• Carolyn

Robinson Crusoe

In my research about Patagonia during the period 1880 to 1920, it's easy to become distracted and to follow up other strands and engrossing stories - stories that don't always lie within the period that I'm studying.

Many of the accounts have to do with unseaworthy ships that sailed around Cape Horn, and the story of Robinson Crusoe is one of those. The novel was based on the real-life experiences of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish privateer and Royal Navy officer who spent four years and four months as a castaway on an island in the South Pacific Ocean.

In 1702, Selkirk was taken on as master of the Cinque Ports, a merchant ship that was allowed - by the Lord High Admiral - to be armed in self defence, and to attack ships that were enemies of Britain. In essence, it was a pirate ship.

Along with the St George, the Cinque Ports sailed south along the eastern coast of South America and around Cape Horn. Together, the ships planned to capture Spanish ships with gold cargos, or, further north, to capture the Acapulco–Manila ship, which was nearly always laden with treasure.

But in February 1704, on the way up the west coast of South America, the crew briefly mutinied at the Juan Fernandez islands. Added to this, the Cinque Ports spotted a French ship, and gave chase, leaving its sails and gear behind on the island. Even so, the voyage progressed, but neither the St George nor the Cinque Ports were properly maintained and both began to leak. In September the ships parted ways and the Cinque Ports returned to the island to recover her sails and gear, only to find that the French ship had removed them.

At this stage, Alexander Selkirk carried out a personal rebellion by refusing to sail on the ship. As detailed in the UK National Archives: 'He felt that the state of the ship was so bad and his relations with Captain Stradling so strained that he would rather take his chances marooned on Mas a Tierra, one of the uninhabited islands of the Juan Fernandez group. He was left with a gun, a knife, a hatchet, some oats and tobacco, as well as a bible, books of devotion and some navigational instruments. At the last moment, Selkirk asked to be taken back on board but Captain Stradling refused to take him back. In the end, Selkirk’s decision, albeit reluctantly, turned out to be a wise one. The Cinque Ports leaked so heavily after leaving Juan Fernandez that the crew had to abandon ship and take to rafts. Only 18 sailors survived to reach the South American mainland where they were captured and mistreated by both the Spanish and the native people.'

In 1888, William Eleroy Curtis described Selkirk's adventure in his book, The Capitals of Spanish America. He states that, to Selkirk's surprise, after he had been on the island a few days, he found a companion - a man from the Mosquito Coast of Central America, who some years before had gone ashore from a pirate ship to hunt, and who was lost and abandoned by his comrades. This was the person who, in the fictionalised book, became 'Man Friday.' Curtis writes that Selkirk and his companion were eventually rescued by an English merchant-ship, and taken to Southampton, where he told his story to Daniel Defoe.

Whether or not a companion actually appeared, Selkirk managed to survive by eating spiny lobsters, feral goats and wild turnips. He made himself a new knife from barrel hoops left on the beach, built shelters, and hid from Spanish ships that anchored off the islands.

Curtis describes the island as follows: 'The visitor who is familiar with 'Robinson Crusoe' can find the cave, the mountain-paths, and other haunts of the hero without difficulty. . . it is about twenty-three miles long and ten miles wide in the broadest part, and is covered with beautiful hills and lovely valleys, the highest peak reaching an elevation of nearly three thousand feet . . . Great care has been taken to preserve the relics of Alexander Selkirk’s stay upon the island, and his cave and huts remain just as he left them . . . In 1868 the officers of the British man-of-war Topaz erected a marble tablet to mark the famous lookout from which Mr. Crusoe, like the Ancient Mariner, used to watch for a sail, “and yet no sail from day to day.”

After being rescued, Selkirk continued his pirate life. But interestingly, he was serving as master's mate on board HMS Weymouth, engaged in an anti-piracy patrol off the west coast of Africa, when he died on 13 December 1721, succumbing to the yellow fever that plagued the voyage.



Project Gutenberg's The Capitals of Spanish America, by William Eleroy Curtis, 1888, Harper & Brothers, NY

The illustration is from the Project Gutenberg eBook, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe


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