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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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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.

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