Alexander Selkirk: Castaway and Hermit

Information about the 18th-century British sailor and castaway Alexander Selkirk (1676-1723) is easily found in popular books and web pages. The key primary sources are contemporaries who recorded his narrative: the writer Richard Steele, who interviewed Selkirk, and Captains Dampier and Rogers on whose ships Selkirk served.

Novelist Daniel Defoe borrowed from these treatments to create his successful protagonist Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps what is most relevant in Selkirk's story, and what differs from Defoe, among other points, is that contrary to a castaway -- who is by definition either marooned by his shipmates or the survivor of a wreck -- Selkirk elected (albeit with mixed emotions) to live alone on the island of Mas a Tierra, a voluntary hermit.

Here is reprinted a short 19th-century book that summarizes all of the primary source information about Selkirk and which has been used as the source of popularizations of Selkirk's story: John Howell's The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe: A Narrative Founded on Facts; New York by M. Day, 1841; freely available from Gutenberg (archives. org). The wordier original, published in 1829 at Ediburgh by Walter & Boyd, has the subtitle: Containing the Real Incidents upon which the Romance of Robinson Crusoe is Founded, is freely available via Google Books.

The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe:
A Narrative Founded on Facts
, by John Howell. (New York, M. Day, 1841.)

Alexander Selkirk was born in the year 1676, and was the seventh son of John Selkirk, shoemaker and tanner, in Largo, Scotland. His mother looked upon him as one that would pass through some great events and she resolved to have him push his fortune at sea, where he went in his nineteenth year, to escape the rebuke of his unruly conduct. He was from home six years; and again being guilty of very bad behavior, and having beaten a young infirm brother, and raised a riot in his father's house, he was publicly reprimanded: upon this, he left home, and being a skilful seaman, was appointed Sailing Master, in a vessel called the Cinque Ports -- a small sailor which went in company with captain Dampier to the South Sea.

Having quarrelled with his captain, and having had a dream that his ship would be wrecked, he resolved to quit it, and was set on shore at the uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez. He had scarcely left the boat, when he sorely repented, and he "never heard a sound more dismal than their parting oars."

From the beginning to the end of September, the vessel remained undergoing repairs. The disagreement, instead of being made up, became greater every clay, and strengthened the resolution which Selkirk had made to leave the vessel. This was accordingly concluded on, and just before getting under way, he was landed with all his effects; and he leaped on shore with a faint sensation of freedom and joy. He shook hands with his comrades, and bade them adieu in a hearty manner,
while the officer sat in the boat urging their return to the ship, which order they instantly obeyed; but no sooner did the sound of their oars, as they left the beach, fall on his ears, than the horrors of being left alone, cut off from all human society, perhaps forever, rushed upon his mind. His heart sunk within him, and all his resolution failed. He rushed into the water, and implored them to return and take him on board with them. To all his entreaties his comrades turned a deaf ear, and even mocked his despair; denouncing the choice he had made of remaining upon the island as rank mutiny, and describing his present situation as the most proper state for such a fellow, where his example would not affect others.

For many days after being left alone, Selkirk was under such great dejection of mind, that he never tasted food until urged by extreme hunger; nor did he go to sleep until he could watch no longer; but sat with his eyes fixed in the direction where he had seen his shipmates depart, fondly hoping that they would return and free him from his misery. Thus he remained seated upon his chest, until darkness shut out every object from his sight. Then did he close his weary eyes, but not in sleep; for morning found him still anxiously hoping the return of the vessel.

When urged by hunger, he fed upon seals and such shell-fish as he could pick up along the shore. The reason of this was the aversion he felt to leave the beach,
and the care he took to save his powder. Though seals, and shell-fish were but sorry fare, his greatest cross was the want of salt and bread, which made him loathe his food until he got used to it.

It was in the beginning of October (1704), which in those southern latitudes is the middle of spring, when nature appears in a thousand varieties of form and fragrance, quite unknown in northern climates; but the agitation of his mind, and the forlorn situation in which he was now placed, caused all its charms to be unregarded.

It was in this trying situation, when his mind, deprived of all outward occupation, was turned back upon itself, that the whole advantages of that great blessing, a religious education in his youth, was felt in its consoling influences, when every other hope and comfort had fled.

This circumstance ought to lead young people to prize their social and religious privileges, as they know not but that some day, like Selkirk, their lot may be cast far from home, and from pious family opportunities, the absence of which were then so much regretted by this lonely man.

By slow degrees he became easy to his fate; and as winter approached, he saw the necessity of procuring some kind of shelter from the weather; for even in that temperate climate, frost is common during the night, and snow is sometimes found upon the ground in the morning.

The building of a hut was the first thing that roused him to exertion; and his necessary absence from the shore gradually weaned his heart from that aim which had alone filled all his thoughts and proved a help of his obtaining that peace of mind he afterwards enjoyed; but it was eighteen months before he became fully composed, or could be one whole day absent from the beach, and from his usual hopeless watch for some vessel to relieve him from his melancholy situation.

During his stay, he built himself two huts with the wood of the pimento tree, and thatched them with a species of grass, that grows to the height of seven or eight feet upon the plains and smaller hills, and produces straw resembling that of oats. The one was much larger than the other, and situated near a spacious wood.

This he made his sleeping room, spreading the bed clothes he had brought on shore with him upon a frame of his own construction; and as those wore out, or were used for other purposes, he supplied their places with goat skins. His pimento bedroom he used also as his chapel; for here he kept up that simple but beautiful
form of family worship which he had been accustomed to in his father's house. To distinguish the Sabbath, he kept an exact account of the days of every week and month, during the time he remained upon the island.

The smaller hut, which Selkirk had erected at some distance from the other, was used by him as a kitchen in which he dressed his victuals. The furniture was very scanty; but consisted of every convenience his island could afford. His most valuable article was the pot or kettle he had brought from the ship, to boil his meat in; the spit was his own handiwork, made of such wood as grew upon the island; the rest was suitable to his rudely built house.

Around his dwelling browsed a parcel of goats remarkably tame, which he had taken when young, and lamed, but so as not to injure their health, while he kept down their speed. These he kept as a store, in the event of a sickness or any accident befalling him, that might prevent him from catching others; his sole method of doing such was running them down by speed of foot. The pimento wood, which burns very bright and clear served him both for fuel and candle. It gives out an agreeable perfume while burning.

He obtained fire after the Indian method, by rubbing two pieces of pimento wood together until they caught fire. This he did, as being ill able to spare any of his linen for tinder, time being of no value to him, and the labour rather an amusement.

Having recovered his peace of mind, he began likewise to enjoy greater variety in his food, and was continually adding some new thing to his store. The crawfish, many of which weighed eight or nine pounds, he broiled or boiled as his fancy led, seasoning it with pimento, (Jamaica pepper) and at length came to relish his food without salt.

As a substitute for bread, he used the cabbage-palm, which was plenty on the island; turnips, or their tops, and likewise a species of parsnip, of good taste and
flavor. He had also Sicilian radishes and watercresses, which he found in the neighboring brooks, as well as many other vegetables found on the island, which he
ate with his fish or goat's flesh.

Having food in abundance, and the climate being healthy and pleasant, in about eighteen months he became easy in his situation. The time hung no longer heavy upon his hands. His devotions and frequent study of the Scriptures, soothed and elevated his mind: and this, coupled with the vigor of his health, and a constant serene sky, and temperate air, rendered his life one continual feast. His feelings were now as joyful as they had before been sorrowful. He took delight in every thing around him; fixed up the hut in which he lay, with fragrant branches, cut from a spacious wood, on the side of which it was situated, and thereby formed a pleasant bower, fanned with continual breezes, soft and balmy as poets describe, which made his repose, after the fatigues of the chase, very gratifying.

Yet happy and contented as he became, there were cares that broke in upon his pleasing thoughts, as it were to place his situation on a level with that of other
human beings; for it is the lot of man to care while he dwells on earth. During the early part of his residence, he was much annoyed by multitudes of rats, which
gnawed his feet and other parts of his body, as he slept during the night. To  remedy this evil, he caught and tamed after much exertion and patient toil, some of the cats that ran wild on the island. These new friends soon put the rats to flight, and became themselves the companions of his leisure hours. He amused himself by teaching them to dance, and do a number of antic feats. They multiplied so fast too, under his fostering hand, that they lay upon his bed, and upon the floor in great numbers: and although freed from his former troublesome visitors, yet, so strangely are we formed, that when one care is removed, another takes its place.

These very protectors became a source of great uneasiness to him: for the idea haunted his mind, and made him at times melancholy, that, after his death there would be no one to bury his remains, or to supply the cats with food, his body must be devoured by the very animals which he at present nourished for his convenience.

The island abounds in goats, which he shot while his powder lasted, and afterwards caught by speed of foot. At first he could only overtake kids: but latterly, so much did his frugal life, joined to air and exercise, improve his strength and habits of body, that he could run down the strongest goat on the island in a few minutes, and tossing it over his shoulders, carry it with ease to his hut. All the byways and easy parts of the mountains became familiar to him. He could bound from crag to crag, and slip down the precipices with confidence.

With these helps, hunting soon became his chief amusement. It was his custom, after running down the animals, to slit their ears, and then allow them to escape.
The young he carried to the green lawn beside his hut, and employed his leisure hours in taming them. They in time supplied him with milk, and even with amusement, as he taught them as well as the cats to dance; and he often afterwards declared, that he never danced with a lighter heart, or greater spirit, anywhere, to the best of music, than he did to the sound of his own voice, with his dumb companions.

As the northern part of the island where Alexander lived, is composed of high craggy precipices, many of which are almost too hilly to climb, though generally covered with wood, the soil is loose and shallow, so that on the hills the largest trees soon perish for want of nourishment, and are then very easily overturned. This was the cause of the death of a seaman belonging to the Dutchess, who being on the high ground in search of goats, caught hold of a tree to aid his ascent,  when it gave way and he rolled down the hill. In his fall he grasped another of considerable bulk, which likewise failed him, and he was thrown amongst the rocks
and dashed to pieces. Mr. Butt also met with an accident, merely by leaning his back to a tree nearly as thick as himself, which stood upon a slope, almost without any hold of the soil.

Our adventurer himself nearly lost his life from a similar cause. When pursuing a goat, he made a snatch at it on the brink of a precipice, of which he was not aware, as some bushes concealed it from them; the animal suddenly stopped; upon which he stretched forward his hand to seize it, when the branches gave way, and they both fell from a great height. Selkirk was so stunned and bruised by the fall that he lay deprived of sensation and almost of life. Upon his recovery, he found the goat lying dead beneath him. This happened about a mile from his hut. Scarcely was he able to crawl to it when restored to his senses; and dreadful were his sufferings during the first two or three of the ten days that he was confined by the injury. This was the only disagreeable accident that befell him during his long residence on the island.

W. Rogers says that Selkirk lay above the goat deprived of sensation, for 24 hours; Sir R[ichard] Steele mentions three days. Selkirk, computed the length of time by the moon's growth from the last observation which he had made on the evening before his fall.

He occasionally amused himself by cutting upon the trees his name, and the date when he was left on the island, and at times added to the first the period of his continuance; so averse is man to be utterly forgotten by his fellow-man. Perishable as the material was upon which he wrought, still the idea was pleasing to his lonely mind, that when he should have ended his lonely life, some future navigator would learn from these rude memorials, Alexander Selkirk had lived and died upon the island. He had no materials for writing wherewith to trace a more ample record.

Upon Lord Anson's arrival, however, at Juan Fernandez, in the year 1741, there was not, so far as he observed, one of these names or dates to be discovered upon any of the trees.

Abbe Raynal is not correct, when he says that Selkirk lost his speech while upon the island. All that Cook asserts is that at his first coming on board, he spoke his words as it were by halves, from want of practice; while he states distinctly, that he carried on conversation from the first and that his hesitating manner gradually wore off.

As to his clothing it was very rude. Shoes he had none, as they were soon worn out. This gave him very little concern, and he never troubled himself in contriving anything to supply their place. As his other clothes decayed, he dried the skins of the goats he had killed, to make into garments, sewing them with slender thongs of leather, which he cut for the purpose, and using a sharp nail for a needle. In this way he made for himself a cap, jacket, and short breeches.

The hair being left upon the skin, gave him a very strange appearance; but in this dress he ran through the underwood, and received as little injury as the animal he pursued. Having linen cloth with him, he made it into shirts, sewing them by means of his nail, and the thread of his worsted stockings, which he untwisted for that purpose. Thus rudely equipped, he thought his wants sufficiently supplied, fashion having no longer any rule over him. His goats and cats being his sole companions, he was at least neighbor-like, and looked as wild as they; his beard was of great length, as it had been untouched since he left the ship. Still his mind was at ease, and he danced and sang amongst his dumb companions, for hours together; perhaps as happy a man, nay happier, than the gayest ballroom could have presented in the most civilized country upon earth.

One day, in his ramble along the beach, he found a few iron hoops, which had been left by some vessel, as unworthy to be taken away. This was to him a discovery that imparted more joy than if he had found a treasure of gold or silver; for with them he made knives when his own was worn out, and bad as they were, they stood him in great stead. One of them, which he had used as a chopper, was about two feet in length, and was long kept as a curiosity, at the Golden Head Coffee House, near Buckingham Gate, in England. It had been changed from its original simple form, having when last seen, a buck's horn handle with some verses upon it.

Alexander Selkirk, at different times during his stay, saw vessels pass the island; but only two ever came to an anchor. At these times he concealed himself; but, being anxious on one occasion to learn whether the ship was French or Spanish, he approached too near, and was perceived. A pursuit immediately commenced, and several shots were fired in the direction in which he fled; but fortunately none of them took effect, and he got up into a tree unobserved. His pursuers stopped near it, and killed several of his goats, but the vessel soon left the island. Cook says,     "The prize being so inconsiderable, it is likely they thought it not worth while to be at great trouble to find it." Had they been French, Alexander would have given himself up to them; but, being Spaniards, he chose rather to stay upon the island, and run the risk of dying alone, and even of being devoured by his own cats, than fall into their hands, as they would, as he supposed, either have murdered him in cold blood, or caused him to linger out a life of misery in the mines of Peru or Mexico, unless he chose to profess himself a Roman Catholic, and even then he would have been compelled to pass his weary days in one of their coasting vessels in the Pacific Ocean; for as we have already mentioned, it was one of their maxims never to allow an Englishman to return to Europe, who had gained any knowledge of the South Seas.

This adventure made him resolve to use more caution in future; never a day passed but he anxiously looked out for some sail over the vast expanse of ocean that lay before him; for, even in all his tranquillity and peace of mind, the wish to leave the island never entirely ceased to occupy his thoughts, and he would still have hailed the arrival of an English ship with rapture.

On the 31st of January, 1709, behold! two English ships did heave in sight of Alexander Selkirk's dominions who was as usual, anxiously watching the watery waste. Slowly the vessels rose into view, and he could scarcely believe the sight real; for often had he been deceived before. They gradually approached the island, and he at lengfth ascertained them to be Engish. Great was the tumult of passion that rose in his mind; but the love of home overpowered them all. It was late in the afternoon when they first came in sight, and lest they should sail again without knowing that there was a person on the island, he prepared a quantity of wood to burn as soon as it was dark. He kept his eyes fixed upon them until night fall, and then kindled his fire, and kept it up till morning dawned. His hopes and fears having banished all desire for sleep, he employed himself in killing several goats, and in preparing an entertainment for his expected guests, knowing how acceptable it would be to them after their long run, with nothing but salt provision to live upon.

When the day at length opened, he still saw them, but at a distance from the shore. His fire had caused great wonder on board, for they knew the island to be
uninhabited, and supposed the light to have proceeded from some French ships at anchor, with which nation, England was then at war. In this conclusion they prepared for action, as they must either fight or want water and other refreshments, and stood to their quarters all night ready to engage; but, not perceiving any vessel, the next day, about noon, sent a boat on shore, with Capt. Dover, Mr. Fry, and six men, all armed, to ascertain the cause of the fire, and to see that all was safe.

Alexander saw the boat leave the Duke, and pull for the beach. He ran down joyfully to meet his countrymen, and to hear once more the human voice. He took in his hand a piece of linen tied upon a small pole as a flag, which he waved as they drew near, to attract their attention. At length he heard them call to him, inquiring for a good place to land, which he pointed out, and flying as swift as a deer towards it, arrived first, where he stood ready to receive them as they stepped on shore. He embraced them by turns; but his joy  was too great for utterance, while their astonishment at his strange appearance, struck them dumb. He had at this time his last shirt upon his back: his feet and legs were bare, his thighs and body covered with the skins of wild animals. His beard, which had not been shaved for four years and four months, was of a great length, while a rough goat's-skin cap covered his head.

He appeared to them as wild as the first owners of the skins which he wore. At length they began to converse, and he invited them to his hut: but its access was so very intricate, that only Captain Fry went with him over the rocks which led to it. When Alexander had entertained him in the best manner he could, they returned to the boat, our hero bearing a quantity of his roasted goat's-flesh, for the refreshment of the crew. During their repast, he gave them an account of his
adventures and stay upon the island, at which they were much surprised. Captains Dover and Fry invited him to come on board; but he declined their invitation, until they had satisfied him that Dampier had no command in this expedition; after which he gave a reluctant consent.

So great was his aversion to Dampier as a commander after the experience he had of him, that he would rather have remained upon his island, its lonely possessor, now that he was reconciled to his fate, than have endured the hardships and trials he had before experienced under that navigator. This feeling must have arisen, not from any quarrel or personal dislike to Dampier, but from a knowledge of his former misconduct in his adventures, arising from his want of constancy in carrying through any object which he professed to have in view.

When he came on board the Duke, Dampier gave him an excellent character, telling Captain Rogers that Selkirk had been the best man on board the Cinque Ports. Upon this recommendation, he was immediately engaged on board the Duke. In the afternoon, the ships were cleared, the sails bent and taken on shore to be mended, and to make tents for the sick men. Selkirk's strength and vigor were of great service to them. He caught two goats in the afternoon. They sent along with him their swiftest runners and a bulldog; but these he soon left far behind, and tired out. He himself, to the astonishment of the whole crew, brought the two goats upon his back to the tents.

The two captains remained at the island until the 12th of the month, busy refitting their ships, and getting on board what stores they could obtain. During these ten days, Alexander was their huntsman, and procured them fresh meat. At length all being ready, they set sail, when a new series of difficulties of another kind, annoyed Selkirk, similar to those he had felt at his arrival upon the island. The salt food he could not relish for a long time, having so long discontinued the use of it; for which reason he lived upon biscuit and water. Spirits he did not like from the same cause; and besides he was afraid of falling into intemperance, for his religious impressions were as yet strong. From the confirmed habit of living alone, he kept very much to himself, and said little. This frame of mind, and a serious countenance, continued longer than could have been expected. Even for some time after his return to England, these qualities were remarkable, and drew the notice of those to whose company he was introduced. Shoes gave him great uneasiness when he first came on board. He had been so long without them, that they made his feet swell, and crippled his movements; but this wore off by degrees, and he became once more reconciled to their use.

In other respects he gradually resumed his old habits as a seaman, but without the vices which sometimes attach to the profession. He rigidly abstained from profane oaths, and was much respected by both captains, as well on account of his singular adventure, as of his skill and good conduct; for, having had his books with him, he had improved himself much in navigation during his solitude.

The articles he took on shore from the Cinque Ports, were the following: his chest, containing his clothes and a quantity of linen, now all spent; his musket, which he brought home with him; a pound of powder, and balls in proportion; a hatchet and some tools; a knife; a pewter kettle; his flip-can which he conveyed to Scotland (at present in the possession of John Selcraig, his greatgrandnephew); a few pounds of tobacco; the Holy Bible; some devotional pieces, and one or two books on navigation, with his mathematical instruments.

In the capacity of mate, he cruised about for a time, during which several prizes were taken, and on his return to London, after an absence of eight years, one month and three days, he found himself in possession of £800 sterling. As soon as this sum was realized, he set out for Largo, and arrived in the spring of 1712, at his native villas.

It was in the forenoon of a Sabbath day, when all were at church, that he knocked at the door of his paternal dwelling, but found not those whom his heart yearned to see, and his soul longed to embrace. He set out for  church, prompted by his piety and his love for his parents; for great was the change that had taken place in his feelings since he had last been within its walls. As soon as he entered and sat down, all eyes were upon him, for such a personage, perhaps, had seldom been seen within the church at Largo. He was elegantly dressed in gold laced clothes; besides, he was a stranger, which in a country church, is matter of attention to the hearers at all times, that his manner and appearance would have attracted the notice of more observing spectators. After remaining some time engaged in devotion, his eyes were ever turning to where his parents and brothers sat, while theirs as often met his gaze; still they d id not know him. At length his mother, whose thoughts perhaps at this time wandered to her long lost son, knew him, and uttering a cry of joy, could contain herself no longer. Even in the Meeting House, she rushed to his arms, unconscious of the impropriety of her conduct, and the interruption of the service. Alexander and his friends immediately retired to his father's house, to give free scope to their joy and congratulations.

A few days passed away happily in the society of his parents and friends; but from long habits, he soon felt averse to mixing in society, and was happiest when alone. Returning, therefore, frequently to Keil's Den, a secluded and lonely valley in the neighborhood, he spent most of his time in solitary wandering and meditation; till a new object began to engross much of his attention. In his musing by the burnside, he often met a young girl, tending a single cow, the property of her parents.

Her lonely occupation and innocent looks, made a deep impression upon him. He watched her for hours unseen, as she amused herself with the wild flowers she gathered, or chanted her rural lays. At each meeting the impression became stronger, and he felt more interested in this modest female. At length he addressed himself to her, and they joined in conversation; he had no avertion to commune with her for hours together, and began to imagine that he could live and be happy with a companion such as she. His fishing expeditions were now neglected. Even his cave became not so sweet a retreat. His mind led him to Keil's Den, and the amiable Sophia. He never mentioned this adventure and attachment to his friends; for he felt ashamed, after his discourses to them, and the profession he had made of dislike to human society, to acknowledge that he was upon the point of marrying, and thereby plunging into the midst of worldly cares. But he was determined to marry Sophia, though as firmly resolved not to remain at home to be the subject of their jest. This resolution being formed, he soon persuaded the object of his choice, to elope with him, and bid adieu to the romantic glen.

After this elopement, nothing was heard of him for some years. At length, however, a gay widow, of the name of Frances Candis, or Candia, came to Largo, to claim the property left to him by his father, and produced documents to prove her right, from which it appeared that Sophia Bruce lived but a very few years after her marriage. He himself, after attaining the rank of Lieutenant, died on board his Majesty's ship Weymouth, some time in the year 1723.

(click image for larger view)

A view of the island Mas a Tierra (literally, Closer to Land) today, one of the Juan Fernandez Islands about 400 miles west of Chile. The Chilean government renamed the island Isla Robinson Crusoe in 1966. Ironically, the island originally called Mas a Fuera (literally Further Away) was named Isla Alexander Selkirk, although it is not the island historically associated with Alexander Selkirk.


Other representative books include: Robert Kraske. Marooned: The Strange But True Adventures of Alexander Selkirk. New York: Clarion Books, 2005; James C. Simmons. Castaway in Paradise: The Incredible Adventures of True-life Robinson Crusoes. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Sheridan House, 1993. Chapter 1: "The Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the Monarch of the Juan Fernandez Islands"; Diana Souhami. Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe. New York: Harcourt, 2001; Daisuke Takahashi. In Search of Robinson Crusoe. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002; Rick Wilson. The Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe: A Personal View of Alexander Selkirk. Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 2009.
Some representative web pages: selkirk.htm