09 February 2009

More on Alexander Selkirk ("Robinsoe Crusoe")


Several days ago I posted photos of the rather inviting island on which Selkirk was abandoned. Since this past week was the 300th anniversary of his rescue, we might as well continue with the story. More details are of course available at Wiki, but here are some excerpts from the recent essay in Der Spiegel:
Unlike his literary equivalent, Selkirk was also not shipwrecked. Instead his captain had simply left him stranded after a longstanding quarrel... Among the few items he had been left were some articles of clothing, a knife, an axe, a gun, navigation devices, a cooking pot, tobacco and a bible.

Selkirk the sailor was a pirate, a drinker and a short-tempered ruffian. Born into a troubled family, he fled to sea when he was barely 17. Working on privateer ships in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, he robbed Spaniards and Frenchmen. Although he was not unintelligent, even working his way up to the position of navigator, his temperament was precarious. Selkirk had apparently always had trouble getting along with other people, which was perhaps precisely why he endured his solitary confinement on the island so successfully...

[re the archaeological dig] Caldwell and Takahashi recently described their findings in Post-Medieval Archaeology, an academic journal. They excavated at a site where Takahashi, who had traveled to the island before, believed Selkirk's camp might have been, a well-protected clearing on a volcanic hillside, almost 300 meters (980 feet) above sea level...

The climate was mild almost all year and usually dry, there were no poisonous or dangerous animals and there were freshwater streams. Fat seals lounged on the beach, spiny lobsters and many varieties of fish populated the lagoons, and edible plants thrived on land, including wild berries, watercress, a form of black pepper and a plant that tasted like cabbage. The only thing he lacked was salt, as he later told his rescuers...

Selkirk was not the first person to live there. In 1575, Spanish explorers brought goats to the island, and subsequent ships brought cats and rats, as well as radishes and parsnips. Selkirk tamed feral cats so that they would defend him against the rats that nibbled on his feet at night...

For almost three years, Selkirk sailed around the world with the buccaneers who had rescued him. They fought, robbed and extorted their enemies, and all with the blessing of the Crown, because their victims were the enemies of their country. At the end of 1711, Selkirk returned to England with a sizeable fortune. He became an instant celebrity, trading his stories for food and drink in pubs. Archeologist Caldwell speculates that this is where Daniel Defoe may have met him...
He was living on an island in the Pacific Ocean, and he lacked... salt?? I have some doubts about the "not unintelligent" part of the description. But still, the story does feed the fantasy that so many of us have occasionally entertained of living on a deserted tropical island.

There is another essay with photos at The Travelling Historian. Image credit here.

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