ALEXANDER SELKIRK: THE ORIGINAL ROBINSON CRUSO
Among the books that have stirred the imagination of generations of adolescents, the story of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe would certainly figure in the list. The real inspiration for Defoe to write the novel was the adventures of a privateer called Alexander Selkirk.
Selkirk was born in Largo, Fife in the year 1676 and was the son of a prosperous leather tanner. Though a precocious boy he had a bad temper and in dispute he was summoned by church elders to reprimand him for indecent behavior. To escape this he ran away from home and became a sailor. His mathematical skills helped him become a navigator and very soon he was a privateer.
Privateers were really pirates, the only difference being that they had the sanction of the English government to prey on Spanish and Portuguese ships in the Pacific ocean. He was soon the first mate of ‘Cinque Ports’ captained by Charles Pickering and commanded by William Dampier in the accompanying ship ‘Saint George’.
The 1703 expedition to the Pacific ran into trouble. Not only did the privateers’ plan fail, but there was also an outbreak of scurvy. Many died and Selkirk doubted the seaworthiness of ‘Cinque Ports’. His assessment was correct, because one month later the ship sank. But before tragedy struck, Selkirk opted to be put ashore and in September 1704 he was castaway on an uninhabited island 400 miles off the coast of Chile.
He is said to have took with him a few clothes, bedding, a musket, some tools and the Bible. When initial hopes of a quick rescue evaporated he gradually settled down in a habitat which had only goats, cats and rats for company. Two years later he thought rescue was at hand, when two ships came to the island for replenishing water. He soon realized his mistake when he found that they were Spanish ships and he hid until the ships left the island’s shores. He had to wait for another two years for being rescued, and surprisingly William Dampier happened to be the sailing master. He had been castaway at Juan Fernandez for exactly four years and four months.
In 1717 he returned to Largo and for a while he was supposed to have had a love affair with one Sophia Bruce who happened to be a dairy maid. But then later he married a widowed innkeeper in Plymouth but his wanderlust never left him. In 1721 on board the Royal Navy ship Weymouth he died of yellow fever and was buried at sea off coast of Africa.
The adventures of Alexander Selkirk made him a legendary figure. But three hundred years later archaeologists have found evidence of his existence in the lonely island of Juan Fernandez. In an article in Post-Medieval Archaeology about excavations in the Argentinean island of Agueas Buenas (470km off the coast of Chile) evidences were found of a European occupant. Dr David Caldwell, National Museums Scotland who led the dig believes that the evidences found corroborate the claims made by Alexander Selkirk.