Statue of Selkirk in Lower Largo, Scotland
Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland
|Died||13 December 1721|
|Nationality||Scottish and British (after 1707)|
|Known for||Inspiring Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels|
Alexander Selkirk (1676 – 13 December 1721), also known as Alexander Selcraig, was a Scottish sailor who spent four years as a castaway after being marooned on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean.
An unruly youth, Selkirk joined buccaneering expeditions to the South Seas, including one commanded by William Dampier, which called in for provisions at the Juan Fernández Islands off Chile. Selkirk judged correctly that his craft, the Cinque Ports, was unseaworthy, and asked to be left there.
By the time he was rescued, he had become adept at hunting and making use of the resources found on the island. His story aroused great interest at home, and Daniel Defoe's fictional character Robinson Crusoe was based in part on him.
Early life 
The son of a shoemaker and tanner in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland, Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676. In his youth he displayed a quarrelsome and unruly disposition. Summoned in August 1693 before the Kirk Session for his "indecent conduct in church," he "did not appear, being gone to sea." He was back at Largo in 1701 when he again came to the attention of church authorities for beating up his brothers.
Early on he was engaged in buccaneering. In 1703 he joined an expedition of the English privateer and explorer William Dampier to the South Seas, setting sail from Kinsale in Ireland on 11 September. They carried letters of marque from the Lord High Admiral authorising their armed merchant ships to attack foreign enemies, as the War of the Spanish Succession was then going on between England and Spain. While Dampier was captain of the St George, Selkirk served on the Cinque Ports, the St George's companion, as sailing master under Thomas Stradling. By this time Selkirk must have had considerable experience at sea.
The expedition was not very successful. In February 1704 the privateers fought a prolonged battle with a well-armed French merchant vessel, only to have it escape to warn the Spanish of their arrival in the South Seas. A raid on the Panamanian gold mining town of Santa María also failed when their landing party was ambushed. The easy capture of a heavily-laden Spanish merchantman, the Asunción, revived the men's hopes of plunder, and Selkirk was put in charge of this prize. After taking off some much needed supplies of wine, brandy, sugar and flour, however, Dampier abruptly set the ship free, believing 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 the Cinque Ports and St. George had parted ways, Stradling brought the Cinque Ports to an island known to the Spanish as Más a Tierra in the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernández 600 km (400 mi) off the coast of Chile for a mid-expedition restocking of fresh water and provisions.
Selkirk had grave concerns about the seaworthiness of his vessel. He would rather be left on Juan Fernández, he declared, than continue in a dangerously leaky ship. He likely wanted to make the needed repairs before going any further. Instead, Stradling decided to grant his request, and he was landed with his personal effects on the island. Selkirk regretted his rashness, but Stradling refused to take him on board again.
The Cinque Ports did indeed later founder off the coast of what is present-day 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 in Peru where they endured a harsh imprisonment.
Life on the island 
Selkirk remained at first along the shoreline of Más a Tierra. During this time he ate shellfish, and scanned the ocean daily for rescue, suffering all the while from loneliness, misery and remorse. Hordes of raucous sea lions, gathering on the beach for the mating season, eventually drove him to the island's interior. Once inland, his way of life took a turn for the better. More foods were now available: feral goats—introduced by earlier sailors—provided him with meat and milk, while wild turnips, cabbage and black pepper berries offered him variety and spice. Although rats would attack him at night, he was able, by domesticating and living near feral cats, to sleep soundly and in safety.
He proved resourceful in using items brought from the ship as well as 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 pimento trees, one of which he used for cooking and the other for sleeping. 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 unconscious for about a day. His prey had cushioned his fall, likely sparing him a broken back.
The lessons he had learned as a child from his father, a tanner, now served him well. 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, callused 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 him, both were Spanish. As a Scotsman and privateer, he risked a grim fate if captured and, therefore, he tried to hide himself. Once he was spotted and chased by a group of sailors from one of the ships. His Spanish pursuers urinated beneath the tree that he was hiding in, 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 the Duke, a privateering ship piloted by William Dampier, and its sailing companion, the Duchess. The landing party that met Selkirk was led by Thomas Dover. After four years and four months without any human company, Selkirk was almost incoherent with joy. The Duke's captain and leader of the expedition, Woodes Rogers, mischievously referred to him as the governor of the island. The agile castaway, catching two or three goats a day, helped restore the health of Rogers' men, who were suffering from scurvy.
Those who met him after his rescue were impressed not only by his physical vigour, but also by the tranquillity of mind that he had attained while living on the island. As Rogers observed, "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, the 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 with their valuables, 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, on which he then served as sailing master under Captain Dover to the East Indies. Selkirk completed the round-the-world voyage by way of the Cape of Good Hope as the sailing master of the Duke, arriving at the Downs off the English coast on 2 October 1711. He had been away for eight years.
Later life 
Selkirk's story aroused great interest in England. In 1712 Rogers wrote a book about their privateering odyssey, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, in which he included an account of Selkirk's ordeal. The following year, the prominent essayist Richard Steele wrote an article about him for The Englishman. Claiming his share of the Duke's plunder—about £800 (equivalent to £106,000 today)—Selkirk appeared set to enjoy a life of ease and celebrity. Nevertheless, with legal disputes making the amount of any payment uncertain, the sea continued to beckon him.
After a few months in London, he began to seem more like his former self again. In September 1713 he was charged with assaulting a shipwright in Bristol, and kept in confinement for two years. He returned to Lower Largo early in 1717, where he met Sophia Bruce, a sixteen-year-old dairymaid. They eloped to London but apparently did not marry. He was soon off to sea again, having enlisted in the Royal Navy. While on a visit to Plymouth, he married a widowed innkeeper named Frances Candis. He was serving as a master's mate on board the HMS Weymouth, engaged in an anti-piracy patrol off the west coast of Africa, when he died on 13 December 1721, evidently succumbing to yellow fever. He was buried at sea.
When Daniel Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, few readers could have missed the resemblance to Selkirk. An illustration on the first page of the novel shows, in the words of modern explorer Tim Severin, "a rather melancholy-looking man standing on the shore of an island, gazing inland." 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 at least a partial model for the fictional character.
Selkirk is well-remembered in his former island home. In 1863 the crew of HMS Topaze placed a bronze tablet at a spot called Selkirk's Lookout on a hill of Más a Tierra in memory of his stay. On 1 January 1966 Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva renamed Más a Tierra Robinson Crusoe Island, after Defoe's fictional character, in order to attract tourists. At the same time, the smaller of the two main Juan Fernández Islands known as Más Afuera was designated Alejandro Selkirk Island, although Selkirk probably never saw that island as it is located 168 km (104 mi) to the west.
He has also been memorialised in his Scottish birthplace. On 11 December 1885, after a speech by Lord Aberdeen, his wife, Lady Aberdeen, unveiled a bronze statue and plaque of Selkirk outside a house on the site of his original home on the Main Street of Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland. David Gillies of Cardy House, Lower Largo, a descendant of the Selkirks, donated the statue created by Thomas Stuart Burnett ARSA.
Archaeological findings 
An archaeological expedition to the Juan Fernández Islands in February 2005 found part of a nautical instrument that could have belonged to Selkirk. The object was "a fragment of copper alloy identified as being from a pair of navigational dividers" dating from the early 18th (or late 17th) century. He is the only person known to have been on the island at that time who is likely to have had dividers, and indeed, who was said to have had such instruments in his possession. The archaeologists discovered the artefact while excavating a campsite located not far from Selkirk's Lookout where the famous castaway may have lived.
In other literary works 
|Wikisource has the original text of William Cowper's:|
- William Cowper's "The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk" is about the feelings of Selkirk as he lived all alone on the island. This poem gave rise to the common phrase monarch of all I survey via the verse:
I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
- Charles Dickens used Selkirk as a simile in Chapter Two of The Pickwick Papers: "Colonel Builder and Sir Thomas Clubber exchanged snuff-boxes, and looked very much like a pair of Alexander Selkirks—'Monarchs of all they surveyed.'" This probably refers to William Cowper's poem.
- In his poem "Inniskeen Road: July Evening", the poet Patrick Kavanagh likens his loneliness on the road to that of Selkirk:
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
- In "Etiquette", one of W. S. Gilbert's Bab Ballads, Selkirk is used as a model for the English castaways:
These passengers, by reason of their clinging to a mast,
Upon a desert island were eventually cast.
They hunted for their meals, as Alexander Selkirk used,
But they couldn’t chat together—they had not been introduced.
- Selkirk is mentioned in Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. During his visit to the Juan Fernández Islands, Slocum runs across a marker commemorating Selkirk’s stay.
- In Allan Cole and Chris Bunch's Sten science fiction series, Book Two, The Wolf Worlds, the Scottish character Alex bemoans their predicament after crash landing: "'A slackit way f'r a mon,' Alex mourned to himself. 'Ah dinnae ken Ah'd ever be Alex Selkirk.'"
In film 
A stop motion film by Tournier Animation based on Selkirk's life, Selkirk, el verdadero Robinson Crusoe (Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe), premièred simultaneously in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay on 2 February 2012. Distributed by Disney, it was the first full-length animated feature to be produced in Uruguay.
- Howell (1829), p. 18.
- Takahashi et al. (2007), n. 11, "[D]ate of 1693, verified from the original Kirk Session Records (CH2/960/2, pp. 29, 30), is erroneously given in other printed sources as 1695."
- Howell (1829), pp. 24–25.
- Funnell (1707), pp. 1–2.
- Funnell (1707), p. 3.
- "Alexander Selkirk and the Voyage of the Cinque Ports Galley", The National Archives (n.d.).
- Howell (1829), p. 33.
- Funnell (1707), p. 26.
- Funnell (1707), pp. 44–45.
- Funnell (1707), pp. 45–47.
- Howell (1829), pp. 62–63.
- Rogers (1712), p. 125.
- Rogers (1712), p. 333.
- Steele (1713), para. 4.
- Steele (1713), para. 7.
- Rogers (1712), p. 127.
- Rogers (1712), p. 128.
- Rogers (1712), pp. 126–127.
- Rogers (1712), p. 126.
- Rogers (1712), pp. 124–125.
- Rogers (1712), p. 6.
- Rogers (1712), p. 124.
- Rogers (1712), p. 129.
- Rogers (1712), pp. 131–132.
- Rogers (1712), p. 130.
- Rogers (1712), p. 147.
- Rogers (1712), p. 220.
- Rogers (1712), pp. 178–179.
- Rogers (1712), p. 294.
- Cooke (1712), p. 358.
- Cooke (1712), p. 61.
- Cooke (1712), p. 456.
- Steele (1713), para. 11.
- UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Lawrence H. Officer (2010) "What Were the UK Earnings and Prices Then?" MeasuringWorth.
- Severin (2002), p. 9.
- Howell (1829), p. 134.
- Selcraig (2005), p. 90.
- Severin (2002), p. 11.
- Severin (2002), p. 17.
- Severin (2002), p. 324.
- Severin (2002), p. 59.
- Severin (2002), p. 24.
- "Notable Dates in History", Scots Independent (n.d.).
- Takahashi et al. (2007), p. 270.
- Steele (1713), para. 3.
- "Selkirk, el verdadero Robinson Crusoe", Cine Nacional (2011).
- "Selkirk llega al DVD con algunas novedades", El País (8 April 2012).
- Cooke, Edward (1712). A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World, Performed in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711. London: Lintot.
- Funnell, William (1707). A Voyage Round the World, Containing an Account of Captain Dampier's Expedition into the South Seas in the Ship St George in the Years 1703 and 1704. London: Botham.
- Howell, John (1829). The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.
- Rogers, Woodes (1712). A Cruising Voyage Round the World: First to the South-Sea, Thence to the East-Indies, and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. London: Lintot.
- Selcraig, Bruce (2005). "The Real Robinson Crusoe". Smithsonian 36 (4): 82–90.
- Severin, Tim (2002). In Search of Robinson Crusoe. New York: Basic Books.
- Steele, Richard (3 December 1713). "The Story of Alexander Selkirk". The Englishman (26).
- Takahashi, Daisuke; Caldwell, David H.; Cáceres, Iván; Calderón, Mauricio; Morrison-Low, A. D.; Saavedra, Miguel A.; Tate, Jim (2007). "Excavation at Aguas Buenas, Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile, of a Gunpowder Magazine and the Supposed Campsite of Alexander Selkirk, Together with an Account of Early Navigational Dividers". Post-Medieval Archaeology 41 (2): 270–304.
Further reading 
- Kraske, Robert (2005). Marooned: The Strange But True Adventures of Alexander Selkirk. New York: Clarion Books.
- Souhami, Diana (2002). Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe. New York: Harcourt Books.
- Takahashi, Daisuke (2002). In Search of Robinson Crusoe. New York: Cooper Square Press.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1885–1900 Dictionary of National Biography's article about Alexander Selkirk.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Alexander Selkirk|
- "Trapped on a Pacific Island: Scientists Research the Real Robinson Crusoe" by Marco Evers (6 February 2009) in Spiegel Online International
- "Diaries of Swashbuckling Hero Who Rescued Robinson Crusoe Unearthed" from The Daily Telegraph (5 January 2009)
- "Island Gives Up Secret of Real Robinson Crusoe" from The Scotsman (22 September 2005)
- Account of a trip to Selkirk's Island published in The Explorers Journal (Spring 1993)
- Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors by Edward E. Leslie (1988) from Google Books
- Satellite imagery from Google Maps
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Selkirk, Alexander". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.