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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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.”


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