February 2 – The Real Robinson Crusoe

For young adventurers, Daniel Defoe’s classic story of Robinson Crusoe and his adventures alone on an island may have conjured up exciting images of being stranded.  However, one Scottish adventurer found out for himself what it is really like to be stuck on an island with very little.  Robinson Crusoe is believed to be based off of the life of Alexander Selkirk, a hot-headed, Scottish sailor.  Growing up, he was indulged by his mother, which helped him refine a spoiled and short-tempered disposition.  An innocent prank by his brother resulted in Alexander starting a family fight.  Fearing to stay and have his case heard, he fled to the sea as a privateer.  Within a few years, he had succeeded at becoming a great navigator.  With his skills, he was appointed to navigate for the “Cinque Ports.”  However, this would be no ordinary expedition for him.  After several months at sea fighting the Spanish, the ship put into port around several islands off the coast of Chile.  The ship and its crew was in bad shape.  The crew was suffering from various diseases, and the ship was leaking and in terrible shape.  Selkirk began to argue with the captain about the condition of the boat, but the captain refused to listen to Selkirk.  In a fit of rage, he demanded that he be left on the largest island.  The captain, who was an arrogant and tyrannical leader, was happy to oblige.  Unfortunately, none of the other men on the ship had any idea of following Selkirk.  Once he realized this, he waded back into the water begging the captain to forgive him and take him back onto the boat.  The captain refused and left Selkirk to fend for himself.  He was left with a few provisions such as a gun and a few bullets.  With his few provisions from the ship, he settled down to wait for another friendly ship to rescue him.  Unfortunately, he underestimated how long it would take.  He was stranded for nearly five years on the island completely alone.  Accounts of what really happened on the island vary, since Selkirk did not keep a diary.  It is unclear if this was because he was illiterate, or simply because he lacked such supplies.  However, most accounts agree that Selkirk spent the first part of his solitude contemplating suicide and yearning desperately to get off the island.  However, at some point, he decided that rescue was a long way off and decided to do his best to survive.  With this change in attitude, he began to accustom himself to providing food for himself from the local animals.  Furthermore, he found ways to avoid being spotted by unfriendly Spanish ships.  What he mainly occupied himself with was watching for a friendly ship.  Hour by hour for nearly five years, he watched the horizon for a ship.  It is even unclear whether he made himself any sort of permanent shelter.  Then, on February 2, 1709, friendly ship dropped anchor just off the coast of the island.  Selkirk lit his signals, and a group of privateers were dispatched to investigate.  They found Selkirk, who looked like a wild man from his years alone.  He was dressed in goat skin, unshaven, and apparently barely able to speak intelligibly.  Luckily, one of the privateers sent to rescue him was a crew member from the “Cinque Ports” and could identify Selkirk.  Despite his long ordeal on the island, Selkirk did evade death.  His predictions were accurate about the sea-worthiness of his former ship.  The ship sank and all but about a dozen of the crew were drowned with her.  Finally, after 8 years away, Selkirk was returned to England.  His name has been lost to history, but, due to Defoe’s compelling story, his story is not forgotten.

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-Selkirk

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/3286355/Mystery-of-Alexander-Selkirk-the-real-Robinson-Crusoe-solved.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/europe/oddities_europe.shtml

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-real-robinson-crusoe-74877644/

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