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Was Alexander Selkirk the Model for Robinson Crusoe?

There’s a statue in Lower Largo, Fife, of local man Alexander Selkirk (originally Selcraig). His claim to fame is that he was a sailor who was marooned on a remote island off the coast of Chile for just over 4 years. But there’s more to it than that!

Alexander Selkirk statue, Lower Largo
Alexander Selkirk statue, Lower Largo

Alexander Selkirk’s story

He was born in Largo in 1676, 7th son of a tanner & shoemaker, and from a young age seemed to be a hothead. In 1695 after ‘another spot of bother’, he ran off to sea. He returned briefly to Largo in 1701, but after a family argument, headed south and eventually joined Captain Dampier’s privateering expedition to the South Seas in May 1703. He was made sailing master of ‘Cinque Ports’ with Thomas Stradling as captain.

Conditions on board were atrocious. Food was riddled with cockroaches and weevils, and there were too many men stuffed into a small ship. Selkirk by now had quite a bit of sea experience and he feared the ship was no longer seaworthy. When they stopped at Más a Tierra, one of the islands in the Juan Fernandez archipelago off the coast of Chile, after another argument with the captain, he jumped into the water, expecting the other crew members to follow. They didn’t. And Stradling refused to let him back on board when Selkirk realised he was about to be abandoned and changed his mind. They sailed off, leaving him with his possessions. Selkirk however had the last laugh as the ship sank soon after, and those who didn’t drown were captured by the Spanish.

He ultimately got to know the island well in his searches for food, water and shelter. His swiftness at running down mountain goats was noted in fact by one of his rescuers! He kept a close eye for passing ships from one of the mountain tops (hiding from any Spanish boats) and had a fire beacon lit much of the time. In interviews he gave later on he admits that the solitude made him think on his past misdemeanours with regret.

Isla Robinson Crusoe today
Isla Robinson Crusoe (formerly Más a Tierra )

In early 1709 he was rescued by ‘The Duke’, captained by Woodes Rogers and another privateering venture of Dampier’s. Selkirk’s skill as a navigator earned him a place among the crew. After another couple of years’ piracy down the coast of S America, he finally returned to Britain in 1711, a wealthy man with all his looted goods.

In his final decade, he was unable to settle in Largo or one of the port towns in England, apparently marrying either one or two women (both whom he left), and more or less returning to his old argumentative ways. Eventually he was called back to sea, this time joining the Royal Navy. His story ends in 1721 when he died of yellow fever off the west coast of Africa during a naval expedition against piracy, ironically.

The Crusoe Connection (or is it?)

Frontispiece of Daniel Defoe's most famous novel
Frontispiece & title page of Daniel Defoe’s most famous novel

So, with such a tale, wasn’t he the man who inspired Daniel Defoe’s character ‘Robinson Crusoe’? This incredibly popular novel was published on 25 April 1719, during Selkirk’s lifetime. Defoe had already much experience as a writer, publishing pamphlets, journals and books on a wide variety of subjects, using as many as 200 pen names. One of Selkirk’s interviewers post-rescue was his rescuer Woodes Rogers, and Defoe did meet him. But there is no record of Defoe meeting Selkirk.

Moreover, Selkirk was certainly not the first person to be marooned on a desert island. Earlier travellers and seamen had, and for much longer than Selkirk. There is much about the character Robinson Crusoe that is quite different to Selkirk. He wasn’t a privateer for one thing, and had strong Christian beliefs. Selkirk had no sidekick as Crusoe did in Friday.

While some of its themes make it a book of its time (Friday’s subjugation due to his being a ‘native’, and Crusoe’s willing participation in the slave trade after his rescue), by the end of the 19th century it was the most published book apart from the bible.

Since then, the story has spawned many versions – for children as well as adults – and inspired writing by contemporary authors that looks in closer detail at some of the more unpalatable topics contained in the original; so there’s no doubting its popularity.

Another confusion is that since 1966 the island Selkirk landed on was renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe, whereas the island where the fictional Crusoe was shipwrecked is off the coast of Venezuela, some 3,000 miles away. Chile also renamed a smaller island (Más Afuera) Isla Alejandro Selkirk, although it had no connection to him at all!

Defoe was likely well aware of the various tales of shipwrecked sailors and his fictional hero may well have been a combination of several, plus his own imagination. But whether he really was the inspiration for ‘Robinson Crusoe’ or not, Alexander Selkirk has become intertwined with its history, and his statue will remain in many people’s minds as the true likeness for Robinson Crusoe.

REFUGIO exhibition

View artist Roger Palmer’s take on the Selkirk-Robinson Crusoe story in his exhibition ‘REFUGIO – after Selkirk after Crusoe‘ – at Kirkcaldy Galleries until 23 June. You can download a free sheet about the exhibition.

Also, if you’re in Kirkcaldy on the 300th anniversary of the book’s publication (Thursday 25 April), Fife Contemporary have organised an afternoon event in Kirkcaldy Galleries to celebrate.

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