Wednesday 1 February 2012

Goats and Cabbages with the 'Real' Robinson Crusoe

Today in1709 Alexander Selkirk – the man regarded as the ‘real’ Robinson Crusoe – was rescued after being marooned on an uninhabited tropical island for more than four years. The journey back to England took another two years, and once there he became something of a celebrity. The story of a barefoot ‘wild man’, clad in goat skins, who had used his ingenuity to survive in a hostile environment, obviously appealed to people’s imagination.

Having looked at some contemporary accounts, I started re-reading Daniel Defoe’s tale, but am not very far into it, so I thought I would write about Selkirk instead. I’d always assumed he was shipwrecked, or marooned by his fellow mariners, but he actually asked to be cast away. Born in 1676, in Lower Largo, Fife, he ran away to sea, became a privateer (basically that’s a pirate) and seized goods from Spanish ships. By September 1704 he was a skilled navigator, holding a position as Sailing Master on the ‘Cinque Ports’. But he fell out with the captain because the ship was leaky. Concerned about its condition, he asked to be put ashore at the next island, and was left on Juan Fernandez, more than 400 miles off the West Coast of Chile, with a few clothes, bedding, a musket and powder, some tools, a Bible and tobacco.

It seems that he thought it would not be long until he was rescued,, but remained there for four years and four months. At one stage Spaniards landed, so he hid fearing they would murder him, or make him a slave. It was not until February 1st, 1709, that two British privateers arrived at the island. Amazingly, their pilot was the pirate, explorer and naturalist William Dampier, who had been with Selkirk’s original expedition and vouched for him.

Selkirk’s story was noted down by Captain Woodes Rogers, who later included details in his book of memoirs, A Cruising Voyage round the World. Describing his first meeting with Selkirk he said: “...our Pinnace return'd from the shore, and brought abundance of Craw-fish, with a Man cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who look'd wilder than the first Owners of them...

“He had with him his Clothes and Bedding, with a Firelock, some Powder, Bullets, and Tobacco, a Hatchet, a Knife, a Kettle, a Bible, some practical Pieces, and his Mathematical Instruments and Books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months had much ado to bear up against Melancholy, and the Terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two Hutts with Piemento Trees, cover'd them with long Grass, and lin'd them with the Skins of Goats, which he kill'd with his Gun...”

Journalist Richard Steele interviewed Selkirk soon after he returned to England, for an article in The Englishman, in which he said: “... the eager Longings for seeing again the Face of Man during the Interval of craving bodily Appetites, were hardly supportable. He grew dejected, languid, and melancholy, scarce able to refrain from doing himself Violence, till by Degrees, by the Force of Reason, and frequent reading of the Scriptures, and turning his Thoughts upon the Study of Navigation, after the Space of eighteen Months, he grew thoroughly reconciled to his Condition.”

Thanks to Rogers and Steele we know quite a bit about what Selkirk’s life was like on the island – how eating turtles made him ill, how he killed goats, how he tamed animals, made clothes, and built a hut.

And Captain Edward Cooke, another mariner from the rescue ships, also mentioned Selkirk in his recollection of his travels, A Voyage to the South Sea, and around the World. He gives a very concise picture of the ‘wild man’, writing: “...he continu'd four Years and four Months, living on Goats and Cabbages that grow on Trees, Turnips, Parsnips, &c. He told us a Spanish Ship or two which touch'd there, had like to have taken him, and fir'd some Shot at him. He was cloath'd in a Goat's Skin jacket, Breeches, and Cap, sew'd together with Thongs of the same. He tam'd some wild Goats and Cats, whereof there are great Numbers.”

I must say that a diet of goats and cabbages sounds singularly unappetising.

Anyway, undeterred by his experience, Selkirk continued to sail as a privateer, and when he died in 1721 was buried at sea, off the west coast of Africa. There is a memorial plaque to him on the island, and a statue at Lower Largo. Fuller versions of contemporary accounts  of Selkirk’s story can be found at

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Humans can acomplish a lot when we have to, but Selkirk didn't have to do anything. He could have laid down and died. I don't like goat. If it was between eating goat or starving...goat burgers. I look forward to reading Robinson Crusoe.