Ancient history

Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe

Last updated:2022-07-25

In order not to go mad, Selkirk used to read aloud the Bible he had been able to keep • WIKIMEDIACOMMONS

By anchoring his Duke ships and Duchess near the island of Más a Tierra, their captain Woodes Rogers had no idea that the next day he would see a man come out of the forest dressed in goatskins, walking barefoot and holding an old rusty musket. A strange smile of relief seemed to emerge under the long bushy beard of the stranger, named Alexander Selkirk, who had lived here for four years and four months in the most crushing solitude. Daniel Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe , was inspired by his story and that of other castaways.

The corsair mission goes wrong

Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676 in Scotland, into a family of tanners. Of a restless and problem nature, he embraced the career of a sailor and in 1703 embarked on a mission led by William Dampier aboard two privateer ships, to attack the Spanish colonies in America in the hope of gaining enrich. The expedition barely crossed Cape Horn, sailed up the Pacific coast and besieged the mining town of Santa María, Panama. Poor diet and disease, however, sparked clashes between sailors and their officers.

The crew had been sailing for almost a year and had amassed only meager loot. After a failed assault on two merchant ships, from which the English fleet did not emerge unscathed, the two privateer ships decided to separate. Alexander Selkirk remained on board the Cinque Ports , which was responding to Thomas Stradling's orders and set sail for the Juan Fernández Archipelago. The crew took advantage of a stopover on the island of Más a Tierra to refuel with water and fresh produce, but the captain refused to carry out the repairs to the ship that Alexander Selkirk nevertheless considered essential.

Dropped after an argument

In the ensuing altercation, Selkirk announced that he would rather stay there than go back to sea on a ship in such poor condition. Seizing the opportunity to get rid of a problematic element, Stradling took the Scotsman at his word and abandoned him on this steep and inhospitable island, armed with a musket, with a pound of powder, an axe, a knife, a cooking pot, a bible, clothes and some navigational instruments. The Scot thus unwittingly escaped the sinking of the Cinque Ports , a month later, whose few survivors were captured by the Spanish; Thomas Stradling himself spent four painful years in a prison in Lima before returning to England, ill and ruined.

The first eight months were the most trying for Alexander Selkirk:"He had to fight against the melancholy and the terror of finding himself alone in such a desolate place", said his liberator, Woodes Rogers. He stayed close to the beach, scanning the horizon for a friendly sail, and fed on crustaceans, molluscs and sea turtles. wracked with hunger and would not go to bed until exhausted,” Woodes Rogers added.

Also read:The terrible fate of the castaways of the Batavia

With sea lion mating season, the beach was overrun with aggressive males. Forced to retreat to the interior of the island, Alexander Selkirk then saw his situation improve:introduced by the Spaniards, the goats he found there were easy to hunt and provided him with the ingredients for "an excellent broth ". He supplemented his diet with turnips, wild cabbage leaves, and other plant products, and used pepperwood to build two huts:one for cooking, the other for resting. He decided to tame a few cats to ward off the rats that tormented him, especially at night, when they "gnawed at his feet while he slept".

He learned to survive on limited means:when the gunpowder ran low, he resorted to running to chase the goats (of which he counted around 500 taken), and when his clothes were a heap of shreds, he adopted skin clothes that he had tanned using techniques he inherited from his father. He finally made several knives from iron rings salvaged from an abandoned barrel, the metal of which he chiselled and sharpened against rocks.

Do not go mad

However, contrary to what is told in Daniel Defoe's novel, in which Robinson meets a "savage" whom he baptizes Friday, Alexander Selkirk spent more than four years deprived of any companion in misfortune with whom to share his sorrows and soothe his loneliness. . Alexander Selkirk spent his time carving his name on trees, taming goats that kept him company, or reading the Bible aloud to avoid going mad.

If "he saw several boats passing during his stay on the island", he had to hide from the only two, Spaniards, who anchored in the bay:their crews would have captured him and sentenced him to work in the mine because of his Scottish origins and his pirate past. But the Spaniards discovered him, "shot him and chased him" into the depths of the forest, relieved their bladders on the tree where he had perched, but failed to capture him and went back the way they had come. after hunting several goats.

In 1709, when Woodes Rogers' expedition landed on the island, they found there a man "whose memory of his own language was so hazy that he struggled to make himself understood." It took several months for Selkirk to resume drinking liquor and food or putting on shoes on his calloused feet. Woodes Rogers decided to enroll him in his fleet as a second officer. Duke Ships and Duchess weighed anchor, sailed up the Pacific coast, and attacked Guayaquil (now Ecuador); on the coast of Mexico, they took control of the galleon Nuestra Señora of the Encarnación y Desengaño , from which they drew a fabulous booty. Then, after a stay in the Dutch Indies, the expedition crossed the Cape of Good Hope to land on the 1 st October 1711 in England.

A paper hero

This year coincided with the publication of the first work quoting Alexander Selkirk:A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711, the account of the officer of the Duchess , Edward Cooke. In 1713, it was the turn of the newspaper The Englishman to devote an article to him. Meanwhile, in 1712, the Scot had testified to his experience aboard the Cinque Ports before a court, and Rogers had published the book that contributed most to his fame and was undoubtedly read by Daniel Defoe:A Cruising Voyage Round the World.

Crowned with short-lived fame, Selkirk failed to fully readjust to civilization and became embroiled in altercations fueled by his addiction to drink. He returned shortly after to Scotland, without claiming his share of the spoils. In 1717 he returned to London and enlisted in the Royal Navy. He succumbed to yellow fever in 1721 aboard HMS Weymouth , who controlled piracy off Ghana, and was buried at sea. After his death, two women claiming to be his wives came forward, each waving a will in his favor and arguing over his possessions:the deceased had deceived them both.

In 1719, the writer Daniel Defoe took Selkirk as the model for the hero of his new novel, "Robinson Crusoe".

Selkirk's adventure found its greatest expression in 1719, in the novel Robinson Crusoe . According to specialists, Daniel Defoe was also inspired by other famous castaways of the time, such as Robert Knox, who had spent 19 years in Sri Lanka among the natives, or Henry Pitman, who had fled a penal colony in the Caribbean. The first edition of the novel, whose cover showed a Crusoe conforming to the description of Selkirk by Woodes Rogers, nevertheless testified to the omnipresence of the Scottish privateer in the minds of publishers and readers of the time.

The historical character thus ends up merging with the fictional character. Two centuries later, Chile went so far as to rename the two islands of the Juan Fernández archipelago:the island of Más a Tierra, which was the refuge of Selkirk, took the name of "Robinson Crusoé" to attract tourism, while the island of Más Afuera took the name of "Alejandro Selkirk", who had never set foot there.

Find out more
• The Mad Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe, D. Souhami, Otherwise, 2006.
• Robinson Crusoe, D. Defoe, Flammarion, 2010.

Alexander Selkirk was born in the county of Fife, in the east of Scotland. He was the seventh and youngest son of John Selcraig, a hide tanner.
He embarks on a corsair expedition aboard the Cinque Ports, who aspired to plunder the riches of the Spanish colonies.
After arguing with the captain of his ship, Alexander Selkirk is abandoned on a desert island in the Juan Fernández archipelago.
After four years of solitude, Alexander Selkirk was rescued by the privateer Woodes Rogers, who included him in his expedition.
Enlisted in the Royal Navy, Alexander Selkirk succumbs to yellow fever while on a counter-piracy mission.

A healthy eating savage
As he approached the island of Más a Tierra, the privateer Woodes Rogers saw appearing before him "a man dressed in goatskins, who looked even wilder than their original owners":it was Alexander Selkirk, who "ran at terrific speed" to hunt goats and was in excellent physical shape due to his lifestyle. His enforced alcohol deprivation and diet benefited his health. Combined with "the goodness of the air", the meals he cooked of vegetables and goat meat enabled the sick of Woodes Rogers' expedition to "recover very quickly from scurvy". P>