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The Fascinating Survival Story of Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

The incredible survival story of Alexander Selkirk - the real-life  Robinson Crusoe.

The incredible survival story of Alexander Selkirk - the real-life Robinson Crusoe.

The Real Robinson Crusoe

I suppose most of us would have grown up reading the classic castaway tale of Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in 1719. The tale of the shipwrecked Crusoe marooned on an island, facing natives, cannibals, and pirates, and successfully surviving all the hardships has enthralled readers of all age groups for centuries.

But not many know that Daniel Defoe’s classic has a real-life example in Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor and Royal Navy officer who was marooned alone on one of the islands of Juan Fernández for four years and four months from 1704 to 1709.

Recently archaeologists have even identified the island based on the remains of a campsite that is said to belong to Alexander Selkirk. The island is now called Robinson Crusoe’s Island and is a minor tourist attraction for people wanting to go off the beaten track.

But that is where the similarity between Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk ends.

Unlike Crusoe, Selkirk was deliberately marooned on the island as a punishment for his ‘insolent behavior. Selkirk pleaded with captain Thomas Stradling to be allowed back, but the captain was hell-bent on setting an example. Selkirk finally resigned to his fate expecting another ship to take him back within a few days.

He was wrong by four years and four months.

The cave on Juan Fernandez Island in which Alexander Selkirk lived.

The cave on Juan Fernandez Island in which Alexander Selkirk lived.

Selkirk Was Punished

Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676 as the 7th child of a poor cobbler. As he grew older, he took to the sea and soon became a buccaneer, which essentially meant an English-government authorized legal pirate at that time.

Selkirk soon became the sailing master of a ship called Cinque Ports, serving under a 21-year-old Captain, Thomas Stradling. Stradling was supposed to be an egoistic, arrogant captain, and he instantly took a dislike to the ‘insolent,’ ‘devil-may-care’ attitude of Selkirk, who soon became his sworn enemy.

In September 1704, the ship stopped for water at an island in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago that was completely devoid of human life. Here was when Selkirk got into an argument with Stradling over the seaworthiness of the ship. As per Selkirk, the ship was in bad shape and would sink at any time. In the heat of the moment, he said that he would prefer to stay on the desolate island rather than go back to the ship.

Stradling took his words literally.

Selkirk was put ashore with his bedding, a musket, pistol, gunpowder, hatchet, knife, his navigation tools, a pot for boiling food, two pounds of tobacco, some cheese and jam, a flask of rum, and his Bible. He pleaded to the captain, but Stradling was hell-bent on taking revenge as he sailed away with the rest of the crew, leaving Selkirk high and dry in isolation.

Memorial plaque for Alexander Selkirk, who spent 4 years on the island.

Memorial plaque for Alexander Selkirk, who spent 4 years on the island.

Selkirk Survives on the Island

After the initial few days of loneliness and melancholy, with Selkirk even attempting to commit suicide, he resigned to his fate and started making the best use of the island’s resources.

He fished, caught lobsters, milked goats, and foraged for wild turnips, cabbage, and pepper berries. He even created a new knife out of barrel hoops he found on the beach after his original blade dulled and broke. He chopped down two pepper trees and made two huts, one for himself and the other for his food supplies.

His clothes wore down soon, and he learned how to make clothes for himself from goatskin. His shoes also wore down, and soon he started walking barefoot on the island and developed a really thick skin by doing so.

Life was lonely, and he passed his time by being a good Christian, reading the bible, singing psalms, and even composing his own music by fashioning out a musical instrument from wood strips held with some sort of tree gum.

Selkirk stayed on the island for four years and four months. He was finally rescued by an English privateer named Woodes Rogers, to whom he told the story of his abandonment and incredible survival.

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Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721) was greeted by Woodes Rogers, the captain of the Duke, upon his rescue.

Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721) was greeted by Woodes Rogers, the captain of the Duke, upon his rescue.

Selkirk Was Rescued

Woodes Rogers, the captain of the Duke, later writes about Selkirk's survival skills.

“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.”

Rogers made Selkirk the second mate of the Duke and eventually gave him a ship of his own. After spending several years sailing around the world, he finally headed back to England, becoming a minor celebrity. However, the dull life on land was not for him as he again took to the sea for another privateering voyage, where he died of yellow fever at the age of 55 years.

In the 1960s, Chile changed the name of Más a Tierra, the island that Selkirk was marooned on, to Robinson Crusoe Island. They also changed the name of Más Afuera, another nearby island, to Alejandro Selkirk Island in his honor.

However, the irony could not be greater as both Robinsons Crusoe, the fictional character, and Alexander Selkirk, the real castaway, had never actually set foot on their respective islands. In a way, it mirrors the twisted vagaries of fate by which their incredible stories got intertwined with each other.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 13, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 13, 2021:

Motivational, challenging and hopeful to keep going on for that many years. Being on an island is for 4 years can make you or break you in many ways. Physically, mentally and as a person.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 13, 2021:

Thanks MG. Glad you liked it.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 13, 2021:

Reminds me of Robinson Crusoe. Nice article

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 12, 2021:

All Please feel free to comment about this article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 07, 2021:

Thanks, Miebakagh.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 07, 2021:

Ravi Rajah, the article or story is an interesting read. Equally interesting is the fact that Robison Cruz proved his manhood for 4 years and 4 months on an uninhabitant remote island. The ships' captain could have restrained himself for humanity sake. The deed done, proving the world still a stage, and the men and ladies playing their parts. Much thanks for sharing.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 07, 2021:

Thanks Misbah

Misbah Sheikh on April 06, 2021:

Ravi, I enjoyed reading this story. Truly very motivational and well scribbled. Thanks for sharing

Blessings and Peace

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