Scots Crusoe sunk by English slaver

HE WAS supposed to have been based on a shipwrecked Scottish mariner, but evidence has emerged that the real-life Robinson Crusoe was actually an Englishman.

A new book claims that the model for Daniel Defoe's famous castaway was not Alexander Selkirk, the Scot from Lower Largo who spent four years on a Pacific island, but an English adventurer named Robert Knox who was held captive for 19 years in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, in the 17th century.

Katherine Frank, a biographer of Indira Gandhi, argues that it is Knox and not Selkirk who should be recognised as the man who was Crusoe. She points out that Defoe plagiarised parts of a memoir written by Knox about his time in Ceylon for his work Captain Singleton and says that on examining Knox's memoirs, there are more similarities between Knox and Crusoe than have ever been shown between the fictional hero and Selkirk.

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"Knox was a slave-trader. Defoe made Crusoe a slaver - and Selkirk certainly wasn't," she said. "And when he's held captive, Knox finds a Bible and finds solace in the Bible, just as Crusoe does. Selkirk didn't have a Bible, and actually came close to suicide.

"And when he has malaria, Knox is grateful for being tended to by 'a black boy', as he says. This isn't Man Friday, but the other black boy in the first part of the book - the part that's usually overlooked. Selkirk was absolutely on his own on the island."

Defoe was known to have a copy of Knox's book and was, according to Frank in Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox And The Creation Of A Myth, "a congenital plagiarist, and a sharp practitioner in all his dealings".

It has long been believed Fife-born Selkirk was Defoe's original model for Crusoe. He sailed with the explorer William Dampier and, after a dispute about the seaworthiness of their vessel, asked to be left on the uninhabited island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, off the coast of Chile. Thinking he would be rescued within the year, Selkirk spent four years on the island.

Selkirk found posthumous fame as the "real Robinson Crusoe" in the 19th century. Lord Aberdeen unveiled a statue of Selkirk as Crusoe in Lower Largo in 1885, and the crew of a Royal Navy ship, the HMS Topaze, placed a bronze plaque on the island he was marooned on. In 1966, the island was even renamed Robinson Crusoe island, with another island nearby renamed Alejandro Selkirk Island.

A spokesman for VisitScotland said the revelation would not affect the history of Selkirk's hometown of Lower Largo. "There is no doubt that the tale of Robinson Crusoe bears a remarkable similarity to the real-life adventures of Alexander Selkirk," he said.

"However, regardless of how much his story actually influenced Daniel Defoe when writing his most famous book, Selkirk was a fascinating character and a legend in his own right. Visitors to Lower Largo and to Scotland will continue to be inspired by his story and he is worthy of his place in Scottish history."

Knox was born in Tower Hill, London, in 1641 and served with his father in the East India Company. In 1659, after the ship's mast was lost, they sought refuge in Ceylon, where Knox's father offended the king. He later died of malaria and Knox, with the rest of the crew, was held captive for almost 20 years. He escaped in 1679 and later published an account of his adventures - the book Defoe is known to have owned a copy of.

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Knox had a colourful career after his incarceration in Sri Lanka. He became a good friend of Robert Hooke of the Royal Society and was one of the first people to describe the effects of cannabis, which he called "a strange and intoxicating herb like hemp... called Bangue". "There is no Cause of Fear, tho' possibly there may be of Laughter," he wrote of the "antidote and counterpoison".

Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre and author of The English Spy, a novel about Defoe's role in the negotiations for the Act of Union, was cautious about the discovery. "Defoe soaked up a lot of information on Scotland as a spy, propagandist, travel writer and general hack," he said. "Also he genuinely did travel beyond Edinburgh, seeing things for himself, and he would have known about Knox and Selkirk. But whatever the source, it's what Defoe made of it that matters."

London-born Defoe, known as one of the founders of the English novel, was a prolific and versatile writer who wrote more than 500 books, pamphlets and journals on various topics including politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology and the supernatural. He wrote Robinson Crusoe when in his 60s - he died aged 71 in 1731 - as well as Moll Flanders.

While Knox's memoirs from Ceylon are now known only to scholars, the legend of Crusoe has gone global, spawning many books, films and even copycat reality TV series.