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Andrew Selkirk - The Real Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe Statue Lower Largo

If you have read Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and enjoyed it immensely, you may be interested in the true story of Alexander Selkirk whose life is said to have inspired Defoe to write his novel.

Robinson Crusoe was the character in a book written by novelist Daniel Defoe in 1719. The book was called " The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe" and based on the real life adventures of Alexander Selkirk who was born in Seaton of Largo in 1676.

Alexander was the seventh son of the local shoemaker John Selkirk and the young lad had a fiery temper which often landed him in trouble. One day after being tricked by his mischievous brother into drinking sea water Alexander's violent behaviour resulted in the whole family being involved in the fracas. Consequently Alexander was summonsed before the Kirk Session of Largo to account for his unruly behaviour. The details are noted in the Kirk minutes of 1695 but it was a long drawn out affair as Alexander went to sea before his case was heard.

At school Alexander Selkirk had developed a keen understanding of mathematics and navigation which stood him in good stead throughout his life. Unlike his brothers who were at sea with the fishing fleet Alexander enlisted in an expedition heading for the South Seas. This was a privateering expedition led by Captains Dampier and Pickering and the sole intention was to profit from plundering the Spanish galleons and the rich Spanish colonies.

Previously Captain Dampier (1652 - 1715) had written an account of his adventures titled "A New Voyage round the World". The book was a success and opened many doors for Dampier which consequently led to speedy promotion. Before long he was appointed as Captain on one of the two ships on his expedition.

Alexander Selkirk was by now a first class navigator and was appointed sailing master on the ninety ton vessel "Cinque Ports" which had sixteen guns and a crew of sixty three. These privateering expeditions were given approval by the government but in reality it was legalised piracy which was very profitable if the expeditions were successful.

Unfortunately the expedition was a failure and after Captain Pickering died his replacement, Thomas Stradling proved unpopular with the crew. Eventually the crew mutinied and forty two of them were put ashore. Even though Dampier intervened and persuaded the crew to return to the "Cinque Ports" there was still an uneasy peace between Captain and Crew.

After numerous violent sea battles with enemy warships Alexander Selkirk reckoned the "Cinque Ports" was not seaworthy and requested that he be put ashore on the next island. His wish was granted and he was left on the small island of Juan Fernandez. The island is fourteen miles long, eight miles wide with mountains of over three thousand feet and lies 400 miles west of Chile.

It was September 1704 when Alexander Selkirk was left on Juan Fernandez and soon after the "Cinque Ports" sank near the Peruvian coast. Most of the crew drowned but Captain Stradling and seven crew were rescued by a Spanish fleet. They were then held for seven years in a prison in Lima - the capital of Peru.

Alexander Selkirk was to lead a solitary life on the island for four years and four months. Eventually he was rescued in early 1709 when an expedition led by the renowned English Captain Woodes Roger R.N. spotted smoke coming from Juan Fernandez. On closer investigation a landing party met the wild man, Alexander Selkirk, who had lit the fire to attract the ships attention. Alexander Selkirk was a weird sight as he was completely dressed in goat skins which had replaced his tattered clothes.

By coincidence the pilot on Rogers ship "The Duke" was Captain William Dampier who recognised Alexander Selkirk and was able to vouch for him. Rogers was suitably impressed with Selkirk's ability to survive on the desert island. Alexander Selkirk had also lost none of his old navigational skills and therefore Rogers put him in charge of the ship "Increase" which had recently been captured from the Spaniards. By September 1710 Alexander Selkirk was master of the Duke.

On his return to England in October 1711 he had earned £800 as his share of the captured booty. His adventures were published in a political journal in 1713 by Sir Richard Steele. Later Daniel Defoe (1161-1731), who was a spy for the English government in 1707, wrote his book on "Robinson Crusoe" in 1719.

Alexander Selkirk returned to Lower Largo much to the delight and surprise of his family who had believed him dead. Selkirk struggled to adjust to 'normal' life again and often retreated to Kincraig Point or Keil Den to try and recapture the solitude he enjoyed on Juan Fernandez. Restless and seeking further adventure he went back to sea in 1720 on board H.M.S. Weymouth. Unfortunately Selkirk contracted the dreaded fever and died on board ship in December, 1721. He was buried at sea off the coast of Africa.

Before leaving he had presented his mother with possessions he had cherished in his fight for survival on Juan Fernandez - his gun, his clothes chest or kist and coconut shell he had used as a drinking vessel.

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