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Island gives up secret of real Robinson Crusoe

A GLINT of metal in the soil marked the end of a 13-year quest by a Japanese explorer to locate the base camp of Alexander Selkirk, the marooned 18th-century mariner, whose ordeal inspired the book Robinson Crusoe.

As a teenager, Daisuke Takahashi read the classic novel by Daniel Defoe and when he discovered it was based on the life of a Scottish sailor, an obsession was ignited which has carried him across the globe to the island of Mas-a-Tierra, 416 miles off the coast of Chile, where Selkirk was abandoned in 1704.

An expedition led by Mr Takahashi has now uncovered clinching evidence of the location of Selkirk's base camp, where he spent four years and four months scanning the horizon in hope of rescue.

Excavation of a site, high in the hills along an abandoned trail, has led to the discovery of a bronze tip from a pair of navigational dividers, which have since been dated to the early 18th century and are almost certain to have belonged to Selkirk, a ship's master.

"I have finally reached him," said Mr Takahashi, who previously wrote the Japanese best-seller, In Search of Robinson Crusoe.

"It's a peaceful site, with the sound of a nearby river and birds singing. You can see how Selkirk could have conquered his loneliness here."

Dr David Caldwell of the National Museums of Scotland accompanied Mr Takahashi and scientists from Chile on the month-long excavation which took place last January and was sponsored by the magazine National Geographic.

He discovered the 16mm piece of copper while sifting through soil taken from the site. Initially Dr Caldwell was baffled as to what it might be, but the following day on the hike up to the site he suddenly realised that it was the tip of Selkirk's dividers. "Selkirk was known to have been carrying a pair of dividers with him when he was rescued and we can assume that a piece broke off, perhaps while he was using them for some other purpose," said Dr Caldwell.

"In archaeological terms, that is as good evidence as you are going to get."

The site on Mas-a-Tierra, which is also known as Robinson Crusoe Island, yielded traces of a fire, animal bones and holes that appear to have housed poles used for building a shelter. Selkirk built two huts of wood covered with long grass and lined with goatskin. Carbon dating then confirmed the camp as from around the time of Selkirk's long exile.

The story of Selkirk fascinated early 18th century British society and eight years after his return in 1709, the author Daniel Defoe published his novel, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

Born in the village of Lower Largo, Fife, Selkirk was the seventh son of a shoemaker, and went to sea against his father's wishes and to avoid a summons to appear before the Kirk session accused of "indecent carriage" in church.

In May 1703 he was appointed master of the privateer ship, Cinque Ports, but quarrelled with its captain, Thomas Stradling. After the ship underwent a hasty refit in South America, Selkirk declared the vessel unseaworthy and demanded to be put ashore on Mas-a-Tierra.

He was landed on the island with suitable supplies, including a musket, powder and a Bible, but changed his mind as the boat prepared to sail. Stradling, however, refused to take him back and so abandoned him. Yet Selkirk was proved correct about the poor repairs. The Cinque Ports sank shortly afterwards, with the loss of most of its crew.

For the first eight months Selkirk was in despair. In an account published in 1712 he "had much ado to bear up against melancholy and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place".

However, he successfully built a camp of two huts high above Cumberland Bay, hunted goats, whose skin he stitched into clothes, and lived on fresh fruit, fish and goats' meat.

On one occasion the island was visited by the Spanish, from whom Selkirk was forced to hide, as he would have been hanged as a pirate. However, on 1 February 1709, a vessel called the Duke, captained by Woodes Rogers, visited the island and discovered Selkirk clothed in skins and unable to speak English.

In Rogers' later account of Selkirk's adventures he wrote: "A man cloth'd in goat-skins, who look'd wilder than the first owners of them [who] had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seem'd to speak his words by halves."

Three years after his rescue Selkirk married a 16-year-old dairymaid, but the draw of the sea remained strong. He eventually died of yellow fever in 1721 and was buried at sea off West Africa.

The endurance of Selkirk inspired Mr Takahashi, who has dedicated more than a decade to following in the Scot's footsteps. He has spent time researching Selkirk's life in Fife and once spent a month alone on Mas-a-Tierra in order to experience a portion of what Selkirk endured.

In his book, Mr Takahashi wrote that on his first evening on the island he was so frightened that he consumed most of the bottle of Scotch he had brought in case of "emergencies".

Today, the island - which has been renamed after Defoe's novel by the Chilean government - is inhabited by about 600 people , descendants of the Spaniards who settled on the island 40 years after Selkirk left.

The discovery of the site of Selkirk's base camp, which is reported on in the October issue of National Geographic, has delighted Mr Takahashi, who said: "In today's times when the word 'adventure' is almost obsolete, I would like to convey to young people how exciting it feels to explore our dreams."

 
 
 

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