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Alexander Selkirk

Alexander Selkirk

Castaway and model for Robinson Crusoe

A high-spirited young man, Selkirk first ran away to sea in 1695, ultimately joining a privateer in 1703. But an unwise quarrel with the captain left him marooned on the uninhabited South Pacific island of Juan Fernandez. He had to survive on his own until, in 1709, he was rescued by a passing ship. Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe on Selkirk’s adventures.

More About Andrew Selkirk. We would probably not remember Alexander Selkirk but for Robinson Crusoe, the novel by Daniel Defoe. Selkirk was the real castaway. Defoe chose another name for him and turned the story into one of the great novels of the English language.

Selkirk was born in 1676 in Largo in Fife, and was a lad with too much energy for his own good. He got into a lot of trouble in his youth, but got out of Fife, taking up a fairly dodgy job on board a privateer that had set out to maraud French and Spanish shipping in the South Seas.

Selkirk didn't fancy the captain. In fact, he thought the captain was an incompetent fool. Selkirk demanded that he be put ashore, and he was - on the desert island of Juan Fernandez in January 1704. All he had on the island were his clothes, a bit of bedding, navigational instruments and books, the Holy Bible, a kettle and his musket. All the captain had was his ship. Selkirk had warned him about that. After so many fights with other crews, the vessel was riddled with shot.

A few months after Selkirk had been left on Juan Fernandez, the ship indeed foundered. The captain and several of his officers were captured by the Spaniards and gaoled for seven years in a Peruvian prison. So Selkirk was not all that silly.

Selkirk's story really is a perfect example of the survival instinct. He found a way of making the desert island his home, keeping up his standards, feeding himself and being an enormously stubborn Scot who would not give in. He lived in a cave, a convenient, rainproof home, and kept it comfortable month after month.

We do not know whether the real Selkirk, as opposed to the fictional Crusoe, found a Man Friday to do his boring chores, but probably not. Selkirk had the strength to do his own work. He stayed quite cheerfully on the island for four years until he was taken off by Captain Woodes Rogers, another fairly rascally fellow, who later made a career suppressing pirates.

Selkirk carried on his career as a sea-dog for another three years before he returned to Britain, this time in command of his own ship, the Increase. He finally returned to his native Largo in 1713, where he spent several months before going back to sea.

Some respectability came Selkirk's way in 1720, when he became a lieutenant on HMS Weymouth. He died on board this ship in 1721, off the coast of West Africa. He had crowded all that adventure into 45 years. Selkirk was not, perhaps, an example to serious young Scots, but neither was he a bore, more a legend.