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The real-life adventures of Alexander Selkirk formed the basis of Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. Learn more about his unusual life and the influence he had on one of the great classics of English literature.

Early Life

Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish sailor born in 1676.

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As a young man, Selkirk (then called Selcraig) never fit in well with society. He often found himself in trouble with the law for drinking and fighting.At the age of nineteen, he joined the crew of a ship to avoid charges of indecent behavior in a church. During this time, he learned navigation. After a few years, he was back in Scotland. Another brawl (this time with his brothers and father) found him yet again in trouble with the law.

Statue of Alexander Selkirk in his home town of Lower Largo, Scotland
Statue of Alexander Selkirk

By 1703, Selkirk decided he’d had enough of the civilized life, and so he signed on with the Cinque Ports. The Cinque Ports was a privateer ship. Privateers were essentially pirates who worked for the government. They sailed around the world attacking and stealing ships belonging to their government’s enemies. At that time, England was at war with Spain, so the Cinque Ports sailed to the coast of South America to plunder Spanish vessels.

The voyage was long and difficult, and Selkirk did not care for his commanding officer, Thomas Stradling. After a year at sea, many of the crew members had died of illness. Selkirk grew concerned that the rotting, worm-infested hull would rupture.By September 1704, the Cinque Ports had pulled into an island called Mas a Tierra, four hundred miles off the coast of Chile. Selkirk argued with Stradling that the ship wasn’t seaworthy and they should make repairs before departing. Tempers flared, and Selkirk said he’d rather stay on the island himself than risk being on a sinking ship. Stadling had him left on the island with a few supplies, including a musket, gunpowder, and a few other tools.

Selkirk initially stood fast, hoping the crew would side with him. When no one else did, he begged to be let back on the ship, but to no avail. He watched despondently as the ship sailed away.

Marooned

Imagine yourself in Selkirk’s position. You are stranded alone on an island with only a few tools and little hope of rescue. What would you do? How would you live? How would you pass the time?On the surface, Mas a Tierra was a great place to be stranded. Meat was readily available in the form of wild goats and spiny lobsters. A freshwater stream ran through the island. Wild cabbage, pepper, and plums grew in the jungle.

There were no predators or dangerous animals.

Mas a Tierra Island
Mas a Tierra Island

The early months, however, proved difficult for Selkirk. He sank into depression, and rarely bothered to pursue the food all about him. Every night, rats would crawl into his shelter and bite his feet.

After months of listlessness, Selkirk came to accept his fate. He domesticated wild cats to keep the rats away and provide company. He began hunting goats on the island and grew adept at running them down. His feet grew tough and calloused from running over the land barefoot.Selkirk had another advantage. His father had been a tanner, and Selkirk learned how to tan hides at a young age. He used this skill to make clothing out of goat skin.

Over the next several years, Selkirk came to embrace his solitude. The only interruption he encountered was when a Spanish ship landed on the island. Selkirk fled from the Spaniards, knowing that they’d kill or imprison him if they caught him. In the end, he found himself hiding in a tree right above his pursuers, but they never found him.In February of 1709, four and a half years after he was marooned, Selkirk spotted an English ship passing by. His long isolation was at an end.

Rescue and Later Life

The ship was the Duke, captained by Woodes Rogers, who would go on to write about Selkirk’s rescue.

When the crew of the ship encountered Selkirk, he could barely remember how to speak from lack of practice.One of the crewmen, William Dampair, had previously served with Selkirk and recognized him. He informed Selkirk that he was right about the Cinque Ports. It had sunk not long after leaving Selkirk behind, and all aboard either drowned or were captured and imprisoned by the Spanish.

Selkirk joined the crew of the Duke. Over the next two years, the Duke robbed and captured Spanish galleys. Selkirk returned to Scotland a wealthy man in 1711, eight years after he’d left.

Selkirk’s time alone had made him no better suited for society. He drank and fought again, and often found himself unhappy. By 1920, Selkirk had once again grown weary of life in Scotland.

He signed aboard a ship headed for Guinea, but died of yellow fever during the trip.

Popularity and Influence

Selkirk’s story captured the popular imagination. Several short accounts were published about him, and Selkirk himself wandered from pub to pub telling the story to anyone who would buy him a beer.

Shortly before Selkirk’s death, Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. No one knows whether the two met, but Defoe certainly would have been aware of Selkirk’s story. While Defoe changed certain details (Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked, not marooned), the parallels are undeniable.Almost three hundred years later, the government of Chile renamed Mas a Tierra to Robinson Crusoe Island. It now is home to several hundred people who fish for the same spiny lobsters that sustained Selkirk.

Summary

Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish privateer who was marooned for four and a half years on an island in the Pacific Ocean.

He survived thanks to both the island’s abundant resources and his own skillfulness. After his rescue, he continued hunting Spanish ships and grew wealthy from his success. His story became a sensation, sparking several short stories and eventually Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe.

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