The Real Robinson Crusoe: the Miraculous Story of Alexander Selkirk

Written By Wise Healthy n Wealthy

In September 1703, a hot-headed Scotsman called Alexander Selcraig joined a privateering expedition to South America. He was the ship’s navigator, but he could never have guessed the crazy directions this ill-fated voyage would take him in.

The events that followed involved mutinous buccaneers, a remote island off the coast of Chile, and a survival story for the ages that inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Here’s what happened.

Statue of Alexander Selcraig/Selkirk in his hometown of Lower Largo, Scotland. Image Credit: SylviaStanley, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Who Was Alexander Selcraig?

Alexander Selcraig was born in 1676 in what was then a small fishing village in Fife, Scotland, called Lower Largo.

He was not an easy-going youth. By all accounts, Selcraig was an impetuous, quarrelsome, wayward ruffian who was no stranger to trouble.

Two examples: Once, instead of appearing before church elders to face punishment for some wrongdoing, he decided to set sail and go to sea. Then, in 1701, he beat his younger brother with a wooden staff before turning his wrath on his father, brother, and sister-in-law.

Eventually, two years later, Selcraig’s aptitude for geography and maths helped secure him a place on a privateering (sanctioned pirating by the British crown) expedition to South America being led by a buccaneer called William Dampier.

Nobody really knows why, but from that point on Selcraig became known as Selkirk – the name by which history remembers him.

An Ill-Fated Voyage

In September 1703, two ships set out from Kinsale, Ireland, headed for South American shores. Both ships were overloaded with people. They carried more men than they could accommodate – perhaps in recognition of how many were expected to lose their lives along the way.

The voyage went badly from the outset.

Dissent among the crew, awful conditions, and diseases like typhus, scurvy, and dysentery made things miserable. Fights broke out, food stores got infested with rats and roaches, and an unpopular 21-year-old seaman called Thomas Stradling took command of one of the ships after its captain died of fever.

By May 1704, tempers between crews and captains had frayed to the point where the boats had gone their separate ways. Selkirk was on the Cinque Ports under Stradling’s command, but by September, he’d grown worried it was in no condition to continue sailing.

In dire need of respite, they retreated to the uninhabited Juan Fernandez Island off the Chilean coast, where they’d stopped previously.

Little did Selkirk know that it would be his home for the next four years.

The cave on the island where Selkirk sought shelter on Juan Fernández Island. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Selkirk’s Voluntary Marooning

After a month of restocking the ship with supplies, Stradling ordered the crew to set sail again.

Selkirk refused.

He was convinced the boat was too worm-eaten to withstand the voyage – especially in the battles they’d be entering. An argument between him and Stradling followed, which ended in Selkirk being put ashore with a few minor tools and provisions.

Apparently, this was his list of possessions:

  • Bedding
  • Musket, pistol, and gunpowder
  • Hatchet and knife
  • His navigation tools
  • Pot for boiling food
  • Tobacco
  • Cheese and jam
  • Flask of rum
  • Bible

No one else stayed with him.

When he saw the other men return to the ship and start sailing away from the island, he was struck with regret. He waded out into the sea and begged them to come back, but Stradling refused.

As it happened, Selkirk had been right about the ship. It wasn’t long before it foundered off the coast of present-day Peru. Only Stradling and a handful of the crew survived, but they were captured by the Spanish and suffered harsh imprisonment.

Selkirk depicted on the right of the boat following his rescue. Image Credit: Robert C. Leslie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Selkirk’s Island Life and Rescue

It would be four years and four months before Selkirk was rescued.

In that time, he lived alone, devoid of human contact, living under constant threat of discovery by the Spaniards who sailed those waters (and who weren’t exactly known for their mercy to British pirates). On one occasion, he’s said to have climbed a tree to evade a Spanish search party.

On February 2, 1709, a voyage led by English privateer Captain Woodes Rogers landed on the island.

Incredibly, one of the ships was piloted by William Dampier – the man in charge of Selkirk’s own fateful voyage, but who’d taken his boat elsewhere following the dispute with Stradling. This connection helped persuade the rescuers Selkirk was who he claimed to be.

It turns out that he’d ended up thriving on the island.

The first months had been challenging. The isolation, hunger, gale-force storms, and vicious rats made Selkirk so despondent he apparently considered suicide.

However, he’d heard stories of at least two other men in the past who had lived for years alone on this same island. One of them was a Moskito Indian named Will, who’d survived three years there (some believe he could have been the inspiration for the character Friday in Robinson Crusoe).

Over time, Selkirk slowly turned things around.

Fish and crayfish were plentiful. There were also goats on the island, which provided meant and skins he used for clothes. And he even domesticated feral cats that became useful rat killers. He kept a fire lit 24/7.

His active outdoor lifestyle made him fit and agile. He’d sing psalms and read his bible. Ultimately, he eventually made peace with his predicament and found the solitude restorative. He described himself as more joyful and a better Christian on the island than he’d ever been before.

Nevertheless, Selkirk never gave up hope of rescue.

He found a lookout (that’s now named after him) atop a mountain that provided panoramic views of the ocean. From that vantage point, he would have seen Rogers’ boat approach over the horizon.

Selkirk depicted reading the bible in a hut he built on the island. Image Credit: AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Real-Life Robinson Crusoe

By the time Rogers found Selkirk, over four years of isolated survival had taken its toll. He was bearded, clothed in goat skin, and was barely comprehensible, having gone without conversation for so long. His bare feet were so tough they swelled up in shoes.

Rogers helped fix his appearance and gave him a position as a navigator on one of his ships. From there, they spent two further years attacking Spanish galleons at sea before finally returning to Britain in late 1711.

Upon his return, Selkirk’s story got out. It earned him celebrity status. Soon after, Daniel Defoe, who’d been intrigued by Selkirk’s tale and who had met Woodes Rogers, wrote his famous novel Robinson Crusoe, which took the world by storm.

However, despite returning to his hometown of Lower Largo, Selkirk never fully adapted back to “normal” life.

The contentment he’d found on Juan Fernandez Island dissipated. He became an unhappy, lonely man who drank too much and got into fights. He’s even said to have tried to replicate his island life there, creating a cave-like shelter with a view of the harbor behind his dad’s house.

Eventually, at the end of 1720, he returned to seafaring. It would be his last voyage. In December 1721, somewhere off the coast of West Africa, Selkirk died of Yellow Fever and was buried at sea.

Today, Selkirk’s famous island home has been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island.



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