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Gilbert: Famous castaway rescued 300 years ago today

02/02/09 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) Three hundred years ago today a shipwrecked sailor was rescued after spending years alone on a tropical island. Sound familiar? Commentator and Vermont Humanities Executive Director Peter Gilbert has the story.

(GILBERT) In 1703, a hotheaded Scotsman known as Alexander Selkirk - or Selcraig, according to some sources - was a member of the crew of a privateering ship sanctioned by the British government to raid Spanish ships and coastal towns for profit. He was essentially a licensed pirate. The ship was sailing in the Pacific, off the west coast of South America. It had suffered significant damage, and Selkirk thought it should stop for repairs before sailing around Cape Horn and back to England with its treasure. But the Captain, William Dampier, disagreed.

Convinced the ship was a death trap, Selkirk demanded that he be set ashore on the island of Juan Fernandez, 400 miles off the coast of Chile. He packed his bedding and Bible, a musket, pistol, ammunition, hatchet, knife, cooking pot, navigation instruments, two pounds of tobacco, some cheese and jam, and flask of rum. To his surprise, none of the rest of the crew chose to join him. Standing on the beach alone, he had second thoughts and begged to be put back on board; but the Captain sailed away.

Selkirk was right about the ship: it sank, drowning many of the crew.

Selkirk thought a ship would be by within a few days. He explored the island and built a hut; but, as months passed, he fell into depression and even contemplated suicide. He domesticated some cats and goats, relying on the goats for meat and clothing. After two years, he saw a ship, signaled it, and only then realized that it was Spanish. The Spanish came after him, he hid up a tree, and they eventually left.

He was finally rescued two years later, on February 2nd, 1709 - by none other than William Dampier, his former captain, who had survived the sinking of his ship. For the next two years Selkirk raided Spanish ships and towns on the coast of Chile and Peru. He finally returned to Scotland with his share of booty - a sizable fortune of eight hundred pounds.

He married, but never quite adjusted to domestic life. He spent much of his time alone. He built a shelter behind his father's house, and lived in it. He trained two cats to perform little tricks, much as he had done when he was marooned. Eventually, he returned to sea and died of fever off the coast of Africa at the age of 45.

It's unclear whether Selkirk and the English author Daniel Defoe ever met, but Selkirk was unquestionably the inspiration for Defoe's most famous character, Robinson Crusoe - though in his novel, published in 1719, Defoe marooned his hero not in the Pacific but in the Atlantic, off the coast of Venezuela, and stretched Selkirk's lonely vigil from a little more than four years to 28 years. But hey, these days film makers compress historic events to fit a two-hour movie, so why criticize a novelist who stretched a good story into what many consider the first novel written in English?
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