‘He was a better Christian while in this Solitude than ever he was before.’ Without the vices of alcohol and tobacco, and salt and society, deep new truths revealed themselves through the cleansing simplicity of the demands of survival. As the volcanic terrain hardened his feet, his heart softened from its intimacy with his natural environment, running like the wind, from thug to Thoreau, blazing with the firecrowns.
‘He ran with wonderful Swiftness thro the Woods and up the Rocks and
Hills...We had a Bull-Dog, which we sent with several of our nimblest
Runners, to help him in catching goats; but he distanc’d and tir’d both
the Dog and the Men.’
But Captain Rogers wouldn’t get to make that observation, until he rescued Selkirk, and he wouldn’t get to rescue Selkirk, until Alex had trekked to his lookout every day, almost sixteen hundred times. The first two ships that came to anchor in Cumberland Bay had been Spanish. The crew that spotted him, ended their pursuit with a collective urination beneath the tree he was hiding in, without detecting the additional heartbeat. Alex knew that, if he had been captured, he would have been enslaved into the South American gold mines. From that moment, he was careful with fires.
Selkirk's long-awaited salvation came on 2 February 1709, on the Duke, a pirate ship captained by Woodes Rogers, and piloted by his old commander, William Dampier.
‘Immediately our Pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought abun-
dance of Craw-fish, with a man Cloth’d in Goat-Skins, who look’d wilder
than the first Owners of them.’
After so long without human company, Selkirk was incoherent with joy. ‘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.’
But they were all impressed with his physical vigor and agility, enough to bring down the two or three goats a day that restored the health of the expedition, and eliminated its scurvy. Rogers was more inspired by Selkirk’s mental tranquility.
‘One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an
insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people
are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was.’
As Selkirk’s adamantine soles swelled in his new constraining footwear, his spirit was liberated with Dampier’s story of how the Cinque Ports had indeed foundered off the coast of Colombia. Stradling and the half dozen survivors of his crew were taken to Lima, and left to rot in prison.
It would still take Selkirk almost three more years to arrive back in the Thames estuary. Rogers made him the navigator and second mate of the Duke, and then the commander of one of his prize ships, the Increase. In 1712, with his £800 share of treasure from all the Spanish galleons they had looted along the way, Alex traded his goatskins for elegant clothes of fine lace and gold, and surprised his family as they worshipped in the Largo Kirk. They had long before given him up for dead, and it wasn’t long before their remorse had returned with his ghost.
Alexander wanted little to do with his relatives, preferring the cave-like shelter he built behind his father’s house. He became a recluse, and resumed his drinking and fighting. A year after his grand reentrance, he was arrested for an assault on a Bristol shipwright. Four years later, he eloped to London with a sixteen year-old dairymaid named Sophia Bruce. On a visit to Plymouth, he abandoned her to marry Frances Candis, a widowed innkeeper. In March of 1717, he left them both behind forever, to return to the sea as first mate of the HMS Weymouth, bound for Guinea and the Gold Coast, in search of pirates. A year later, he watched as a yellow fever outbreak on his warship began to destroy three or four men a day. On December 13, 1721, it destroyed Selkirk. ‘North to northwest. Small Breeze and fair. Took 3 Englishmen out of a Dutch ship and at 8 pm. Alexander Selkirk . . . died.’ As with the others, they threw his body overboard. He was 44 years old, and immortal. On New Year’s Day of 1966, Chilean president Eduardo Frei renamed the smaller of the two main Juan Fernández Islands, Alejandro Selkirk Island. It had been called Más Afuera, Further Away. But it was the island that he marooned himself on, Más a Tierra, Closer to Land, the one that archeologists found his copper navigational dividers on thirty-nine years later, the one that Robyn and I had visited, that got the mythical name. Isla Robinson Crusoe.
“He had with him 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. He diverted and
provided for himself as well as he could, but for the first eight months
had to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in
such a desolate place. He built two huts with pimento trees, covered
them with long grass, and lined them with the skins of goats, which he
killed with his own gun as he wanted, so long as the powder lasted,
which was but a pound; and that being almost spent he got fire by
rubbing two sticks of pimento wood together upon his knee... After he
had conquered his melancholy, he diverted himself sometimes with
cutting his name on trees, and of the time of his being left, and
continuance there. He was at first much pestered with cats and rats that
bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore
from ships that put in there for wood and water. The rats gnawed his
feet and clothes whilst asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats
with his goats' flesh, by which so many of them became so tame, that
they would lie about in hundreds, and soon delivered him from the rats.
He likewise tamed some kids; to divert himself, would now and then sing
and dance with them and his cats; so that by the favor of providence,
and the vigor of his youth, being now but thirty years old, he came, at
last, to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude, and to be very
easy...When his clothes were worn out he made himself a coat and a cap
of goat skins, which he stitched together with little thongs of the same,
that he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail; and when
his knife was worn to the back he made others, as well as he could, of
some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin and ground
upon stones. Having some linen cloth by him, he sewed him some shirts
with a nail and, stitched them with the worsted of his old stockings,
which he pulled out on purpose. He had his last shirt on when we found
him on the island.”
Capt. Woodes Rogers, A Voyage Around the World, London, 1712.
“I am now worth £800, but shall never be so happy, as when I
was not worth a farthing.”
* * *