The appearance of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 was one of those wondrous moments when an unforgettable myth begins burrowing into our collective memory. With that novel Daniel Defoe introduced into the imagination of early modern Europe a tale about an individual's survival, through the exertion of will and ingenuity, on a desert island. It was a book that Europe wanted and welcomed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau called it one of "the finest of treatises on education according to nature."
It has never since been out of print, and the situation Defoe described still appeals to us. That's because the individualism and self-reliance he celebrated remains central to our civilization. He found his perfect subject when he learned that a seaman named Alexander Selkirk had spent more than four years alone on a volcanic island in the Pacific, hundreds of kilometres off the coast of Chile. Now Diana Souhami has revisited the legend's roots in an enthralling and superbly researched book, Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe.
In 18th-century language, Selkirk was a gentleman adventurer, meaning he sailed with privateers licensed by the British government to kill Spaniards and steal their gold. He first went to sea at 15 because his belligerent nature made him unpopular with his family and everyone else in his Scottish hometown. He was 23 when he signed on for the looting expedition that took him to his lonely island.
Existence on a sailing ship was so miserable and dangerous that, with rare exceptions, men went to sea only if they were unfit for life ashore. The ships were always overcrowded when they left Europe, because ship owners hired far more sailors than they needed, knowing half or more would die at sea.
Scurvy was a constant menace, because Europeans didn't yet know it was a result of malnutrition. The flour on board contained maggots, the meat was often rotten, and fresh water was scarce.
There was, however, plenty to drink. When provisioning a ship, the owners treated alcohol as a priority. Sailors stayed drunk much of the time, and often they screamed and shouted and fought through the long, cramped nights on the ocean. Selkirk was right at home.
But he was on a badly managed expedition, and he argued so fiercely with his captain that he was declared a mutineer. Maroon was then a transitive verb, as in "They marooned him." That's what the captain did to Selkirk, leaving him on an unpopulated island where ships often put in for water. As his shipmates rowed away, Selkirk waded into the water after them, begging to be forgiven.
He was left alone but he wasn't the first human to live there. Goats were everywhere, evidence of a failed 16th-century colony that left livestock behind when the colonists gave up. Selkirk ate goat meat, drank goat milk, carved knives from goat horns, and made goatskin clothing. He also used the goats sexually. Rats, their population uninhibited since they had crept off ships stopping at the island, tormented him by gnawing at his clothes and his feet when he slept. But cats, too, had come on earlier ships, and he fed them goat meat so that they would keep the rats at bay.
As Souhami writes, "he endured the cats' territorial yowls, their mating calls and acrid smells." He also feared becoming catfood: "The idea haunted his mind that, after his death, as there would be no one to bury his remains, or to supply the cats with food, his body must be devoured by the very animals which he at present nourished for his convenience."
He also feared rescue, if the rescuers were Spaniards; they would likely use him as a slave in the silver mines till he died. But the ship that found him was another British privateer, so he joined a new band of murderers, and later captained a vessel they took from the Spaniards.
When he returned to England in 1711 he had a small fortune. There he met Richard Steele, who had already made his place in literary history alongside Joseph Addison on the Tatler and the Spectator. Steele wrote the first engaging and detailed account of Selkirk's ordeal. Soon the story reached Defoe.
The idea of a lonely individual creating a one-man world was made for Defoe. He was industrious and ambitious, a religious Dissenter and an individualist, a butcher's son who had made his own way. For decades he had been laying the foundations of modern journalism. In fact, he presented his version of the Selkirk story as journalism. Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe has often been called the first novel in English but Defoe sold it as fact, letting his first readers assume that Crusoe had actually lived. When it became known as fiction it grew even more popular.
It's always been a favourite of the movies; the first silent version in 1916 has been followed by 38 others. Moviemakers have also taken to the Crusoe Lite version, Swiss Family Robinson, which Johann Wyss dreamt up as bedtime stories for his sons. Robinson Crusoe on Mars appeared in 1964, The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1975. Recent Crusoe derivatives have ranged from the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away to the Survivor TV series. A Disney version was on TV Sunday night.
Souhami concludes her book by describing the present state of Selkirk's island. Half-hearted attempts at colonization have left it with some 500 islanders, most of them engaged in trapping lobsters, which are steadily growing smaller and fewer. In 1966 a local booster, the owner of a cluster of shacks called the Hostelria Daniel Defoe, persuaded the Chilean government to rename the main island Isla Robinson Crusoe.
The islanders have an electricity generator that sometimes works, and they reach the Internet when the phone system functions. They have a doctor and a dentist but no roads or postal system -- though no taxes. Visitors tend to feel marooned, and watch the skies nervously. If the weather is clear a very small plane will land on a dirt strip and take them to Santiago, a three-hour flight. The plane is called Robinson Crusoe Airlines.