Eyewitness: Finding Robinson Crusoe

Mâs a Tierra Island

Robinson Crusoe Found, 2 February 1709

Woodes Rogers

Selkirk, prototype of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, was a shoemaker’s son who ran away to sea and joined a band of buccaneers. He was put ashore in September 1704 on the uninhabited Mâs a Tierra Island in the Juan Fernandez cluster, 400 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile.

[Spelling and punctuation are faithful to the original.]

Our pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat-skins, who look’d wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the island four years and four months, being left there by Captain Stradling in the Cinque-Ports. His name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been Master of the Cinque-Ports, a ship that came here last with Captain Dampier, who told me that this was the best man in her; so I immediately agreed with him to be a mate on board our ship.

‘Twas he that made the fire last night when he saw our ships, which he judg’d to be English. During his stay here he saw several ships pass by but only two came in to anchor. As he went to view them he found them to be Spanish and retired from ’em, upon which they shot at him. Had they been French, he would have submitted, but chose to risque dying alone on the Iland, rather than fall into the hands of the Spaniards in these parts, because he apprehended they would murder him, or make a slave of him in the mines; for he fear’d they would spare no stranger that might be capable of discovering the South Sea. The Spaniards had landed before he knew what they were, and they came so near him that he had much ado to escape: for they not only shot at him, but pursue’d him into the woods, where he climb’d to the top of a tree at the foot of which they made water, and kill’d several goats just by, but went off again without discovering him. He told us he was born at Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and his captain. . . . 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 tirst eight months had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with piemento trees, cover’d them with long grass, and lin’d them with the skins of goats which he killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound, and that being near spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of piemento wood together upon his knee. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals, and in the larger he slept, and employed himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying, so that he said he was a better Christian while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than he was afraid he should ever be again. At tirst he never eat anything till hunger constrain’d him, partly for grief, and partly for want of bread and salt; nor did he go to bed till he could watch no longer. The piemento wood, which burnt very clear, serv’d him both for firing and candle, and refresh’d him with its fragrant smell. He might have had fish enough, but could not eat ’em for want of salt, because they occasion’d a looseness; except Crawfish, which are there as large as lobsters and very good. These he sometimes boiled, and at other times broiled as he did his goats flesh, of which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours; he kept an account of 500 that he kill’d while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear and let go. When his powder fail’d he took them by speed of foot; for his way of living, and continual exercise of walking and running, clear’d him of all gross humours, so that he ran with wonderful swiftness thro the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceiv’d when we employ’d him to catch goats for us. We had a bull dog which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him in catching goats; but he distanc’d and tir’d both the dog and the men, catch’d the goats and brought ’em to us on his back. He told us that his agility in pursuing a goat had once like to have cost him his life; he pursue’d it with so much eagerness that he catch’d hold of it on the brink of a precipice of which he was not aware, the bushes having hid it from him so that he fell with the goat down the said precipice a great height, and was so stun’d and bruised with the fall that he narrowly escap’d with his life, and when he came to his senses found the goat dead under him. He lay there about 24 hours and was scarce able to crawl to his hut which was about a mile distant, or to stir abroad again in ten days. He came at last to relish his meat well enough without salt or bread, and in the season had plenty of good turnips which had been sow’d there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have now overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage trees and season’d his meat with the fruit of the piemento trees, which is the same as the Jamaica pepper, and smells deliciously. He found there also a black pepper called Maragita, which was very good to expel wind, and against griping of the guts. He soon wore out all his shoes and clothes by running thro the woods; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard that he ran everywhere without annoyance, and it was some time before he could wear shoes after we found him. For not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he came first to wear ’em again. After he had conquer’d his melancholy he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his name on the trees, and the time of his being left and continuance there. He was at first much pester’d with cats and rats, that had bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water. The rats gnaw’d his feet and clothes while asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats flesh; by which many of them became so tame that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon deliver’d him from the rats.

He likewise tam’d some kids, and to divert himself would now and then sing and dance with them and his cats; so that by the care of Providence, and vigour of his youth, being now about 30 years old, he came at last to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude and to be very easy. When his clothes wore out he made himself a coat and cap of goatskins, which he stitch’d 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 wore 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 sow’d himself shirts with a nail and stitch’d ’em with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pull’d out on purpose. He had his last shirt on when we found him in the island.

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak his words by halves. We offer’d him a dram, 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. He could give us an account of no other product of the Island than what we have mentioned except small black plums, which are very good, but hard to come at, the trees which bear ’em growing on high mountains and rocks.

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Here’s a bit more information on the subject that I trust some will find interesting:

In 1704, a 28-year-old Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk found himself in a fix. He had taken up privateering—piracy with an official seal, in other words—and had spent too much time cooped up on a galley with an irascible captain. Selkirk made a potentially catastrophic decision following his demotion after a squabble with the captain about the seaworthiness of their ship. He asked to be put ashore on the island pictured above. Though remote, the 36-square-mile island contained large stores of good water from which passing ships would replenish their supplies, and Selkirk apparently figured that it would not be long before another ship came along.

Selkirk had been in trouble before. He had gone to sea in the first place to escape punishment for “indecent carriage,” and local court records show that Selkirk and his kin were often hauled before the bench for fighting and public drunkenness. He had, as they say, issues with authority, and, once aboard ship, a tendency to scrap with his shipmates. He was moody and irascible, though he was also a devout reader of the Bible and a human jukebox of hymns.

Selkirk would remain on his island for about five years. Then, 300 years ago, in 1709, Selkirk was rescued by a British ship commanded by Woodes Rogers, author of the piece above, who was himself a privateer.

Ten years later, in 1719, the ever-enigmatic writer Daniel Defoe, who must have recognized something of himself in Selkirk, brought forth Robinson Crusoe.

When archaeologist Daisuke Takahashi explored what is now called Robinson Crusoe Island in 1994–95, he found that Selkirk had made a comfortable place for himself in a saddle below tall mountains about a mile from the sea, where he could keep an eye out for passing vessels and threats alike. As Takahashi writes, “the site at Aguas Buenas . . . is adjacent to a good supply of fresh water—a vigorous stream that tumbles down the valley to the sea in Cumberland Bay. The surrounding forest still provides many things to eat and in Selkirk’s day was probably full of goats.”

The Spanish had introduced the goats to the island a century earlier; the people did not remain long on that first attempt to settle, but the goats endured and live on the island still. In the 19th century, Chileans arrived, and about 600 people live on the island today, many employed in fishing and lobstering.

Rogers would become governor of the Bahamas in recognition of his success as a privateer for the English crown, and he suppressed the last of the pirate trade in the Caribbean.

Selkirk died aboard the HMS Weymouth off the coast of Ghana on December 13, 1721, having signed up for another stint at sea.

Defoe died on the run from creditors, having made and lost many fortunes besides the one he earned from Robinson Crusoe. And Selkirk’s island home is part of an extensive Chilean national park, named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1977 in recognition of its rare evergreen rainforest.

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Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 1:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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