Tobi Delbruck
Home Wiki Motivation History People Projects Publications Resources Fun Contact

The Real Robinson Crusoe (part 2)

by James S. Bruce and Mayme S. Bruce
This is part two. Here's part one.

Selkirk's life

A few solid facts began to emerge about Alexander Selkirk and I added to my knowledge of this rather extraordinary man by visits to the library at the British Museum in London, the library in the city of Edinburg and a visit to the village of Largo in Scotland, Selkirk's birthplace. A number of people in Largo claimed lineage with Selkirk but his only visible evidence was a statue erected in his memory (clothed in sheepskin) located above his parents' home. The nearby church graveyard held the remains of his parents.

Selkirk was a hot blooded Scot sailing aboard a privateer in the Pacific that was engaged, along with other ships, in raiding Spanish shipping and ports for whatever loot they could seize. Selkirk mistrusted his skipper and had extreme doubts about the condition of his ship, its seaworthiness and its ability to make its way safely back around the Horn and return to England. On reaching uninhabited Juan Fernandez Island and stopping there to obtain fresh water Selkirk demanded to be put ashore. His skipper gladly obliged, happy to be rid of his trouble-making Scot.

The rugged,volcanic north coastline. It was over such jagged mountains that Selkirk was forced to seek the wild goats for food.

Selkirk took ashore with him a musket, bullets, gun powder, a few carpenter tools, some extra clothing and bedding, tobacco, a hatchet and most importantly as it turned out later, a Bible. He found a cave near the beach to live in but during the first months he was so terrified by his isolation and loneliness that he rarely left the beach, living on shell fish. For days Selkirk sat on the beach looking to the horizon hoping to see a ship to rescue him. He even contemplated suicide more than once.

Alexander Selkirk's original home on Juan Fernandez Island for the first months. It is the cave located to the left of the stand of trees on the beach. The heavy congregation of sea lions on this beach during the mating and weaning season eventually drove Selkirk inland.

Strange sounds from the interior of the island terrified him and he imagined wild creatures roaming about. (Actually it was the wind toppling trees.) An act of nature finally brought Selkirk to his senses. His beach was invaded by hundreds of sea lions. They were so dense in numbers and so monstrous in size and dangerous in appearance that Selkirk dared to approach the shore, where the shellfish had been the source of his food. Me was cut off and forced inland for food and protection. This was his salvation.

Fortunately, the valley behind the beach was lush with vegetation and, in particular, with cabbage palm which turned out to be one of his main dishes. Furthermore, Selkirk discovered that Robinson Crusoe abounded in feral goats, the original probably having been left behind by buccaneer ships. These Selkirk shot for food and later, when he ran out of gunpowder, learned to run down on foot to capture and eat. Eventually he domesticated a few and fed himself on goat's meat and milk.

One annoyance was that the island was overrun by rats, big fierce rats that had the bad habit of gnawing at his hands and feet while he slept. Fortunately, the island had colonies of wild cats. Some of these Selkirk domesticated and at night his loving cats surrounded his bedside protecting him from the rats. After building himself several small huts further inland near a stream, Selkirk began to enjoy his island kingdom. The Bible became his most important companion and religion soothed his tortured soul and eased his loneliness. Selkirk, however, always dreamed of rescue and daily visited his "lookout" in search of the sight of a sail, and frequently lit fires for distant ships to see but it was several years before any ships put into Cumberland Bay. This first visit proved disastrous.

False hopes

Joyously, Selkirk rushed to the shore to signal the two ships he sighted anchored off shore. Suddenly, he realized that they were Spanish! Since Britain and Spain were than at war, Selkirk realized that, if captured, he would suffer a fate worse than death and might end up as a slave working in a salt mine. A search party was already ashore, spotted Selkirk and fired on him as he ran and hid. The Spanish finally gave up their search and soon left. Selkirk returned to his cats and goats who proved far more friendly.

Although suffering occasionally from bouts of dysentery and fever, Selkirk remained reasonably healthy, only once suffering injury. This occurred while he was chasing and catching a wild goat. He stumbled over a cliff and knocked himself unconscious for a full day and night. The fact that he landed on top of the goat probably saved him from a broken back.

Certainly many of us have at some time asked ourselves, "How well would we do given similar circumstances; what would our instincts of survival be and how well would we be equipped, both physically and mentally, to cope with what Selkirk faced?"

For the first months Selkirk lived in a state of terror and dejection, sorely regretting his hasty, headstrong abandonment of his ship and crewmates. His diet while living on the shore that he dared not abandon for fear of missing a passing ship, consisted of fish, turtles and the seals he managed to occasionally kill with his hatchet. He hated the food and longed for salt to enhance the taste. Salt surrounded him in the ocean but he had no way to convert it to his use. Finally, driven inland by the masses of aggressive sea lions that crowded the beach, Selkirk found that his island abounded in wild turnips, cabbage, palms - and goats. He also discovered a pepper berry that added to the flavor of his diet. He was learning to reconcile his fate.

Life for Selkirk

As winter approached in October of 1704, Selkirk saw the necessity of building some kind of shelter for the rainy, cold weather that he knew must be nearing. Strong winds were gusting across the island, rain storms were more frequent and the wind in the canyons howled dismally. Calling upon the ingenuity that he seemed to possess and the few tools taken from the ship, Selkirk built himself two huts on the high ground well back of the beach and in a grove of shade trees. For wood he used the wood of the pimento tree common to the island and for thatching the roof he used a species of grass that grew on nearby hills.

It was at this point that religion took a strong hold in Selkirk's life. Having come ashore with a Bible he made use of it. His devotions were read aloud for Selkirk greatly desired not to lose his power of speech. In fact, Selkirk began spending more and more of his time in reading the Bible and practicing his devotions, a factor that surely must have been a comfort in enabling him to accept the fate of his abandonment.

His furniture was scanty but he built a bed and covered it with goatskins to add to the comfort. It was not long before goatskins covered his walls to keep the cold out. By good fortune he had brought with him from a ship a kettle. This he used to boil his meat in. Meat was cooked over a pimento wood fire that burned bright and clear and also served as a candle. Having observed the Indians on previous trips using pimento wood to rub together and create fire, Selkirk did the same. To add to the pleasure of his surroundings, Selkirk now had the presence of a parcel of goats that he had managed to tame and keep for future meat and milk supplies. Added to this was his friendly harem of cats attracted by the steady diet of goats meat and milk he fed them. Rats, that had been a previous source of trouble were now kept at bay by the cats, who are well noted for their aversion to rats.

Outside of his daily devotions, occasional running down of goats and the ever frequent trips to his "lookout", Selkirk now spent much time on improving his supply and quality of food. Today Robinson Crusoe Island is famed for its famous langostas (lobsters). In fact they are in danger of being trapped to extinction by the present day lobster fishermen. No such problem existed in Selkirk's time and Selkirk learned to boil and flavor the lobsters with his pepper berries. Without bread he used the cabbage palm as a substitute to this diet. He was able to add turnips, parsley, watercress and parsnips, all found growing in the hills and dales of the island - as barren as it first seemed, Robinson Crusoe Island was now proving to be a veritable treasure chest of food leaving Selkirk with virtually no wants.

As might be expected, the tools and clothing that Selkirk managed to take, or was given, from the ship gradually began to wear out. His gunpowder ran out but the consummate skill that Selkirk developed in running down wild goats solved this problem of supply of protein. All he needed in the way of vegetables grew wildly. The one knife that he brought ashore wore out but he replaced this when, by good fortune, he discovered an iron-barred barrel abandoned on the beach. He used the staves to heat and hammer into knives. His clothing was crude but adequate. His shoes wore out but his feet became to toughened with the constant running over the tough, volcanic terrain that this no longer presented a problem. Selkirk became skilled at fashioning his clothes out of goatskins, using a nail for a needle and making himself caps, jackets and breeches. He did not bother to cut his lengthy beard and his rescuers, on first sighting him, describe Selkirk as "a wild man, something like a hairy ape."

Dreams of escape

Although Selkirk's solitude and living habits had become more tolerable, he still dreamed of escape from his dreadfully lonely internment. The brush with the Spanish had made him extremely cautious but he would have greeted the arrival of any English ship with rapture and never a day passed that he did not scan the lonely ocean in hopes of sighting a sail.

Unbeknownst to Selkirk, a strange set of circumstances were about to bring his deliverance. Dampier, the organizer of the expedition that left Selkirk on the Island, was busily promoting another enterprise to send English ships on raiding forays along the coast of South America. His ships left England on September 1, 1709 and by late January of 1710 were in sight of Robinson Crusoe Island. So, after four and a half years, a former sailing mate was about to bring about Selkirk's rescue!

Because of his close call with the Spanish ship, Selkirk had made it a habit to first climb to his "lookout" before approaching the beach to make certain that all was clear of suspicion. It was from this lookout on February 1, 1710 that Selkirk spotted what he was almost certain were two British ships out in the Bay, recognizable by their rigging. He rushed down to the beach, built a fire and began signaling madly. Dampier, curious about the fire on the beach, and completely unaware that Selkirk might even exist, put a boat ashore to investigate. On meeting his rescuers, Selkirk was so overjoyed that for a while he was unable to speak sensibly.

The long journey home

It would seem that Alexander Selkirk's life of adventure, or misadventure, might have ended here with a Joyous return to England, greetings from a loving family who had given him up for dead, the plaudits of writers and explorers and a life of retirement and ease. But such was not to be. Dampier had no intention of abandoning his raiding expedition on Spanish shipping and Selkirk was invited along and offered the position of Mate aboard the ship "Duke." This he accepted with alacrity for, after all, he was truly " a man of the sea" and an early return to Scotland held no sway for him.

The statue of Alexander Selkirk in Largo, Scotland. Although Selkirk did have a flintlock musket when he was marooned on Juan Fernandez, he did not have either a pistol or a cutless,as shown on the statue.

For almost the next two Years Selkirk joined with his shipmates in a series of "privateering raids" along the coast of Peru and Chile, undergoing countless adventures and near escapes, and did not sight the coast of England until September 22, 1711. This amounted to over eight years since he had absented himself from his native land. Booty from his share of the capture of a Spanish galleon off the coast of Peru had made him a well-to-do man. His return to Largo was greeted with surprise and joy by his parents and friends. Dressed elegantly because of his "prize-ship booty" Selkirk was the talk and toast of the town. The story of his survival of Juan Fernandez Island became the subject of much talk because of an article written by Richard Steele in a publication called, "The Englishman." Selkirk met a shy Scottish dairymaid by the name of Sophia Bruce. They eloped together but never married. From then on things began to sour. Another woman entered his life whom he married. This was proven when she claimed his estate.

At this point in life Selkirk realized that he was a man of the sea and no other life would suit him. He returned to the sea in October of 1720 as Masters Mate of the ship "HMS Weymouth" and died a year later off the coast of Africa, probably of yellow fever. Alexander Selkirk, having come from obscurity returned to obscurity but remained forever immortalized as the man "Robinson Crusoe."

This is part two. Here's part one.

James Bruce and his wife Mayme Lou S. Bruce are both past chairpersons of the Southern California chapter of the Explorer's club. James has had seven previous articles in the Journal and is now awaiting publication of a work on Selkirk's life.
September 13, 2007
Home Motivation History People Projects Publications Resources Fun Contact