Crusoe, of course, was a fictional character created by Daniel Defoe, who published his book in 1719. But his story was partly inspired by the true story of a man who was marooned on an uninhabited island. Diana Souhami’s Selkirk’s Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe (2001, ISBN 0-15-100526-5) tells the remarkable story.
Selkirk, a privateer, had issues with the ship on which he was sailing, The hull was heavily invaded by worms, and he requested that he be out ashore on the island of Más A Tierra (since renamed Robinson Crusoe Island), in the Juan Fernandez group, rather than continue the voyage. In short order he changed his mind, but the captain refused to accept his return and sailed off. And sure enough, the ship foundered and the survivors were captured by the Spanish, who imprisoned them. For fifty-two months, Selkirk was left to his own devices, marooned by himself on the island.
Souhami has done a credible job of research in relating the history of this fascinating character. He had a difficult personality, fighting with land people and crewmen alike, much of the time spurred on by bouts of drinking. He died at a relatively young age, from one or more diseases acquired during his tenure as an adventurer in western Africa. He married twice, his will contested by each of his wives, who learned that he appeared to be married to each, although the second woman was able to convince the courts that the first marriage was not legally binding. We’d wager that few readers will fall in love with Selkirk the man.
The author provides a fast-paced romp through Selkirk’s life, with fascinating tidbits interspersed throughout. Her passage on the ship-devouring Teredo navalis worm will be frightening for those readers who dream of going back in time to sail the waters in the oak-hulled ships of the seventeenth century. Likewise, her description of the necessary amputations at sea is horrifying:
Ballett thought it wise to amputate in the mornings but never at full moon. His dismembering saws were kept well-filed, clean and in oiled cloths to protect them from rust. He had an assortment of knives, mallets, chisels and stitching needles, some strong waxed thread, rolls of crude cotton and large bowls filled with ashes to catch blood. The amputee had to give consent and was told that he might die. ‘It is no small presumption to dismember the Image of God.’ Two strong men held the patient down. The instruments were kept from his view. Ballett, ‘with a steady hand and good speed, cut off Flesh, Sinewes and all to the Bone’. He left flaps of skin. He then sawed through the bone, sewed the flaps, stemmed the bleeding with cotton and propped the stump up high with a pillow under it. There was a vessel for amputated limbs ’till you have opportunity to heave them Overboard’. Even if only the foot was crushed the surgeons took off most of the leg, ‘the Paine is all one, and it is most profitable to the Patient, for a long Stumpe were but troublesome.’ There were dismembering snippers for amputating fingers and toes.
Then there were the island goats, which provided him with both food and companionship, as she quotes from Woodes Rogers’ journal:
His exercise and lust of the day was hunting and fucking goats. ‘He kept an Account of 500 that he killed while there, and caught as many more which he mark’d on the Ear and let go.’ His tally was of their size and agility and the quality of the chase; a chart like those kept of the variations of the tide, the phases of the moon or the days of his captivity on The Island.
The reality of being shipwrecked on an island clearly captivated the author, who’s done a terrific job of putting the reader right on the island, along with Selkirk. Not that any of us wish we were in that situation, of course with this desperate, difficult, and ultimately creative man.
Selkirk was rescued after 52 months, returned home, and recognized that he was only cut out for sea life. Shorelife being a series of troubles and mishaps, he returned to the ocean. His ships, his officers, and his ambitions proved again and again to be problematic. Souhami’s book is a timeless page-turner. At 246 pages, it’s one of the most compelling reads those of us at WoWasis have ever encountered.