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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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.


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