February 1: Alexander Selkirk is Rescued After Being Stranded on a Deserted Island for Four Years, This is Thought to Have Inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

This Day In History: February 1, 1709

On this day in history, 1709, Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was finally rescued from a deserted island he inhabited for over four years.  The island he found himself on was Más a Tierra, the largest island of the Juan Fernández group of islands, around 400 miles west of South America.  Today the island has been re-named to “Robinson Crusoe”.  One of the other islands in that group, around 100 miles west of Robinson Crusoe island, has also been renamed Alejandro Selkirk.

Selkirk, who was serving as a Master Navigator at the time, arrived at the island in October of 1704 aboard a barely sea-worthy vessel, the Cinque Ports, that had been damaged in previous battles with the Spanish and was infested with worms that were eating away at the hull.  The captain had decided to stop at the island to re-stock their supply of fresh water and food stores.  Due to the failing state of their ship, Selkirk refused to get back aboard and tried to convince the others that they should stay and wait for another ship to come along.  Everyone else refused to stay and Selkirk found himself on the island alone.

This may sound like a foolish thing to do, but better stranded on a well stocked island with plenty of fresh water and food sources than on a ship that may sink at any moment in the middle of the ocean.  In fact, this is exactly what happened to the vessel, with most of the remaining 41 members of the crew (they originally had 90 when they first set sail) aboard dying when the Cinque Ports sunk of the coast of Peru shortly thereafter.  Only eight of the crew survived, including the captain.  They managed to swim to a nearby island from where the ship sank, but were subsequently taken captive by Spaniards and were imprisoned where “the Spaniards put them in a close dungeon and used them very barbarously.”  Only the captain made it away from there alive, eventually managing to return to Britain.

Initially, Selkirk thought a ship would pass fairly quickly that he could hitch a ride on.  This obviously didn’t happen.  The supplies he had on hand included a musket, gunpowder, a knife, a Bible, bedding, a few tools, and tobacco.  Lucky for him though, the island provided his necessities, with plenty of fresh water, goats, seals, shellfish, wild turnips, cabbage, etc.  However, the island was also infested with rats.  This became a problem for him when he’d try to sleep, with the rats gnawing at his clothing, bedding, and feet.  He soon found a solution to this problem, as the island also had a large population of cats.  He domesticated many of the cats, providing them regular supplies of food, and the cats took to hanging out around his campsite and sleeping near him, which kept the rats at bay while he slept.

Throughout his time on the island, he lived fairly comfortably.  Initially, he hunted goats using his gun, but when gunpowder ran out, he took to chasing the goats.  All total, he estimated he’d killed about five hundred goats during his time there to use for food and other purposes.  He also began systematically partially maiming young goats so that when they grew older, they wouldn’t be able to run as fast.  His father having been a shoe maker and tanner also helped him out significantly as he knew how to make clothing and the like from the goat skins, which was useful once his own clothing wore out.

While on the island, his life was only threatened twice.  The first time was when he was chasing a goat and subsequently fell off of a cliff.  While he was injured, his injuries may have been even worse except that he managed to land on the goat, who was probably killed on impact. Selkirk himself was knocked unconscious by the fall and did not wake for almost an entire day and according to his account was near senseless for another two days. The second time his life was in danger was when Spanish ships arrived.  He initially thought he might be rescued, but upon realizing the people aboard were Spanish, he fled as they shot at him.  The Spanish chased him throughout the island, but eventually gave up the hunt.  During this time, he hid himself near the top of a very thickly leaved tree for two days.  At one point, he reported a couple of the Spanish sailors, not knowing he was there, peed at the base of the tree.

Finally, on February 1, 1709, two ships, which included famed explorer William Dampier and was led by Woodes Rogers, anchored near the island and Selkirk revealed himself to the crews via a signal fire.  Several of the crew were suffering from scurvy and Selkirk set about supplying them with needed food.  He got so good in the graces of the captain that he was made first mate before they set off, and was given one of the two ships to captain during the remainder of the voyage. A book was subsequently written by Captain Woodes Rogers’, which included the tale of Selkirk: Rogers’ A Cruising Voyage Round the World: First to the South-Sea, thence to the East-Indies, and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope.  Selkirk himself was also interviewed several times about his adventure and gained a certain amount of notoriety for it throughout England.

Bonus Factoids:

  • The original title of the book now known as Robinson Crusoe was actually: 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 Pirates.
  • Another fascinating castaway was a French noblewoman Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval.  She was accused of having an affair with someone aboard the ship she was on (she was a guest of her relative, the newly made Lieutenant General of New France).  The individual she had an affair with was depicted as a low birth individual, but this is thought to have been a lie to protect the man’s aristocratic family from shame.  His name was never given.  In any event, Marguerite was left on the “Isle of Demons” in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near present day Quebec in 1542.  With her was the young man she was supposedly having an affair with and a maid servant (there are conflicting accounts on whether she was left on the island with her servant and her lover jumped off the ship and swam to shore to join her or whether he was left on the island and she voluntarily chose to join him). Whatever the case, both the man and servant died on the island, along with a baby that Marguerite had while their (the baby dying of malnourishment).  Marguerite, on the other hand, managed to live through the ordeal, which lasted a few years.  She was eventually rescued by a fisherman and managed to return to France where she became a school teacher.  Her story became famous throughout France and was included in Queen Marguerite of Navarre’s work: Heptaméron.
  • Interestingly, William Dampier had also captained one of the ships on the original expedition Selkirk was involved in that got him stranded in the first place.  On that expedition, Dampier was captaining the St. George, and Selkirk was serving aboard the Cinque Ports.  The two ships parted ways when the Cinque Ports put in on the island Selkirk was ultimately stranded on.  Dampier was instrumental in initially getting the crew in 1709 to trust Selkirk.
  • It has also been proposed that Robinson Crusoe may have also been partially inspired by Henry Pitman, who was once a surgeon to the Duke of Monmouth, but ultimately became a castaway.  Pitman wrote a book about his adventures in a Caribbean penal colony, where he took part in the Monmouth Rebellion.  Afterwards during his escape, he was shipwrecked on a deserted island.  The connection between Defoe and Pitman was that Defoe’s publisher’s father, J. Taylor, published Pitman’s book.  Further, Pitman lived above the publishing house in London and it is thought Defoe may have known him and been familiar with his story.
  • Selkirk initially began his life at sea due to having a bit of trouble with the authorities as a young man.  Rather than appear at a trial for “undecent carriage” (basically indecent behavior), he fled, becoming a privateer (basically a legal pirate, that was allowed to attack and rob any ship or person that was an enemy of the UK).
  • Daniel Defoe was originally named Daniel Foe, but later changed his name, adding the “De”, because it was more aristocratic.
  • When Selkirk finally returned to Scotland, he brought with him his earnings as a privateer which amounted to £800, which was a very large sum at the time (around 10-15 years worth of wages by the average earnings of a typical low-class worker like his father, a tanner).  He eventually went back to a life at sea and died in the Royal Navy of a fever off the coast of Africa.
  • Selkirk wasn’t the first to be stranded on what is now known as Robinson Crusoe Island (then called Más a Tierra).  Another man, named simply Will, was left there after his fellow sailors spotted an enemy ship approaching the island.  When they saw it, they all fled back to their ship and sailed away, leaving Will behind as he had not noticed them fleeing until most were back on the boat and he was foraging deep inland.  He was stranded there in 1681 and rescued in 1684.
  • Leendert Hasenbosch was a famous castaway who didn’t survive.  He was left on Ascension Island, which is around halfway between Africa and South America, in 1725.  He was caught committing the act of sodomy during a stop over in Cape Town and his punishment was to be left on the island until he could find away off via a passing ship or died.  They left him with a tent, a survival kit, prayer books, seeds, a musical instrument, writing material, clothing, and four weeks worth of water, as they thought there was no fresh water on the island, though it was fairly large.  Hasenbosch searched the island and found no water, but managed to live for six months, drinking the blood of the animals and drinking his own urine.  He finally died, presumably from dehydration.  Interestingly, there actually are two sources of fresh water on the island, which were previously discovered (in 1701) by other castaways (this time of a ship wreck).  One of the sources was significant enough to supply those 60 men with sufficient fresh water after their ship wreck for two full months before they were rescued.  It was a stream found high up in the interior of the island.   Why Hasenbosch’s story was so famous was that he kept a diary that was found about six months after he died by passing British sailors.  This diary was subsequently published in Britain under such titles as “Sodomy Punish’d” and “An Authentick Relaton”.  The original diary has been lost and only a few known facts remain about what was in it, such as him continually searching for water and firewood, as well as his remorse for committing sodomy.  It is also known that he indicate he frequently thought he saw old friends and also demons while on the island, presumably from being in such a dehydrated state.  This level of constant dehydration also may be why he never ventured up to the high elevation parts of the island where there was in fact the one strong stream of fresh water.  Accounts of his diary have survived, but they differ from one another, having been embellished in the telling, so hard facts about his time there are difficult to ascertain.
  • The first known European to become a castaway on an Island in the Pacific Ocean was Gonzalo de Vigo.  He was a sailor in Magellan’s fleet, who chose to leave the fleet in Guam in March of 1521.  He was found five years later by the Loaisa Expedition.
  • Today, the island of Robinson Crusoe has an official population of 859 people (525 men and 334 women), with the primary industry being lobster trading, as well as a few hundred people a year coming for tourism purposes, such as scuba diving near the wreckage of the German SMS Dresden.
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  • Minor spelling thing; “along with a baby that Marguerite had while /their/” should be ‘there’.

    You’d have expected Hasenbosch to have searched the entire island for fresh water with the four weeks he’d had, but…

  • There is a lot of awkward sentence phrasing to struggle through in this article. (It appears that almost all of Daven Hiskey’s contributions are riddled with errors.) As a frequent visitor of this site, I’d expect better grammar from its authors.

  • Couple little things:

    “… Ports sunk of the cost of Peru”
    First “of” should be “off”
    Not sure, but I think “sunk” should be “sank”

    Pointing them out amuses me, (small mind, easily amused) but unlike dear sweet Abby above me, they in no way subtract from my interest and enjoyment of this site.

  • @ ABBY – “grammar from it’s authors”

    • @Joe Wright


      “It’s” is the contraction form of “it is.” The possessive form is written “its,” not “it’s.”

      Abby’s usage was correct: “its authors,” not “it is authors,” as the “it’s” would have it.

    • Wrong Joe.

      Its in that case is indeed correct. It’s is a contraction for It is, as in It’s a fine day.

  • Except for the grammar trolls that seem to be everywhere, this is a very good story, thank you !