There was little doubt in anyone’s mind at Alexander Selkirk was headed for a life of trouble.
As a youth, he’d twice been summoned before his local church council to answer for such indiscretions as pummeling his siblings and not conducting himself properly during services. In the 1841 book, The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, The Real Robinson Crusoe, author John Howell politely describes Selkirk’s own mother as realizing that he was “one that would pass through some great events,” and “being guilty of very bad behavior.” To keep him out of trouble – or at least away from jail – she encouraged him to leave his native Scotland and take to the sea as a privateer during the War of Spanish Succession.
It wasn’t unusual for men, especially those without financial means, to turn to the ship life when it seemed they were out of other options. After all, a privateer is really just a government-sanctioned pirate – Selkirk and his comrades aboard the Cinque Ports were tasked with attacking Spanish ships and looting anything of value they had on board, keeping a percentage and returning the rest to the English navy. Their ship and others like it were given Letters of Marque from the crown – a sort of permission slip for piracy. It was hard work and an often fruitless journey. At sea for over a year they suffered both gains and losses at the hands of the Spanish and French.
In 1704, Captain Thomas Stradling sailed the Cinque Ports to the island of Mas a Tierra, off the coast of Chile. It was their second stop there in six months; the first almost ended in mutiny as the crew refused to reboard the ship. This time, Selkirk staged a one-man protest about the condition of the vessel. It was in horrible condition, he argued and needed repair. It was damaged by worms and leaking, and Stradling was an ineffective leader who frequently quarreled with his crew.
Selkirk was taking his chances, he said, on the island. Captain Stradling agreed and provided a few rudimentary necessities (“a gun, a knife, a hatchet, some oats and tobacco, as well as a bible, books of devotion and some navigational instruments“) before ordering the rest of his crew back to ship.
Legend has it that Selkirk immediately regretted his impending isolation and asked to come back to the ship, but was swiftly denied.
“His heart sunk within him, and all his resolution failed. He rushed into the water and implored them to return and take him on board with them. To all his entreaties his comrades turned a deaf ear, and even mocked his despair; denouncing the choice he had made of remaining upon the island, as rank mutiny, and l describing his present situation as the most proper state for such a fellow, where his example would not affect others.”- John Howell, The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk
Selkirk was not only alone on an island 400 miles away from the closest land mass, but he was also in danger from an island inhospitable to human life. Living on the beach proved impossible when aggressive mating sea lions came to shore. Seeking shelter inland, he found that conditions were slightly better – wild goats and cats left behind by sailors provided a source of food, and protection from the rats that chewed at him while he slept – respectively.
As our old friend Alex adapted to island life and the unending solitude that his voluntary marooning brought, he discovered that the animals weren’t the only threat to his life. Twice, Spanish ships came to shore; as an enemy sailor, he would have be arrested, tortured, and most likely killed. Luckily, he was spared that fate and remained undetected and evasive.
After four years living on Mas a Tierra, Selkirk was finally rescued by an English ship, Duke. His perseverance and survival skills had made him lonely, but otherwise in relatively good shape (his only complaint was that he was unable to wear shoes after not doing so for years) – unlike the crew of the Duke, who needed his help supplying food for the crew from his supply of goats.
After returning to England, Selkirk enlisted in the Royal Navy, married, and was buried at sea when he died of yellow fever at around 45 years old. He outlived most of the original crew of the Cinque Ports; the ship was indeed unsafe and riddled with worm-eating holes. It was abandoned after taking on water off the coast of South America, and just 18 men survived, only to be captured by the Spanish and subjected to what we can only guess were fairly brutal conditions.
Selkirk’s most famous pseudo-claim to fame may be that he is credited as being the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel about a shipwrecked sailor and his adventures on a deserted island. The myth is so prevalent that Mas a Tierra was even renamed Robinson Crusoe Island and multiple sources relay the connection as fact. But, as this National Geographic article points out, Crusoe was probably an amalgamation of several shipwrecked and marooned sailors whose stories were well known when Defoe was writing his book, and Selkirk’s circumstances make a direct correlation unlikely.