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In 1704, Alexander Selkirk found himself exiled on the island of Más a Tierra, next to South America. ...
2021-04-06 09:00:00

The Lost Memoirs of Alexander Selkirk
A Real-Life Robinson Crusoe

The Lost Memoirs of Alexander Selkirk

They say my adventures inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe, but that’s only part of the truth. What I experienced is far more interesting, dramatic and exciting. And of course, it really happened.

Read in 15 minutes

My name is Alexander Selkirk and I’m soon going to die. Here, off the west coast of Africa, I will end my days as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy on board HMS Weymouth. I will be one of the many victims of a disease that is decimating our crew called yellow fever. Many a man on board can now be found shaking and vomiting, or bleeding from his eyes and mouth. On 23rd October 1721, we counted 72 healthy men. The next day there were 57. Soon my time will come.

I only hope I won’t be a nameless victim, that Alexander Selkirk will be remembered for years to come. This is highly likely, because people like to hear and read about the adventures of seafarers. Not long before I embarked on this journey, a book written by Daniel Defoe had met with great success. It was titled: The life and strange surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, mariner: who lived eight and twenty years, all alone in an un-inhabited island on the coast of America, near the mouth of the great river of Oroonoque; having been cast on shore by shipwreck, wherein all the men perished but himself. With an account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by pyrates. Written by himself. Despite its long and hard-to-remember title, the book sold well, had several reprints, and a few months after its release, Defoe had to write a sequel (they say he has also written the third part).

We never met, but I heard that the writer had acquainted himself with the press reports and might have been inspired by my adventures. However, Robinson Crusoe’s fate is completely different – he was a castaway and I was an exile, he had a black slave and I had no-one, I spent four years and four months on a desert island, he spent 28 years.

Therefore, before I die, I want to write down everything I remember. Here are the main events of my life, the seafaring life of Alexander Selkirk.

I, exile

I was right, back then. In September 1704, after circumnavigating Cape Horn, the Cinque Ports was in a deplorable condition. With a cracked mast and a leaky hull, it wasn’t fit for further travel, and certainly not for battle. Upon reaching the island of Más a Tierra, a few hundred miles off the coast of South America, in line with Valparaíso, we would need to stop for a few days, maybe weeks, to carry out extensive repair work.

I know what they used to say about me. That I was boorish, rude, and spoilt by my mother. That I caused trouble, and I had a foul mouth to boot. There was probably some truth in it, but I couldn’t keep my mouth shut that day. You can’t stay silent when a 21-year-old halfwit is leading you into a death trap. So I told Captain Thomas Stradling exactly what I thought of his order to return to the high seas immediately after restocking. I probably could have phrased it differently, but where I’m from, you cut to the chase. And the truth was, Stradling was steering us towards certain death.

That’s why I announced I wouldn’t be reboarding. I’d rather do anything than remain on that husk of a boat. I chose the fate of an exile on an island in the middle of nowhere, 7500 miles from home. To be honest, I was counting on being saved imminently by an English ship. I mean, initially, I was hoping that someone would support me, and together we would incite a revolt and take control of the Cinque Ports. But no, apparently everyone on board had deemed me a nuisance.

Had Mr William Dampier been with us, things would have been different. By 1697 he had circumnavigated the world, having previously reached New Holland [Australia – ed. note]. He had much greater intellect and experience than Stradling. Dampier was also leading our expedition, but he was on the larger ship, the St George, from which the Cinque Ports had strayed. Unfortunately for me.

Now, years later, I must admit that I had moments of doubt. As the ship sailed away, I raced after it, but all I heard in response was Stradling’s screams. He’d been fed up with me for some time, and in the end, he’d leapt at the chance to get rid of me.

Salt water

I was born in Lower Largo on the Firth of Forth in 1676, when Scotland was still the Kingdom of Scotland. I was the seventh child of Euphan Mackie and John Selcraig. The village lived off fishing, specifically herring, but my father worked as a cobbler and a tanner. My mother believed that I was born under a lucky star. She thought I should be supported in my plans to conquer the oceans. But my father wanted me to stay in Largo and take over his trade. When I turned my nose up at that, he threatened to disinherit me.

I was born Selcraig, although you can find other versions in the church documents too: Selchraig, Selchrainge, even Sillcrigge. Don’t ask why I became Selkirk. I once heard that I’d changed my surname on purpose to make it easier for foreigners to pronounce, or that someone who was writing it down heard it wrong, and it stayed that way. You can choose whichever version you like best.

In school, I was good at geography and maths, which came in handy later when I went to sea. I don’t want to talk about the first expedition I joined when I was 19. All that matters is that I signed on to a ship to escape from a trial before the church elders, who wanted to punish me for indecent behaviour. During my absence, the Darien Scheme was launched, the aim of which was to establish a Scottish colony to control the route between the Pacific and the Atlantic, near the Isthmus of Panama. Was I involved? So they say; but I’ve suppressed the memories of that period almost completely. And not only because the idea drove Scotland to the brink of bankruptcy. Suffice it to say that at that time, I was travelling and gaining experience. I also became a navigator – a pretty good one too, because I would guide the ships wherever the captains wanted. In contrast, there are still many experienced seamen who manage to err by several hundred miles.

I returned to Lower Largo after a few years, but I found it was too small for me. I was suffocating, it was only a matter of time before I’d explode. One day in November 1701, after returning home, I took a swig of salt water – accidentally, though I can’t rule out that someone had planted it on purpose. My brother Andrew, sitting next to me by the fire, started laughing. In fact, his sides were practically splitting. And since, as I’ve mentioned, I was always fairly hot-tempered, I thrashed him with a stick. Our father, older brother John and sister-in-law Margaret Bell rushed to his defence. Such a row broke out that half the village came running. The church elders reprimanded me, so I apologized. I promised to mend my ways, took the Bible my mother had given me, and headed for Kinsale in Ireland, and from there back out to sea. Destination: South America.

How I became a privateer

They left me on the island with a musket, a gun, gunpowder, an axe, a knife, navigational equipment, some tobacco and cheese, a bottle of rum, and a few books, including a Bible, all packed into a crate.

I didn’t unpack it at first. I spent the nights on the beach in a makeshift tent fashioned from an old sail. I still believed I’d only be there a short time. To be honest, my hurt ego wouldn’t let me forget the Cinque Ports either. I hoped my predictions would come true and that Captain Stradling would have to turn back and admit that I was right.

Situated relatively close to the mainland, Más a Tierra had long been a popular stopover for English ships. It was easy to replenish supplies there, especially drinking water, without risking bumping into some formidable tribe.

But I also realized that the Juan Fernández archipelago isn’t the safest place on earth, and certainly not for someone with my background.

Before I landed on the island, the War of the Spanish Succession had broken out. England and the Netherlands were on one side, Spain and France on the other. Queen Anne, keen to strengthen British sea power, enlisted mercenaries. In return for a share of the loot, they were allowed to attack their enemies, and given accommodation in English-controlled ports. This meant the Spaniards were weakened, and the mercenaries could get rich. For years, the Cinque Ports had transported cotton, sugar and wood, but during the war it was turned into a battleship with cannons, muskets, and so on. That’s how I became a privateer. At least, that’s what we used to call ourselves. The Spaniards saw us as regular pirates and those of us who were captured were usually punished with death.

Más a Tierra was a Spanish island, meaning the sea could bring not only salvation, but also death.

Goat island

Those who were here before me calculated that Más a Tierra was 15 miles east to west and five miles north to south. Not much, especially for someone with as much time as I had. Theoretically, one could walk the length and breadth of an island that size several times a week. Nonetheless, in over four years I didn’t get to know all of it. Much of the coast was steep and not readily accessible. In the centre of the island too, the terrain was difficult and the slopes treacherous, the ground liable to slip from under your feet at any moment.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t active. On the contrary, the more I lost hope of rescue, the more willingly I ventured deeper into the island. And I soon discovered that the greatest treasure of this patch of land were the goats.

They were introduced in 1591 by Captain Sebastián García, who had a plan to populate the entire Juan Fernández archipelago. He brought goats, pigs and 60 indigenous people from the mainland. After five years, the islands were deserted again – no-one knows why. A few years later, the attempt was repeated, but the humans abandoned the project in a flash and returned to the mainland. They found a lot of goats there running wild. More than 100 years later, no trace of their domestication remained.

I soon became depressed and began to think of ending things. I realized I had very few options. I could just take my life, while I still had gunpowder and bullets, avoiding a slow death or falling victim to an animal attack. The second option was to use up all my ammunition and leave the last bullet for myself. Third, maybe I could survive even after my gunpowder stocks were exhausted and count on being rescued someday.

In fact, it was prayer that kept me alive. I prayed morning and night and sang psalms out loud so as not to forget my speech. I didn’t want to be in a position where someone finally docked on the island and I was unable to talk to them. So I prayed more fervently than ever. Neither before nor after was I such a good Christian as I was on that island.

When the gunpowder ran out, I had to change my hunting methods. I learned to catch the goats and finish them off with my hands or a knife. I could run really fast, and as I was exercising regularly, I got better and better. Thanks to my speed and agility, I coped really well in the forest and on the rocks. Even the deftest and strongest specimens didn’t stand a chance against me.

On one occasion, I was an inch from losing my life. I was so focused that I wasn’t aware of anything around me – it was just me and the goat. I almost had it, it was collapsing from exhaustion. Right behind it was a clump of bushes. When I pounced on the goat, it turned out the bushes were growing on the edge of a precipice. We fell several metres. I don’t know how long I spent at the bottom of that ravine. When I woke up it was already dark and I was lying on top of the goat. The animal saved my life by cushioning my fall. I was so scared that I returned to my hut on my hands and knees and stayed there for several days.

It was then I decided that I had to stock up. It occurred to me that the next time I had an accident, there’d be no-one there to give me food. I was on my own. At the time, I thought it would be forever.

The rats were the worst. They must have escaped from ships arriving from Europe. They were big, hungry, and afraid of nothing. They could devour supplies, and they even bit me in my sleep. A veritable plague. I tried to solve the problem by taming wild cats, which had probably also come from the Old Continent. Everything seemed to be going as planned, but as time passed, more and more of the animals started swarming around my hut. Ultimately, the plague of rats had been replaced by a plague of cats. Then I began to fear that if I died, I’d become a meal for my saviours. That fear never left me during my stay on the island.

When I wore out my clothes, I made new ones out of goatskin (my father’s teachings came in handy in the end). And when my shoes completely fell apart, I discovered I didn’t need new ones, because my feet had grown used to the hard ground. On the island, I also learned to live without tobacco and alcohol, which I had previously consumed in bulk.

But I couldn’t get used to the lack of bread and salt. Goat stew seasoned with a little salt would have been great, but all I had to hand was watercress, turnip and Jamaican pepper. The latter, also known as allspice, is the fruit of the pimento tree. To this day, I remember how brilliantly it burned and what a fantastic smell it gave off!

Initially, for fear of the Spaniards, I didn’t even attempt to light a fire. But I soon learned that I couldn’t get by on raw food. My stomach was crying out for hot meals. Shellfish and other sea creatures also featured on my menu. The ocean was very rich there and shellfish were easy to catch. But I soon got bored of the massive crayfish. I often caught spiny lobsters, which have tender, tasty meat. I also sometimes hunted seals lying on the shore. However, I barely ate any fish. I’d tried at the beginning and it always gave me stomach problems.

On the verge of death

One day, I was met with luck in the midst of misfortune. Had I not been able to climb a tree, I certainly wouldn’t be writing these words. I’d either be dead or working as a slave in a silver mine.

It started with hope. I was so glad to see the galleon sailing towards me that I paid no attention to the flag. As soon as the Spaniards saw me, they started shooting. I had to escape into the bush. My attackers chased me for a long time; two of them even urinated under the tree where I was sitting, but luckily, they didn’t notice me. Then they shot a few goats and left, probably assuming I’d die anyway.

I had to be vigilant. I’d already decided that if a French ship arrived, I would try to surrender. But the Spaniards were worse than the devil himself.

Reading The Scriptures, keeping a diary, studying navigation books, sewing and darning clothes, finding and preparing food, taking care of the goat farm, and watching the sea, waiting for salvation. Really, living on a desert island is far from boring.

I built two huts from pimento wood and goatskins, with long grasses for the roof. In one I had a makeshift bed, table and small library, and in the other I set up a kitchen. Neither felt particularly cosy, but it was enough to call home.

Of course, the location wasn’t chosen at random. I lived near a stream in a grassy area half an hour from the beach. Just the right distance so the sea didn’t pose a threat, but so that I could quickly reach the coast if the need arose. I also had an observation point nearby. Its summit was at an altitude of about 1800 feet (the highest point on the island was 3000 feet) and I could see for a good few miles from there in all directions. I was certain I’d be able to see both potential saviours and danger.

Yes, I liked that island. It was difficult at first, but in the end, I was living in a beautiful, wonderful place. Many people would probably find the weather on the island ‘capricious’, but for someone raised in Scotland, that really wasn’t the case.

Salvation

“Clad in those goatskins, you look more menacing and wild than their original owners,” said Captain Woodes Rogers when he saw me. My salvation arrived aboard a ship called the Duke. I must have looked quite something, not having shaved that whole time (Rogers reached the island on 2nd February 1709).

Great was my surprise when I learned that Mr William Dampier was also in charge of this expedition, sailing aboard a second ship, the Duchess. At first, I was afraid, as he had a reputation for being ruthless and cruel, but as it turned out, he bore no grudges against me. In fact, he immediately hired me as a navigator on board the Duke.

The first meal was strange because I was completely out of the habit of using salt. Nor could I drink alcohol. As I’d feared, I had also forgotten how to use my tongue to some extent – the sailors said I was uttering the words halfway, so I was hard to understand. But I had so many questions. Was Queen Anne still reigning? Thank God, she was. What had happened to Scotland? In 1707, it had merged with England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. What had become of the Cinque Ports? A few months after they’d abandoned me, the ship had sunk and the surviving crew members were taken captive by the Spanish. Among them was Captain Stradling. To this day, I remember the strange mix of feelings that tormented me when I discovered I’d been right.

According to my calculations, during my stay on the island I’d caught more than 400 goats. Nonetheless, Captain Woodes Rogers decided that I shouldn’t go hunting alone, and sent the best men and bulldogs with me. However, I was faster than all of them, and the sailors from the Duke christened me ‘the governor of the island’.

I arrived back in London in October 1711, eight years after I’d left the British Isles. For my work onboard the Duke I received 800 pounds. When people heard about my story, I even became popular for a while. I returned to Largo, where I caused a sensation because they’d thought I was dead. But once again, I felt restless in that godforsaken Scottish village, and I took to drinking and starting fights out of boredom. Later I got married… maybe once, maybe twice; that’ll be my little secret. In any case, I decided that life on dry land wasn’t for me, and I returned to sea. And now I will surely die soon, perhaps even today, 13th December 1721, not long after my 45th birthday, and the sailors of HMS Weymouth will bury me at sea.


The real Robinson? There is no evidence that Alexander Selkirk was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe never admitted (nor denied) that he based one of the greatest novels in history on the story of the Scottish seaman. In fact, in recent years, researchers have increasingly suggested that there must have been more sources. The motif of a castaway or exile living on a desert island had appeared previously, both in literature and in sailors’ memoirs. According to one of the most recent hypotheses, Defoe partially plagiarized the memoirs of Captain Robert Knox, published several decades earlier, who had been captured by the ruler of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1659. The difference is that Knox was not alone on the island.

There is also no evidence that Selkirk wrote a diary during his four years and four months on the desert island. There are even those who claim that although he went to school, he was illiterate. Most of what we know about the Scot’s time on the island is based on A Cruising Voyage Round the World, the memoirs of Captain Woodes Rogers, who saved Selkirk in 1709, and also the work of Richard Steele. Based on a conversation with a sailor, the Irish essayist wrote an article in the magazine The Englishman in 1711. Other sources include parish registers, archaeological research, biographies (the first, The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk by John Howell, was published in 1829) and other books about the ‘real Robinson’ and his island, including those published in the 21st century, such as The Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe by Rick Wilson, In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin, and Crusoe’s Island: A Rich and Curious History of Pirates, Castaways and Madness by Andrew Lambert.

 

Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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