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February 02, 2015

The other adventures of Robinson Crusoe


OTHER ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE
David Ellis

IT was back in December 1721 that the world lost Alexander Selkirk, the extraordinary Scottish seaman who provided the real-life story that was to be tweaked, played-with and immortalised by author Daniel Defoe into his classic tale for all ages, Robinson Crusoe.

And while it was Selkirk's four years and four months cast-adrift on a miniscule South Pacific island 700km off Chile that Defoe was able to turn into such a rollicking yarn that's as popular today as it was when written 295 years ago, there's enough still largely unknown about the sailor to make for another equally rollicking read…

Alexander Selkirk was Mate aboard Cinque Ports, a British privateer (an armed merchant ship authorised to attack foreign enemies) and one tempestuous day in 1704 feuded with its Captain about beaching the galleon for repairs to increasingly problematic leaks.

Captain Stradling refused, so Selkirk asked to be put ashore at the next sighting of land and, glad to be rid of his troublesome Mate, Stradling steered to the uninhabited little Juan Fernandez Island. Realizing he'd been duped, Selkirk pleaded remorse but nevertheless was put ashore with just a hammock, hatchet, knife, kettle, matches, personal navigation instruments, a Bible and a couple of day's food.
Cinque Ports, along with an accompanying privateer St George captained by later Australia explorer William Dampier, then sailed off for Cape Horn – sinking along the way from the leaks Selkirk had complained about.…

Selkirk meanwhile lived an extraordinary life on his desolate island, amongst other things teaching feral cats to dance on two legs, parrots to sing crude sea shanties, and running down on foot and wrestling to the ground wild goats whose meat he ate and skins he used for clothing. He lived in a cave and under a bush sun-shelter he built, and when his matches ran out kept a fire going 24 hours a day for cooking and to deter rats from gnawing at his goatskin clothes and his feet while he slept …

He also caught lobsters and fish with his bare hands and from a hilltop look-out watched daily for any possibly passing ships… eventually in 1709 sighting, signalling and being rescued by the British privateer Duke – whose officers coincidentally included William Dampier who'd seen him put ashore on the island all those years before…

Aboard Duke Selkirk made a speedy recovering from his isolation and so impressed its Captain, Woodes Rogers that he made him Second Mate on a privateering raid and later included Selkirk and his adventurous life in his own memoirs. Writer Richard Steele adapted Captain Rogers' memoirs in an article of his own about Selkirk in The Englishman newspaper, and this in turn is said to have inspired Daniel Defoe to create Robinson Crusoe.

And Selkirk's life on return to Scotland could make for another book in itself. He had earned an amazing 800 English pounds as his share of privateering (about AU$160,000 today) and which he'd carefully salted away, and added to his new "life of ease" by giving talks in pubs of his extraordinary isolation in return for meals and drinks.

Yet wealthy as he was, he told enquiring journalists that he doubted he "would ever be as happy again as I was then, with not a single quarter penny…"

Selkirk spontaneously eloped from Scotland to London in 1717 with a 16 year old dairymaid, then equally-spontaneously joined the Navy and went back to sea… and when his ship visited Plymouth, he met and spontaneously once more, married a local widowed innkeeper – never returning to his dairymaid in London.
   
On December 13 1721 while serving on HMS Weymouth on an anti-piracy patrol off Africa's west coast, Alexander Selkirk died aboard ship from Yellow Fever and was buried at sea.

Today his Juan Fernandez is officially called Robinson Crusoe Island and is inhabited by under 900 islanders who live largely by exporting the spiny lobsters that helped sustain Selkirk for so long, and on small-scale tourism – it is part of Chile and a 3-hour small-plane flight from Santiago.

Archaeologists recently found the remains of Selkirk's 24hr fireplace at his cave, four holes for posts that supported his adjacent sun-shelter… and pieces of what they believe were his navigational instruments.

NEXT WEEK: France's amazing female Robinson Crusoe…
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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] THE cave that Alexander Selkirk called home on isolated Juan Fernandez Island for four years and four months from 1704.
[] FIRST edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe published in 1719.
[] STATUE dedicated to Alexander Selkirk in his home town of Lower Largo in Scotland.
[] THE only township on remote Juan Fernandez is home to fewer than 900 islanders.
[] LOCALS make the bulk of their income from the export of spiny lobsters, and to a lesser degree on small-scale tourism.

(All images Wikipedia)


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