I loved Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe growing up. While old fashioned it inspires the imagination and made me wonder how I would react in a similar circumstance. I was surprised some years ago when I discovered that Defoe had loosely based his story on the survival experiences of a real person, Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who spend more than four years a castaway (1704-1709) after being marooned on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean.
In modern physiological research he followed the steps of a survivalist. Starting out feeling lonely, fearful, and regretful; he turned his attitude around and became engaged with survival by setting simple tasks for himself occupying his time with productivity. He appears to have accepted his fate, rather than obsessing over self-pity and rescue developed a sustainable lifestyle of foraging, hinting, and raising feral goats. He utilized rubbish he could find to make tools, and used childhood experience to make leather from the hides of slaughtered animals. At some point he also built living accommodations and found solace reading from the bible and singing psalms.
Selkirk’s personal life both before and after his experience are not noteworthy; he was quarrelsome, unruly, sought the pleasures of the world. He was not interested in the occupation of his father, and tanner and shoemaker, and sought his fortune on the high seas.
Early on, he was engaged in buccaneering. In 1703, he joined an expedition of English privateer and explorer William Dampier to the South Sea, setting sail from Kinsale in Ireland on 11 September. They carried letters of marque from the Lord High Admiral authorizing their armed merchant ships to attack foreign enemies, as the War of the Spanish Succession was then going on between England and Spain. Dampier was captain of St George, and Selkirk served on Cinque Ports, St George’s companion ship, as sailing master under Captain Thomas Stradling. By this time, Selkirk must have had considerable experience at sea.
In February 1704, following a stormy passage around Cape Horn, the privateers fought a long battle with a well-armed French vessel, St Joseph, only to have it escape to warn its Spanish allies of the buccaneers’ arrival in the Pacific. A raid failed on the Panamanian gold mining town of Santa María when their landing party was ambushed. The easy capture of Asunción, a heavily-laden merchantman, revived the men’s hopes of plunder, and Selkirk was put in charge of the prize ship. Dampier took off some much-needed provisions of wine, brandy, sugar, and flour, then abruptly set the ship free, believing that the gain was not worth the effort. In May 1704, Stradling decided to abandon Dampier and strike out on his own.
In September 1704, after parting ways with Dampier, Captain Stradling brought Cinque Ports to an island known to the Spanish as Más a Tierra, located in the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago 670 km (420 mi) off the coast of Chile, for a mid-expedition restocking of fresh water and supplies.
Selkirk had grave concerns about the seaworthiness of their vessel and probably wanted to make the needed repairs before going any farther. He declared that he would rather be left on Juan Fernández than continue in a dangerously leaky ship. Stradling granted his request and landed Selkirk and his personal effects on the island. Selkirk regretted his rashness, but Stradling refused to let him back on board.
Cinque Ports did indeed later founder off the coast of what is now Colombia. Stradling and some of his crew survived the loss of their ship but were forced to surrender to the Spanish. The survivors were taken to Lima, Peru, where they endured a harsh imprisonment.
At first, Selkirk remained along the shoreline of Juan Fernández. During this time, he ate spiny lobsters and scanned the ocean daily for rescue, suffering all the while from loneliness, misery and remorse. Hordes of raucous sea lions gathered on the beach for the mating season, and they eventually drove him to the island’s interior. Once inland, his way of life took a turn for the better. More foods were available there: feral goats—introduced by earlier sailors—provided him with meat and milk, while wild turnips, cabbage leaves, and dried pepper berries offered him variety and spice. Rats would attack him at night, but he was able to sleep soundly and in safety by domesticating and living near feral cats.
Selkirk proved resourceful in using materials that he found on the island: he forged a new knife out of barrel hoops left on the beach, he built two huts out of pepper trees, one of which he used for cooking and the other for sleeping, and he employed his musket to hunt goats and his knife to clean their carcasses. As his gunpowder dwindled, he had to chase prey on foot. During one such chase, he was badly injured when he tumbled from a cliff, lying helpless and unable to move for about a day. His prey had cushioned his fall, probably sparing him a broken back.
Childhood lessons learned from his father, a tanner, now served him well. For example, when his clothes wore out, he made new ones from hair-covered goatskins using a nail for sewing. As his shoes became unusable, he had no need to replace them, since his toughened, calloused feet made protection unnecessary. He sang psalms and read from the Bible, finding it a comfort in his situation and a prop for his English.
During his sojourn on the island, two vessels came to anchor. Unfortunately for Selkirk, both were Spanish. As a Scotsman and a privateer, he risked a grim fate if captured and, therefore, tried to hide himself. On one occasion, he was spotted and chased by a group of sailors from one of the ships. His pursuers urinated beneath the tree in which he was hiding, but failed to discover him. Frustrated, his would-be captors gave up and sailed away.
Selkirk’s long-awaited deliverance came on 2 February 1709 by way of Duke, a privateering ship piloted by William Dampier, and its sailing companion Duchess. Thomas Dover led the landing party that met Selkirk. After four years and four months without human company, Selkirk was almost incoherent with joy. The Duke’s captain and leader of the expedition was Woodes Rogers, who mischievously referred to him as the governor of the island. The agile castaway caught two or three goats a day, and helped restore the health of Rogers’ men, who were suffering from scurvy.
Captain Rogers was impressed by Selkirk’s physical vigor, and also by the peace of mind that he had attained while living on the island, observing: “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.” He made Selkirk the Duke’s second mate, later giving him command of one of their prize ships, Increase, before it was ransomed by the Spanish.
Selkirk returned to privateering with a vengeance. At Guayaquil, in present-day Ecuador, he led a boat crew up the Guayas River, where a number of wealthy Spanish ladies had fled, and relieved them of the gold and jewels they had hidden inside their clothing. His part in the hunt for treasure galleons along the coast of Mexico resulted in the capture of the Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, renamed Batchelor, on which he served as sailing master under Captain Dover to the Dutch East Indies. Selkirk completed the around-the-world voyage by the Cape of Good Hope as the sailing master of Duke, arriving at the Downs off the English coast on 1 October 1711. He had been away for eight years.
Selkirk’s experience as a castaway aroused a great deal of attention in England. Rogers included an account of Selkirk’s ordeal in a book chronicling their privateering expedition entitled A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712). The following year, prominent essayist Richard Steele wrote an article about him for The Englishman newspaper. Selkirk appeared set to enjoy a life of ease and celebrity, claiming his share of Duke’s plundered wealth—about £800 (equivalent to £106,400 today). However, legal disputes made the amount of any payment uncertain.
When Daniel Defoe published The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), few readers could have missed the resemblance to Selkirk. An illustration on the first page of the novel shows “a rather melancholy-looking man standing on the shore of an island, gazing inland”, in the words of modern explorer Tim Severin. He is dressed in the familiar hirsute goatskins, his feet and shins bare. Yet Crusoe’s island is located not in the mid-latitudes of the South Pacific but 4,300 km (2,700 mi) away in the Caribbean, where the furry attire would hardly be comfortable in the tropical heat. This incongruity supports the popular belief that Selkirk was a model for the fictional character.
In short, it is a fascinating story, with great survival implications. While we may never find ourselves stranded on an island like in the story of Robinson Crusoe or the movie Castaway, we should prioritize how we deal with our circumstances if we ever face a long term survival situation. Remembering the Air Force Rule of 3, setting simple tasks to occupy our minds, improving our surroundings, establishing a new mind map that sets your surroundings as “life” and looking on rescue as a pleasant break to reality and not a depressing obsession. We need to accept and embrace that challenge.