robinson crusoe island

This is Robinson Crusoe Island, located in the Pacific Ocean some 400 miles to the west of the coast of Chile, which is the country that claims it. From initial Spanish discovery in the mid-16th century until 1966 this place was known as Más a Tierra, but the country of Chile decided to name it after its most famous resident–who, incidentally, was not actually named Robinson Crusoe, though that is clearly the name by which history and literature will always remember him.

Curiously, the man who would become Robinson Crusoe was not shipwrecked here: he marooned himself more or less voluntarily. His name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish-born seaman, and he was sailing master of a vessel called the Cinque Ports, which was a privateer outfitted with Letters of Marque from the British crown for preying on Spanish shipping. This was in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession. Selkirk and his captain, Thomas Stradling, didn’t seem to like each other much, and after various piratey adventures around South America, the Cinque Ports put in to this island which was then uninhabited. Selkirk was convinced the Cinque Ports was unseaworthy and dangerous. Stradling gave Selkirk the opportunity to get off, but the price was to stay on Más a Tierra. Selkirk got off. As it turned out he was right: the Cinque Ports did sink a short time later. Stradling survived but wound up a prisoner of the Spanish. Selkirk remained marooned on Más a Tierra for the next four and a half years.

Three hundred and seven years ago today, on February 2, 1709, Selkirk was rescued by one of his former pirate buddies, who turned his ship, the Duke, back to Más a Tierra to see if Selkirk was still there. He had spent the intervening years living off the land as the island’s only human inhabitant. When writer Daniel Defoe began writing the book that would eventually become The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, he used Selkirk’s story as a model, and the character Robinson Crusoe became so identified with him that many people think Defoe’s book, originally published in 1719, is literal nonfiction. Certainly it had a huge impact on literature. Every “stranded on a desert island” story written since then is the progeny of Robinson Crusoe, all the way up to the 21st century TV series Lost, which I am at this writing slowly working my way through (I’m on season three).

The island of Más a Tierra was eventually inhabited, first by convicts when it was used as a penal colony in the early 19th century, and then eventually by Chilean settlers. Some colorful things have happened on and around the island over the course of the years, such as a World War I naval battle, but it’s today a pretty quiet place. Its population is now about 840. Curiously, in 2005 an archaeological dig on Robinson Crusoe Island unearthed a piece of a compass that probably belonged to Alexander Selkirk, who will always remain the island’s most famous resident.

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