Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Real Robinson Crusoe...the 18th century castaway who inspired Defoe

Robinson Crusoe illustration by N.C. Wyeth
We are all familiar with the quintessential "stranded on a deserted island" story of 18th century author, Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe. Many other stories and films have used it as a springboard including the 1812 novel, The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss (which was made into a 1960 Disney film followed by a 1970's television series version,) the 1960's science fiction spin with the television series, Lost in Space, as well as Tom Hanks' portrayal of the FedEx man stranded after a plane crash in the 2000 film, Cast Away.There are many more examples of fictional portrayals inspired by Defoe's character but who was his inspiration? I discovered the answer in a marvelous book, I have recently purchased, authored in 2007 by Colin Woodard. Woodard's book, based upon his extensive research of original documents of the early 18th century including letters, journals, court depositions, ships' logs, rosters, etc, bears a title with a sub-title long enough to make any 18th century author proud: The Republic of Pirates-- Being The True And Surprising Story Of the Caribbean Pirates And The Man Who Brought Them Down. 

Woodes Rogers Expedition from Bristol to Juan Fernandez Island from National Archives, U.K.
Now, regarding Defoe's inspiration, there really was a man rescued after having been stranded alone on a deserted island for many years. In early 1709 a two-ship privateering expedition (i.e., lawfully sanctioned piracy by British ships against Spanish and French ships,) led by Woodes Rogers, was attempting a foray around the globe when they were forced to  make an emergency stop at Juan Fernandez Island, some 400 miles off the Pacific coast of Chile. The seamen aboard the Duke and Dutchess were dropping like flies from scurvy due to the depletion of needed fruits and vegetables. Juan Fernandez was an island held by Spain but was so remote, its early colonization attempts failed and was only used sporadically by the Spaniards for their own stopovers for fresh water and produce. On the night of January 31, 1709, the island came into view of the two privateering ships. To the crews' dismay a campfire was seen flickering on the beach so, the next morning, they sailed into the harbor, guns at the ready. 
Juan Fernandez Island

Anchoring a mile offshore, no other ship was in sight and the island appeared deserted after all. As a landing boat rowed ashore, a wild-looking man clothed in goatskin, waving a white flag and yelling in excited English, came running to the shoreline. This solitary man, Alexander Selkirk, had been living alone for the previous four and half years with only the company of wild goats, rats and feral cats, the legacy left by early Spanish colonization attempts. And here was the great irony: the reason Selkirk was there at all, was because of a man sailing aboard one of the British ships at anchor. That man, William Dampier, had led a round-the-world privateering expedition back in 1704, but due to his mishandling of his ships' needs, he faced many lawsuits when he returned to England. His ships and crew were so mismanaged, a group of seamen on one of his consort ships, mutinied and sailed to the island of Juan Fernandez on their own. After they'd landed and helped themselves to the fresh water and naturally available food sources on the island, they discovered their ship's hull was riddled with holes from shipworms. Mate Selkirk, decided to take his chances for rescue and remain alone on the island rather than risk death at sea from a ship likely to sink during its voyage.

Robinson Crusoe illustration by Walter Stanley Paget
Scotsman Alexander Selkirk survived by running down and catching wild goats, eating their meat and stitching their hides for clothing and shelter. In time, he domesticated several to insure a ready supply of their life-saving properties. His enemies were the rats who nibbled at his toes at night but by befriending some of the hundreds of feral cats, he gained a measure of respite from their intrusion. He passed his time with survival activities and in reading a copy of the Bible he'd secured before watching his fellow mutineers sail away. Once, he narrowly escaped the hands of a Spanish landing party by hiding in the top of a tree under which the sailors were urinating. When Rogers first saw him, he described Selkirk as looking wilder than the animals who'd first worn the goatskins themselves and noted in his writings that the man was so unused to speaking, he spoke only in half sentences. After twelve days on the island the crew, refortified with tropical fruit, goat stew and broth and with Selkirk reassured that Dampier was not in charge of the expedition, sailed away for the next leg of their adventure.

Daniel Defoe's, Robinson Crusoe
Once back in England, Woodes Rogers published a book about his adventures at sea, A Cruising Voyage Around the World, including an account of the rescue of Alexander Selkirk. Journalist and author Daniel Defoe read this with great interest and went to Bristol to meet with Selkirk who became the inspiration for Defoe's best known work and spawner of numerous copycats, of which the full, original title including its substantial sub-title was, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. 

In 1966, the Chilean government renamed Juan Fernandez Island, Robinson Crusoe Island.

As my dear father was fond of saying, "True story!"

And, now you know!

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! 


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