The real-life Robinson Crusoe

In an ill hour, I went on board a ship bound for London…” The story which followed these famous words was narrated by fictional castaway Robinson Crusoe. However, it was based on the real-life adventures of Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an uninhabited Pacific island and lived to tell the tale.


In 1704, Selkirk was navigating an English galley, the Cinque Ports, around Cape Horn. Disease plagued the crew, there was insufficient food and the hull was being eaten alive by worm. When they stopped at the windswept Pacific island of Juan Fernandez to rest and take on supplies, Selkirk demanded they abandon ship and wait for help. The captain refused, and the quarrel became so violent that when the Cinque Ports sailed away, Selkirk was left marooned with only his sea chest and bedding, shouting from the beach for mercy.

Escape was impossible: the nearest inhabited land was 600 miles away, over a tumultuous ocean. Selkirk found fresh water and food: seals and goats for protein, and plums for vitamins. He staved off madness through activity and the company of animals. At first he was tormented by vermin: “the rats gnawed his feet and clothes whilst asleep” but he tamed cats to keep them away, and goats, “to divert himself”, with whom he “would now and then sing and dance”.

Fifty-two months of solitude passed before the English ship Duke appeared, searching out pirates under Captain Woodes Rogers. Her seamen, rowing ashore for water, were alarmed by the appearance of a wild man in goatskins, leaping and waving a burning branch. On 2 February 1709, they took him off to safety.

Selkirk had left the island, but the island never left him. He returned to Scotland in 1717, but could not settle, often sloping off to a cave atop a nearby hill to find the seclusion he had once hated. He died in 1721, two years after Robinson Crusoe made his story famous.


The Spaniard who fought against Spain

While Alexander Selkirk was marooned on an uninhabited island, other castaways had to cope with ‘the natives’. In 1511, a Spanish ship foundered off the Yucatán peninsula in south-east Mexico, and its 16 survivors became the first Europeans to experience Mayan civilisation. It was an unhappy meeting: by the time the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in 1519, all but two had been sacrificed to the gods or succumbed to disease. One survivor, Gonzalo Guerrero, had married a high-born Mayan woman, had three children – the first mestizos (persons of mixed Spanish and Amerinidan ancestry) – and integrated into Mayan society, even worshipping their gods. The other survivor, Brother Gerónimo Aguilar, had not, and joyfully accepted Cortés’s invitation to serve him as interpreter. Guerrero refused, “for shame,” the spiteful friar wrote, “for having pierced his nose and ears, and painted his face and hands in the manner of that people”.

When the Spaniards’ aggressive intentions became clear, Guerrero accepted command of a Mayan army sent to beat them off. Cortés gave particular orders for his capture but he eluded his countrymen until 1536, when his body was found on a Honduran battlefield, felled by a Spanish gun as he helped his adopted people resist invasion. Scarcely known in the Anglophone world, Guerrero is honoured in Mexico. For centuries, however, he was demonised in Spanish literature as a monster who betrayed his own faith and people.


The Lancashire lad who wed a Hawaiian princess

English mariner John Young may have felt a little sorry for himself when he was accidentally left on Hawaii. Yet within a few years he’d wed a native princess and become advisor to the king.

A Lancashire lad, Young was serving aboard an American ship engaged in the fur trade when he first saw Hawaii in 1790. Fabulous ‘Owhyee’ was the stuff of fantasy for seamen: the beauty (and availability) of women in the South Seas was legendary from Limehouse to Nootka Sound. So was Hawaiian violence: Captain Cook had been killed here only 11 years before. When Young went ashore he witnessed a Hawaiian attack on another American ship. He was detained by King Kamehameha I to prevent his reporting the incident – and his ship sailed without him.

From this unpromising start, Young flourished. When Captain Vancouver visited in 1793, rescue and a return to the hard life of jobbing seaman had no attraction for Young, so Vancouver’s offer of a lift out was politely refused. Young married the princess Namokuelua in 1795 and became an honoured member of the king’s entourage. His descendants still live in Hawaii.

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The sealers who lived off raw brains

Castaways are often associated with desert islands but the isolated archipelagos of the Southern Ocean also received shipwrecked sailors from sealing vessels, which worked those waters until their prey was almost extinct.

Charles Goodridge was with one of two sealing gangs landed on islands of the Crozet group (in the southern Indian Ocean) in February 1821. The mother ship, the Princess of Wales, sailed between the two until she was wrecked on 10 March. For nine months, neither gang knew the other was still alive until one crossed the strait between them on a raft. Together, they started work on an ocean-going boat, but with not enough food on one island to keep all 15 alive, five recrossed the strait and lived in isolation for a year while the boat-builders completed their work.

They survived by killing sea elephants, which “served us”, wrote Goodridge, “for meat, lodging, firing, shoe leather and sewing thread. We washed in their blood and removed dirt and grease from our clothes… blubber and a piece of rope yarn made a lamp… The brains were often ate raw, and they were as sweet as sugar.”

Had their companions survived – or sailed without them? They got their answer when the boat appeared – only to be wrecked by an offshore wind. It was the chance arrival of another sealer that eventually saved them.


The ice explores who scaled glaciers in a bid to survive

Perhaps the most famous of modern castaways is Ernest Shackleton. He was fascinated by the Antarctic: aged 22, he dreamt “that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth”. By 1914, Shackleton was a seasoned explorer, one of a select band of commanders in a golden age of polar exploration. Scott and Amundsen had set records but there remained, Shackleton said, “one great main object of Antarctic journeyings – the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea”.

Twenty-three men left England aboard the Endurance on 8 August 1914, bound for Buenos Aires and South Georgia, entering the Weddell Sea in December. The Endurance would never leave: her wreck still lies below the Weddell icebergs. Ice came unseasonably early that year and by January 1915, the ship was wedged solid. The men spent the Antarctic winter marooned there, playing hockey, racing dog-sleds and eating seals as the ship groaned ever more loudly under the pressure of ice. In October, the hull caved in and the ship was abandoned.

Moving north from ice floe to ice floe, dragging lifeboats with them until there was enough water to row, the men reached Elephant Island in April 1916. Shackleton and five others sailed onwards to the South Georgia whaling stations, heroically climbed the glaciers that divide that island in two and eventually reached the Norwegians at Stromness, who arranged a steamer to return to Elephant Island.

“Are you all well?” Shackleton called as he approached the beach. “All safe, all well!” replied the 18 jubilant men he had left there 105 days before. They had “suffered, starved and triumphed”. The only casualties were ten frostbitten toes, amputated with the last of the chloroform on Elephant Island.

Siân Rees’s latest book is Sweet Water and Bitter (Chatto & Windus, 2009)

Books: Selkirk’s Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe by Diana Souhami (Harvest Books, 2002); Cast Away: Shipwrecked, Marooned or Cast Adrift on the High Seas by Joseph Cummins (Pier 9 Murdoch Books, 2008); The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander (Knopf, 1998)


This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine