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Alexander Selkirk: The Real Robinson Crusoe

by James S. Bruce and Mayme S. Bruce
Published in The Explorers Journal, Spring 1993.
Copyright 1993, James S. Bruce and Mayme S. Bruce

A portrait of Alexander Selkirk commissioned by the author and done by Rosemary Sage of Pasadena, Salifornia. The artist tried to render a picture of Selkirk as close in resemblance as possible as he is described in various articles.

This is part one. Here's part two.

"He had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could, but for the first eight months had to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with pimento trees, covered them with long grass, and lined them with the skins of goats, which he killed with his own gun as he wanted, so long as the powder lasted, which was but a pound; and that being almost spent he got fire by rubbing two sticks of pimento wood together upon his knee..........."

"After he had conquered his melancholy, he diverted himself sometimes with cutting his name on trees, and of the time of his being left, and continuance there. He was at first much pestered with cats and rats that bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there for wood and water. The rats gnawed his feet and clothes whilst asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats' flesh, by which so many of them became so tame, that they would lie about in hundreds, and soon delivered him from the rats. He likewise tamed some kids; to divert himself, would now and then sing and dance with them and his cats; so that by the favor of providence, and the vigor of his youth, being now but thirty years old, he came, at last, to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude, and to be very easy."

"When his clothes were worn out he made himself a coat and a cap of goat skins, which he stitched together with little thongs of the same, that he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail; and when his knife was worn to the back he made others, as well as he could, of some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin and ground upon stones. Having some linen cloth by him, he sewed him some shirts with a nail and, stitched them with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pulled out on purpose. He had his last shirt on when we found him on the island."

taken from Capt. Woodes Rogers book, "A Voyage Around the World" printed in London, 1712.

The Legend

Almost every English speaking person has heard or read Daniel Defoe's famous novel "Robinson Crusoe." It has been translated into scores of other languages. "Robinson Crusoe" is an inspired novel of adventure: The story of one man's faith, courage and ability to survive almost alone on an uninhabited island facing all of the forces of nature and to emerge triumphant over hardships and adversity. Defoe's novel relates the tale of an English sailor marooned for twenty-seven years on a deserted Caribbean island surviving by his wits; hunting down wild boars on foot for food; rescuing his man, "Friday", from a cannibals' feast and, finally, emerging as a symbol of man's ability to survive the ultimate tests of nature.

What few people knew, however, is that Robinson Crusoe actually existed in flesh and blood. His name was Alexander Selkirk and Daniel Defoe borrowed Selkirk's real-life adventure to create his legendary Robinson Crusoe. So real has the legend become that there are some people today on the Island of Tobago in the Caribbean Sea that proudly proclaim that they are the hereditary descendents of Crusoe. Alexander Selkirk's adventure did not take place on a deserted island in the Caribbean Sea. His lonely abode was the uninhabited Island of Juan Fernandez in the Chilean Sea far off in the Pacific Ocean.

Alexander Selkirk was born in the year 1676 in Largo, Scotland, the son of a fairly prosperous tanner and leather worker. Selkirk was an adventurer at heart, unsuited to shoemaking and village life, and in 1695 ran away to sea and by 1703 was the Master of the Galley. Later he joined the famed William Dampier on a privateering expedition in the Pacific whose sole purpose was preying on Spanish merchant ships. In September of 1704, after a quarrel with his own Captain, the hotheaded Selkirk requested that he be put ashore on the uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez, four hundred miles west of Valparaiso, Chile. It was fortunate for Selkirk because his ship later sank with the loss of most hands. Selkirk remained there until February of 1709 when he was discovered by Captain Woodes Rogers in the sailing ship "Duke" whose pilot happened to be Dampier. Despite his long castaway, Selkirk was appointed Mate by Rogers and later given command of a captured prize ship. Selkirk did not return to England until 1711 where he met the essayist, Richard Steele, who wrote up his story in a publication, "The Englishman" (1713). Daniel Defoe made use of this story in his novel "Robinson Crusoe". Selkirk finally returned home to Scotland where he lived the life of a recluse but later went to sea again. He died at sea in 1721 at the age of forty-five.

Our journey

Alexander Selkirk's true adventure is almost stranger then fiction and so excited my imagination that I felt compelled to visit Robinson Crusoe Island to learn more of this fabled Island and its lone inhabitant. Quick to try and capitalize on the potential tourist attraction of the name, the Chilean government changed the name of Juan Fernandez to Robinson Crusoe Island and a nearby island to Selkirk Island. In fact Selkirk Island is virtually uninhabited and Robinson Crusoe Island has only a small population of six hundred people, mostly engaged in lobster trapping.

The rigged, volcanic terrain of 40 square, mile Juan Fernandez Island (now called Robinson Crusoe Island) located 400 miles due west of Valparaiso, Chile. the airstrip is located jujst to the left of the volcano in the lower center.

There is only one sensible way to get to Robinson Crusoe Island and that is by air. In the warmer months, October to March, flights are available on small, five passenger planes that fly on schedules that are rarely met. The extremes of weather make flying hazardous. The only other access to the island would be by infrequent supply ships. When we took off from Santiago, Chile, there were five of us on the Cessna 320, including the pilot. Two of our passengers were returning home. The 400 mile three hour flight was uneventful until we approached cloud-covered Robinson Crusoe. A sense of trepidation began building in me. All I could see below was a massive, rugged volcanic pile of rock, piteously barren, hostile and devoid of any signs of welcome. Our plane circled the cloudy end of the island once and someone asked the pilot, "Where's the airstrip?" He replied, "Right below us." All I could see were two extinct volcanoes with a shallow bowl in between. We landed on what looked like the face of the moon. Awaiting us was a lonely driver and his jeep.

A short, precipitous ride took us down to the bay and a small jetty. After a prolonged wait, while we watched seals playing in the water, a small boat pulled in, unloaded its cargo of passengers who were returning to the mainland as well as a couple of cases of langostas (lobsters). Embarking on the boat we set out for our one hour trip to Cumberland Bay on the north side of the island. We passed close by massive volcanic cliffs and terrain that looked impossible to support any life system. There were no signs of life or vegetation.

Map of Robinson Crusoe and Selkirk Islands.

Our arrival at the village of San Juan Bautista in Cumberland Bay excited no particular attention with the exception of the proprietor of the Villa Green, where we had booked rooms. What we found was a tiny, four room hotel where the water ran only occasionally and the lights seemed to work, or not work, on some divine command. People had led us to believe we could live on a daily feast of lobster; in fact we lived on canned food, salty fish and custard pudding. Another guest shared the hotel with us, a young, non-communicative German who appeared as quietly as he disappeared. No one on the island seemed to speak any English, we spoke no Spanish, so communication was mostly by sign language and a smattering of pidgin.

The Island

My wife and I were visiting the island for a purpose, or so we thought. It was to film the island and learn more of the legendary Alexander Selkirk and how, where and why he had kept his lonely vigil on this desolate 40 square mile pile of volcanic rock and earth once known as the Juan Fernandez Island. Its remoteness, rugged topography and relatively mild climate has made it a paradise for botanists. Few, if any, tourists were about while we were there and most days the streets seemed almost devoid of life. The lobster boats lay anchored in the bay, windy weather apparently making trips impossible. The atmosphere of the whole town was that of a somnolent Mexican village baking in midday heat, but here the weather was cold and windy with brief showers and heavy clouds dampening our spirits.

The village of San Juan Bautista in Cumberland Bay. The lobster fishing fleet lies ay anchor in the bay. It is here, in this valley off to the left that Selkirk eventually built his huts and lived for four years and four months alone except for his goats and cats.

Robinson Crusoe Island, despite its first appearance from the air as nothing more than a disagreeable chunk of lava, had its small share of attributes. The pace was slow and unhurried. On the island time comes to a standstill. To walk and meditate along its interminable paths formed by man's footprints is to feel clean and free under uncontaminated skies. The vast circumferences of the sea surrounding the island is like a golden ornament guarding a capricious natural wilderness full of contrasts. Along the paths the muchay, luma and naranjillo fight their way through the undergrowth seeking the sun.

The village of San Juan Bautista in Cumberland Bay has a distinctly forgotten appearance. The few souls that roam the streets seemed to do so without curiosity or interest - thoughts lost in time. A cluster of huts crowd the narrow shore and cling precipitously to the mountainside rising rapidly from the sea, lost in seas of eucalyptus, guayaba and chanta trees. Waterfalls trickle down the steep mountains. During storms, these often grew into raging torrents, sweeping rocks and trees down the mountains in destructive force.

A village street in San Juan Bautista. The village rises abruptly from the ocean and the mountain behind the village towers 3000 feet. Most of the villagers are of spanish descent. There is only one vehicle on Juan Fernandez, the mail jeep.

Life on the island seems to move at an agonizingly slow pace. A sizeable fleet of lobster boats lay moored at anchor in Cumberland Bay. I had been told that the outside seas were too rough by the lobstermen to tend their traps but the waters appeared to be quiet, basking in the sun, waiting to be used. A few men idled in front of the bakery, eyeing me indifferently (or curiously). It was hard to know the difference. Since I spoke no Spanish I hurried past them, uncomfortable in my ignorance of their local language. One day I hired a local to guide us to Pangal, a forty-five minute walk away along a difficult steep and tricky trail. The trip was made in silence. When it came time to pay him for his services I mustered a feeble "comos muchos." He shrugged indifferently. I paid him three dollars and for a moment his eyes brightened a shade. That was all.

A group of chilian lobster trappers gather at the local store at the village of San Juan Bautista, Cumberland Bay to await the arrival of the bread supply from the island bakery. About 600 fisherman and their families live permanently on Juan Fernandez.

Swimming in the ocean did not tempt me. The water was cold, the beach rocky and cold winds swept down into Cumberland Bay, bringing frequent showers. The trails of the island offered the main interest, the main challenge. At the top of the island stands El Yangue, a three thousand foot, flat-topped peak, often covered in fine mist that appears like a cap of snow. The landscape is fascinating and exotic, with six foot high ferns that cover the traveler in a way that makes him feel drowned in moist vegetation; rigid palms on top of the cliffs wildly wave their arms like ballerinas; the walls of the rocks are woven with colorful myrtle.

The "El Cerro El Yanque" mountain top on Juan Fernandez Island. The highest point on thf island at 915 meters (slightly over 3000 feet).

Picaflores (hummingbirds) darted in and out of the bush and an occasional fardeles (an indigenous bird) skimmed the tree tops. It had been reported that the woods abounded in coatis, a small, mouse-eating bear, but we saw none, usually too busy minding our footing on the slippery, sliding volcanic rock underfoot. Looking out, over Cumberland Bay, the vast Pacific Ocean extended an almost empty thousands of miles to Pitcairn Island and eventually to the coast of Australia. On these mountainsides and in the surrounding woods and ferns the sense of loneliness was satisfying; to Selkirk, though, it might have been lonely and despairing.

First and foremost we wanted to visit Selkirk's cave, his original home on Juan Fernandez. It was only accessible by boat. The cave was near the beach, probably no more than ten miles away but no boat owners would take us there. "Las olas muy grande." ("Too rough, too rough.") they explained. It didn't look that rough to me but it was their boats and if they didn't want my business I had little choice in the matter. Each day we anticipated getting over. Each day we were disappointed.

Directly behind the village the mountains rose to top 3,000 feet of jagged, torturous volcanic rock covered with a variety of forest trees. The mountains acted like a funnel and emptied the wind out into Cumberland Bay. At nights the wind and the rain blowing through the trees made a weird and distressful howl. I had visions of being stranded on Crusoe Island eating canned tomato soup and stale bread. This was summer. I could only imagine what Selkirk must have suffered through the many winter months.

Early one morning after a breakfast of bread, jam and coffee, Stevey and I wandered out to the village cemetery, passing a Pentecostal church on the way. There was nothing unusual about the cemetery except for one of its gravesites. It was painted a stark white, crisscrossed with navy blue lines. An anchor lay at the foot of the tombstone and a lifebuoy rested on its top! Looking closely, I found a brass plaque adorning the face. It bore an epithet, in German, to three crew members of the German battleship "Dresden." Our curiosity was now thoroughly aroused. We followed the path further and came upon a sign, in Spanish, marking the site of a long forgotten sea battle of the First World War. Above our heads and in the face of the overhanging cliff were numerous large shell holes, one with an unexploded eight inch shell still in place, its back sticking out menacingly. During World War One it was the practice of the German Navy to send commerce raiders (usually cruisers) to prey on Allied shipping in the Pacific and the Atlantic. The German cruiser "Dresden" was caught by a British fleet at Cumberland Bay while it was repairing previous battle damage. After a short battle the Captain of the "Dresden" blew his ship up to avoid capture. The locals say that under the right conditions the "Dresden" can be seen lying under 180 feet of water not far from the shore. This all occurred in 1915 stirring memories of a similar incident when the German battleship "Graf Spee" scuttled herself at Montevideo rather than face capture or surrender by a surrounding British naval force in 1941.

In 1915 a naval battle took place between two british cruisers (the "kent" and the "Glascow") and the German raider-cruiser "Dresden" in Cumberland Bay. The "Dresden" outnumbered and outgunned, blew herself up rather then surrender. This cliff marks a spot where a number of shells from the british cruisers pierced the hillside. The "Dresden" lies under 180 teet of water close offshore.

Other then Selkirk's cave the other "piece de resistance" to be seen on Robinson Crusoe Island was Selkirk's "lookout." Expecting an easy hike along well-marked trails, Stevey and I started out one early afternoon for a hike to the "lookout." Promptly we were lost. Many trails crisscrossed the mountainside. Footing was difficult and the grade steeper and far more difficult then we had anticipated. Fortunately, a young man we recognized from the village, Francisco, happened upon us. He had been out worshipping at a family shrine somewhere in the mountains. Francisco assisted us through a most precipitous area and sent us on the right path with a handshake for me and a kiss for Stevey. Soon a sign came into view that read: "Miradoe del Selkirk, 2500 meters." At this point I wasn't sure whether it meant straight up or straight ahead but with higher hopes of reaching our goal we pushed on.

The author reloads his camera next to a memorial site close by Alexander Selkirk's "El Mirador", the lookout point where Selkirk watched and waited 4 years and 4 months for a rescue ship.

A small shrine and plaque adorned Selkirk's "lookout." We lingered for a while, gazing out to sea, puzzling over what life must have been like for him. Selkirk obviously used the lookout to watch for ship's sails on the horizon or in the bay and occasionally lit fires to try and attract attention, but to no avail until his final rescue four and a half years later. We returned to the hotel much exhausted to a dinner of soup and fish and were more then happy when divine providence turned the lights out early.

The mule is the principle means of transportation on Juan Fernandez island.

The next day, searching around the village which always seemed strangely deserted, we found a trail directly above the police station that was marked "The Cave of the Patriots." Here were several large, twenty foot deep caves. From what little I could decipher from the Spanish sign, "Patriots" had hid out in these caves after, fleeing Chile during one of its revolutions. Not of much interest (except as a place to duck into during the intermittent rains) we followed on to "the fort." It was a long abandoned, much destroyed stone fort that the Spanish had built in 1750. Seven rusted 18th Century unmounted cannons faced discontentedly out towards Cumberland Bay, its waters still filled with the idle lobster boats. Robinson Crusoe Island was briefly turned into a penal colony in the early 1900's but it proved so difficult to supply that it was abandoned for this purpose. The islands only vehicle, a jeep, jerked past us on its mail delivery mission. A few idle fishermen eyed us curiously, I'm sure wondering what these two "gringos" were doing on their island. Perhaps to convert some souls? We had shortly before met two young American boys, Mormon missionaries from Utah, here for that purpose.

Time was running short for us on Robinson Crusoe Island and we were anxious to leave while the weather permitted because the "real" rainy, cold, windy season was fast approaching and we did not relish the idea of being stranded for days without transportation, which had frequently happened to others before us. Without too much regret we packed our bags and left on the next available flight but the thoughts of Alexander Selkirk's lonesome sojourn there continued to haunt our memories.

This is part one. Here's part two.
September 13, 2007
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