NIEMANN: Real-life 17th-century pirate the basis for classic fictional character

Posted: Dec. 17, 2012 10:49 am Updated: Jan. 7, 2013 12:15 pm


I always like those stories where art imitates life. This week's story is one of those.

Zlexander Selkirk was a real-life pirate. Back in the day, pirates who were paid by their government to raid other countries' ships were called "privateers."

Born in Scotland in 1676, Selkirk became first mate of the British ship, Cinque Ports. In French, the name Cinque Ports means "five ports" but the word "cinque" is pronounced in French as "sank," which is never a good name for a ship.

The captain, William Dampier, proved his incompetence when he tried -- and failed -- three times to sail the ship around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. When the ship barely made it to the island of Mas a Tierra off the Chilean coast on their fourth attempt, Selkirk and the other pirates figured that they would repair the damaged ship before moving on.

They were wrong; Captain Dampier wanted to get back on the road (sea) again. Selkirk, though, feared that the ship would not make it, so he requested that Captain Dampier let him off the ship. He believed that he had a better chance of surviving all alone on a deserted island than he would by staying on the battered ship.

So he decided to stay on the island and wait until another ship sailed by, but he changed his mind as the ship was heading out to sea. He called out to Captain Dampier to come back, but it was too late. Selkirk had provisions to last him a long time: Clothes, a rifle, gunpowder, bullets, tools, a kettle, a Bible and a few other books.

The island of Mas a Tierra had plenty of goats to provide Selkirk with food and clothing, but once he ran out of bullets, he had to chase them down. He also had plenty of fresh water, fruit and crawfish. He used pimento trees to build two huts, then he later moved into a cave.

Whenever a Spanish ship would pass by, he would hide because getting caught would result in death or slavery for Alexander Selkirk. After four years, a British ship called the Duke stopped at the island. Who was the pilot of that ship?

William Dampier. So Selkirk left the island aboard the ship, reunited with his old boss.

Upon hearing about Selkirk's life on the island, a writer named Richard Steele wrote about Selkirk's experiences. Then another writer, Daniel Defoe, created a fictional story that was partly based on Selkirk's experiences alone on the island. Does Selkirk's story sound familiar?

It should, because the title character in Defoe's story was Robinson Crusoe. But you knew that all along, didn't you?

Selkirk led the Duke to a successful raid on a Spanish ship. When he returned to Scotland as a wealthy man, he could have built a luxurious home for himself. Instead, he chose to move into a cave again, just as he had done on the island.

As for the island of Mas a Tierra, that has been renamed as Robinson Crusoe Island and is now a tourist destination.




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