languages such as Inuktitut, Coptic and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 such alternative versions, including children’s versions with pictures and no text.
The term “Robinsonade” was coined to describe the genre of stories similar to Robinson Crusoe.
Defoe went on to write a lesser-known sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). It was intended to be the last part of his stories, according to the original title page of the sequel’s first edition, but a third book, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: With his Vision of the Angelick World (1720), was written.
The book proved so popular that the names of the two main protagonists have entered the language. During World War II, people who decided to stay and hide in the ruins of the German-occupied city of Warsaw for a period of three winter months, from October to January 1945, when they were rescued by the Red Army, were later called Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw. Robinson Crusoe usually referred to his servant as “my man Friday”, from which the term “Man Friday” (or “Girl Friday”) originated.
Robinson Crusoe marked the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. Its success led to many imitators, and castaway novels, written by Ambrose Evans, Penelope Aubin, and others, became quite popular in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Most of these have fallen into obscurity, but some became established, including The Swiss Family Robinson, which borrowed Crusoe’s first name for its title.
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published seven years after Robinson Crusoe, may be read as a systematic rebuttal of Defoe’s optimistic account of human capability. In The Unthinkable Swift: The Spontaneous Philosophy of a Church of England Man, Warren Montag argues that Swift was concerned about refuting the notion that the individual precedes society, as Defoe’s novel seems to suggest. In Treasure Island, author Robert Louis Stevenson parodies Crusoe with the character of Ben Gunn, a friendly castaway who was marooned for many years, has a wild appearance, dresses entirely in goat skin and constantly talks about providence.
In an 1840 narrative, Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. described the port of Juan Fernández as a young prison colony. The penal institution was soon abandoned and the island again uninhabited before a permanent colony was eventually established in the latter part of the 19th century. Joshua Slocum visited the island between April 26 and May 5, 1896, during his solo global circumnavigation on the sloop Spray. The island and its 45 inhabitants are referred to in detail in Slocum’s memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World.
During World War I, Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron stopped and re-coaled at the island October 26-28 1914, four days before the Battle of Coronel. While at the island, the admiral was unexpectedly rejoined by the armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich, which he had earlier detached to attack Allied shipping in Australian waters. On March 9, 1915 SMS Dresden, the last surviving cruiser of von Spee’s squadron after his death at the Battle of the Falklands, returned to the island’s Cumberland Bay hoping to be interned by the Chilean authorities. Caught and fired upon by a British squadron at the Battle of Más a Tierra on March 14, the ship was scuttled by its crew.
On February 27, 2010, Robinson Crusoe Island was hit by a tsunami following a magnitude 8.8 earthquake. The tsunami was about 10 feet (3 m) high when it reached the island. Sixteen people lost their lives, and most of the coastal village of San Juan Batista was washed away. The only warning the islanders had came from a 12-year-old girl, who noticed the sudden drawback of the sea that presages the arrival of a tsunami wave and saved many of her neighbors from harm.
Robinson Crusoe had an estimated population of 843 in 2012. Most of the island’s inhabitants live in the village of San Juan Bautista on the north coast at Cumberland Bay. Although the community maintains a rustic serenity dependent on the spiny lobster trade, residents employ a few vehicles, a satellite Internet connection and televisions. The main airstrip, Robinson Crusoe Airfield, is located near the tip of the island’s southwestern peninsula. The flight from Santiago de Chile is just under three hours. A ferry runs from the airstrip to San Juan Bautista.
Tourists number in the hundreds per year. One activity gaining popularity is scuba diving, particularly on the wreck of the German light cruiser Dresden, which was scuttled in Cumberland Bay during World War I.
Several stamps have been released by Chile depicting maps of Robinson Crusoe Island including one that was part of a set of four released on November 22, 1974, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the archipelago by Spanish sea captain Juan Fernández (Scott #455 with each stamp given a sub-letter a-d). Scott #349 is a 30-centésimo rose claret (or, lilac purple) stamp depicting Robinson Crusoe cradling his musket while overlooking Cumberland Bay on the island. It was printed by Casa de Moneda de Chile using offset lithography and released on August 26, 1965, in a quantity of 5,000,000 stamps, perforated 14 x 14½. Imperforate proof impressions on thick card stock are quite common.