The Scotsman Alexander Selkirk (1676‒1721) was marooned alone on one of the islands of Juan Fernández for four years and four months from 1704 to 1709. His compelling tale was included in this book by Woodes Rogers (c. 1679–1732), a buccaneer who sailed round the globe in 1708‒11, rescuing Selkirk on his way. Selkirk became notorious and seems to have inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).

How was Alexander Selkirk stranded?

In 1704, Selkirk joined William Dampier’s voyage to plunder ships in the South Seas. But he got into a hot dispute with his captain Thomas Stradling, while refitting the ship on Más a Tierra in the Juan Fernández archipelago off the coast of Chile. Knowing the ship was ‘leaky’, Selkirk demanded to be left on shore with a Bible, gun and other instruments. When he panicked and changed his mind, Stradling simply sailed away. Four years later, Rogers’s crew – with Dampier as their pilot ‒ found Selkirk ‘cloth’d in Goat-Skins’ looking ‘wilder than the first Owners of them’ (pp. 125‒26).

Woodes Rogers and Robinson Crusoe

Juicy details from Rogers’s story are echoed and adapted in Defoe’s novel ‒ how Selkirk danced with cats and goats (p. 126) and marked time in notches on a tree (p. 128). Rogers also reframes the adventure as an exemplary tale of morality and empire, paving the way for Defoe to do the same. Selkirk suffers ‘Melancholy’, but solitude makes him a ‘better Christian’ (p. 126) and he survives through God’s ‘Providence’ (p. 128) – a word repeated 55 times by Defoe. Selkirk is described as the ‘Absolute Monarch of the Island’ (p. 130), just as Crusoe is ‘King, or Emperor’ (p. 109).

The map of Rogers’s Cruising Voyage, designed by Herman Moll, was the model for the map in Robinson Crusoe (fourth edition, 1719). However, the island that Crusoe inhabits is in the Caribbean, while Selkirk was stranded in the Pacific, and Crusoe survives for 28 years, compared with Selkirk’s four.

Truth, fiction and strange stories

Both Rogers and Defoe exploited the profitable market for sensational tales of the South Seas. Yet in his introduction, Rogers warns how hard it is for readers to tell fact from fiction. Buccaneers embellish their tales, telling ‘romantick’ and ‘strange stories’ (p. xvi), while fiction writers such as Defoe ground their tales in the real world. Rogers insists that Selkirk’s story is ‘true’ (p. 131), but there is a similar claim in the preface to Robinson Crusoe, where fiction is presented as a ‘just History of Fact’.