Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is considered the first adventure novel written in English. To dream up the work of fiction, its author, Daniel Defoe, was inspired by the real story of Alexander Selkirk, who was abandoned for several years on a desert island.

Four years and four months. That is how long Alexander Selkirk survived, in utter solitude, on an island of the Juan Fernandez archipelago, off Valparaiso, some 600 miles from the Chilean coast, after being abandoned there…at his request!

It should be said that, born in 1676 in Lower Largo, Scotland, Alexander was a crude and violent character, with a quarrelsome and undisciplined personality, to say the least. In 1693, summonsed for trial for “indecent conduct in a church”, he sailed away — literally — embarking on a career as a sailor. In 1703, he boarded a privateer expedition on the Pacific Ocean. In October 1704, during a stopover to refuel the ship he was sailing on, a dispute arose between him and the captain. Selkirk refused to go back to sea and demanded he be left on the island of Más a Tierra. As the ship slipped away, he realised his mistake. Too late. 

Loneliness, misery and remorse

Loneliness, misery and remorse then became Alexander Selkirk’s only companions. He just about managed to cling onto some sanity through the Bible he had been left with, as well as using it as a way to maintain his English by reading it aloud.

It was not until February 1709 that another privateer expedition, commanded by Woodes Rogers, stopped on the island and discovered “a man dressed in goat skins looking even wilder than their original owners.”

It would be more than another two years (October 1711) before Alexander Selkirk returned to his native land. In 1712, Rogers published a book (A Cruising Voyage Round the World) which contributed to his fame. 

Universal hero

Did Defoe meet Selkirk? Nothing could be less certain. But he did cross paths with Woodes Rogers, however, and so would have heard the story straight from his rescuer’s mouth. The rest is the stuff of literature: unlike Selkirk, Robinson is washed up on an island off South America’s East Coast following a shipwreck. Defoe confined him there for 28 years, eventually adding in Friday (a young native cannibal) as his companion. From the moment it was published, the novel was a phenomenal success and Robinson Crusoe is still today the very incarnation of the lonely castaway. Did Alexander Selkirk ever dream of becoming a universal hero?

Despite his short-lived fame, he was unable to readjust to society. In 1717, he returned to sea by enlisting aboard HMS Weymouth, a Royal Navy ship that controlled piracy off Ghana. It was on board there that he died from yellow fever on 13th December 1721 and was buried at sea. 

In 1966, the Chilean government renamed Más a Tierra Island where Selkirk lived “Robinson Crusoe”, and gave the name Alejandro Selkirk to the neighbouring island of Más Afuera, on which the Scotsman never set foot…

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Title page from the first edition (1719)
Text : Jacques Rivière