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Selkirk, Alexanderlocked

(1676–1721)
  • James William Kelly

Selkirk, Alexander (1676–1721), mariner, castaway, and probable source of inspiration for the character Robinson Crusoe, was born in Lower Largo, Fife, the seventh son of John Selcraig, shoemaker, and Euphan Mackie. He received schooling in Largo. His wilful nature manifested itself at an early age in his determination to go to sea against his father's wishes. In August 1695 a summons by the kirk session for ‘indecent carriage’ in church precipitated his departure. He had left for sea by 27 August, before he could be dealt with, and he did not reappear in Largo until 1701. After his return from sea he fell foul of the parish authorities again, this time on account of his behaviour during a domestic dispute. His brother Andrew set down a can of salt water from which Alexander mistakenly drank. Incensed at the mirth this caused, Alexander lashed out at his brother and had to be restrained from taking a pistol to him. For this he was rebuked before the parish congregation.

In May 1703, as Alexander Selkirk, he was appointed master of the privateer Cinque Ports (Captain Charles Pickering, commander). The Cinque Ports and her consort, the George, commanded by William Dampier, left Kinsale on 11 September bound for the South Sea. Pickering died on the coast of Brazil and was succeeded by Captain Thomas Stradling. Selkirk's seamanship is attested by his passage round the Horn in mid-February 1704, but his loyalty to Stradling is not so certain. At Juan Fernandez (Mas á Tierra), where the two vessels put in for refreshment, forty-two of the sixty or so men on board the Cinque Ports mutinied. Selkirk may have been among them. An engagement with a French ship soon afterwards seemed to galvanize the crew, and both ships then proceeded along the mainland coast towards Callao in search of prizes. By the end of May disappointing pickings and Dampier's persistent indecision caused such friction between the two commanders that they decided to part company. Selkirk elected to remain with Stradling.

The Cinque Ports now cruised independently on the coast of Central and South America until August. During this time Selkirk grew resentful of Stradling. A hurried refit at Juan Fernandez in September convinced Selkirk that the vessel was unseaworthy and he declared he would leave the ship rather than sail in her. Disembarking with 'his Clothes and Bedding, with a Firelock, some Powder, Bullets, and Tobacco, a Hatchet, a Knife, a Kettle, a Bible, some practical Pieces, and his Mathematical Instruments and Books' (Rogers, 126), Selkirk bid the boat's crew a hearty farewell but the moment they pulled away from the shore he experienced an immediate change of heart. Stradling, who may have anticipated a volte-face, had taken it upon himself to supervise Selkirk's transfer personally, and he steadfastly refused Selkirk's pleas to be taken up again.

For eight months or so Selkirk went about distracted 'and had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the Terror of being left alone in such a desolate place' (Rogers, 126). However, the onset of winter forced him to build two huts, and faced with the challenge of survival he gradually reconciled himself to his predicament. He studied the Bible and began to embark upon a routine of daily religious exercises which included singing psalms and reading the scriptures aloud to retain the use of his speech. To distinguish the sabbath he kept a calendar. He bred cats for company and they preserved him from the rats which gnawed at his feet and clothes as he slept. His chief amusement was to hunt goats, and after exhausting his powder he relied on fleetness of foot to capture them. He tamed the kids to ensure a continual source of food for his old age when he might not be able to overtake them. In accounting for the time he spent on the island, Selkirk stressed the importance of two incidents. The first occurred when he was out hunting. Having stalked a goat to an unfamiliar part of the island, he lunged to catch the animal and his momentum carried him over the edge of an unseen precipice. The fall knocked him unconscious for at least a day and when he recovered his senses he discovered the goat dead beneath him. Second, he was very nearly captured by Spaniards who arrived at the island in two vessels. Anxious to ascertain the vessels' nationality, Selkirk inadvertently showed himself to observers in the ships. A landing party was dispatched to apprehend him and several shots were fired in his direction. Selkirk's agility allowed him to hide in the branches of a tree, at the foot of which his pursuers made water.

On 1 February 1709 two Bristol privateers, the Duke and Duchess, touched at the island for water. The Duke was commanded by Captain Woodes Rogers with Dampier on board as pilot. After dark a light was discerned ashore and the next day, sighting no ships, Rogers sent two boats to investigate. Towards evening the pinnace returned with 'a Man cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who look'd wilder than the first Owners of them [who] had so much forgot his Language for want of Use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seem'd to speak his words by halves' (Rogers, 125–9). Selkirk had been on the island for four years and four months. Dampier recommended Selkirk as having been the best man in the Cinque Ports and Rogers duly appointed Selkirk to be mate in the Duke.

Both ships sailed on 13 February to scour the coast of Chile for prizes. On 26 March a prize taken near the Isle of Lobos was renamed the Increase and Selkirk was appointed master. On 25 April, as part of the assault on Guayaquil, Selkirk formed part of a detachment under Lieutenant Connoly tasked with exploiting areas beyond the town. After the withdrawal from the town on 28 April Selkirk continued in command of the Increase, forming part of a screen to intercept vessels in transit between Panama and Lima. In the middle of September Rogers led his ships to the Galápagos for refitting before taking up stations off Cape St Lucas in November to await the arrival of the Manila galleon bound for Acapulco. By 20 December their quarry had yet to appear. Low on bread, and with worm penetrating their vessels' sheathing, the decision was taken to sail for the Ladrones [Mariana Islands]. As they were about to weigh anchor a sail was sighted, and on 22 December Rogers seized the richly laden Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación.

On 10 January 1710 Rogers set out to cross the Pacific, a voyage of over 6000 miles. The Duke was accompanied by the Duchess, and two prizes. The Nuestra Señora had been renamed the Bachelor, and Selkirk was appointed master on board under Captain Thomas Dover. They reached Guam on 11 March and departed within ten days for Batavia where they arrived in late June. Here they shared out a quantity of booty, Selkirk acting as a commissioner in this transaction. His own share was eighty pieces of eight. After refitting at Horn Island, they sailed for the Cape of Good Hope where they stayed for over three months. On 6 April they sailed in a convoy of twenty-five Dutch and English ships, arriving off the Shetlands on 15 July. After a final delay at the Texel Selkirk arrived in the Thames on 14 October 1711. His extraordinary circumnavigation had taken over eight years, more than half of which had been spent in total isolation.

Selkirk's conduct on the island won him universal admiration after the account of him given by Rogers in A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712). His rehabilitation in Britain, however, proved less successful. The records of the court of queen's bench contain a process against 'Alexander Selkirke' of the parish of St Stephen, Bristol, for an assault on Richard Nettle, shipwright, on 23 September 1713 (Hart, 246). At some indeterminate date Selkirk returned to Largo where he lived for a while the life of a recluse, constructing a cave in his father's garden for the purpose of meditation. He became infatuated with a girl named Sophia Bruce, with whom he seems to have eloped to London. They may even have married. In a will, drawn up and signed in Wapping on 13 January 1718, Selkirk referred to Sophia as 'his loveing and well beloved friend Sophia Bruce of Pellmell London Spinster', and appointed her executrix and heir (Scots Magazine, 67, 1805, 673). These arrangements were concluded on the eve of Selkirk's return to sea.

On 20 October 1720 Selkirk embarked in HMS Weymouth as master's mate. On 12 December he married a widow named Frances Candis, in St Andrew's Church, Plymouth, signing a new will on the same day and leaving everything to his new bride. His address was given as Oarston (Oreston), Plymstock, Devon. By the end of March 1721 Selkirk was involved in operations against pirates and interlopers on the Guinea coast and it was here, during a period of unusually high mortality among the crew, that he probably contracted a fatal disease. The Weymouth's log records Selkirk's death on 13 December 1721. Sophia Bruce's suit to prove Selkirk's first will in the prerogative court of Canterbury the following year led to a legal battle over the estate with Frances and her new husband. Sophia was unsuccessful, and failed to secure an injunction against her rival when the second will was proved on 5 December 1723. Sophia's fortunes eventually sank so low that she was forced to apply for alms from Revd Say, a dissenting minister of Westminster.

A tablet in honour of Selkirk was placed near his lookout on Juan Fernandez by Commodore Powell and the officers of HMS Topaz in 1866, and a bronze statue, erected in 1885, stands on the site of his former home in Largo. His sea chest, and a coconut shell cup, which may have been in use on the island, are preserved in the national museums of Scotland. The best evidence for the years Selkirk spent on Juan Fernandez is contained in Woodes Rogers's Cruising Voyage, of which a second edition was published in 1718. Selkirk's best memorial, however, is Daniel Defoe's immortal portrait of the castaway in Robinson Crusoe, which appeared the following year. There is some evidence that Defoe and Selkirk may have met, but stories that Defoe callously plundered Selkirk's journal for material, while telling its author it would never sell, are likely to be apocryphal. Sir Richard Steele's claim to have held frequent conversations with Selkirk in London is similarly unreliable. His moralizing account of Selkirk in The Englishman appears to have been a fabrication based on details furnished by Rogers. Nevertheless Steele's report that Selkirk had told him 'I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing', when they met in the street, aptly sums up what seems to have been true during Selkirk's last years.

Sources

  • E. Cooke, A voyage to the South Sea and round the world perform'd in the years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711, 2 vols. (1712)
  • W. Rogers, A cruising voyage round the world (1712)
  • W. Funnel, A voyage round the world, containing an account of Captain Dampier's expedition into the South-seas in the ship St George, in the years 1703 and 1704 (1707)
  • R. Steele, The Englishman, 25 (1–3 Dec 1713)
  • HMS Weymouth's log, TNA: PRO, ADM 52/316
  • kirk session minutes for Largo for the period 1691–1708, St Andrews University, MS CH2/960/2
  • will, dated 12 Dec 1720, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/594
  • Chancery proceedings, 1724–1758, TNA: PRO, C 11/52/31, C 11/297/61
  • I. James, Providence displayed, or, The remarkable adventures of Alexander Selkirk of Largo, in Scotland (1800)
  • J. Howell, The life and adventures of Alexander Selkirk: containing the real incidents upon which the romance of Robinson Crusoe is founded (1829)
  • ‘Providence displayed’, The Harleian miscellany, ed. W. Oldys, 5 (1745), 402–6
  • History of Alexander Selkirk, mariner (1780)
  • R. H. C. Adams, The original Robinson Crusoe (1877)
  • G. A. Aitken, The life of Sir Richard Steele, 2 vols. (1889)
  • R. L. Mégroz, The real Robinson Crusoe, being the life and surprising adventures of Alexander Selkirk of Largo, Fife, mariner (1939)
  • ‘Say papers, no. 20: “Sophia Selchrig's petition to Mr. Say for relief”’, Monthly Repository, 5 (1810), 531
  • R. W. Lovett, ‘Sir Richard Steele's “frequent conversations” with Alexander Selkirk’, English Language Notes, 25/1 (1987), 46–50
  • C. Wells, ‘Defoe and Selkirk at Bristol’, The Academy (30 Dec 1905), 1357–8
  • W. H. Hart, ‘Alexander Selkirk’, N&Q, 2nd ser., 11 (1861), 246

Archives

  • U. St Andr., kirk session minutes for Largo

Likenesses

  • bronze statue, 1885, on site of Selkirk's former house, Largo, Fife

Wealth at Death

£800 in 1713; £40 wages owed to him by Royal Navy: HMS Weymouth's log, TNA: PRO, Admiralty records 52/316; Steele, The Englishman

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
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