Alexander Selkirk died on the 12th of December, 1721.
Most folks associate Robinson Crusoe with desert islands, goatskin clothing and Man Friday. Few recollect or are aware that Crusoe’s adventures continued long after he left his Caribbean island and included fighting off snow wolves in the forests of Russia. Perhaps fewer still know that Defoe’s character was inspired by a real life castaway – Alexander Selkirk from Largo, in Fife. Selkirk also inspired ‘Desert Island Discs’, but he wasn’t around to hear the radio programme launched. During the four years and four months he spent on ‘Más a Tierra’ island off the coast of Chile, Selkirk certainly found his way around, exploring the island and waiting for a ship to pass by. Ironically, in 1966, in search of tourist dollars, the Chileans renamed the rocky outcrop ‘Isla Robinson Crusoe’ (and an island he never saw, ‘Isla Alejandro Selkirk’). Some still persist in suggesting that Selkirk’s story wasn’t the source of material for the first part of Robinson Crusoe, however, there is circumstantial evidence that the author of ‘The Life and Most Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner’ met Selkirk in one or other of two Bristol pubs; the ‘Cock and Bottle’ and the ‘Star’.
Alexander Selkirk or Selchraige (Selcraig) as per the family usage, was born in Lower Largo, in 1676. It was in 1695 that he first went to sea and seemingly as a result of his temper. Later, Selkirk the sailor was known for having a short temper and perhaps his inability to get along with other people was precisely why he successfully endured his island sojourn. Parish records show that “Alexr. Selchraige” was summoned before the Kirk Session on the 27th of August for “his undecent beaiviar in ye church”, but he fled to sea before his case was heard as the records also show: “he did not comper, having gone away to þe seas: this business is continued till his return” [sic]. Selkirk returned home briefly, in 1701, only to vanish back to sea after some further trouble and it was another thirteen years before he came back.
In 1703, Selkirk was the Sailing Master on board the galley, ‘Cinque Ports’, which sailed together with the ‘St George’ on a privateering expedition to the ‘South Seas’, led by the English navigator and ‘notorious privateer’, William Dampier, and a Captain Pickering. Selkirk’s captain aboard the ‘Cinque Ports’ was Thomas Stradling, who seems to have gotten a bad press in some stories. Whatever the relationship between Selkirk and Stradling, the Scotsman was abandoned on the island of ‘Más a Tierra’ in the ‘Juan Fernández’ archipelago, 400 miles off Chile, through his own volition. In October of 1704, his ship anchored off the island for a reprieve, but the argumentative Selkirk was concerned about its seaworthiness as it was leaking badly. He forcibly, albeit justifiably, pointed out that the vessel’s timbers were riddled with marine worm and tried to convince some other crew members to stay behind with him. He gambled upon being rescued by a passing ship, but any that so did must’ve passed in the night as he ended up stranded and alone for over four years.
According to Captain Woodes Rogers, who commanded the ship that rescued Selkirk, all that the “wild man” was able to have carried ashore was “his Clothes and Bedding, with a Firelock, some Powder, Bullets, and Tobacco, a Hatchet, a Knife, a Kettle, a Bible, some practical Pieces [instruments for navigation], and his Mathematical Instruments and Books”. According to the British essayist, Sir Richard Steele, who later wrote about Selkirk, the castaway’s heart “yearned within him, and melted at the parting with his Comrades and all Human Society at once” as the vessel put off, but Steele never suggested that Selkirk tried to chase the departing boat, nor called to be taken back on board. It was as well he didn’t, for Selkirk’s resolve saved his life. He later discovered that his ship had sunk near the Peruvian coast soon after he had been left forlorn. Most of the crew drowned, but Captain Stradling and some of the men made it to an island from where they were later taken to Lima by the Spaniards, who “put them in a close dungeon and used them very barbarously”.
As soon as it became apparent that the rescue wasn’t imminent, Selkirk resigned himself to making his island habitable. He was not the first person to live there as in 1575, Spanish explorers had brought goats to the island, and subsequent ships had landed cats and the inevitable rats, as well as having planted radishes and parsnips. In fact, two of Selkirk’s crewmates had spent six months ashore some time previously. Selkirk lived off those goats and tamed feral cats so that they would defend him against the rats that nibbled on his feet at night. He never gave up hope of returning home, but he was prone to “revolutions in his own mind” and unlike Crusoe, with no Man Friday to speak to, he lost some of his speech. He did have a couple of visitors though, but he had to pretend he wasn’t ‘in’ as they were Spanish. His rudeness was entirely in order as they did nasty things like shoot at him and pee against his hiding place; a large tree up which he had climbed.
By a remarkable coincidence, when Selkirk was liberated on the 2nd of February, 1709, Rogers’ pilot was William Dampier; he who had led the fateful 1703-4 expedition. Captain Rogers later wrote that Selkirk “came here last with Capt Dampier, who told me that this was the best Man in her; so I immediately agreed with him to be a Mate on board our Ship”. The first published reference to Selkirk’s adventures occurred in 1712, the year after he returned to England, when Edward Cooke published ‘A Voyage to the South Sea, and around the World’. Cooke wrote, “He was cloath’d in a Goat’s Skin jacket, Breeches, and Cap, sew’d together with Thongs of the same”. Also in 1712, Rogers, Selkirk’s rescuer, published ‘A Cruising Voyage Round the World: First to the South-Sea, thence to the East-Indies, and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708, and finish’d in 1711. Containing a Journal of all the Remarkable Transactions. An Account of Alexander Selkirk’s living alone Four Years and Four Months in an Island.’ In that, he remarked on the castaway’s agility: “He ran with wonderful swiftness…. We had a bull-dog, which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him in catching goats; but he distanced and tired both the dog and men…”.
In 1713, the journalist Steele wrote about Selkirk’s adventures in ‘The Englishman’ and recorded that the civilised world “…could not, with all its enjoyments, restore [Selkirk] to the tranquillity of his solitude”. Steele noted that “This plain man’s story is a memorable example, that he is happiest who confines his wants to natural necessities”. Selkirk himself was quoted as having said “I now have 800 pounds [his share of booty], but never again will I be as happy as I was then, when I had not a single quarter penny.” Selkirk could never really readjust to life on land and, in 1720, a year after he was immortalised by Defoe, he joined the Royal Navy. Lieutenant Alexander Selkirk died of yellow fever, on board H.M.S. ‘Weymouth’, at 8pm on the 12th of December, 1721. He was buried at sea off the west coast of Africa. Defoe’s novel was published in 1719.