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It’s a small spot on the map. Below the thirty-fourth degree south latitude, the island of Juan Fernandez casts a modest shadow in the vast eastern Pacific Ocean. In 1704, Alexander Selkirk, shouting from the beach of this forgotten island, saw a western breeze carry his ship and crewmates into the October horizon. His next four years would be in solitude as he struggled for survival and, in time, inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Selkirk first went to sea at fifteen to escape a formal charge of “undecent beaiviar.” Later, as a grown man, he joined the crew of the Cinque Ports, a one hundred thirty ton vessel of billowing sails and swelling planks. Selkirk was the master navigator as they traveled south along the coast of Brazil.
After reaching the southern tip of Argentina they turned north following the coast of Chile. However, diminishing rations and disease saw their original crew of ninety wither to forty-two. The ship was strained against a relentless ocean. The situation worsened when an infestation of worms reduced portions of the hull to a near pulp, yet relief lay ahead.
In September of 1704, the tiny island of Juan Fernandez appeared on the horizon. Captain Stradling ordered the crew to anchor in the island’s bay, providing the men with a needed respite from their frustration and suffering.
The sojourn on the island was brief; the captain was anxious to return to his ship and his voyage. Selkirk insisted, however, that the ship was no longer seaworthy, and that the leaking hull would succumb to the temperament of the ocean or enemies. He urged captain and crew to remain on the island and wait for help, but they ignored him. Selkirk’s defiance grew, until finally Stradling ordered that Selkirk be left on the island with only his sea chest, bedding, and clothing. Moments later the ship and the crew set sail while Selkirk watched in anguish from the lonely shore of the island. He shouted for them to return, begging for forgiveness— but the ship continued.
Among his possessions was a pistol, gunpowder, bullets, a knife, a hatchet, navigation instruments, a bible, a flask of rum, and enough food for just a few days. He watched the horizon, awaiting salvation.
Escape on a make-shift raft was impossible. The closest inhabited land was Valparaiso, a journey six hundred miles north. His pistol provided reassurance that his final hours would be of his choosing.
Upon his exploration of the island’s sharp lava rocks and lush vegetation he found fresh water to drink, seals to provide meat, and indigenous plums to protect against scurvy. Selkirk had heard stories of other men who survived years of seclusion before eventually being rescued. He knew of men like Pedro de Serrano, a man who spent seven years isolated on an island in the Pacific without fresh water. Serrano survived by drinking the blood of turtles, but eventually became insane. Other men had survived for years with fewer resources than those offered by the island of Juan Fernandez; Selkirk knew what one man could do, so could another.
Selkirk’s warnings of an unsafe ship proved accurate— within a month of his exile, the Cinque Ports gave in to its fate and sank off the coast of Peru. Many of the men drowned, and those remaining, including the captain, made it to the shore of an island where fourteen more died. In time they surrendered to the Spanish guarda-costa and were imprisoned in Lima, where “the Spaniards put them in a close dungeon and used them very barbarously.” The captain escaped and in time returned to Britain, poor and in diminished health.
Despite living alone on the island, Selkirk was not without the threat of man. One day he spotted a ship anchored in the bay. High above was the Spanish flag— Selkirk ran for cover. Being Scottish, he knew that his capture would lead to enslavement or death. They chased him; the echo of their gunshots rang out across the island. He was outnumbered and unequipped in the pursuit. His knowledge of the island was his only advantage. He climbed into the thick brush of a tree and remained silent. Two days passed before the Spaniards left.
The tides shifted, the shadows stretched, and Selkirk remained. He persevered by keeping his mind on the future. He maimed wild goats when they were young to ensure they would never be able to outrun him. If his health ever withered he could then rely on these easy pursuits. One day the hunt for a goat nearly ended his life when he fell from a cliff, leaving him “senseless for the space of three days, the length of which time he measured by the moon’s growth since his last observation.” The fall would have meant certain death had he not landed on the goat he was pursuing. Over four years Selkirk kept count of the five hundred goats he slaughtered. Others were captured only for “sport” and released after he carved a notch in their ear. This was his method of indicating the speed and physical aspects of the goat.
The necessities of basic survival dictated the routine of his day. Often he stood atop the island peering out into the vast ocean, searching for the glimmer of a ship or some reminder of the world he once knew. In these silent times he was subjected to “revolutions in his own mind,” hoping one day he would return home.
It was a late afternoon in 1709 when a ship approached the island. Though he could not determine the nationality of these men, he was desperate and ran to the shore. Quickly, he ran across the beach signaling them with a burning branch. The men disembarked onto the island, guns drawn and aimed at the weathered face of Selkirk. With his hands above his head, he told them he was marooned. The crew offered him room aboard the ship. Selkirk would only join if he was assured Stradling, his former captain, was not present. The name was of no meaning to these men searching only for food and fresh water.
Captain Woodes Rogers later wrote of Selkirk’s marooned existence in his book A Cruising Voyage ‘Round the World:
[Selkirk] was at first much pestered with cats and rats that bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there for wood and water. The rats gnawed his feet and clothes whilst asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats’ flesh, by which so many of them became so tame, that they would lie about in hundreds, and soon delivered him from the rats. He likewise tamed some kids; to divert himself, would now and then sing and dance with them and his cats; so that by the favor of providence, and the vigor of his youth, being now but thirty years old, he came, at last, to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude, and to be very easy.
When his clothes were worn out he made himself a coat and a cap of goat skins, which he stitched together with little thongs of the same, that he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail; and when his knife was worn to the back he made others, as well as he could, of some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin and ground upon stones. Having some linen cloth by him, he sewed him some shirts with a nail and, stitched them with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pulled out on purpose. He had his last shirt on when we found him on the island.
Selkirk had seen himself through more than fifteen hundred nights alone. After four years and four months he was returning home. The ship’s officer set a course to travel north along the coast of Peru. Selkirk saw his island pass into the distance, as the faint glow of the embers from his signal fire faded on the beach.
After his rescue, a different isolation set in. Selkirk returned to his hometown of Largo, where he was unable to acclimate to the regimen of daily life. In his most desperate hours he sought out the seclusion of a small cave on a high spot of land. He married in 1717, but soon returned to sea.
Authors interested mostly in money occasionally penned his story in short form. Writer Daniel Defoe, approaching sixty and burdened by the cost of his daughter’s wedding, published a fictionalized account of Selkirk’s ordeal as Robinson Crusoe in 1719, his four hundred and twelfth publication. Its popularity mandated two sequels.
In 1720, after a brief time in port, Selkirk married another woman without regard to his first wife. Again, their time together was short, as he joined the HMS Weymouth as first mate. He would see this journey end in the grip of a virus, which claimed his life in 1721. That night the First lieutenant recorded Selkirk’s death in his log and noted a “small breeze.” The same drifting wind that saw the Cinque Ports disappear into the horizon would return to see Selkirk’s life fade before he was relinquished to the ocean.
The world became fascinated with the tale of Crusoe, yet few readers knew of the complicated man who inspired the timeless novel. In 1966 the Chilean government changed the name of Alexander Selkirk’s scrap of earth to Robinson Crusoe Island, a bittersweet monument to his fictionalized counterpart. Selkirk never found his place in society but came to inhabit his permanent existence behind the words of Defoe’s book. Only when forced into seclusion was there enough stillness and silence for Selkirk to hear the echoing of his soul that, like so many others, wanted only to find itself.