On this day in history : 1st February 1709 – Alexander Selkirk is rescued from an uninhabited desert island – his story inspires Daniel Defoe’s book Robinson Crusoe….

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Statue of Alexander Selkirk, Fife, Scotland

Selkirk was born in 1676 in Fife, Scotland – and was the son of a cobbler…. He was unruly as a youth, quarrelsome in nature and often found himself in trouble…. It was after a family fight with his brothers at the age of 19 that he came to the attention of the Kirk Session (Church Court) – and he fled to sea….

Selkirk embarked on a career as a privateer and buccaneer – which was little more than legalised piracy – taking part in voyages to the South Pacific during the War of Spanish Succession….

One such expedition was led by William Dampier, Captain of the ‘St. George’…. Selkirk was appointed Sailing Master on her sister ship ‘Cinque Ports’ – a 16 gun, 90 ton privateer – under the command of Captain Thomas Stradling….

After several battles with the Spanish Selkirk worried about the seaworthiness of  ‘Cinque Ports’ – and demanded to be put ashore at the next island they came to…. That island happened to be Mas a Tierra (now Robinson Crusoe Island) in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago……an uninhabited island some 420 miles off of the coast of Chile….

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Map of the Juan Fernandez Islands, where Selkirk lived as a castaway. Image: Gi – Public domain

In September 1704, with just a few clothes, bedding, a musket and powder, a cooking pot, knife, hatchet, some tobacco and his bible, Selkirk became a castaway…. He regretted his decision immediately – but Stradling refused to take him back onboard…..

In the beginning Selkirk passed his time by reading his bible and waiting to be rescued….only it gradually dawned on him rescue wasn’t going to happen anytime soon….

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Selkirk reading his bible – illustration from the book ‘The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe’ – Public domain

It wasn’t until the 1st of February 1709 that two British privateer ships, ‘Duke’ and ‘Duchess’ dropped anchor offshore… Selkirk lit his signal fire and a party was sent to investigate from the ships…. What they found astounded them – a wild man dressed in a goatskin…. However, as an enormous stroke of luck for Selkirk, who should be in the party but his old Commander William Dampier – who recognised him….

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The rescued Selkirk, seated at right, being taken aboard ‘Duke’ – Robert C. Leslie – Public domain

Selkirk learned that he had been right to follow his gut instinct that ‘Cinque Ports’ was unsafe – she had sunk off of the coast of Peru…. All hands were lost except for Captain Stradling and a handful of men…. However, things did not end well for them either – they were flung into a Peruvian jail and left to rot….

Selkirk went back to his work as a privateer and within a year had become Master of the ship that had rescued him….

He returned to Scotland in 1712, now a wealthy man….his family were astonished to see him as they had long given him up for dead…. The following year Selkirk wrote his memoirs of his four years and four months as a castaway…. It was this account that prompted Daniel Defoe to write his story Robinson Crusoe in 1719….

Unable to keep away from the sea Selkirk joined the Royal Navy in 1720….only to die of fever in 1721 off of the coast of Africa….

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Title page of the book ‘The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe’ (1835) – Public domain
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Robinson Crusoe Island in modern times – Town of San Juan Bautista, on the north coast at Cumberland Bay – Image: Serpentus CC-BY-SA 3.0

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