The Real Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe has been a familiar character in English literature since Daniel Defoe published the novel of the same name in 1719. Few fictional characters have had so long a life, 300 years. 

Defoe based his character on a real story, that of Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721). Selkirk was marooned for four years (1704-09) on Mas a Tierra, a remote island now part of Chile, and now renamed Robinson Crusoe Island. 

Selkirk was part of the crew of an English privateer, the Cinque Ports, preying on Spanish shipping on the west coast of South America. Privateers were essentially pirates with official recognition. Selkirk became concerned about the bad condition of the ship, had differences with his captain, and was marooned—abandoned on the island. He was given a musket and pistol, gunpowder, tools, his bedding and a Bible. 

He was discovered after more than four years by another British privateer, Woodes Rogers’ ship Duke. Selkirk did not make it back to London for a couple of years because the Duke continued its piratical depredations in the Pacific.

Selkirk was actually a lucky man, because the ship he was marooned from sank, and the survivors taken into Spanish prison, where Protestant privateers were not treated well.

Once back in London, Selkirk’s story became widely told. Defoe pirated Selkirk’s story, turning it into Robinson Crusoe. There is no evidence that Defoe ever met Selkirk. Selkirk had the reputation of being a disagreeable and unlikeable man. Defoe’s Crusoe is altogether more likeable.

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