July 08, 2012


JUAN FERNANDEZ' Robinson Crusoe Island
ALEXANDER Selkirk (Robinson Crusoe's) cave home for four years and four months
STATUE of Alexander Selkirk in his home town of Lower Largo, Scotland
DANIEL Defoe's original book
MODERN day Robinson Crusoe Islanders survive on small tourist trade and lobster fishing

David Ellis

WHEN a cantankerous, foul-mouthed seaman named Alexander Selkirk told the skipper of an 18th century privateer what to do with his ship, and to let him off at the next sighting of land, the captain was more than happy to be rid of the troublesome Scot.

But the landfall on which Selkirk was put ashore was not the coast of South America he'd expected – it was an uninhabited dot in the South Seas somewhere between Easter Island and the coast of Chile that was another 600km to his east…

Selkirk would spend four years and four months alone on his island – only to return to England in the early 1700s to become, in more sanitised form, a hero to children world-wide, and later the genesis of a score of films and TV shows.

For it was Selkirk who became fellow Scots writer Daniel Defoe's legendary Robinson Crusoe.

The hard-drinking and quarrelsome Selkirk was Mate aboard the Cinque Ports, and when the ship sprang a leak during a raid on the west coast of South America, he had a blazing row with the captain about repairs. It was during this argument that Selkirk asked to be put ashore.

The captain cruelly headed for uninhabited Juan Fernandez, and despite last minute pleas that he'd changed his mind, Selkirk was abandoned there with his clothes, hammock, a shotgun, some tobacco, a hatchet, knife, kettle and a Bible.

He soon found how inhospitable his island would be. Sea lions bellowed through the night, rats nibbled at his toes and ears as he tried to sleep, and rain squalls regularly swept the island.

And he would have gone mad but for his brutish physical and inner strength that saw him through 52 months of solitude in remarkably good stead.

When his meagre gunpowder supply ran out, Selkirk took to catching fish, lobsters and turtles with his hands, and even running down and slaying with his knife the wild goats that had been left by previous visitors to Juan Fernandez.

Because he had no matches, he kept a cooking fire alight in a cave he called home, and if this went out he re-started it by rubbing dry sticks together.

The wild goats gave him not only meat, but skins to make breeches and shirts when his clothes wore out – using a nail as a needle, and threads salvaged from discarded clothing for stitching.

While not hunting and keeping a look-out for passing ships from a high rock, Selkirk harvested native cabbage palm and pimentos to add to his diet. And to amuse himself he tamed feral cats that had been dumped from previous ships, wild parrots and kid goats, telling Daniel Defoe how "I would often dance and sing with them…"

Several Spanish privateers called at Juan Fernandez, but Selkirk hid in fear that they would take him captive. He only raced to the beach and rescue in his goatskin suit when the privateeer Duke, the British flag a-flutter, dropped anchor in 1709.

By this time he could make himself little understood, uttering little more than croaking sounds. But he quickly recovered, joined the crew of one of the Duke's sister ships, and actually captained it at one stage pillaging Spanish-American ports before returning to Scotland.

It was there that Daniel Defoe heard of Selkirk's remarkable story and created Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk enjoyed a brief celebrity status, but fell back into his drunken, loose-living ways before dying of fever aboard another privateer in 1721 at just 47 years of age.

Shortly before that final voyage, he told a London journalist he read his Bible daily while on Juan Fernandez and "was a better Christian in solitude… and never as happy as when not worth a farthing."

Today Juan Fernandez, with a population of just over 600, is not the easiest place to visit, but has been called "A Lost Paradise" for hiking, horseback riding, bird-watching, scuba diving, snorkelling and sport fishing.

And interestingly two of its three islands were re-named Robinson Crusoe Island and Alexander Selkirk Island in 1966 in an effort to increase a meagre tourist flow via Chile; accommodation is available in the appropriately named Hotel Aldea Daniel Defoe and the Crusoe Island Lodge.

Flights (2.5-hours) depart from Santiago, Chile; details from travel agents.

(Images: Wikimedia)

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