Just how much loneliness, isolation, and solitude can a person endure before they break, and how can they find the strength to push past it to survive? Throughout history there have been tales of those brave, hardy souls who have endured and struggled through such hardships and somehow found a way to survive the debilitating scourge that true solitude and never-ending challenge can bring. One of the most famous true stories of human triumph over both the outer forces of nature and the gnawing inner forces of depression and grief is that of a British privateer who found himself cast off onto a remote island far from civilization, where he fought against both the yawning chasm of despair and the numerous pitfalls of a rugged land out to kill him, to emerge almost a hero and to give inspiration to one of the most famous adventure novels ever published.
One of the most amazing real life stories of adventure and survival against all odds starts in the sleepy fishing village of Fife, located in Lower Largo, Scotland, and right across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. It was here in 1676 that a man named Alexander Selcraig, mostly now known as Alexander Selkirk, was born into the family of a humble leather tanner and shoemaker. As he grew older, Selkirk quickly became known as a hotheaded, unruly youth who was prone to losing his temper at a moment’s notice, and it was this fiery disposition that would land him in trouble time and time again. In his teenage years he was known to be constantly unruly in church, drink incessantly, get into brawls, and generally be violent and confrontational towards those around him. One of the worst incidents of this violence occurred when Alex turned his wrath on his own family; beating his father, two brothers, and his brother’s wife with a wooden stick after his younger brother made fun of him for accidentally taking a swig of saltwater.
This family strife was further exacerbated by the long simmering conflict and percolating animosity between Alex and his father, John, over Alex’s refusal to help at the family tannery and shoemaking business. After a while, this volatile atmosphere and Alex’s constant run-ins with the law and the church caused John to threaten to disown his unpleasant, abrasive son altogether, and at the age of just 17 Alex pushed out on his own, where he would launch into a life of adventure. He became caught up in the world of buccaneering, which was more or less pirating that was legalized by the British Crown during the years of the War of the Spanish Succession fought between England and Spain. Selkirk joined several such raiding parties prowling the South Seas in search of Spanish vessels to attack, and he became a scourge for the Spanish and a wanted man. During these swashbuckling years, Selkirk proved to be a tenacious and resourceful seaman, and accrued a good deal of seagoing experience, particularly in the area of navigation.
In 1703, Selkirk embarked on one such privateer expedition composed of two armed merchant vessels, the Cinque Ports and the St George, under the command of the explorer and notorious buccaneer William Dampier. Selkirk found himself aboard the Cinque Ports, which was under the command of a Captain Thomas Stradling, and they began a long, perilous expedition to raid and plunder all up and down the coast of Central and South America. Eventually, the Cinque Ports would push out on its own and separate from its sister ship after a dispute between Dampier and Stradling.
Almost immediately Selkirk and Stradling had been at odds with each other, Selkirk’s unpleasant demeanor, disdain for authority, and constant complaints about the filthy, rundown condition of the ship creating bubbling tension between the two. Selkirk was also often drunk on duty, prone to arguments or fights with the crew, and was generally seen as an unruly, irresponsible lout. Indeed, it seems that Selkirk was not particularly well liked by any of the crewmen aboard the vessel, but he was mostly tolerated for his exceptional navigation skills and experience at sea.
It was with this atmosphere of brewing aggression and tension that things got worse, with sickness and a vitamin C deficiency called scurvy ravaging the crew, and the rotting, roach infested grain and other supplies reaching dangerously low levels. The filthy, damp living conditions aboard the worm-eaten vessel were also eating away at morale, with roaches and rats skittering and running rampant everywhere. Additionally, the Cinque Ports had by that time already been engaged in numerous raids and was battle worn and in disrepair. All of these factors conspired to create a simmering animosity that spawned many fights between crewmen and several near mutinies. In 1704, the Cinque Ports had further misfortune when it rounded Cape Horn through fierce storms and found itself in an epic battle with the French vessel St Joseph, which unfortunately managed to escape and likely warn the Spanish enemy of their presence. The already beat-up Cinque Ports had suffered heavy damage during the confrontation and went off to lick its wounds.
It was in this state of disarray, cursed by disease and weariness, and roiling with aggression to the cusp of mutiny, that the battle-scarred Cinque Ports limped up to the Juan Fernández Islands, an uninhabited archipelago in the South Pacific, located 620km (418 miles) to the west of Valparaiso, Chile. It was at this isolated, remote group of islands that the men would take sanctuary, rest their weary souls, and restock on provisions such as fresh water, fish, wild turnips, and feral goats that roamed the forests there. The Cinque Ports spent a month at the islands replenishing supplies and regaining their health, after which Captain Stradling ordered them to push on. This was where the slowly fuming tensions would finally erupt in earnest.
Selkirk argued that the Cinque Ports was in no condition to go to sea again, let alone continue raiding Spanish vessels, as it was badly damaged and leaking profusely to the point that it required constant pumping by the crew to keep it afloat. A heated debate ensued over the ship’s seaworthiness, which resulted with the defiant Selkirk demanding to be left there on the islands, as well as imploring the rest of the crew to do the same or risk dying at sea aboard their ailing vessel. Stradling, who had long loathed Selkirk and was now enraged by his brazen act of defiance, obliged by taking him to an uninhabited forested, mountainous island technically owned by the Spanish which was called Más a Tierra, where he was dumped ashore with some of his belongings. Yet even then Selkirk was undeterred, confident that others would abandon their deathtrap of a ship as well to stand by him.
It must have come as a surprise then when not a single one of the other crewmen joined him as he had hoped, and indeed Selkirk began to have second thoughts. As the Cinque Ports began to slowly sail off, Selkirk called after them to come back, frantically wading out into the surf waving his arms and begging to be let back on, but the ship ignored his pleas and he watched it shrink and slip over the horizon. Although Selkirk could not possibly have known it at the time, and was perhaps regretting his decision to leave, the Cinque Ports would end up sinking at sea shortly after, just as he had predicted, and its few survivors taken prisoner by the Spanish.
Abandoned and alone in the solitude of a remote, desert island far from civilization, Selkirk took stock of his few belongings; some clothing, a few miscellaneous tools, his navigation equipment, a pot, a flask of rum, a musket, a hatchet, some tobacco, and a Bible. It wasn’t much, but Selkirk had never doubted that he would be rescued before long. He went about setting up a temporary makeshift camp along the coast, where he believed he could more easily spot the ships he was certain would appear over the horizon before long. For sustenance he captured fish and spiny lobsters in the island’s lagoon, as well as giant island crawfish in the streams there, which he grudgingly ate raw. He was often not successful in catching anything, making hunger a constant companion but he was blessed with a steady supply of fresh water from the streams.
As the days passed by into weeks and months with no sign of any ships out over the vast water, Selkirk began to grow lonely and morose, and doubts started to creep into his mind over whether the rescue he had been so sure was forthcoming would ever come at all. He began to face the stark realization that he may be on that island forever, and steeled himself for the worse. The constant gnawing hunger pangs were joined by a new torment in the form of thunderous, unearthly wailing unlike anything in his experience that he began to hear piercing through the night, which was in fact caused by the arrival of thousands of raucous southern elephant seals that had begun to congregate on the islands for mating season. Adding to his woes were the swarms of introduced rats that would scamper from the darkness of the lush rainforest to attack him in the night, biting at his clothes and feet. All of these hardships, combined with his crushing loneliness, made Selkirk so depressed by the prospect of being there forever that he often contemplated killing himself with a bullet from his musket. Selkirk, who had once shunned the church, began to read his Bible and sing hymns in order to pass the time and keep himself sane.
With no help in sight, little food, constantly accosted by rats, and frightened by the very large elephant seals that were progressively invading the coastline, Selkirk decided to try his luck inland, heading out into the island’s jungle choked interior and the unknown. It turned out to be a smart move. The lush interior provided far more materials for building, and the ever resourceful Selkirk fashioned both a hut for sleeping and one for cooking. He was also able to make a knife out of some barrel rings he had found on shore, long discarded relics from some anonymous, forgotten expedition. It was in the cooking hut that he was able to start a fire with the plentiful wood of the forest and some flint from his musket, which he kept burning day and night, although he went through great lengths to conceal the smoke and fire so as not to attract unwanted attention from Spanish ships that may pass by the island.
There were also more food sources at his disposal within the jungle. In addition to plentiful wild turnips, berries, cabbage palm, watercress, and pimento pepper, there was also ample meat available in the form of the many feral goats that roamed the island, which had been introduced here by passing European explorers just as the rats had been. Selkirk use the skills he had used from his tanner father to fashion new clothes from the skins of the goats as well. He could have made shoes, but his feet had become so calloused as to make them obsolete. The rats continued to attack him every night, but Selkirk was able to somewhat domesticate feral cats, also brought by passing explorers, by drawing them in with food. These cats began to frequent the camp and served to keep the rats at bay as well as provide a rudimentary form of companionship.
Selkirk also went about creating a lookout post 1,800 feet up a steep, muddy trail. From this position he could see for miles around the island, which would serve to not only help him both spot any potential rescuers, but also to give him a heads up if any prowling Spanish galleons approached the island. Although the trek up to the top of the mountain was arduous and not a little dangerous, Selkirk made frequent hikes up to his vantage point, where he spent hours solemnly scanning the lonely horizon for any sign of life, surrounded only by the sound of the crashing waves and shrieking seabirds.
However, although his shelter and food situation had improved, there were still hurdles to be faced. While Selkirk had at first been able to kill goats with his musket, his supply of gunpowder inevitably was used up, forcing him to chase the animals on foot and kill them with his knife. To do this, he would patiently lie in wait, ambush the animals, then chase them to tackle and make the kill. It was dangerous work to be sure, as he risked injury each time he went out hunting in this manner. On one such hunt, Selkirk was chasing a goat when he slipped and fell from a cliff. He survived the fall, but was knocked unconscious and was unable to move for a full day. Luckily, he suffered no permanent injuries from the frightening incident, possibly because the goat, which had tumbled over the ledge with him, had broken his fall.
The months turned into years as Selkirk determinedly eked out a living on the island, slowly forgetting what civilization or companionship had been like and becoming a sinewy, dirt smeared, wild-eyed, bearded feral shadow of his former self, clad in dirty goat skins, almost more animal than man. The promise of ever being rescued gradually withered away with his hope. In the years that Selkirk was on the island, only two ships would land there, and neither one of them was anyone he wanted to see. On one occasion, a Spanish vessel landed briefly on the island as Selkirk hid in the forest watching from afar, but luckily the ship left shortly after. He was not so lucky on another occasion. In this incident, another Spanish ship landed on the island and Selkirk was spotted by one of the crew. A pursuit followed as Selkirk frantically ran for his life into the thick jungle, with the Spanish even going so far as to fire at him. He was able to elude them and hide up in a tree as the Spanish scoured the area for him. It must have been a tense situation, as the search party allegedly passed right under his tree, with one Spanish pursuer actually stopping to urinate on it. All they would have had to do is look up. Eventually the frustrated Spanish gave up and the ship slipped off into the distance, leaving the unsettled Selkirk to wonder just how much his luck would hold out if it were to happen again.
It was after nearly 5 years of solitude on the island that rescue would finally come. On 2 February 1709, a British expedition, composed of the privateer vessels the Duke and the Duchess and under the command of a Woodes Rogers, landed at Más a Tierra to restock on supplies. It must have been quite a shock for the landing party when out of the trees crept Selkirk to greet them, looking more like some jungle beast than a human being. The British men had seen better days, as their food supplies had dwindled to almost nothing and most of the crew was sick with scurvy. Selkirk, overjoyed by his rescue, offered the astonished, half-starved men a hearty goat stew and went about supplementing the ships’ meager supplies of stale bread and rotting rations with fresh meat and vegetables from the island.
In an amazing twist of fate, Selkirk was recognized by the pilot of the Duke, who was none other than William Dampier, who had commanded the fateful Cinque Ports and St George expedition. The leader of the Duke expedition, Rogers, was captivated by the tale Selkirk had to tell, and amazed that he was so healthy and vigorous after being alone on the island for so long. He was so impressed by Selkirk that he nicknamed him “The Governor of the Island,” and made him second mate and navigator aboard his own vessel. It was from here that Selkirk would return to his privateering ways, spending nearly three years raiding Spanish ships, capturing galleons for ransom, and even making an excursion up the Guayas River in Ecuador to rob gold and jewelry from a group of wealthy Spanish ladies who had taken refuge there.
It was during these years of privateering in the wake of his rescue that Selkirk completed his long delayed circumnavigation of the world by the Cape of Good Hope. It would not be until October of 1711, nearly 8 years after he had been marooned, that he would finally return home to England. Upon his arrival, Selkirk became somewhat of a celebrity when Captain Woodes Rogers and the English essayist and playwright Richard Steele both published accounts of his adventures, which captured the imagination of the public and made Selkirk famous.
The tale would attract the attention of the author Daniel Defoe, who is likely to have used it as inspiration for his beloved and classic 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe, also known by its rather unwieldy original full title of “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates,” which went on to become one of the most famous and widely recognized novels of all time. Although it is a work of fiction, this famous story of an Englishman shipwrecked and marooned on a desert island shares many of the same situations and beats as Selkirk’s experiences and is most certainly influenced by these true events. Robinson Crusoe was a smash hit, and would further propel Selkirk’s fame. It was indeed Defoe’s novel that would lead to Selkirk’s island being later renamed by the Chilean government to Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966 in an effort to attract tourists.
Yet for all of the fame and fortune, Selkirk was ultimately unhappy with being back in civilization. The food did not agree with him, he found modern life to be dull, and he felt that talking and forming relationships with others was exhausting. He is said to have returned to his previous drunken antics, and is said to have travelled from pub to pub either captivating people with his tales or getting into fights. He yearned for the simple, peaceful life he had had on the island. When he finally returned to Scotland, it is said that he had little to say to his family, who had long thought him dead, and even went as far as to build a shelter similar to the one he had had on the island, from which he would wistfully peer out over the bay.
Inevitably the pull and promise of adventure out over the horizon could no longer be denied. The sea called to Selkirk, its gravity irresistible, and he once more set out over the waves. He enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1720 and was later stationed as master’s mate aboard the HMS Weymouth, which had begun a mission to scour the waters off of Guinea and the west coast of Africa looking for pirates. It would be Selkirk’s last journey. The voyage was plagued by yellow fever and typhoid, an inexorable wave of death which reportedly killed off dozens of the crew within the first year. Death would come for Selkirk as well, when on 13 December 1721 he succumbed to yellow fever and was buried at sea. It was a rather mundane end for a figure that had fought through worse hardships while managing to come out unscathed, and who had inspired so much awe due to his adventures. A memorial plaque would in later years be placed at the location of Selkirk’s family home in Lower Largo, Scotland.
Just what exactly Selkirk went through over his many years on the island is often debated and remains a mystery. The only accounts are the second hand ones published by those who had heard his stories directly and could have been changed. A diary is thought to have been kept by Selkirk, but this has never been found and so the exact details of his adventure remain elusive. In recent years there has been some archeological evidence found on the island linked to Selkirk’s time there and hinting at his way of life. Expeditions to the island looking for clues to the castaway’s life have uncovered evidence of Selkirk’s camp, such as postholes and pimento tree structures near a freshwater stream and trail leading up to the lookout, as well as a drinking vessel thought to have been carved by him, a pair of navigational dividers dating from the late 17th or early 18th centuries, fire sites, and even a sea chest of northern Italian origin which may have been plunder from the Mediterranean that was brought ashore by Selkirk when he started his exile.
In recent times, Robinson Crusoe Island has become home to a small, quaint and rugged settlement of people who are mostly spiny lobster fishermen and who don’t see many visitors aside from the occasional cruise ship stopping by on its way to or from the Galapagos Islands. In the 2002 census the island’s population was 633 people, but this dropped by around a third when a tsunami generated by the February 2010 Chilean earthquake wrought havoc on the island. The tragedy caused a good amount of damage to the island and killed 16 people, as well as spark a serious inquiry into the failure of the Chilean Navy and the national tsunami warning services to issue a warning to the villagers.
The tale of Alexander Selkirk is more than just a rip-roaring true yarn of high seas adventure and intrigue. It is a meditation on just what drives the human soul to fight through tremendous difficulties and crippling loneliness. It is a testament to the power and resourcefulness of the human spirit, the will to survive at all costs, and the strength we have within us to defiantly look death and the odds in the face. It is no wonder Selkirk’s story spawned one of the most classic adventure stories of all time. While many mysteries and much debate seem to orbit the saga of Alexander Selkirk, it sure is difficult not to get caught up in the pure grandeur, adventure and courage of it all. What would you do if in his position? Is there any way to really know without being thrust into the situation for oneself? What would be the limit that you would be able to endure? Selkirk gained firsthand knowledge of the answer to these questions, and he smashed through the struggles to become one of the most fascinating survivors in history. No matter how much of the story is real or embellished, it gives hope that perhaps in the right conditions we could do the same.