"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


“Real” Crusoe’s isle said to yield clues to sojourn

Oct. 30, 2008
Courtesy Maney Publishing
and World Science staff

Cast away on a des­ert is­land, sur­viv­ing on what na­ture alone can pro­vide, pray­ing for res­cue but fear­ing the sight of an en­e­my boat. These are the im­ag­i­na­tive crea­t­ions of Dan­iel De­foe in his fa­mous nov­el Rob­in­son Cru­soe

Robinson Crusoe in an illustration by N.C. Wyeth.

Yet the sto­ry is thought to be based on the real ex­pe­ri­ence of sail­or Al­ex­an­der Sel­kirk, ma­rooned in 1704 on a small trop­i­cal is­land in the Pa­cif­ic for more than four years.

New clues sup­port con­tem­po­rar­y records of his stay on that is­land, ar­chae­o­lo­gists say. A pa­per in the re­search jour­nal Post-Medieval Ar­chae­o­lo­gy de­scribes ev­i­dence of an “early Eu­ro­pe­an oc­cu­pant” from a dig on the is­land of Aguas Bue­nas, since re­named Rob­in­son Cru­soe Is­land. 

The fore­most ev­i­dence is a pair of naviga­t­ional di­vid­ers which could only have be­longed to a ship’s mas­ter or nav­i­ga­tor, as ev­i­dence sug­gests Sel­kirk was, re­search­ers said. 

An ac­count by Sel­kirk’s res­cuer, Cap­tain Woodes Rog­ers, of what he saw on ar­ri­val at Aguas Bue­nas in 1709 lists ‘some prac­ti­cal pieces’ and math­e­mat­i­cal in­stru­ments amongst the few pos­ses­sions that Sel­kirk had tak­en with him from the ship.

The finds al­so pro­vide an in­sight in­to how Sel­kirk might have lived on the is­land, in­ves­ti­ga­tors added. Post­holes sug­gest he built two shel­ters near to a fresh­wa­ter stream, and had ac­cess to a view­point over the har­bour from where he would be able to watch for ap­proach­ing ships and dis­cern wheth­er they were friend or foe. 

Ac­counts writ­ten shortly af­ter the res­cue de­scribe him shoot­ing goats with a gun res­cued from the ship, and even­tu­ally learn­ing to out­run them, eat­ing their meat and us­ing their skins as cloth­ing. He al­so pas­sed time read­ing the Bi­ble and sing­ing psalms, and seems to have en­joyed a more peace­ful and de­vout ex­ist­ence than at any oth­er time in his life, ac­cord­ing to re­search­ers.

“The ev­i­dence un­co­vered at Aguas Bue­nas cor­rob­o­rates the sto­ries of Al­ex­an­der Sel­kirk’s stay on the is­land and pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight in­to his ex­ist­ence there,” said Da­vid Cald­well of Na­tional Mu­se­ums Scot­land, one of the re­search­ers. “We hope that Aguas Bue­nas, with care­ful man­age­ment, may be a site en­joyed by the in­creas­ing num­ber of tourists.”

Sel­kirk was born in the small sea­side town of Low­er Lar­go, Fife, Scot­land in 1676. A young­er son of a shoe­maker, he was drawn to a life at sea from an early age. In 1704, dur­ing a pri­va­teer­ing voy­age on the Cinque Ports, Sel­kirk fell out with the com­mand­er over the boat’s sea­wor­thi­ness and chose to re­main be­hind on Rob­in­son Cru­soe Is­land where they had land­ed to overhaul the worm-infested ves­sel. He ap­par­ently did­n’t sus­pect five years would pass be­fore he was pick­ed up by an Eng­lish ship vis­it­ing the is­land.

Pub­lished in 1719, Rob­in­son Cru­soe is one of the most fa­mous ad­ven­ture sto­ries in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture. Whilst it is un­clear wheth­er De­foe and Sel­kirk ac­tu­ally met, De­foe would cer­tainly have heard the sto­ries of Sel­kirk’s ad­ven­ture and used the ta­les as the ba­sis for his nov­el, ac­cord­ing to Cald­well and col­leagues.

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Cast away on a desert island, surviving on what nature alone can provide, praying for rescue but fearing the sight of an enemy boat. These are the imaginative creations of Daniel Defoe in his famous novel Robinson Crusoe. Yet the story is thought to be based on the real-life experience of sailor Alexander Selkirk, marooned in 1704 on a small tropical island in the Pacific for more than four years. New clues support contemporary records of his stay on that island, archaeologists say. A paper in the research journal Post-Medieval Archaeology describes evidence of an “early European occupant” from a dig on the island of Aguas Buenas, since renamed Robinson Crusoe Island. The foremost evidence is a pair of navigational dividers which could only have belonged to a ship’s master or navigator, as evidence suggests Selkirk must have been, researchers said. Indeed an account by Selkirk’s rescuer, Captain Woodes Rogers, of what he saw on arrival at Aguas Buenas in 1709 lists ‘some practical pieces’ and mathematical instruments amongst the few possessions that Selkirk had taken with him from the ship. The finds also provide an insight into how Selkirk might have lived on the island, investigators added. Postholes suggest he built two shelters near to a freshwater stream, and had access to a viewpoint over the harbour from where he would be able to watch for approaching ships and discern whether they were friend or foe. Accounts written shortly after the rescue describe him shooting goats with a gun rescued from the ship, and eventually learning to outrun them, eating their meat and using their skins as clothing. He also passed time reading the Bible and singing psalms, and seems to have enjoyed a more peaceful and devout existence than at any other time in his life, according to researchers. “The evidence uncovered at Aguas Buenas corroborates the stories of Alexander Selkirk’s stay on the island and provides a fascinating insight into his existence there,” said David Caldwell of National Museums Scotland, one of the researchers. “We hope that Aguas Buenas, with careful management, may be a site enjoyed by the increasing number of tourists.” Selkirk was born in the small seaside town of Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland in 1676. A younger son of a shoemaker, he was drawn to a life at sea from an early age. In 1704, during a privateering voyage on the Cinque Ports, Selkirk fell out with the commander over the boat’s seaworthiness and chose to remain behind on Robinson Crusoe Island where they had landed to overhaul the worm-infested vessel. He apparently didn’t suspect five years would pass before he was picked up by an English ship visiting the island. Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is one of the most famous adventure stories in English literature. Whilst it is unclear whether Defoe and Selkirk actually met, Defoe would certainly have heard the stories of Selkirk’s adventure and used the tales as the basis for his novel, according to Caldwell and colleagues.