On this day in history….31st July 1703

On this day in history : 31st July 1703 – As a punishment for offending Parliament and the Church, with his satirical writing, Daniel Defoe is put in the pillory – but is bombarded with flowers….

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Daniel Defoe in the style of Sir Godfrey Kneller – Public domain

Defoe was a married man, a father to eight children, the owner of a brickworks, a government spin doctor, a writer – and a dissenter (English separatist; a Protestant Christian who had broken away from the Church of England)….

At the end of 1702 he wrote an anonymous pamphlet entitled ‘The Shortest Way with the Dissenters’ – in which he mocked the High Anglican powers and satirised contemporary politicians…. His ‘advice’ being that the best way to deal with dissenters was to ‘banish them abroad and send their preachers to the hangman’…. The pamphlet suggested that ‘the Church of England was like Christ crucified between two thieves, Papists on one side and Nonconformist Sectarians on the other’… It went on to say ‘let us crucify the thieves. To go on tolerating them is like allowing a plague to continue without medical treatment’….

Needless to say, although written as satire, neither the authorities nor dissenters found it amusing…. Defoe’s identity was soon discovered and a large reward offered for his arrest…. Defoe went into hiding – and to try and clear up the misunderstanding, published a further pamphlet – ‘A Brief Explanation of a Late Pamphlet’…. Parliament, still not recovering its sense of humour, responded by having the hangman publicly burn ‘The Shortest Way’….

Defoe was captured in Spitalfields in May 1703 after being betrayed by someone tempted by the reward money…. He was held at Newgate Jail – it has to be said in relative comfort, paid for out of his own pocket…. He managed to secure bail the following month – and awaited his trial, which was set for July….

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Daniel Defoe – Image credit : immugmania via Flickr

He pleaded guilty to the charge of committing seditious libel – and begged for mercy as it had not been his intention to be taken seriously…. He was sentenced to stand in the pillory three times and remain in prison either for seven years or until he had paid a large fine….

The pillory was used mainly for petty crimes and minor offences – such as cheats, liars and rioters….it was intended as a way of humiliating and shaming…. Those held in the pillory could expect to be pelted with all manner of unsavoury items; rotten fruit and eggs, mud, dead rodents….and worse…. Sometimes things could turn violent – stones and larger missiles could be thrown….serious injury or even death could occur….

Defoe’s scheduled time in the pillory was set for the last three days in July, at one hour at a time…. Three of London’s busiest locations were chosen; outside the Royal Exchange at Cornhill (which was close to his home), near to the Conduit at Cheapside and near to Temple Bar, Fleet Street….

Admittedly it was raining most of the time (making it a little unpleasant for Defoe) – or perhaps people were simply disinterested – but for whatever reason the crowds kept away when Defoe was placed in the pillory…. All that was thrown at him were flowers….whilst his friends sold copies of ‘The Shortest Way’ and ‘A Hymn to the Pillory’ – which Defoe had written specially for the occasion – to those who did bother to turn out to witness the spectacle…. With his friends ‘drinking to his good health’, one can almost imagine a party atmosphere….

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Daniel Defoe in the pillory, 1862 line engraving by James Charles Armytage after Eyre Crewe – Public domain

Defoe was returned to Newgate, as he was unable to pay his fine….since his brickworks had now gone bankrupt…. However, a few months later the government decided he might be useful…. In the November his fine was paid on his behalf – in return he was to publish a newspaper showing the establishment in a positive light…. He was also to act as a spy on behalf of the government…. In 1706 he was sent to Scotland to gather political intelligence…. He also established himself in writing government propaganda…. It wasn’t until much later in his life that he turned to writing fiction…. We know him best for Robinson Crusoe….

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Public domain

On this day in history….1st February 1709

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