Trapped on a Pacific Island: Scientists Research the Real Robinson Crusoe

By Marco Evers

Generations of children have been spellbound by Robinson Crusoe's exploits, but few are aware of the real-life figure who inspired the classic. Now, 300 years after he left his island prison, scientists have pieced together how the real Crusoe managed to survive.

What was it he had seen? A fire burning on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific? The next day, the captain of the Duke, an English buccaneer ship, sent an armed party to the island to investigate. When the men returned to the ship, they brought along two surprises: large numbers of spiny lobsters and a shaggy creature.

The figure that climbed on board the Duke on Feb. 2, 1709 was apparently human, but wild as an animal, barefoot and covered in goatskin. The creature, extremely agitated, was only able to stammer a few barely comprehensible words at first, but they were enough to become immortal.

In his novel, first published in 1719, Daniel Defoe named the islander "Robinson Crusoe." But the real Robinson was a man named Alexander Selkirk. He was a Scotsman, the seventh son of a shoemaker from the village of Lower Largo, near Edinburgh. He had spent four years and four months on Más a Tierra, a windswept island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, 650 kilometers (404 miles) off the coast of Chile. He was as alone as a human being can be. For Selkirk, there was no "Man Friday," a character Defoe created for his novel.

Unlike his literary equivalent, Selkirk was also not shipwrecked. Instead his captain had simply left him stranded after a longstanding quarrel. He must have looked on in disbelief as his ship sailed away over the horizon. 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.

On the 300th anniversary of his return to human society, scientists can now paint a clear picture of Selkirk's island existence. They believe that they now know how and where he lived, partly through some of his personal effects that have now been discovered. His life after being rescued can also be reconstructed, providing a portrait of the real Robinson that is not always flattering -- and yet typical of the type of rogue who took to the seas in those days.

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.

David Caldwell, 57, is an archeologist at the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh. Ordinarily, his field is Scottish history, which he usually studies from the comfort of his office. But when Daisuke Takahashi, a Japanese Robinson Crusoe fanatic, asked Caldwell to travel with him to the castaway's island, it was an offer he couldn't resist.

Enthusiast Takahashi had obtained funding for his expedition from the National Geographic Society, but he needed a real academic as his partner. Caldwell was certainly qualified. Two of the better Selkirk relics are in his museum's collection: a drinking vessel that the pirate may have carved himself, and a sea chest of northern Italian origin, which Caldwell believes Selkirk captured in the Mediterranean.

The men spent more than a month on the island, which was officially renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966. It is still a quiet place, home to about 600 people today, most of them spiny lobster fishermen. It has two unpaved roads and barely two dozen vehicles. There is no restaurant or even a bar. Cruise ships occasionally drop anchor at Robinson Crusoe en route from the Galapagos Islands to Tierra del Fuego.

The Spanish threat

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, surrounded by brambles. Selkirk chose not to live on the beach, because it was too dangerous. Although he had no cannibals to fear, as Robinson did in the novel, the Spaniards were a threat. They would have killed him on the spot or turned him into a slave.

The team soon discovered the remains of a Spanish ammunition chest. The Spaniards had reoccupied the island in 1750 to prevent their enemies from continuing to use it as a safe haven. But Caldwell found two older fire sites underneath the chamber -- and the charred remains of bones in them.

Around the site, the scientists discovered holes in the ground that had apparently once accommodated posts. Perhaps Selkirk had built a hut there, they conjectured. When Caldwell sifted through the excavated dirt, he discovered the strongest evidence of Selkirk's presence: an angular, pointed piece of bronze, 1.6 centimeters long. He assigned no importance to the find at first, until he realized that the shape of the metal piece matched that of the lower arm of a divider, which was known to be part of Selkirk's navigation equipment.

Caldwell believes that the castaway had used his divider for crafts and damaged it in the process. A metallurgical test revealed that the metal could have come from Cornwall. "This," says the historian, "is the kind of strong evidence one rarely gets in archeology."

From his campsite, Selkirk faced a steep ascent of another 300 meters to his observation post at the top of the mountain, where he probably spent several hours every day. If he spotted a sail, he had to decide whether it belonged to friend or foe. Should he light a signal fire or remain concealed? He sighted a few ships, and two, both of them Spanish, even landed on the island -- but he managed to escape detection.

The first eight months were a struggle for Selkirk: a pirate hungry for gold and adventure, he fell into a depression. But over time he began to make a home for himself.

Of all the islands Selkirk could have ended up on, this one was practically tailor-made for a castaway. His life soon improved, so much so that he may have been better off than ever before or would ever be again in the future. He was a prisoner, and yet he was freer than ever.

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.

Goats, cats and rats

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. But a herd of wild goats became his greatest source of amusement.

Hunting goats became a sport for Selkirk. He learned to outrun them and throw them to the ground while running. He released many of them but, as he told his rescuers, he killed 500 goats for their meat and skins. He even recorded each goat he killed.

He must have satisfied his sexual urges through masturbation, although there is some debate among experts as to whether he might have had sex with goats. To satisfy his need for communication, Selkirk read the bible, prayed, meditated and sang psalms. He confided in his rescuers that he had never been as good a Christian as he was on the island, and that he doubted whether he would ever be one again.

Selkirk, in his early 30s, was in much better health than the sailors who rescued him. Half of the crew had contracted scurvy after a miserable voyage from England. But Selkirk moved with ease. The soles of his feet had become so calloused that he could outrun the ship's dog on the sharp terrain of his volcanic island. He was unable to wear shoes at first -- or tolerate rum.

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.

But Selkirk was unhappy in the civilized world, and he longed for his island. A journalist quoted him as saying: "I now have 800 pounds, but never again will I be as happy as I was then, when I had not a single quarter penny." He drank and fought and was married to two women at the same time. But eventually he fled back to the sea, this time as a lieutenant in the navy.

His life came to an abrupt end at 45. On Dec. 12, 1721, he died of yellow fever off the coast of West Africa and was buried at sea. Robinson Crusoe was already a groundbreaking success by then. Today Defoe's work is celebrated as the first novel in the English language.

There is one Selkirk mystery that remains unsolved. According to the accounts of his travels, the castaway kept a diary of sorts on Más a Tierra. The diary is also mentioned in a letter from one of his widows. But what happened to his notes?

Archeologist Caldwell has a theory. Shortly after Selkirk's death, his writings fell into the hands of the Duke of Hamilton, the richest nobleman in Scotland. When his descendants needed money, in the 19th century, they auctioned off paintings and collections at Christie's in London. The nascent German Empire was a major buyer at this auction.

Caldwell's theory suggests that if the diary of the real Robinson Crusoe still exists, it could be somewhere in Berlin today. "I would speculate that it is most likely on a forgotten shelf in the Berlin State Library - Prussian Cultural Heritage," says Caldwell.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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