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Issue 64 - Alexander Selkirk

Scotland Magazine Issue 64
August 2012


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Alexander Selkirk

The consummate survivor

The original castaway and seafaring adventurer, Alexander Selkirk was almost certainly the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Selkirk was born in 1676, the seventh son of a cobbler and tanner in Lower Largo, Fife. He appears to have been a rebel from the start. In 1695 he fled judgement by the Kirk Session (ecclesiastical court) for unspecified indecent behaviour, in pursuit of a life at sea.

A sailor in those days could be little more than a pirate, as long as the ships he attacked and pillaged belonged to the enemy. At that time the enemy was Spain, and British privateers were patrolling the coast of South America looking for a fight.

Selkirk took instantly to the life of a buccaneer. He was clearly intelligent, learning valuable navigational skills that saw him promoted in 1703 to sailing master on the Cinque Ports, a 90-ton privateer with 16 guns. The ship was captained by Thomas Stradling, and part of an expedition commanded by the famous privateer and explorer, William Dampier.

It was a risky life, fraught with danger, which was no doubt part of the appeal. But Selkirk did not have a death wish, and when he expressed concern about the seaworthiness of the
Cinque Ports he soon found himself marooned on an uninhabited island in the Juan Fernández archipelago, about 400 miles off the coast of Chile.

Selkirk could not have known that it would be more than four years until he was rescued. Later accounts told that he took with him only a Bible, a few tools, bedding, a musket and powder, tobacco and the clothes on his back.

At first he hung around the shoreline, scanning the horizon for boats and subsisting on shellfish. But in time he ventured inland and discovered feral goats waiting to be hunted and a variety of edible plants. He set up a permanent camp, building two huts out of pimento trees.

As the months passed, Selkirk had to replace his clothes. He must have been thankful for his knowledge of his father’s tanning business when he skinned and tanned goat hides to make new clothes. He is even said to have forged a new knife from barrel rings he found on the beach. Selkirk had proven himself to be a consummate survivor.

Twice he was forced to hide when Spanish vessels anchored off the island and came ashore for supplies. He must have been desperate for contact with another human being, but as a Scottish privateer he could not risk being captured by the Spanish.

Eventually on 1st February 1709, rescue arrived in the form of his old friend, William Dampier. Selkirk learned that he had been right about the
Cinque Ports after all. It had sunk off the coast of Peru, and all the crew drowned except for the captain and seven other men. If Selkirk had not left the ship when he did, he would either have drowned or been captured as a prisoner of war along with the other survivors.

Selkirk got straight back into his old job, soon becoming master of his own ship alongside Woodes Rogers. In 1712 Rogers published an account of Selkirk’s castaway experience, under the catchy title:
A cruising voyage round the world: first to the South-Sea, then to the East-Indies, and homewards by the Cape of Good Hope.

This, alongside an article in
The Englishman, no doubt provided the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719.

In 1717 Selkirk returned to Scotland and his home town of Lower Largo. But he always had itchy feet and he only stayed a few months before eloping to London with a 16 year old dairymaid (whom he did not marry).

He went to sea again, and later did marry a widowed innkeeper while on shore leave. But soon he was off again, this time as a lieutenant on board the Royal Navy ship Weymouth.

This was where Alexander Selkirk met his end at the age of 45, succumbing to yellow fever along with most of the crew. His death was recorded in the ship’s log as occurring at 8pm on 13th December 1721. He was buried at sea off the west coast of Africa.

In 1966 ‘Selkirk’s island’ was officially renamed Robinson Crusoe.