Perhaps it was inevitable that so remarkable a set of characters as William Dampier, an Englishman, and Alexander Selkirk, a Scot should cross paths three hundred years ago in a world in which England, Spain and France were almost constantly at war. What we do know is that Selkirk as a troubled lad almost always being pursued by the authorities might have been looking for a way to escape Merry Olde England while Captain Dampier, a well-known Buccaneer on the lookout for likely recruits for his sea-going fleet of free-booting ships might have been looking for another hand.
The term “Buccaneer” – an old Spanish word describing cooking fires which just happened to be traditional among their ilk – came to mean the same thing as raiding parties who preferred being known as “Privateers” or sea-going mercenaries who raided and plundered the ships and towns of their country’s enemies, and who included among their numbers many of “high” birth and lofty title. In other less quaint times and places they were called “pirates”.
Sometime around 1703, young Selkirk left his Scottish hometown of Lower Largo, Fife as a crew member of the Cinque Ports on a privateering mission to the South Seas with the well-known Dampier and a three-ship raiding squadron which put ashore for water on a tiny speck of land known as the Juan Fernández Islands off the coast of Chile. By this time, it would appear that the young mouthy sailor was enough of a seaman to feel that the Cinque Ports was anything but seaworthy. Not content to argue about the need to make some repairs, it seems that Alex said something like “I would rather stay right here than go one more league in this leaky tub”. (I’m just guessing about the exact language of this conversation, but not about the outcome). With his sea chest and its meager contents for company, Selkirk was left behind, amid the squawking of a million gulls, sea lions and seabirds, and an infestation of rats, a legacy of years of European visitors to the archipelago. And thus he would remain for the next four years and four months. He was now the Governor and sole citizen of Más a Tierra.
If there was to be a saving grace to his adventure, it took the form of his free-spirited and self-reliant life style and the good fortune to have been the son of a leather-tanner. First of all, Selkirk befriended some of the island’s feral cats, and turned them into a rat-consuming posse making beach life more endurable. Then, as his shoes and clothing wore out, he moved inland where herds of equally-feral shipwrecked goats provided protein for the meat-pot and an ample supply of hides on which to practice his boyhood tanning skills. With building supplies in abundance, and the best of dining offered up by sea, pasture and forests, staying alive and well on a 35-square-mile island warmed by the Humboldt Current seems not to have been too much of a challenge for a young man smart enough to make his own knives and tools from abandoned casks and convenient flotsam. In fact, it would be the arrival of other ships, all of them manned by the Spaniards who sought to hunt him down and kill him which would be the occasional bane of his lonely existence.
All of this was brought to my mind recently, as a perusal of my “Time Table of World History” marked February 2nd, 1709, as the date on which another English ship – HMS Duke - commanded by Capt. Woodes Rogers would come calling in search of water and a cure for the scurvy which was decimating his crew of Privateers. The island’s lone inhabitant not only led them to fresh water, but to feasts of roasted goat meat which saved their lives.
The return voyage would extend by another two years the Scotsman’s homecoming to Fife where his memoirs of his South Seas adventure would fall into the hands of Daniel Defoe, who would edit it into The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. As if that were not sufficient recognition, another fiction writer named Jonathan Swift would be inspired by the tale to write his own version with a different twist and call it Gulliver’s Travels.
And so one life was saved and two great adventure stories were inspired by an event which took place 304 years ago and in a land far, far away.
It would be difficult to put a number on the young lives of those whose love for reading and powers of imagination were so kindled and stoked as in the case of those in virtually every land
and every language who have come under the spell of Daniel Defoe’s most famous story. How fitting that this international book store in Istanbul Turkey bears the name of Robinson Crusoe.