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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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.


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