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Robinson Crusoe Island, Juan Fernández Islands, Where Selkirk Spent Four Years
Robinson Crusoe, Juan Fernández Islands, Where Selkirk Spent Four Years
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Alexander Selkirk, or Alexander Selcraig, lived from 1676 to 13 December 1721). He is famous for spending four years as a castaway on an uninhabited island: an experience on which the Daniel Defoe book Robinson Crusoe was based. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Statue of Selkirk  in Lower Largo
Statue of Selkirk in Lower Largo
Location of the Statue
Location of the Statue

Selkirk was born in Lower Largo in Fife in 1676. He was the seventh son of a shoemaker and tanner and would seem to have been something of a problem child, getting into trouble of various sorts quite quickly. On 27 August 1695 he was summoned to appear before the kirk-session (ecclesiastical court) for his unspecified indecent behaviour in church. Court records note that he failed to appear, having gone away to sea. The charges were deferred until his return.

This was the age of the pirate, and Selkirk became involved in a number of buccaneering expeditions. In 1703 he joined the ship's company of the notorious privateer and explorer William Dampier, captain of the ship Cinque Ports, a sixteen gun, ninety ton vessel. Privateers were effectively pirates who operated under licence from a government, in this case the government of England, to prey on ships of an opposing nation, in this case Spanish ships in the waters around South America.

After a number of encounters with Spanish vessels, the Cinque Ports called in at the uninhabited Juan Fernández Islands, 400 miles out into the Pacific from the coast of Chile, to restock on water and provisions. Selkirk had fallen out with Dampier, and was also deeply concerned about the seaworthiness of the ship because of its battle damage. The upshot was that he asked to be left on the largest island in the group, what is now known as Robinson Crusoe Island. Ironically, he never visited the other main island in the group, which the Chilean Government (with an eye to increasing tourism) have renamed Alejandro Selkirk Island.

Selkirk regretted his decision as soon as the ship sailed away from the island. He was to spend four years and four months on Robinson Crusoe Island. During that time, two ships landed, but both were Spanish vessels and Selkirk had to hide from their crews. On 2 February 1709 the privateer vessel Duke, captained by Woodes Rogers and piloted by William Dampier took Selkirk off his island. He found from Dampier that he had been right about the seaworthiness of the Cinque Ports. The ship had sunk with all its crew bar Dampier himself and seven men off the coast of Peru.

During his time on his island, Selkirk had lost none of his sailing skills, and Rogers made him captain of a ship he captured: Selkirk went on to make his fortune. In 1712 Woodes Rogers published a book "A cruising voyage round the world: first to the South-Sea, thence to the East-Indies, and homewards by the Cape of Good Hope". This included an account of Selkirk's time on his island, and this in turn formed the basis for Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719.

The now wealthy Alexander Selkirk returned to Lower Largo in 1717, 22 years after he left. But he wasn't a man likely to settle, and after a few months he ran away once more, this time to London with a 16 year old dairymaid, Sophia Bruce. Less than a year later he went to sea again, this time as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and during a visit to Portsmouth he married a widowed innkeeper. According to the ship's log, the 45 year old Lieutenant Selkirk died of yellow fever at 8pm on 13 December 1721 on board HMS Weymouth off the coast of West Africa.

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