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Who was Alexander Selkirk? The Man who Inspired Robinson Crusoe

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Sometimes there' s nothing better than getting away with an adventure story, where you follow a protagonist who finds himself on an uninhabited island and has to survive. But sometimes the best stories are not hidden in the pages of a novel or the rolls of a film. Some of the most incredible stories are real and have nothing to envy about fiction. The adventure of Alexander Selkirk is one of them. 

Selkirk was a Scottish pirate of the late 17th and early 18th centuries who is known to have survived on an uninhabited island for over four years. But before telling you how this man managed to survive for so long alone on an island, you may be wondering who Alexander Selkirk was? 

Identity Card

Alexander Selkirk Statue

Statue of Alexander Selkirk at the site of his original house on Main Street, Lower Largo Fife, Scotland. 23 September 2009. Author Sylvia Stanley

  • Last name: Selkirk (or Selcraig)
  • First name: Alexander 
  • Gender: M
  • Date of birth: 1676 (exact date unknown)
  • Date of Death: 13 December 1721
  • Occupation: Sailor, Privateer
  • 📚 Book dedicated to him:
    • The Original Robinson Crusoe, a Narrative of the Adventures of A. Selkirk and Others by Henry Cadwallader Adams
    • Alexander Selkirk: The Real Robinson Crusoe by Amanda Mitchison
    • The Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe by Richard Wilson
    • etc.
  • 🎥Film dedicated to him:
    • Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe by Walter Tournier

A Pirate's Destiny from the Start

Alexander Selcraig was born in Lower Largo, a fishing village in the east of Scotland. The seventh son of a shoemaker and a tanner, young Alexander is often described as a hothead, a rambunctious boy, in short, a kid who gets into trouble. He got into all sorts of trouble, such as the time he behaved "indecently in church" or when he fought with his brothers. 

In 1695, aged only 19, Selkirk was summoned before the kirk-session (a church-related court) to have his behaviour punished. He didn't even show up; he had already left Scotland for an expedition to South America on a privateer ship. He changed his name during this period from Selcraig to Selkirk. 

A few years later, in 1703, Selkirk joined the crew of William Dampier, an English privateer. The difference between a privateer and a pirate is quite simple, a privateer is a pirate but under the authority of a government. In the case of Dampier, the British government, but for other nations, Dampier is just another pirate. 🏴‍☠️

portrait of William Dampier

William Dampier Portrait by Thomas Murray (1663-1734)

The expedition was in the South Pacific Ocean, Dampier was in charge of the St George and a certain Thomas Stradling was in charge of the Cinque Ports where Selkirk was working. The Cinque Ports was a massive sixteen-gun, ninety-ton ship that was intended to fight Spanish and French vessels in the near South American waters. For some historians, this war is the real First World War, involving some of the greatest nations of the time. 

It was a dangerous expedition, in 1704 the Cinque Ports fought a battle against a French ship, the St Joseph, with losses on both sides, the French ship managed to escape to warn its Spanish allies of the coming English raiders. Barely two months later, in May 1704, the captain of the Cinque Ports, Thomas Stradling, decided to abandon Dampier and go into business for himself. 😈

But Stradling was an unpopular captain, especially in the eyes of Selkirk, who did not like the young commander's decisions. There was one decision in particular that Alexander Selkirk did not like at all. 

Pirate and Mutineer, Alexander Selkirk finds himself Abandoned on a Deserted Island

There was a gloomy atmosphere on the ship, fights, sickness, little food, a quick change was necessary for the young captain if he wanted to avoid a mutiny. Stradling's ship found some hope in September of that year when the Cinque Ports stopped at an island known as Más a Tierra, in the Juan Fernández archipelago. 🏝

Robinson Crusoe Island

Robinson Crusoe Island, as seen in the late 19th or early 20th century. The ship in Cumberland Bay is the cruiser Esmeralda. Carpenter, Frances, 1890-1972 and Carpenter, Frank G. (Frank George), 1855-1924

The crew stopped to find provisions, water and make repairs to the ship. But when Stradling gave the order to leave, Selkirk refused, judging the ship unsafe to sail. He said he would rather stay on the island than leave. It is likely that the Scottish sailor had a mutiny in mind against the young captain, and besides, our protagonist had already gained considerable experience at sea. 

But things didn't work out as planned, no other sailor sided with him and Stradling decided to make an example of Alexander. The captain left our main character on the largest island of the group with a musket, a hatchet, a knife, a pot, a Bible, bedding and some clothes. 

Selkirk immediately regrets his decision and begs his superior to forgive him, a performance that the young captain must have found very amusing given that the two men hated each other. Stradling refuses and leaves the Scottish pirate to his fate and sets sail with the rest of the crew. 

Between Life and Death: Alexander Selkirk's perilous Survival on the Island 

At first, Alexander was content to read the Bible while waiting for help, thinking that an English ship would pass by the island in the next few weeks or months. He waited longer than he expected, four years and four months in fact. He spent the first few weeks scanning the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of an English ship, feeding on lobsters and small crustaceans, but he didn't stay long on the island's shores. 🦐

He suffered from loneliness, but he was not alone for long, as colonies of elephant seals settled on the beaches during the mating season. The Mirounga leonina (breed of elephant seal) is a massive animal, it can weigh up to 3.7 tons and can be up to 6 meters long. These massive animals made so much noise that Selkirk had to retreat to the interior of the island. 

Bull elephant seals fighting over a harem of females

Bull elephant seals fighting over a harem of females. Author:Hullwarren

Although Más a Tierra was uninhabited, this was not always the case, Spanish sailors had introduced cats, rats and goats to the island. The goats in particular helped Alexander to survive, thanks to the milk and meat. 

In addition to the goats, the island had wild turnips, dried fruit and spices, so they could eat reasonably well. Rats were a problem, of course, as they attacked Alexander at night.This problem was solved by domesticating the cats. 😸

As you can imagine, to survive alone for more than four years on an island you have to be resourceful. This is the case of our protagonist, who had made two shelters out of pepper trees, one to cook and another to sleep in. He also managed to make a knife from the iron bars of old abandoned barrels. Hunting was easy at first with a musket, but when the meagre supply of gunpowder ran out, he soon learned to hunt on foot.  

Speaking of feet, Alexander's shoes did eventually get old and break, no problem for this survivor, his feet became so adapted to walking barefoot that he no longer needed them. He was also able to use his tanning skills (his father was a tanner) to make "home-made" goat leather clothes using nails for the seams. 🐐

But even with ingenuity and resourcefulness, it is difficult to come out of such an adventure unscathed. Selkirk almost died during a hunt, he fell off a cliff while chasing a wild goat, he owed his survival to luck, he fell on his prey which absorbed his shock. He was immobilised on the ground for a day before he managed to get up. 

The Scottish sailor had a second near-death experience, in four years, two boats had stopped on the island, unfortunately for Alexander, both were Spanish. A Scottish privateer was reportedly captured and killed by Spaniards during this period. He was spotted by the crew of one of the two ships and fled into the heart of the island. He is said to have hidden under a tree and one of the Spanish sailors urinated right next to him without seeing him.

The last notable thing about this period in Alexander Selkirk's life is that he got “much closer to God”. He read the Bible, prayed and sang psalms for comfort and to keep his English up to scratch. 🙏

Selkirk reading his Bible

"Selkirk reading his Bible", 1834. The Life and adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe: a narrative founded on facts

Fortunately for Alexander, his loneliness did not last forever. Like any good story, one day something incredible happens. 

The Day the Nightmare Ended

On February 2, 1709, Selkirk's dream finally came true, as a British ship passed close to the island. Alexander lit a signal fire so that he would not miss his chance to leave this place for good. If this day is so incredible, it is not only because of the ship, but also because the crew included William Dampier, who had led the expedition before Thomas Stradling abandoned it. 

This time, William Dampier was not the captain but the pilot, the captain and leader of the expedition was Woodes Rogers, to whom he told the story of his abandonment and survival. Imagine the face of the sailors who found a castaway alone on an island, dressed in goatskin, screaming with joy at the thought of seeing British sailors. 

The wrecked man helped the sailors as much as the other way round, some of the men were suffering from scurvy and the ship needed provisions. No problem for Alexander who took care of the crew. Rogers even called Selkirk the governor of the island. Rogers would be one of the first to exploit the vein of adventure Romans by telling Selkirk's story. 📕

Alexander Selkirk Title Page

Title page of the book The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe (1835), Author: Anonymous.

Indeed, the captain said with surprise, "It may be seen that solitude and retirement from the world is not so unbearable a state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was." Which is all the more impressive when you consider that he was left alone for four years and four months alone. 

Selkirk, as if Back from the Dead for his Family

Selkirk could have returned to Scotland, but he was a pirate and decided to stay with the crew to raid Spanish ships off the Mexican coast. Less than a year after his rescue, he became captain of the very ship. 

Steele Richard portrait

picture of 18th century english Tatler journalist Richard Steele. Author: Unknown

It was only two years later, in 1711, that he returned to England, rich in stories but poor in gold. He met the writer Richard Steele, who told his story, which made him £800 rich (which was a lot in those days compared to today). 💰 

When he returns to his home village in Scotland, his family are surprised to see him. They thought he was long dead and he is found over 20 years later alive and well. He soon becomes a local celebrity for his exploits. 

A Banal Death for an Exceptional Life 

The trauma of his loneliness on the island is felt, Alexandrer was already not a great diplomat, he is even less able to live in society than before. True to himself, he was soon accused of fighting with a carpenter, for which he was imprisoned for two years. He spends much of his spare time spending his fortune at the pub, telling his stories to the curious. 

Fight of the Poursuivante

Combat de la Poursuivante contre l'Hercule, 1803, Louis-Philippe Crépin (1772-1851)

Selkirk was not made for a quiet life, so he left Lower Largo for London in 1717 with Sophia Bruce, a 16-year-old milkmaid. Unsurprisingly, their romance was short-lived, and he returned to sea less than a year later as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. In 1720 he married a widowed innkeeper he had met in Plymouth, but this story did not last long either. Not because they broke up, but because Selkirk died the following year.

Alexander Selkirk died at sea on 13 December 1721 of yellow fever off the coast of West Africa. In the 18th century, people did not live very long compared to today, especially when they were pirates.This is especially true for someone who had to overcome so much hardship as Selkirk, dying at 45 is a very respectable age to die in this context.  

The Fate of Selkirk's Ancient Crew

The fate of the men sailing in the Cinque Ports was not very fortunate. Thomas Stradling's crew suffered perhaps more than our protagonist. After abandoning Selkirk on Más a Tierra, it wasn't long before the ship took on water. 💧

Half the crew drowned off the coast of Colombia, Stradling and the other half of the men had to go to the Spanish to avoid starvation. They were tortured and imprisoned in Lima, Peru. 18 prisoners, including Thomas Stradling, survived. Perhaps on that September day of 1704, Stradling should have listened to Alexander...

What Legacy Did He Leave?

With a life like that, Alexander Selkirk left an indelible mark after his death, not least in his home village. 

  • A speech was given on 11 December 1885, where a bronze statue and plaque were unveiled to honour the memory of this extreme survivor. 
  • A bronze plaque was also placed on a place called Selkirk's Lookout on the island of Más a Tierra where Selkirk remained. 
  • Más a Tierra was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island by Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva to attract tourists. Ironic when you consider that the adventures of Robinson Crusoe take place on a Caribbean island, not a Chilean one. 
  • The island of Más Afuera (another island in the Juan Fernández archipelago) has also been renamed Alejandro Selkirk Island. Even though Selkirk probably never set foot on this island. 
  • As mentioned on his Identity Card, several books and a movie are dedicated to his story. 

Despite the raw, down-to-earth life he led, Selkirk is now primarily known through fiction. When the world first laid eyes on Daniel Defoe's adventure novel Robinson Crusoe, the comparison with the Scottish sailor came quickly. The author's inspirations are probably numerous, not to mention the things he made up himself, but the influence of Selkirk's story is undeniable. 🌴

Alexander Selkirk is now known as "the real Robinson Crusoe" and is one of the best known adventurers of his time. 

Conclusion

Although the sources on Selkirk's story seem to agree on most points, one must be careful about the veracity of some of the statements (including in this article). Adventurers tend to embellish their stories and authors draw heavily on reality to create their stories. There is no single inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, Selkirk is simply the best known. 

To end on a philosophical note, Richard Steele (the man who made Selkirk famous) said "This plain Man's Story is a memorable Example, that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural Necessities; and he that goes further in his Desires, increases his Wants in Proportion to his Acquisitions; or to use his own Expression, I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing.”

This quote from Steele brings to mind the thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Swiss philosopher and writer) on the evolution of man in society: "Nature has made man happy and good, but [...] society depraves him and makes him miserable."

Perhaps the best thing that can happen to you is to find yourself on an island with the minimum. To be pondered! 🤯

Thank you for taking the time to read this article, if you were Selkirk, would you have survived? Let us know in the comments! 

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Author: Felix

Felix is a very curious person who is always looking to learn and explore. Always in search of the unknown, he hopes through this blog to share with you his passion for adventure and vintage objects

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