Tuesday, November 17, 2009

People: A Questionable Choice

In a few recent posts I mentioned Alexander Selkirk, the man who inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe. The historical narrative of Selkirk's marooning and eventual rescue is, I think, far more interesting than the novel. But then I'm a history geek. See if you don't agree with me.

Selkirk, whose name is sometimes noted as Seleraig, was born in Scotland in the late 17th century. He was a lifetime seaman and by 1704 he was a carpenter's or bosun's mate aboard the Danish privateer Cinque Ports, of 16 guns. Her captain, Thomas Stradling, was a woeful excuse for a sailor much less a privateer. He held a letter of marque against Spain but had nothing but bad luck. Rather than take Spanish ships off South America, his own ship was repeatedly beat up by them.

The result was that Cinque Ports was nothing short of a leaky tub. Selkirk, who was obviously a temperamental sort, repeatedly complained to Captain Stradling about the upkeep of the ship. Stradling told Selkirk to take a hike but Alexander would not be silent. Selkirk communicated to his mates that he would rather be marooned than take his chances aboard a ship that was sure to sink. The final stand off with the Captain nearly brought the men to blows and Stradling took the next step. Selkirk would indeed be put ashore.

Selkirk appears to have chosen the spot himself and it was agreed in October that he would be left ashore on Mas a Tierra in the San Fernandez island chain approximately 400 miles west of Chile. Selkirk was pleased with this decision and told his doubtful mates not to worry about him. Shipping went right by the island frequently. Doubtless, he'd be aboard a vessel within the month. He was given rifle, ball and powder along with his sea locker and some provisions. Then Cinque Ports sailed away.

In 1708, Woodes Rogers - the future Governor of New Providence island in the Bahamas - left England for a privateering expedition to South America. He had two ships Duke, his flag ship, and Duchess. Curiously, William Dampier, who would one day be a celebrated French privateer, was aboard Duke as navigator. He had been among the Cinque Ports' crew when Selkirk was marooned.

On February 2, 1709, Duke sighted a signal fire on Mas a Tierra and hove to under the island's lee. Sure enough, there was a European man on the island and once he was bathed and shaved Dampier in particular was flabbergasted to see his old mate Alexander Selkirk. Dampier was able to vindicate Selkirk somewhat with the news that Cinque Ports had indeed sunk off Peru some time after her carpenter's mate was left on Mas a Tierra.

Daniel Defoe got wind of Selkirk's story and publish the interminably titled The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner in 1719.

Once again, Brethren, truth is so much stranger (and more interesting) than fiction.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! So, Selkirk survived for 5 years alone on Mas a Tierra. That is impressive. Let's see the people on "Survivor" try that... "Survivor: Mas a Tierra"?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! A fine idea! That might actually be worth watching!