Thursday, 5 December 2013

What do you think of this cover for the next book?

Castaways 11

He exercised his mind and speech and spirit, by singing hymns and reading his daily bible devotions out loud.
‘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.”                                                                                                                                      
                                                                                       Alexander Selkirk

                                     *         *        *

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Castaways 10

No sooner had he waded into Cumberland Bay than Selkirk was overcome with fear and regret. He begged to be allowed back, but Stradling took great pleasure in refusing. Selkirk read his Bible, resigned to waiting for what he thought would be a few days, until another ship sailed by. He was wrong by four years and four months.
He found a cave on the beach, from which he barely moved for the first eighteen months. Frequent tree-snapping gales brought him to ‘a state of terror and dejection.’ He regretted the decision to abandon his ship and crewmates, shackled himself to the hope for rescue, and became ever more
‘...dejected, languid, and melancholy, scarce able to refrain from doing
 himself violence, till by degrees, by the force of reason, and frequent
 reading of the Scriptures, and turning his thoughts upon the study of
 navigation, after the space of eighteen months, he grew thoroughly
 reconciled to his condition.’

He initially survived on fish, which ‘occasion’d a Looseness’ in his bowels, and then turtle meat, ‘till it grew disagreeable to his stomach, except in jellies.’ Despite the fact that he was surrounded by ocean, he craved the inaccessible salt it contained. But he also had shellfish, and learned to boil the giant crayfish with his pepper berries, and managed to kill an occasional seal with his hatchet.
When his beach was invaded by hundreds of mating southern elephant seals, nineteen feet long and weighing up to two tons, their nocturnal wailing, and the approaching winter cold rain and howling winds funneled through the canyons, drove him to his senses, and inland.
In a grove of shade trees beside a stream on high ground, Selkirk built himself two huts out of pimento trees, with roofs of thatched grass. He constructed a crude bed, and covered it, and the huts’ walls, with skins from the feral goats he shot.
When his gunpowder ran out, he learned how to run them down on foot.

‘When he was himself in full vigour, he could take at full speed the
 swiftest goat running up a promontory, and never failed of catching
 them but on a descent... It happened once to him, that running on the
 summit of a hill, he made a stretch to seize a goat, with which under
 him, he fell down a precipice, and lay helpless for the space of three
 days, the length of which time he measured by the moon's growth since
 his last observation.’

The goat he landed on had cushioned his fall, and likely saved him from a broken back. Alex hamstrung some of the captives, and domesticated their kids, to provide him with milk and meat, with which he prepared ‘a hearty goat broth with turnips, watercress and cabbage palm, seasoned with black pimento pepper.’ Goatskins were sewn into garments, with a Cinque Ports nail he had fashioned into a makeshift needle.  When his original ship’s knife finally wore out, he forged new ones from iron barrel staves he had found on the beach. He cut his name into the trees.
The big fierce ships rats that had overrun the island tore at Selkirk’s clothing and feet as he slept. His solution was to tame the feral cats that had arrived with them, into bed companion exterminators.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Castaways 9

By the end of October, the men were sick of dried peas, rock-hard sea biscuits, and salt meat. The occasional shark, dolphin, or weary bird was their only source of fresh food. They slept in wet clothes and mildewed bedding, perfect incubators for typhus, dysentery and cholera. By the time they reached the Brazilian coast, their remaining meat and grain was infested with roaches and rat droppings, the vitamin C deficiency had kicked in, and forty-eight crewmen, including Alex’s Captain Pickering, had died of scurvy. His replacement, a 21 year-old upper class lieutenant named Thomas Stradling, was so detested by the crew that continuous squabbling, and the constant threat of mutiny, became the onboard culture. The two ships had been separated rounding the Horn. Stradling holed up the Cinque Ports in Cumberland Bay, and Dampier caught up to him just in time to put down his crew’s rebellion. Both ships continued up the Pacific coast as far as Mexico, capturing several Spanish ships en route. But by March of 1704, the two captains were in conflict, and Stradling had attacked Dampier as ‘a drunk who marooned his officers, stole treasure, hid behind blankets and beds when it came time to fight, took bribes, boasted of impossible prizes and when there was plunder to hand, let it go.’ In May, they decided to deliberately separate, and Stradling headed back south to Juan Fernández, to reprovision. The Cinque Ports was leaking so badly that the crew was pumping out water around the clock. Selkirk told Stradling that it was so riddled with worms that the masts and flooring were in danger of collapse. He began to argue with Stradling that the ship’s unseaworthiness was a deathtrap, to no avail. In October, loaded with turnips and goats and crayfish, Stradling ordered him to prepare the ship to leave. Selkirk refused, indicating that he would rather be left on Más a Tierra. It was the most important decision of his life. Stradling granted his wish.

‘He was put ashore from a leaky vessel, with the captain of which he had
 had an irreconcilable difference; and he chose rather to take his fate in
 this place, than in a crazy vessel, under a disagreeable commander. His
 portion were a sea-chest, his wearing clothes and bedding, a firelock, a
 pound of gunpowder, a large quantity of bullets, a flint and steel, a few
 pounds of tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, and other books
 of devotion, together with pieces that concerned navigation, and his
 mathematical instruments.’
                                               Richard Steele, The Englishman 1711

Castaways 8

The privateers of the time were as sadistically unsavory in reality, as portrayed in our literature and legends. The eighteenth century pirate, Edward Low, cut off his prisoners’ lips and broiled them in front of them. Others employed the practice of ‘woolding,’ tightly twisting slender cords around the necks of their prisoners until their eyes burst from their sockets. The crew was just as dispensable, and their yellow fever scurvy-afflicted bodies were routinely dumped at sea. Pirate vessels stank of animals and excrement. Buccaneers captured in British colonies received no mercy. Their bodies were displayed in steel cages suspended at port entrances ‘pour encourager les autres.
The pirate that young Alexander Selkirk found was one of history’s most complex, and reluctant. He had been court-martialed for cruelty to a crewmember, after losing the British warship HMS Roebuck off the Australian coast. He was often drunk, and often let captured ships go free without looting them, a practice that infuriated his crew. Some thought him indecisive or incompetent, and he once narrowly escaped being eaten by his own men in the Pacific. But William Dampier was a gifted amateur naturalist and anthropologist, and had already circumnavigated the world three times, when Alexander signed up with him, and changed his last name to Selkirk. Dampier made him Master of the Galley under Captain Charles Pickering of the 120 ton Cinque Ports, while he commanded his own 320-ton flagship. The St. George was supplied for eight months of travel with two sets of sails, five anchors, 22 cannons, 100 small arms, 30 barrels of gunpowder and 120 men, five times more than it could comfortably accommodate- a morbid acknowledgment of how many would be lost to disease, battle and desertion. Both vessels were small by Royal Navy standards, and crewed by desperate men.

On April 30, 1703, the two ships embarked for the port of Kinsale, in Ireland. Dampier had a drunken violent argument with one of his officers, the first night they arrived. They left on the 11th of September, and made Madeira two weeks later. When their original plan to attack the Spanish galleons returning from Buenos Aires fell through, Dampier decided to make for the Southern Sea by way of the Cape Verde Islands, and across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Castaways 7

                                 “Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh
                                  Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh
                                  More loneliness than any man could bear
                                  Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh”
                                                         The Police, Message In A Bottle

He was a pirate, a hothead and a knuckle-dragger. He was also the archetype of what we have come to consider the essence of the castaway.
Born in 1676, Alexander was the seventh son of a prosperous tanner and cobbler, John Selcraig, from Lower Largo, a Fife fishing village, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, then a bustling metropolis of thirty thousand people. The small Scottish town had a fifteen-foot wide main street, lined by ancient sandstone row houses, with orange pantiled roofs and crow-stepped gables. His mother, Euphan Mackie, shielded him from the discipline of his father, who believed that Alex was ‘spoiled and wayward,’ and had planned for him to join his shoemaking business. Her overprotection resulted in a simmering ‘domestic strife and bickering,’ that only reinforced the young man’s innate quarrelsome and unruly dispostion.
On August 25, 1695, the church elders at the Largo Kirk recorded that ‘Alexr Selchcraig, son to John Selchcraig’ had been summoned to appear for his ‘undecent carriage in ye church.’ Two days later, the elders further noted that the nineteen year-old ‘did not compear being gone away to ye sea: this bussiness is continued till his return.’ Alexander had fled with a Scottish colonizing expedition to Panama, on the ill-fated Darien Disaster.
He didn’t fare much better on his return. In 1701, when his brother, Andrew, made the mistake of laughing at him, after tricking him into drinking seawater out of a tin, Alex beat him with a wooden staff. This ignited a family row that resulted in a further assault on his father, his brother, John, and even John’s wife, Margaret Bell. Once again he was ‘compeared befor the pulpit and made acknowledgment of his sin . . . and was rebuked in face of the congregation for it, and promised amendment in the strenth of the lord, and so was dismissed.’ But Alex, ‘a bit of a bastard, more respected in his absence than in his presence,’ was fed up, and decided to join the English privateers being recruited against French and Spanish interests, a new opportunity derived from the War of the Spanish Succession.

Castaways 6

Robyn and I climbed higher, into brushwood forest, past waterfalls, tumbling down the mountain. In heavy storms, they would take the surrounding rocks and trees back down the way we had come, in raging torrents. We emerged onto an exposed escarpment, rigid palms waving their ballerina arms above the audience of hanging myrtle. A golden mirror of ocean sheen hugged the wild coast, under cloud shadows traveling rapidly over the mountainous desolation far below. We could hear the boom of it hurtling into the land, several miles away. And the wind that funneled down into Cumberland Bay. It had had taken us an hour and a half to climb to the lookout. Beside us was the plaque we had come to see.

   ‘In memory of Alexander Selkirk, Mariner, a native of Largo, in the  
    county of Fife, Scotland, who lived on this island in complete solitude,
    for four years and four months. He was landed from the Cinque Ports
    galley, 96 tons, 16 guns, A.D. 1704, and was taken off in the Duke,
    privateer, 12th Feb, 1709. He died lieutenant of H.M.S. Weymouth,
    A.D. 1728, aged 47 years. This tablet is erected near Selkirk’s
    Lookout, by Commodore Powell and the officers of H.M.S. Topaz, A.D.

“He did this every day, for over four years?” Robyn asked.
“Never get out of the boat.” I said. “Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were goin' all the way.”

  “I could not forbear getting up to the top of a little mountain, and  
   looking out to sea, in hopes of seeing a ship: then fancy that, at a vast
   distance, I spied a sail, please myself with the hopes of it, and, after
   looking steadily, till I was almost blind, lose it quite, and sit down and
   weep like a child, and thus increase my misery by my folly.”
                                                                       Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

                                       *         *        *