On February 1, 1709, Alexander Selkirk was rescued from an island after being stranded there for four years. Upon his return to England, journalists portrayed his last four years in extraordinary detail, making Selkirk a celebrity and inspiring the novelist Daniel Defoe to write his masterpiece Robinson Crusoe.
Selkirk was a hot-tempered navigator of a privateering ship called the Cinque Ports—a legalized pirate ship plundering for the British Crown. When conditions on board got bad, Selkirk tried to raise a mutiny against the ship’s young captain by begging to be left alone on an island with the crew. Unfortunately for Selkirk, none of the other crew members wanted to stay behind with him, so he was abandoned on Más a Tierra island off the coast of Chile. Selkirk expected another friendly ship to arrive, perhaps within days, but again he miscalculated, and another ship did not arrive for four years and four months. Amazingly, Selkirk survived. He ate fish, crayfish, and the many goats that inhabited the island.
He grew so fleet of foot that he could catch them with his bare hands. Food and shelter came relatively easy. Keeping his sanity was his most difficult task. When a ship arrived on the horizon to save him, it was navigated by none other than William Dampier, a buccaneer under whom Selkirk had sailed on the Cinque Ports. Selkirk attempted to tell his story to Dampier, but he could barely remember the English language. Selkirk found it difficult to reintegrate into society, often thinking that he was happiest when
he had nothing on the island.
Daniel Defoe was intrigued with Selkirk’s story and so wrote a romanticized version of it in Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps, however, this story should not be celebrated, for it has often been criticized as a tale of one colonialist’s suppression and enslavement of an indigenous culture. Crusoe may have been a hero in 18th-century England, but today his accomplishments seem rather brutish. Perhaps instead, we should celebrate February 1 as Alexander Selkirk Day and forget Robinson Crusoe.