Wednesday, April 25, 2007 04/25/07-The Real Robinson Crusoe

In today's excerpt--Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, is found by the captain and crew of the British ships Duke and Dutchess while they are sailing the Pacific seeking to plunder Spanish ships filled with treasure:

"The next morning the Duke and Dutchess sailed into the [Juan Fernandez Island] harbor entrance, their guns ready for action. ... As they approached the beach, they were shocked to see a solitary man, clad in goatskin, waving a white cloth and yelling exuberantly to them in English. Alexander Selkirk, the castaway whose story would inspire Daniel Dafoe to write Robinson Crusoe, was about to be rescued.

"Selkirk had been stranded on Juan Fernandez Island for four years and four months, ... a Scotsman, [he] had been the mate aboard a consort ... whose captain and officers had lost faith in their commodore's leadership and sailed off on their own. Unfortunately, the ship's hull had already been infested by shipworm, so much so that when the galley stopped at Juan Fernandez for water and fresh provisions, young Selkirk decided to stay--to take his chances on the island rather than try to cross the Pacific in a deteriorating vessel. According to the extended account he gave [Captain] Rogers, Selkirk spent the better part of a year in deep despair, scanning the horizon for friendly vessels that never appeared. Slowly he adapted to his solitary world. The island was home to hundreds of goats, descendents of those left behind when the Spanish abandoned a half-hearted colonization attempt. He eventually learned to chase them down and catch them with his bare hands. He built two huts with goatskin walls and grass roofs, one serving as a kitchen, the other as his living quarters, where he read the Bible, sang psalms, and fought off the armies of rats that came to nibble his toes as he slept. He defeated the rodents by feeding and befriending many of the island's feral cats, which lay about his hut by the hundreds. As insurance against starvation in case of accident or illness, Selkirk had managed to domesticate a number of goats, which he raised by hand and, on occasion, would dance with in his lonely hut. ... He was rarely sick, and ate a healthful diet of turnips, goats, crayfish, and wild cabbage. He'd barely evaded a Spanish landing party by hiding at the top of a tree, against which some of his pursuers pissed, unaware of his presence.

"[Captain] Rogers said ... 'He had so much forgot his language for want of use that we could scarcely understand him, for he seemed to speak by halves. ... We offer'd him a Dram [alcoholic drink], but he would not touch it, having drank nothing but water since his being there, and 'twas some time before he could relish our victuals.' Selkirk was remarkably healthy and alert at first, but Rogers noted that 'this man, when he came to our ordinary method of diet and life, though he was sober enough, lost much of his strength and agility.' "

Colin Woodard, The Republic of Pirates, Harcourt, 2007, pp. 75-77.


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