NEXT month will see the 295th anniversary of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the English writer’s first and most famous novel. It is a tale of survival against the odds that has inspired numerous stories of stranded everymen forced to endure in harsh, unfamiliar environments.
Robinson Crusoe, in turn, was inspired by the account of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who found himself marooned on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific for more than four years in the early 18th century.
Born in Lower Largo in Fife, Selkirk was an unruly and at times violent character in his youth, and was prone to bouts of rashness. One particular descent of the red mist in 1704 irrevocably changed the course of his life.
Sailing on the Cinque Ports, Selkirk was serving under Thomas Stradling, the captain of a ship that had, for a time, accompanied William Dampier’s St George on privateering missions. Dampier was a noted explorer who was the first Englishman to explore parts of the continent of Australia.
Some months after parting ways with Dampier, Captain Stradling stopped at the Juan Fernandez islands off the coast of Chile for supplies. Selkirk, seeing that the ship was unseaworthy, told Captain Stradling that he would rather remain moored on the archipelago than continue to sail on the Cinque Ports. Selkirk had not counted on Captain Stradling calling his bluff, and he was left there with nothing but the belongings he had on the ship.
Selkirk was, as you might expect, completely miserable. Initially perched on the island’s coast surveying the coast for potential rescue, he moved inland after being driven away by mating sea lions.
In time, he found a wider variety of meat - feral goats, mostly - and vegetables to live off of. Once his clothes and shoes had worn out, he made new garments out of goats’ hides and dispensed with footwear altogether. When he ran out of gunpowder, he chased goats on foot. The rigous of island life made Selkirk an athletic man, and a religious one too - the solitude of island life left him with plenty of time to spend with the Bible, which he read frequently.
When Selkirk was rescued, it was third time lucky. Two ships belonging to Spanish sailors had docked at Crusoe’s island, and he narrowly avoided capture when one crew spotted him and chased him across the island. In February 1709, he was picked up by the Duke, a privateering vessel, after four years and four months without human contact.
He soon returned to privateering and spent most of his remaining life at sea, and indeed he died there in 1721 off the coast of Africa on the HMS Weymouth, succumbing to yellow fever that had plagued the crew.
A couple of low-key monuments to Selkirk can be found in Lower Largo: a statue of the sailor is situated at his birthplace on Main Street, and a hotel by the town’s harbour bears the name of the character which Selkirk inspired nearly 300 years ago.