Illustration de l'histoire d'Alexander Selkirk

The story of Alexander Selkirk or the true story of Robinson Crusoe

The story of Alexander Selkirk or the true story of Robinson Crusoe

The story of Alexander Selkirk is a story of ships, of pirates, of voyages on the seas. And unlike the myth of Robinson Crusoe, this is a true story. Daniel Defoe was largely inspired by the story of Alexander Selkirk to write his novel. Shipwrecked on a Pacific island, he became an icon of survival. His story, although less fantasized than that of Crusoe, has persisted for centuries, to the point of influencing works such as the film "Alone in the World". The main difference is that Selkirk actually had this experience, while Crusoe is a fictional character created by Daniel Defoe. But what is its story? What are the differences with Daniel Defoe's Robinson?

The story of Alexander Selkirk, from Scotland to the Pacific

His escape from Scotland…

Born in 1676 in Lower Largo, a peaceful fishing village near Edinburgh, Alexander Selkirk was the seventh child of John Selcraig, a humble hide tanner. From a young age, he exhibited a quarrelsome and turbulent temperament. At just 19 years old, in the year 1695, Selkirk found himself embroiled in an affair, being cited for "indecent conduct in church." Rather than appear before the ecclesiastical authorities, he chose to flee. This event marked a decisive turning point in his life, thus beginning his trajectory as an adventurer and sea nomad.

For a Corsair's life

After quickly acquiring experience as an accomplished sailor, in 1703 Alexander Selkirk crossed paths with the English privateer William Dampier, a daring adventurer whose reputation went beyond the borders of the seas. Dampier launches an ambitious expedition to capture treasures from Spanish ships in the South Pacific. Two ships, the Saint-George under the command of Dampier himself and the Cinque Ports led by Thomas Stradling, made up this risky enterprise.

After a perilous journey around Cape Horn and an unsuccessful attack on Santa Maria in Panama, marked by famine and disease, the crews were weakened and disillusioned. Faced with meager loot and deplorable living conditions, the two ships decide to separate. Selkirk opts to stay on the Cinque Ports, led by Stradling, although their relationship is strained due to disagreements over the decisions made. Their next stop is the Juan Fernández Archipelago, located a few hundred kilometers from the Chilean coast, where they hope to resupply water, provisions and carry out vital repairs...

Alexandre Selkirk, the story of a shipwrecked man's life

The landing of Alexander Selkirk

While the Cinque Ports stopped at Mas a Tierra, the main island of the Juan Fernandez archipelago, Captain Thomas Stradling made a decision that marked a turning point in the history of Alexander Selkirk: to leave without even carrying out the necessary repairs to the ship. ship. Alexander Selkirk, aware of the pitiful state of the boat, rebelled, openly expressing his lack of confidence in such a dilapidated ship to undertake long voyages.

Tensions quickly rose and Selkirk declared that he would rather stay on the island than return on such an unreliable ship. Opportunistic, the captain took this opportunity to get rid of Selkirk, whom he did not like and feared to see take the lead in a mutiny. Without further ado, Selkirk was landed on the island, equipped only with a weapon, a Bible, some clothing and rudimentary tools. He later recounted hailing the ship as it departed, hoping to be reinstated on board, but to no avail. Fate then seemed to smile on him, because a month later, the Cinque Ports sank, confirming Selkirk's pessimistic predictions about the ship's reliability.

Alexander Selkirk, alone in the world

In the early days of his exile on the island, Selkirk preferred to stay on the beach, fearing both the presence of wild beasts in the dense forest and the possibility of missing the passage of a ship offshore. His meals are limited to modest crustaceans and a few fish that he manages to catch in coastal waters.

However, after a few months, Selkirk was forced to leave the beach due to the massive influx of sea lion colonies coming to breed there. He then retreats inland, discovering a welcoming clearing where he sets up camp. There, his diet improved considerably. It finds a variety of wild fruits such as turnips and berries, as well as fruit trees like coconut and orange trees. But the most important discovery is that of goats, introduced by Spanish ships, which become both its main source of food and raw materials for clothing.

The ships also landed cats to control the rat population, Selkirk tamed them to protect his supplies. To maintain his sanity and give some semblance of structure to his lonely life, Selkirk adopts a daily routine. He reads the Bible, builds more and more elaborate cabins and tries to recreate, as much as possible, a semblance of society.

Boat in sight!

After more than four years of solitude on the island, on February 2, 1709, Alexander Selkirk finally saw a ship on the horizon that would change the course of his history. Filled with hope, he lights a fire to attract the crew's attention. To his great surprise, the ship was English, and luckily his maneuver was successful. The sailors spotted him and came to rescue him. However, Selkirk is far from presentable after all these years of isolation. He is dressed in goatskin, his hair and beard are wildly long.

But fate has a big surprise in store when one of the sailors turns out to be William Dampier! At first, Selkirk struggles to express himself, as he is so disaccustomed to verbal communication. The ship's captain, Woodes Rogers, even said: "He had forgotten his language so well, due to lack of use, that we could barely understand him; he only said half the words." However, little by little, Selkirk found his bearings, relearning the simple pleasures of life such as salty food, alcohol and wearing shoes.

Map of the main stages in the story of Alexander Selkirk

Alexander Selkirk's story
  • Lower Largo: Small village in Scotland where Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676.
  • Cape Horn: Alexander Selkirk passed there around 1704 in the company of captains Thomas Stradling and William Dampier.
  • Santa Maria: The two privateer ships in which Alexander Selkirk is found attack this Spanish city
  • Juan Fernandez Archipelago: Alexander Selkirk landed on the island of Mas a Tierra in 1705. He remained there alone for more than four years.

Do not hesitate to discover my old maps of the regions crossed by Alexander Selkirk in my old maps of South America or my old maps of Great Britain.

The truly great story of Alexander Selkirk: his posterity

In 1719, Daniel Defoe published his famous novel "Robinson Crusoe", which, although not directly mentioning the story of Alexander Selkirk, was largely inspired by his life on the desert island. Despite some fictional additions such as the appearance of a native and dramatic events such as the explosion of the cave, Defoe's account remarkably captures the loneliness and hardships Selkirk endured during his prolonged isolation.

This immensely popular novel quickly overshadowed the authentic and true story of Alexander Selkirk, but over time his true story resurfaced. The myth of the man alone on a desert island continues to captivate the imagination, as evidenced by other works such as "Friday or Wild Life" by Michel Tournier (1971) or the film "Alone in the World" (2000) with Tom Hanks.

A fascinating event occurred in 1966, when the Chilean government decided to rename the two islands of the Juan Fernandez archipelago: one was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island and the second... Alejandro Selkirk! This belated recognition speaks to the lasting impact of Alexander Selkirk's story and its inseparable connection to the myth of the lone survivor.

If the story of Alexander Selkirk and, more generally, adventure stories interest you, also discover the journey of Marco Polo or the journey of Dona Isabel in the Amazon.

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