When 19-year-old Alexander Selkirk found himself in trouble with the elders of the kirk for misbehaving in church, he ran away from his home in Fife and went to sea.
That was in 1695. By 1703 he was a buccaneer, serving aboard the Cinque Ports, a galley owned by the privateer William Dampier, with Thomas Stradling as captain.
The cast of characters here matters. It was with Stradling that Selkirk had a dispute that would change not only his life, but the history of literature. In 1704, the Cinque Ports was sailing along the Pacific coast of South America when Selkirk became convinced it wasn’t seaworthy anymore and he tried to talk Stradling into abandoning the ship.
Stradling refused, but was willing to let Selkirk go his own way in a dinghy with a few supplies.Selkirk urged his shipmates to join him, but all refused.
And so he found himself alone, marooned on one of the tiny volcanic islands of the Juan Fernandez archipelago off the coast of Chile. It was called the Island That’s Farthest Away, though it is actually the closest to Chile. (It had been named by a sailor who saw it from out at sea.)
Unfortunately, it was uninhabited, which made life very lonely for Selkirk. Fortunately, feral goats and cats – which had survived previous shipwrecks – were plentiful. Goats provided food and eventually clothing, while the cats kept the rats at bay, allowing him to sleep.
Catching and cooking goats, building two huts and reading from his Bible were just about the total of his activity for the next four years. Twice, ships landed near the island, but he hid from them both times – they were Spanish and as far as he knew, they were the enemy. He was right; the War of the Spanish Succession had not yet ended.
Finally,on February 1 in 1709, he was rescued by an English privateer – piloted by none other than his old employer, William Dampier. It was captained by Woodes Rogers, who would later include Selkirk’s adventures in his own memoir, undoubtedly read by Daniel Defoe.
After a brief period of notoriety back home, Selkirk returned to the sea, dying aboard ship in 1721 when the crew contracted yellow fever.
The Cinque Ports, btw, did founder off the coast of Colombia not long after Selkirk left it – the survivors were picked up by the Spanish and thrown into prison.
Today, Selkirk’s island is populated by about 600 people and is known as Robinson Crusoe Island. Not far from it is Alejandro Selkirk Island.
One of the many literary appreciations of Selkirk was William Cowper’s The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk, the first line of which became iconic:
I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.