Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The son of a shoemaker and tanner in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland, he was born in 1676. In his youth he displayed a quarrelsome and unruly disposition, and having been summoned on 27 August 1695 before the kirk-session for his indecent behaviour in church, "did not compear, having gone away to the seas".
At an early period he was engaged in buccaneer expeditions to the South Seas, and in 1703 joined famed privateer and explorer William Dampier on the galley Cinque Ports as sailing master. The following year, in October, the Cinque Ports was stopped over at the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernandez for a mid-expedition restock of supplies and fresh water. At this point, Selkirk had grave concerns about the seaworthiness of his vessel (the Cinque Ports, incidentally, did later sink, losing most hands) and opted to stay ashore, banking on an impending visit by another galley. His decision spawned almost immediate regret. He chased and called after his boat to no avail; Selkirk would spend a solitary residence of four years and four months on Juan Fernandez. He took with him a musket, gunpowder, carpenter's tools, a knife, a Bible, and his clothing.
Selkirk initially stayed on the beach, fearing strange inland sounds he assumed to be dangerous beasts. During this period, he camped in a small cave, consumed shellfish for nutrition, surveyed the ocean each day for a possible rescue, and suffered from deep loneliness, depression, and regret. Eventual hordes of sea lions, collecting on the beach for their mating and weaning season, drove him to the island's interior.
There, life became significantly better. A bevy of new food sources became available: wild goats, introduced by earlier sailors, provided meat and milk; uncultivated turnips, cabbage, and pepper berries offered diversity and spice. Rats, also not native, were an initial problem -- they made a habit of gnawing on Selkirk during the night. However, by domesticating and living near equally feral cats, he was able to sleep soundly.
Selkirk made extraordinary use of the equipment he took from the ship and, later, that which he made from island materials. He carpentered two huts out of native Pimento trees and employed his musket and knife to hunt and clean goats. However, when his gunpowder dwindled, he had to resort to chasing his prey on foot. This resulted in a major injury wherein he tumbled off a cliff and was rendered unconscious for two days (luckily, his prey had unwittingly intervened, sparing him a broken back). He also read from the Bible frequently, finding it beneficial to his emotional state and grasp of English. When Selkirk's clothing wore out, he fashioned new garments from goatskin using a nail to sew. His father was a tanner, and the lessons he had learned back home as a child helped him greatly on the island. When his shoes were no longer usable, Selkirk's feet had become so toughened and calloused that he found them unnecessary. He forged a new knife out of iron barrel rings left on the beach.
The long awaited rescue occurred on February 2, 1709 by way of privateer Duke, a ship coincidentally piloted by the same William Dampier mentioned earlier. Selkirk was discovered off the island by the Duke's Captain, Woodes Rogers. Upon being found, the four year castaway was completely incoherent with joy. Rogers eventually made Selkirk his mate and gave him the independent command of one of his prizes. Rogers's "Cruising Voyage" was published in 1712, with an account of Selkirk's ordeal.
In 1717 Selkirk had returned to Lower Largo, but only stayed a few months. There he met Sophia Bruce, a 16-year old dairymaid, and they eloped to London. Within a year he had again gone to sea. On a visit to Plymouth, he married a widowed innkeeper. He died in 1723 while lieutenant on board the Royal ship Weymouth, probably succumbing to yellow fever. He was buried at sea off the west coast of Africa.
For the possible influence of Selkirk's story on the novel Robinson Crusoe, see the discussion there.
One of the islands in Juan Fernández archipelago has been named Alejandro Selkirk.
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