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Piracy News & Commentary

Alexander Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe, and Juan Fernandez Island

Archaeologists from the National Museums Scotland believe they have found the campsites of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish seaman and privateer who was probably a large part of the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's eponimous Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk voluntarily marooned himself during a privateering voyage to the South Sea (the Pacific) aboard the Cinque Ports after a dispute with the ship's captain. He was later rescued by Woodes Rogers, commander of the Duke privateer, in 1709. Selkirk's adventures are known primarily through the journals of Woodes Rogers and Edward Cooke (commander of the Duchess, consort to the Duke), and through a short description published in the early 18th century, entitled "Providence Displayed." The archaeologists discovered the campsites on Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago. The island was formerly known as Aguas Buenas, and by late 17th and early 18th century buccaneers and pirates as Juan Fernandez.

Selkirk was not the only marooner who probably influenced Defoe in writing his adventure of a man alone in the universe, or at least as alone as one can truly be. In 1681, William, or Will as he was often called, a Moskito “striker,” was accidentally marooned on the same island while hunting goats to provision the pirate ship Trinidad. A small Spanish flotilla was sighted, and the Trinidad--a captured Spanish galleon--set sail to meet it, engaging in a cat and mouse game in which no real action took place. Unfortunately, the galleon was unable to return for Will. He was rescued by the buccaneers of a subsequent voyage three years later. Juan Fernandez island was a common provisioning place of buccaneers and privateers in the South Sea, and several of those who had been on the previous voyage went looking for Will, remembering that he had been left there by accident.

But Robinson Crusoe was not the only literary connection to Selkirk. Defoe also wrote The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Serving as pilot to Woodes Rogers was former buccaneer, naval commander, and naturalist William Dampier, who wrote several important accounts of his own buccaneering, naval, and privateering voyages, and also described the rescue of the Moskito Will. Dampier had been a member of both the first expedition in which Will was marooned, and of the subsequent expedition in which he was rescued. All of Dampier’s books contain detailed cultural, physical, hydrological, meteorological, and zoological descriptions. Woodes Rogers himself wrote a highly readable journal of his own privateering voyage, one that took him and his crew around the world. He later became Governor of New Providence where he was instrumental in reducing piracy in the Caribbean. These journals were in the tradition of earlier sea roving journals by buccaneers and filibusters such as Alexander Esquemeling, Bartholomew Sharp, and John Cox. (See my October 9th post below on “Pirate Literature” at the Boston College library.)

While we enjoy Defoe’s tale, we should not forget that real men lived the real story he told. There is something quite impressive, even enviable, in a man or woman surviving alone in a wilderness, by dint only of their wits. We in the US have largely become a society of un-adventurers, addicted to a lifestyle in which Disney-esque entertainments take the place of real adventure. Not matter how much we enjoy the rides--and many of us do enjoy these highly imaginative rides and similar entertainments--they do not test us. Further, we know how the rides will end. In adventures we do not.