An old English saying goes: “a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor”. And Alexander Selkirk’s childhood, born in 1679 in a Scottish fishermen village, was at the very least eventful. Regularly sermonized by the local pastor because of his turbulent behavior, young Alexander soon considered the sea as a reasonable emergency escape to his terrestrial responsibilities. His father, a good man who worked as a tanner and shoemaker, witnessed Alexander leaving home at the beginning of the next century.
The Scot decided to join the crew of a British explorer named William Dampier, who had already made a splash a few years before when he circumnavigated the globe. He had become the first Englishman to explore Australia, scribbling in his travel diary notes about a ‘large hopping animal’ located on-site. The young Alexander was certain that adventure was awaiting him over the world’s oceans.
However, the background of this new journey, set to sail from the Irish harbor of Kinsale in 1703, was much different that Dampier’s previous voyage. Three years earlier, Charles II, King of Spain, had died heirless, with European powers were casting an envious eye upon his inheritance. His large empire was coveted by the Austrian Habsburg family, the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach as well as the French Bourbons dynasty… All claimed this kingless territory as their own, though the French appeared to be the only ones to have legitimacy over the Spanish crown.
As always when the French are concerned, England thus decided to do its best to prevent its favorite enemies from obtaining what they desired. Hence another hidden motive behind Dampier’s second expedition: the British corsair was granted letters of marque enabling him to attack French or Spanish fleet and plunder it mercilessly. (These documents, issued by the English admiralty, were kind of permission for lawful piracy, serving political purposes. What a time it was to be alive.)
A year later, Dampier’s vessel St George was sailing through South America, hunting for Panama’s legendary gold cities. Selkirk happened to be a skillful sailor, and was promoted: he then served on the companion ship Cinque Ports as sailing master, overseen by Captain Stradling. However, his life aboard did not really meet his expectations. Diseases spread rapidly, food was truly awful, and poor loots added to the crews’ low morale. Eventually, the ships separated, hoping to find their own way to the South-American promised riches.
The Cinque Ports had just left the wake of Dampier’s main ship when her captain decided to make a stopover at Más a Tierra in September 1704. The latter, a remote volcanic island located about 670 kilometers (420 miles) away from Chilean shores, would supply Stradling’s crew with food and fresh water, and hopefully restore colors to his sailors’ whitish faces.
Once the crew had gone ashore the deserted island’s black rocks, Selkirk decided it was time to have a little chat with his captain. The ship had already suffered many attacks, and cracks caused by enemy cannons or sea damage featured the whole vessel. Concerned about Cinque Ports’ seaworthiness, the ardent Scotsman had a row with Stradling, threatening not to board the ship if no reparation was undertaken. Unfortunately for him, no reparation was undertaken – and though he later confessed remorse for blackmailing the captain, he was no longer admitted on board.
At the end of the year 1704, a helpless Selkirk witnessed the departure of the Cinque Ports from the sand beaches bordering the island. And there he was, powerless, in an apparently inhospitable environment, home to unknown noises and species. Though the Scotsman was watching the boat sailing away with a heavy heart, he ignored that the British ship would soon sink off the coasts of Colombia, while her captain and crew – say, the ones who survived – would end up arrested by Spanish authorities and thrown into the dark prison cells of Lima, Peru.
Selkirk’s early days on Más a Tierra did not sound like fun. After a while, he resigned himself to be rescued and brewed over his impetuous childhood – feeling prisoner of land again. Desperate for company, he buried himself into reading an old Bible, maliciously offered by Stradling upon departure. It became his most prized possession among the items the castaway was allowed to keep: a hatchet, a musket, gunpowder, a cooking pot and some clothing. This set made up his basic survival kit; this only separated Selkirk from the island’s wildness.
A spark of curiosity eventually driving him inland, Selkirk experienced a pleasant surprise: Más a Tierra was home to peaceful feral goats, as well as of a variety of plants and fruit suitable for consumption. His confidence replenished, the castaway built two pepper-tree-made huts atop a hill towering over the island. He also domesticated local cats to protect himself from the voracious pack of rats roaming across the territory. When he needed to darn his holed clothes, his Dad’s tanner know-how came back to him and Selkirk dressed himself out of goat skin from then on. With the benefit of experience, he became more agile at fishing and hunting, and the agitated castaway turned into an avant-garde hippie. This peace of mind also certainly stemmed from his now-regular reading of the Bible, a practice also meant to keep up his English.
Nevertheless, his island adventures sometimes led him to the gates of death. Chasing after a goat one day, Selkirk fell off a cliff and almost broke his back on the spiny, volcanic rocks; luckily, he landed on his target which probably saved his life. Another time, he noticed from his hilltop a vessel heading for a stopover at Más a Tierra; but the odds of him being rescued tumbled as he realized the ship was flying Spanish flag. The castaway then had to shut himself away from his chasers, eventually hiding behind a tree on which his Hispanic chasers urinated without seeing him – a close call, indeed.
Meanwhile, as solitary Selkirk managed to survive on the South-American island, the adventures of his former captain, William Dampier, were far less desirable. Ripped apart by the powerful cannons of a Spanish galleon in December 1704, St George wandered across the Pacific waters, with only about thirty men aboard from stem to stern. The worm-eaten ship, eroded by salinity and the numerous collisions with enemies, ended up foundering off the Peruvian shores. But nothing seemed to dent Dampier’s lust for adventure: he captured another Spanish vessel and headed towards East Indies. Surprisingly, he was not welcome by the Dutch who reigned over that part of the world; despite the strategic alliance between English and Dutch powers, Dampier and his crew were immediately jailed for piracy. The captain would have to wait until 1707 for his release and eventually coming back to his mother country, with scars and headaches making up the only bounty of his vast treasure-hunting enterprise.
Despite the apparent failure of Dampier’s second circumnavigation, the English corsair intended to sail away again so as to salvage his shaken reputation. So one year later, in 1708, he was appointed sailing master to join the Duke’s crew under Captain Woodes Rogers. This time, plunder proved to be more successful: numerous enemy vessels were looted for a sum amounting to more than £20 million (in today’s value)! Had the experienced explorer’s luck finally turned?
Scurvy, however, happened to ruin the party. Running short of lime stocks, the sailors were decimated by the disease, which forced the captain to change his plans. In the early hours of February 2, 1709, Duke was located near the coasts of Chile when the perfect stopover option was spotted, in the form of a deserted volcanic island in the Juan Fernández archipelago. However, an attentive observer aboard warned the captain that a campfire was burning atop the island’s hill… Could this be a Spanish settlement?
This day of February 1709, Alexander Selkirk would surely never forget it. He had spent four years and four months (about 224 Mondays – and who doesn’t hate Mondays?) on Más a Tierra and was no longer distinguishable from a wild goat. He had survived on goat meat, turnips and cabbage, without company other than its Holy Bible and a campfire regularly rekindled – the old reflex of a castaway aspiring to be rescued. Then, when Captain Rogers addressed him (wrongfully considering him as “the island’s governor”), nothing but a Scottish jabbering escaped Alexander’s mouth! One can imagine Roger’s astonishment as he was being happily shouted at by a crazy, goatskin-wearing hippie; fortunately for everyone’s mental state, Dampier later landed on the island and recognized his former sailing master.
“One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was.” – Capt. Woodes Rogers
Once he had recovered his senses, Selkirk decided to use his field experience to treat the worn out sailors, freshly disembarked on Más a Tierra. He skillfully captured some more goats to feed the crew, and his peaceful behavior, which dramatically differed from his former stormy temper, impressed Rogers who soon hired him as second master aboard the Duke. But the old habits would come back to Alexander once he got in touch again with the so-called ‘civilized world’. Far from being done with legal piracy, Selkirk has been serving the English corsair for a few more years, completing his first round-the-world trip – this was a record for Dampier, who became the first Englishman to accomplish three circumnavigations.
October 1, 1711. Finally, the former castaway came back home through the Thames: he had been away from the English shores for eight years, and for long he had not expected this would be a round trip. But the terrestrial curse kept leading him the wrong way, and he was charged with assault. Sailor through and through, Selkirk joined the Royal Navy and passed away ten years later (he was working within an anti-piracy patrol), succumbing to yellow fever. Two years earlier, the English novelist Daniel Defoe had published The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), certainly inspired by Selkirk’s experience, widely echoed by British press as soon as he came back.
Ironically, this was through living cloistered, forgotten from the rest of the world on a remote island that Alexander Selkirk achieved posterity.
- John Loyd & John Mitchinson, The Book of General Ignorance (2006), ed. Faber&Faber, p.239-240
- Les Grandes Figures de l’Histoire, Hors-Série n°5 : « Les Grandes Aventures de l’Histoire et autres voyageurs de légende » (2017), Oracom.