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The Real Robinson Crusoe

He was a pirate, a hothead and a lout, but castaway Alexander Selkirk—the author's ancestor inspired one of the greatest yarns in literature

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Three centuries ago an impetuous Scottish sailor known as Alexander Selkirk—though this wasn’t his real name—was languishing off the coast of Chile in a battlescarred, worm-eaten British ship called the Cinque Ports when he began to argue with the captain that the leaky, disease- ridden vessel was a deathtrap.

Selkirk, a skilled navigator, and the ship’s sickened crew were privateers—in effect, legalized pirates for the British Crown—who had spent a year at sea off South America robbing Spanish ships and coastal villages. Selkirk had already been on a similar voyage. He knew all the risks. But by October 1704, as the Cinque Ports anchored off a deserted archipelago 418 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile, he had made a lifechanging decision.

Selkirk demanded that his 21-year-old captain, Lt. Thomas Stradling, whom he regarded as arrogant, leave him on the largest island, a wish that Stradling was only too happy to oblige. By all accounts the 28-year-old Selkirk was a hothead. Back home in Scotland he had beaten up his father and two brothers over a harmless prank and would later leave both the women who claimed to be his wife.

In any case, Selkirk was left ashore, but when he realized that none of the crew was joining him in the mutiny, he frantically waded back into the ocean and begged forgiveness from Stradling, a tyrant who delighted in saying no.

Fortunately, for Selkirk’s sake and world literature’s, he accepted his fate, survived, and upon his return to England, inspired one of the world’s great tales of self-reliance and courage, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Yet the cliché holds true—truth is stranger than fiction. The real life of Alexander Selkirk surpassed Crusoe’s in almost every aspect. But then I may be biased. You see, poor Alex—pirate, lout and hero—was not in fact born with the name Selkirk, but with an even less common Scottish name, one to which I’ve grown attached: Selcraig. Yes, Alex is family. I am, according to Scottish genealogist Tony Reid, directly descended from Alex’s oldest brother, John. Alex apparently never had children.

The first I remember hearing of the Selcraig-Crusoe connection was from my National Geographic-hoarding dad, now 91, who would wait until he had a captive audience at dinner to tell us kids about our Scottish ancestors. We mostly nodded and asked to be excused from the table, but as I grew older, I learned that Selkirk was hardly just a castaway and accidental hero.

When Alexander Selcraig was born in Lower Largo, Scotland, in 1676, it was a fishing village in Fife with fewer than a thousand souls, across the Firth of Forth (an estuary of the North Sea) from bustling Edinburgh, then a metropolis of close to 30,000. Today it’s a quiet weekend destination for harried urbanites where BMWs crawl along a 15-foot-wide Main Street past centuries-old sandstone row houses with orange pantiled roofs and crow-stepped gables.

These days, the wide sandy beach beneath the inviting Crusoe Hotel is still perfect for dogs and long walks, but the herring boats that once choked the harbor are long departed, as are the fishermen, their net factories and the flaxen mills. There’s a tiny corner market, a railway pub and someone who offers “Reiki Indian head massage,” but a more powerful draw for many visitors is that Lower Largo is 15 minutes from Scotland’s cradle of golf, St. Andrews.

Were this the United States, you wouldn’t be able to see the ocean for all the billboards touting Crusoe Land Thrill Rides and Man Friday Burgers, but the Scots are a bit more restrained. Or perhaps it’s because, as a local drama critic put it to me over tea and scones: “Selkirk was a bit of a bastard, more respected in his absence than in his presence.”

Lower Largo’s tribute to its famous son consists of one bedroom-size exhibit room at the Crusoe Hotel, where there are some artifacts and photographs of the Juan Fernández Archipelago, site of his marooning, and a curious outdoor statue of Selcraig on Main Street, dressed in goatskins, looking out to sea as though he had lost a golf ball.

Even Scots seem perplexed by the statue. There’s no museum, no informational display. They stare at it, take a photograph and keep walking. “I think it’s absolute madness that the Crusoe connection is not promoted more,” says Stewart Dykes, owner with his wife, Lesley, of the Crusoe Hotel. “We’ve got something here every bit as big as the Loch Ness monster.”

Selcraig’s unseemly past in Lower Largo is not exactly a literary mystery. The limited amount of factual material about the spirited lad has been mined numerous times, from the early 1800s to 1939 and R. L. Megroz’s The Real Robinson Crusoe. The past four years have seen the publication of three distinct and well-researched books.

One of the oldest accounts, 1829’s The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, by John Howell, describes the mariner as “spoiled and wayward,” made only worse “by the indulgence of his mother, who concealed as much as she could his faults from his father.” Selcraig’s mother, Euphan Mackie, apparently believed that Alex, as the seventh son, was blessed with luck and should be encouraged in his dreams of going to sea. His father, John, wanted the lad to stay home and help with his tannery and shoemaking business, creating a simmering dispute that caused so much “domestic strife and bickering,” Howell writes, that John threatened to disinherit Alex.

Virtually all of these accounts lean heavily on one source, the records of the church (or kirk) elders at the Largo Kirk, known as the Kirk Session Minutes, which I found at the St. Andrews University Library.

On a spitting gray day, I went to the basement of the library, where two very proper women in the special collections department had me stow my bags, briefcases and ballpoint pens, and issued me a No. 2 pencil. I sat at a blond wood table with gooseneck reading lamps as a librarian placed before my incredulous eyes not rolls of microfilm, but the actual Kirk Session Minutes, marked 1691-1707, in a rebound brown cover about 13 inches long and 8 inches wide.

The unlined pages were like beige parchment, stiff though hardly brittle, with slight water damage that had darkened and frayed the edges. Amazingly, I was allowed to handle them without gloves, which, the librarian explained, actually tend to make readers more clumsy and more likely to tear delicate pages.

To the untrained eye, the crowded and tiny brown script seems unreadable, full of mystifying Old Scottish curlicues and words like “dry nieffells”—apparently a bare-knuckles brawl—but here and there you can decipher a punishment handed out for illicit “fornication,” or the one from August 25, 1695, that reads, “Alex[ande]r Selchcraig, son to John Selchcraig” was summoned to appear before church elders for his “Undecent carriage in ye church.” (That would be the imposing gray-stone, 12th-century church that still dominates the neighboring village, Upper Largo.) Two days later, the records state that Alex, then 19, “did not compear [appear] being gone away to ye sea: this bussiness is continued till his return.” It’s unclear exactly where Alex sailed off to, or precisely when he returned, but London-based biographer Diana Souhami suggests that he left with a Scottish colonizing expedition to what is now Panama.

By November 7, 1701, he was in trouble again. His kid brother, Andrew, made the mistake of laughing at him when he accidentally took a drink of salt water out of a can. Alex beat Andrew with a wooden staff, which ignited a family row that led to Alex’s assaulting his father, his brother John, and even John’s wife, Margaret Bell.

Days later Alex “compeared befor the pulpit and made acknowledgment of his sin . . . and was rebuked in face of the congregation for it, and promised amendment in the strenth of the lord, and so was dismissed.” But evidently Alex was fed up with Lower Largo.

In school, one biographer suggests, he had shown some skill at math and geography, and with at least one voyage under his belt, in 1703 he was able to convince buccaneer William Dampier that he was the man to navigate Dampier’s next privateering expedition to South America. It’s at this point, however, for reasons unclear, that Selcraig is forever known as Selkirk. Did he deliberately change his name at sea to distance himself from his past, or did someone misunderstand him? Or, as some researchers say, did consistent spelling of names simply not matter much back then?

Handsome but peculiar, Dampier was one of history’s most complex, and perhaps reluctant, pirates. Some saw him as a cruel, indecisive and incompetent sailor who once narrowly escaped being eaten by his own men in the Pacific and who was court-martialed after losing the British warship HMS Roebuck off the coast of Australia. He was often drunk on duty and would infuriate his crews by letting captured ships go free without distributing loot to his men. Yet his contributions as an amateur anthropologist and naturalist were considerable, and it’s hard to minimize that he was the first man to circumnavigate the world three times.

Because pirates have been so romanticized by actors from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp, it’s easy to overlook that the typical pirate ship stank of animals and excrement, that scurvy and yellow fever often killed so many that corpses were routinely dumped at sea, and that pirates often delighted in macabre torture.

Pirate prisoners would most likely have chosen to walk the plank—a practice more common in TV cartoons than in pirate history—rather than be subjected to sadists like Edward Low, who, in the 1720s, cut off a prisoner’s lips and broiled them in front of the hapless fellow, or those who practiced “woolding,” in which slender cords were twisted tightly around men’s heads in the hope of seeing their eyes burst from their sockets.

Consequently, when commercial shipowners or governments captured pirates, they were rarely shown mercy. Pirate expert David Cordingly, former curator of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, writes in Under the Black Flag that it was common practice in the British colonies to place the body of a captured pirate in a steel cage shaped like a man’s body and suspend it near the entrance to a port as a grisly warning to seamen.

It’s doubtful any of this weighed much on Selkirk’s mind in September 1703 as Dampier’s two ships, the 320-ton St. George and the 120-ton Cinque Ports, prepared to leave the harbor of Kinsale, Ireland, for South America. The ships were small by Royal Navy standards and full of desperate men who perhaps noticed that even the staffing of the ships foretold the danger they faced. The St. George, Souhami writes, was supplied for eight months of travel and carried five anchors, two sets of sails, 22 cannons, 100 small arms, 30 barrels of gunpowder and five times more men (120) than it could comfortably accommodate—a testament to the numbers needed to crew captured ships, but also a morbid acknowledgment that dozens would be lost to disease, battle and desertion.

The voyage started out badly and got only worse, according to an account by Dampier’s second mate, William Funnell.

After two weeks, with 50 miles being a good day’s travel under Selkirk’s navigation, the ships had reached the Portuguese island of Madeira, 350 miles west of Morocco, then the Cape Verde Islands, a major slave port west of Senegal, and on across the Atlantic to Brazil. But literally on the first night, while still in Ireland, a drunken Dampier had a violent argument with one officer, and dissension quickly spread.

By October the men were sick of brick-hard sea biscuits, dried peas and salt meat. They longed for fresh meat and vegetables, but settled for an occasional shark, dolphin or weary bird. As on most ships of the day, the men often slept in wet clothes and mildewed bedding. The ships were incubators for typhus, dysentery and cholera. Amonth later, 15 men had fever, and others were wracked by scurvy, caused by a vitamin C deficiency, which Souhami says claimed more lives than contagious disease, gunfire or shipwreck.

Things got only worse when Capt. Charles Pickering died of a fever in late November and command of the Cinque Portswas given to his lieutenant, Thomas Stradling, a young upperclass seaman the crew disliked. There were fights and nearmutinies as the ship cruised the coast of Brazil. The meat and grain were filled with roaches and rat droppings.

In February 1704, both ships were finally west of Cape Horn’s foul storms and headed north along the coast of Chile, though by now they had lost sight of each other. The Cinque Ports holed up at a rendezvous point on one of the islands in the archipelago west of Valparaiso, but the crew was threatening mutiny against Stradling. Dampier showed up just in time to put down the rebellion by promising a tighter rein on cocky Stradling. But shortly he, too, faced dissent among his sailors, who wanted him to attack more ships.

The St. George and Cinque Ports left the island in March 1704 to continue their plundering along the coasts of Peru and Mexico, where tempers continued to flare. “Stradling,” writes biographer Souhami, “rounded on Dampier, called him a drunk who marooned his officers, stole treasure, hid behind blankets and beds when it came time to fight, took bribes, boasted of impossible prizes and when there was plunder to hand, let it go.”

In May the Cinque Portssplit off from the St. George and spent the summer pirating on its own. By September the ship was so leaky that men were pumping out water day and night; Selkirk believed that it was so riddled with worms that its masts and flooring needed immediate repair.That month the ship returned to the relative safety of the island, a secluded and uninhabited place where the men could regain their health and sanity. Soon Selkirk would look at the island and see salvation.

At a small suburban airport outside crowded Santiago, Chile, six of us stand anxiously beside a drafty hangar staring at an eight-passenger Piper Navajo prop plane. Mechanics are crawling over its dismantled left engine.

This is the twice-a-week flight one takes across 400 miles of frigid Pacific to reach the Juan Fernández Archipelago. A councilman from the island waits with me, joined by a history teacher, a young mother, and two Santiago policemen on a cushy work assignment. We’re all wondering if this three-hour delay might be one of those signs from the aviation gods.

“Don’t worry,” says our pilot, Ricardo Schaeffer, a former colonel in Chile’s federal police, with more than 3,000 flights over 20 years. “We only go when I know it is safe.”

Thus assured, I put my trust in a 1979 craft whose outer skin seems no thicker than a beer can. With surprisingly little turbulence, we finally climb over the city of six million humming past the jagged Andes and across the ocean at 6,000 feet, just above foamy white clouds. We also carry school textbooks and new diapers; returning, we’ll take lobsters and octopus to Santiago restaurants.

After two hours of hypnotic engine drone, Schaeffer points to a growing gray dot on the horizon. “CrusoeIsland,” he says. The Chilean government renamed it RobinsonCrusoeIsland in 1966.

As we bank high above the reddish moonscape on the extreme western promontory of the 29-square-mile island, rugged volcanic mountains are visible in the distance, with seemingly great spots for hiking or diving. A sailor in the 1700s, however, would have seen nothing but trouble— grim, sheer-faced coves rising 80 feet straight up, and not a sandy beach in sight. Yet perhaps Selkirk knew, because mariners had stayed on the island before, that to find anything life-sustaining, like forests and goats, he’d have to sail to the lush northeast end and the well-protected Cumberland Bay, a 90-minute boat ride from the airstrip. On a sunny spring afternoon, whales flirt with the fishing boat carrying us, and dozens of yelping fur seals—an endemic species, Arctocephalus phillippii, that Dampier’s men saw by the “thousands”—sun themselves on the smooth inland rocks. CumberlandBay’s beaches are gray volcanic rocks, but the cove is inviting enough that a half-dozen sloops from Europe and Canada are anchored there.

San Juan Bautista (John the Baptist) village (pop. 600), started in 1750 by the Spanish and still the only community on the island, is spread along the half-moon bay at the base of a 3,000-foot mountain that becomes a rain forest at its top. San Juan Bautista is part sleepy South Pacific fishing village, part eco-tourism hideaway.

Along deeply rutted dirt roads, there are eight or nine summer cabins and basic bed-and-breakfast operations— several hundred tourists came to the village last year—with a few in-home convenience stores, three churches (Evangelical, Mormon and Catholic), a leaky gymnasium, a lively school serving first through eighth grade, a city hall, a small Crusoe museum with translations of the novel in Polish and Greek, and an adjoining library with a satellite Internet connection, thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The homes are wooden bungalows for the most part, weathered but neat, with small yards and big leafy palm or fruit trees. Nearly everyone has TV, which consists of two Santiago channels. There’s neither visible poverty nor glaring wealth, with barely two dozen cars on the whole island, which measures about 2.4 by 7.4 miles.

My guide, Pedro Niada, a witty and well-read fellow who moved here with his wife from Santiago some years ago, estimates that 70 percent of the families still make their living from trapping lobster, but that number is declining. “We can’t lie,” he told me. “There are fewer and fewer lobster, more and more tourists.”

After a month on the island, the Cinque Portswas stocked with turnips, goats and crayfish, yet no less wormeaten. Stradling ordered the men to set sail and leave CumberlandBay. Selkirk refused and told the men to do the same, believing the ship could never withstand the open sea or the battles the men so craved. Stradling mocked his navigator, and that set off Selkirk like he was back in Largo. After a bitter argument, Stradling must have felt he could not back down.

Selkirk was put ashore with his bedding, a musket, pistol, gunpowder, hatchet, knife, his navigation tools, a pot for boiling food, two pounds of tobacco, some cheese and jam, a flask of rum and his Bible. He had made the biggest decision of his life. No longer just a complainer, he had taken action.

But no sooner had he waded into CumberlandBay than he was overwhelmed with regret and fear. He had badly overplayed his hand. Not one of the men had joined him.

Selkirk pleaded with Stradling to be allowed back, but the captain was quite enjoying the moment. His unruly men were certainly watching this pathetic show, this hardheaded seaman begging for his life. Stradling wanted the message to sink in deeply with the crew: leave the ship and this will be you.

Perhaps feeling more stupid and angry than victimized, Selkirk finally turned his back on the Cinque Ports and resigned himself to waiting for what he thought would be a few days until another friendly ship happened by.

He was wrong by four years and four months.

There is no evidence that Selkirk ever kept a diary—he may have been illiterate, though historians disagree—so what we know of his time on the island comes primarily from two sources: his eventual rescuer, Capt. Woodes Rogers, a distinguished English privateer (or despised pirate, if you were Spanish) who wrote A Cruising Voyage Round the World, about his 1708-1711 expedition, and English essayist and playwright Richard Steele, who interviewed Selkirk in 1711 for the magazine The Englishman.

According to them, Selkirk was so despondent for the first several months that he contemplated suicide—presumably with one of his few bullets—and almost welcomed the gnawing hunger each day because it at least occupied his mind. (He had, however, heard stories from Dampier and others about several men who had survived alone on Juan Fernández—one for five years, and a Moskito Indian named Will, who made it alone for three years and is thought by some to be the model for Robinson Crusoe’s man, Friday.) Bellowing sea lions—actually the southern elephant seal, Mirounga leonina, as large as 19 feet and weighing up to two tons—wailed at night unlike any animal Selkirk had ever heard, trees snapped in frequent gales, and hordes of rats, émigrés from European ships, tore at Selkirk’s clothing and feet as he slept. In time, he was able to domesticate some feral cats, who served as companions and exterminators.

Finding shelter and food on the verdant island was less of a problem than keeping his sanity. Fish were plentiful, but they “occasion’d a Looseness” in his bowels, so he stuck with the huge island “lobster”—actually a clawless crayfish. There were so many fur seals that a buccaneer had written 20 years earlier, “We were forced to kill them to set our feet on shore.” For meat he prepared a hearty goat broth with turnips, watercress and cabbage palm, seasoned with black pimento pepper. What he missed most was bread and salt.

Eventually he grew so nimble running barefoot on the steep hills above the bay that he could chase down any goat he wanted. “He ran with wonderful Swiftness thro the Woods and up the Rocks and Hills,” Captain Rogers would later observe. “We had a Bull-Dog, which we sent with several of our nimblest Runners, to help him in catching goats; but he distanc’d and tir’d both the Dog and the Men.”

Selkirk was able to start a fire with pimento wood and his musket flints, and tried to keep it going night and day, but he was careful to hide the flames from Spanish ships; the Spanish were known for torturing their prisoners or turning them into slaves in South American gold mines. He once narrowly escaped a Spanish search party by climbing a tree.

To maintain his spirits, the Scottish navigator sang hymns and prayed. “[H]e said he was a better Christian while in this Solitude than ever he was before,” Rogers later wrote. At some point, Selkirk apparently embraced life again, and like Thoreau, saw deep new truths about himself revealed through the cleansing simplicity of the demands of survival.

“[T]horoughly reconciled to his Condition,” wrote Steele, “his Life [became] one continual Feast, and his Being much more joyful than it had before been irksome.” He learned to live without his vices—alcohol and tobacco, even salt—and found new fascination in the hummingbirds and turtles he had likely ignored as the headstrong Fifer from Largo.

But mainly Selkirk spent hour upon hour scanning the sea for a rescue.

One gloomy morning Pedro Niada and I climbed to Selkirk’s “lookout,” or mirador, a strenuous walk of just under two miles that leads 1,800 feet above San Juan Bautista up a muddy trail. We munched on the same tart red berries that probably sustained Selkirk, waiting for the sky to clear.

When the sun broke through, I understood why Selkirk had chosen this spot. He could not only see for miles in every direction, thereby giving himself an hour or two headstart if he needed to evade the Spanish—who tortured and enslaved captives—but he could also sustain his spirits. As the clouds separated and a rainbow dashed across the glassy sea, I could appreciate what Selkirk must have felt on that fine day, February 2, 1709, when Woodes Rogers’ majestic Duke finally appeared before him.

By then, Selkirk was like a bearded beast on two legs, clothed in goatskins and “so much forgot his Language for want of Use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seem’d to speak his words by halves,” as Rogers reported.

He offered Rogers’ men goat soup and told his story of survival as best he could. He might not have been believed, but Rogers’ navigator was none other than William Dampier, who recognized Selkirk as a comrade from the St. George- Cinque Portsvoyage. Dampier likely told Selkirk the bittersweet news that he had been all too right about the decrepit Cinque Ports. Soon after abandoning the Scotsman in 1704 the ship sank off the coast of Peru, killing all but Stradling and a dozen or so men, who wound up in Spanish prisons.

Rogers helped Selkirk shave and gave him clothes. The crew offered him food, but his diet of fresh fish, goat and vegetables made the Duke’s stale and over-salted rations hard to stomach. His rock-hard feet swelled in the constraint of shoes. In recognition of not only his past skill but also perhaps his ordeal, Rogers made him a navigator once again. Finally, he was headed home. But not immediately.

Rogers would have so much success off the coast of Peru and Ecuador robbing Spanish galleons that the Duke stayed at sea another two years, not returning to London’s ThamesRiver until October 1711, eight years after Selkirk left it.

Woodes Rogers and Richard Steele wrote their accounts of Selkirk’s life on Robinson Crusoe Island in 1712 and 1713, respectively, giving the Fife mariner and his family a fame they had never imagined. In the years that followed, Selkirk became a somewhat eccentric celebrity—he may have married two women at the same time—enriched by his share of the Duke’s plundered riches (about 800 English pounds). For the better part of two years, he dined out on his adventures, wandering from pub to pub in Bristol and London, telling tales of the South Seas for free meals and a pint.

But some months after first meeting Selkirk, Steele noticed that the “cheerful” man he had first encountered now seemed burdened by the world. “This plain Man’s Story is a memorable Example,” Steele wrote, “that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural Necessities . . . or to use [Selkirk’s] own Expression, I am now worth 800 pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a farthing.”

When he finally returned to Lower Largo, he wanted little to do with his relatives. Some biographers say (though others doubt) that he began trying to replicate the best of his life on Juan Fernández, down to a cave-like shelter he built behind his father’s house, from which he would gaze upon the Largo harbor. He evidently became something of a loner and resumed his drinking and fighting.

About this time, Daniel Defoe, a well-known British political activist and author, grew intrigued by Selkirk’s story. Historians have debated whether he and Selkirk actually met—Defoe would have had everything to gain by saying they had, which he never did—but Defoe did meet with Woodes Rogers, and few dispute that the Fife sailor inspired what would become Defoe’s literary sensation, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

Published in April 1719 when Defoe was 59 and Selkirk 43, Crusoe captivated readers unlike anything in its time (and is now considered by many the first true English novel). Laced with politics and social theory, it was part adventure, part Christian allegory, part utopianist attack on British society. The first printing, of a thousand copies, quickly went to a second, third and fourth. The book was translated into French, Dutch, German, Spanish and Russian, making Crusoe one of the world’s most recognized fictional characters. But the author, who had been repeatedly imprisoned for his opposition to the British government, remained anonymous.

“It wasn’t a comfortable time for controversial writers,” says Maximillian Novak, author of Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions— His Life and Ideas. “One British bookseller had already been hanged. Defoe had attacked corporate power and the high Church of England. Crusoe definitely made him some money, but he sold the copyright and ultimately only made a fraction of what he deserved.”

As for Selkirk, in November 1720, at age 44, he returned to the only life that ever meant anything to him, signing on as the first mate of a naval warship, the HMS Weymouth, bound for Guinea and the Gold Coast of Africa in search of pirates. It would be another cursed voyage, plagued by yellow fever and perhaps typhoid. In all his travels Selkirk had never seen “the fever” destroy as many men as this. The ship’s terse log recorded dozens of deaths within a year’s time, often three or four a day. On December 13, 1721, it recorded another. “North to northwest. Small Breeze and fair,” it read. “Took 3 Englishmen out of a Dutch ship and at 8 pm. Alexander Selkirk . . . died.”

As with the others, they threw his body overboard.

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