In Search Of Robinson Crusoe


By Tim Severin

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For nearly three centuries, Robinson Crusoe has been the archetypal castaway, the symbol of survival in uninhabited wilds. In this book, Tim Severin adds this enterprising hero to the roster of legendary figures whose adventures he’s replicated and whose origins he’s explored. With the signature approach to literary and historical sleuthing that has led the New York Times to describe him as “original, audacious, and exuberant,” Severin uncovers the seaman’s world that captured Daniel Defoe’s imagination, recounting dramatic survival stories of sailors, pirates, castaways, and native Americans and replicating their journeys to experience for himself the adventures that inspired Robinson Crusoe. He camps on islands that famous castaways once survived on, undertakes a perilous sea voyage, and searches Nicaragua and Honduras for the Miskutu Indians, the tribe that the model for Crusoe’s companion, Friday, belonged to. Tim Severin has once again demonstrated a superb ability to bring together literature, history and adventure in an engrossing narrative.




In Search of Moby Dick
Tracking Marco Polo
Explorers of the Mississippi
The Golden Antilles
The African Adventure
Vanishing Primitive Man
The Brendan Voyage
The Sindbad Voyage
The Jason Voyage
The Ulysses Voyage

Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem
In Search of Genghis Khan
The China Voyage
The Spice Islands Voyage

Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked, clings desperately to a rock.


Tim Severin


Crusoe builds a bonfire as a signal to a vessel.

Chapter I

He stands alone on the shoreline. He is such a savage sight that the six oarsmen in the approaching ship’s boat take quick glances over their shoulders as they row closer. His legs and callused feet are bare, and the hairy pelts of animals cover his upper thighs and body. He has stitched the skins together into an uncouth jacket, using rawhide thongs. A clumsy, rough cap of the same material protects his head. The coarse animal hair on the pelts merges with the overflow of his long beard and his wild mat of hair so that he resembles a shaggy animal, excited and reared up on two legs.

The two officers in the boat, Captain Thomas Dover and Second Mate Robert Frye, scan the stony beach, trying to judge the best place to land, and the hairy creature waves to them urgently, pointing to a suitable spot. He then rushes forward to greet them as they splash ashore. The visitors are too astonished to speak as the apparition, choking with emotion, throws his arms around the new arrivals and hugs them. The hirsute man has not been able to tan the skins he wears. They reek as when they clothed their original owners, the wild goats of the island. The man stinks.

The Duke’s yawl finds him. Three weeks earlier Captain Woodes Rogers had steered his thirty-gun “private ship of war” around Cape Horn after a difficult four-month passage from Cork in Ireland, and slipped furtively into the Pacific. He and Captain Stephen Courtney of the accompanying twenty-six-gun Duchess then lay course for an uninhabited island nearly 400 miles off the coast of Chile. This is poachers’ thinking. The remote island is well away from the usual shipping lanes and will be a temporary base where the crews, more than three hundred men packed in the two cramped, damp ships, can go ashore to stretch their legs and recuperate from their grueling voyage. Then they will launch a surprise attack on the coast of Chile.

The two captains carry licenses to justify this predatory behavior. Their “letters of marque and reprisal,” written in florid legal language by government clerks in London, give them leave to harry the enemies of the king of Great Britain. In the year 1709 the King’s enemies include all subjects and allies of the Spanish crown. In return the Spanish regard such raiders as pirates, and use that blunt word to describe them. They also suspect, rightly, that some of the sailors aboard the raiding vessels are ex-buccaneers who have conducted previous hit-and-run raids along the coast of what is modern-day Chile and Peru. If the Spanish authorities can catch them, the luckier ones may be exchanged for ransom, but most will spend the rest of their lives in prison or as slave labor. A few, positively identified for their crimes, will face execution.

So it is a shock when the ships’ lookouts spot a light burning on the heights of the island. The two vessels first glimpse the distant outline of land at seven o’clock on the morning of 31 January. The island lies to the west of their track, and they immediately turn toward it. But the new course is upwind and neither vessel is a swift sailer. They make such slow progress that by noon the following day they are wallowing through the swell and are still some four leagues from their landfall. Aboard the Duke Dr. Thomas Dover impetuously asks for the pinnace to be lowered and manned so that he can be rowed ashore. His wish is granted because he is one of the English shareholders who invested the substantial sum of fourteen thousand pounds to arm and victual the two ships, and he holds the rank of “second captain.” Later he will become famous for creating a patent medicine based on opium resin. Dover’s Powder will be a stock item of ships’ medicine chests for the next two hundred years, prescribed for colds, coughs, insomnia, rheumatism, and dysentery. But its headstrong inventor is no mariner. The distance to the island is too far to row. When darkness falls, the doctor’s boat has still some way to go and the watchers aboard the ships become alarmed. It is obvious that the pinnace will have to turn back and in the darkness may miss the ships altogether. The Duke and Duchess sling lanterns in the rigging to guide home the strays and fire off muskets and a gun on the quarterdeck to help them get their bearings. The lookouts peer into the darkness for signs of the returning boat. This is when they distinctly see a point of light. They think at first that it is a lantern aboard the pinnace, but soon realize that the flare must come from a bonfire on land.

This is very ominous. It had been presumed that there was no one living on the island. A bonfire means human presence. Dr. Dover could not have lit the fire because the pinnace reappears out of the darkness at midnight, and her crew report that they failed to set foot ashore. The obvious explanation for the light is that the Spaniards have garrisoned the island. If so, the privateers risk a fiasco. The garrison could already have sent word to the mainland, warning about the arrival of foreign vessels, and the raiders would have lost the all-important element of surprise. But the Spaniards are not the first foe who spring to mind: England is at war with France, and Woodes Rogers and his officers fear that a hostile French squadron has entered the Pacific ahead of them and taken possession of the strategic island. “We are all convinced the light is on the shore, and design to make our ships ready to engage, believing them to be French Ships at anchor,” Woodes Rogers writes in his account of the voyage published three years later.

But he also notes that his own ship and the Duchess have “a great many Men down with the Cold, and some with Scurvy,” and as overall commander of the privateering enterprise he knows that some invalids will die if they are not gotten ashore for treatment. So he has little choice but to proceed with the original plan of landing on Juan Fernandez.

He orders the two ships to prepare to fight any enemy and slowly keeps his course, timing his approach so as to arrive in full daylight. As the sun rises on the morning of February 2, the lookouts grow more puzzled by the hour. There is no sign of human activity on shore. The steep green hills of the island seem utterly deserted.

The Duke edges round the island, cautiously leading the way. Her pilot, William Dampier, is an ex-buccaneer and he was here four years earlier on a similar raid. He is aware that the best place to moor the vessels is in a shallow bay on the northeast shore. When the anchorage comes into view, there is still nothing to be seen. Not a ship in the bay, no boat drawn up on the beach, not even a hut or a wisp of smoke rising from the thick vegetation which clothes the slopes that rise in a steep bowl from the small area of flat ground close to the water’s edge. The place looks as though no living soul has set foot there since the beginning of time. The ships are still tacking slowly into the anchorage, making sluggish headway against the fluky and unpredictable wind that blows in sudden gusts from the high ground, when the impatient second captain, Dr. Dover, again decides to lead a reconnaissance. Dover takes the Duke’s yawl, six oarsmen, and the second mate, and heads off for the beach even before the ships have dropped anchor.

The man in goatskins sighted them the previous evening. Months earlier he had cut a supply of firewood and stacked it ready for use. Last night he stayed up tending the blaze so that it would serve as a beacon, unaware that the bright point of light risked scaring away his rescuers. He has also cooked some goat’s meat, knowing the sea-weary crews would relish it. Now he offers to show his visitors the secret hut where he lives. It is scarcely a mile away but the undergrowth is so thick, and the path so difficult, that only Robert Frye, the second mate, accompanies the hairy islander as he pushes his way through the brushwood, protected by his goatskin jacket. Frye arrives at a modest shelter made of branches and thatched with local grass. The interior has been lined with more goatskins. The only furnishings are a sea chest, a cooking pot, and some worn bedding, together with a musket that lacks gunpowder and a makeshift knife fashioned by rubbing down an iron hoop into a blade. Significantly, there are also some navigation instruments and a basic library comprising several books of navigational tables, as well as some devotional texts, and a Bible. Nearby is a second, smaller hut which the man uses as his kitchen. He says he has been living there for four years and four months, on his own.

Aboard the Duke, Captain Woodes Rogers is becoming anxious to know what is keeping the yawl so long. He sends the pinnace to investigate, and the boat returns almost immediately, carrying the wild-looking stranger and a scrabbling, clattering cargo of large bright pink crayfish, which the men in the yawl have found crawling in great numbers in the shallows. Rogers hospitably offers the newcomer a drink, but he declines. He has not touched a drop of alcohol since he has been on the island, he says, and he no longer has the habit. It is difficult to understand what he is saying. He speaks slowly, dragging out his words and dividing them into halves as though he has been losing the power of speech during his long period of isolation. Curiously, the same phenomenon will later be noticed of dogs abandoned on the island. It will be claimed that they temporarily lose the ability to bark, and only regain their voices when they are returned to the company of other dogs.

The newcomer identifies himself. He is Alexander Selkirk, born in Scotland and a mariner by profession. He is now thirty- three years old and last saw a friendly face when he was twenty-nine. He has kept track of his time on the island by carving marks into a tree to record the months and days. During his four years of solitary existence he has seen several ships pass by. But they were always Spanish vessels, and he was too frightened to attract their attention for fear of what might happen to him. Usually the Spanish ships maintained their course and steered past the island, but on one occasion two ships came right into the bay, dropped anchor, and put men ashore. They caught a glimpse of him, fired shots, and chased after him. Dodging back into the bushes, he ran off and scrambled up a tree to hide. His hunters paused right underneath him while one of them urinated against the tree trunk, but they did not glance above their heads and failed to notice him. The Spaniards shot several goats for their larder, then abandoned their human chase and sailed away, confident that they were leaving the fugitive to harmless solitude.

The Scotsman also volunteers the surprising information that he is not a castaway, but had chosen to be on the island by himself, at least at the beginning. He had come ashore from the privateer galley Cinque Ports, where he was sailing master, after quarreling with her captain, Thomas Stradling. The galley had been in need of an overhaul after a series of mismanaged raids on the mainland, and Stradling had decided to bring his leaky vessel to the island to make repairs. Selkirk detested his captain so heartily that when the galley was ready to leave, Selkirk refused to sail with her. The vessel was still unfit for sea, in his opinion, and he would rather stay behind on the island. Clearly, Stradling was sick of his cantankerous crewman and swiftly granted his request. He set Selkirk ashore with his personal baggage, a pound of gunpowder and some shot for his musket, a small quantity of tobacco, and a little food. It will later be claimed that Selkirk suffered a change of heart at the last minute. As the ship’s boat began to row away, he ran down into the water and shouted out to departing boat, begging to be taken back aboard. Stradling is alleged to have called back, mocking him and telling him that he was glad to be rid of him. Technically, therefore, Alexander Selkirk is a maroon, someone purposely left ashore on a deserted island or coast to fend for himself.

Unexpectedly, the Duke’s pilot vouches for Selkirk. He recognizes the Scotsman as a former shipmate and says that he was the best man aboard the Cinque Ports. Rogers realizes that finding Selkirk is a stroke of good fortune for his own enterprise. The navigation instruments kept in the Scotsman’s hut indicate that he knows how to find his way at sea, and clearly he has firsthand knowledge of the poorly charted South American coast. So Woodes Rogers loses no time in offering Selkirk a post as mate aboard the Duke; when the Scotsman accepts, Rogers dispatches him back to the beach to assist the shore parties.

Selkirk guides Dr. Dover and his assistants to the places where they can gather wild turnips, watercress, and native greenstuffs. These will help to cure the ships’ scurvy-stricken invalids, who are brought ashore and housed in tents made of sails stretched between the trees. In the following days Selkirk also leads shore parties on goat hunting expeditions and astonishes them with his technique. After years of living on the mountainous island, he is so fit and agile that he does not shoot the goats. He simply runs after them until he overtakes them, then grabs one. The only time a goat can outpace him is when it is running downhill. He catches up with a wild goat in the space of a few minutes and comes back with the bleating animal draped across his shoulders. On one occasion he returns with two goats in his clutch. When the hunters bring a dog ashore from the Duke to help them, Selkirk outruns that animal too. It is a bulldog, a breed not known for its speed, and the Scotsman leaves it far behind. Selkirk explains to his visitors that he learned to catch goats by hand after he had used up the pound of gunpowder that the begrudging Captain Stradling had allowed him. In the end he became so deft that he had turned the chase into a sport. Catching a goat, he would mark the animal by slitting its ears, and let it go. He calculates that his total catch over the years is four hundred animals. The sailors soon take to calling him the Governor in amused reference to his mastery of the little island kingdom he has made his home for so long.

Only two of the scurvy victims die—a very light toll in the opinion of Woodes Rogers—and within ten days the other convalescents have recovered their health enough for the privateers to make ready to leave the island. Barrels of fresh water are taken aboard, and eighty casks of oil the sailors have boiled down from the blubber of the sea lions and seals who breed in huge colonies along the shore. The roaring and groaning of these animals fill the air for miles around, so much so that Selkirk says that noise frightened him when he first came ashore. The sailors from the Duke and Duchess must carry sticks to beat a path through the cumbersome animals as they lounge on the beach. Their blubber oil provides fuel for lamps and grease for cooking, and some of the sailors develop a taste for seal meat, though most prefer goat flesh. Three days before departure Rogers sends two boats with Selkirk and a gang of hunters to take a batch of wild goats from the western end of the island. According to Selkirk, it is home to very large numbers of the animals, though he has never been able to get there because access is too steep and rocky. On arrival, the hunters find that once again the Governor is correct. They count more than a thousand goats, but bungle the roundup. Most of the animals escape over a cliff, and the hunters bring back only nineteen for the expedition larder.

As the two ships sail for their surprise attack on the mainland coast, Woodes Rogers observes in his journal that Selkirk needs time to adapt to normal shipboard life. His feet swell up and hurt when he tries to wear shoes, and he has difficulty eating the ship’s food. There was no salt on Selkirk’s island—a reason why he could not cure his goatskins properly—and for a long time he finds it hard to digest the ship’s rations, which are heavily salted for preservation. His diet for four years has been based on fresh goat meat, fresh vegetables, and wild plants. In the beginning he also ate many crayfish “as big as lobsters” because they were so easy to catch in the shallows. But eventually he got so tired of the taste of crayfish, whether boiled or roasted, that he could eat them only “as jellies,” a seafarer’s term for shipboard food that was neither solid nor salted. Fishing was also very easy, but for some reason the fish he caught gave him diarrhea, so he stopped catching them. Woodes Rogers notes also that Selkirk remains taciturn and withdrawn. But this may be the Scotsman’s natural character, because his restrained manner does not detract from the performance of his duties. Selkirk has now joined a much more successful enterprise than his venture with the odious Captain Stradling. Selkirk will learn, probably with grim satisfaction, that his former commander met his just deserts after the marooning. His patched-up ship foundered on the mainland coast, and several of the crew drowned. The others, including Stradling, managed to get away from the wreck on rafts. The Spaniards captured them and threw them into prison.

Woodes Rogers, by contrast, now has a run of good luck. His force intercepts one small ship after another and robs their passengers at swordpoint. The marauders hold to ransom several coastal towns, and steadily amass a treasure in pieces of eight, gold necklaces and chains, and silver sword handles and plate. The only real disappointment is their failure to capture the larger of the two Manila Galleons bringing this year’s shipment of treasure from the Philippines to Acapulco. The smaller galleon strikes her flag after a stiff sea fight, during which a bullet hits Woodes Rogers in the upper left cheek and carries away part of the jaw, so that some of his teeth drop out on deck. With one treasure ship taken, Rogers then doggedly sets off to intercept the larger, richer galleon, but she proves to be too powerful, though Rogers presses home the attack with his usual determination, lying on the deck in a pool of blood after a flying splinter strikes his heel.

Selkirk behaves admirably throughout the expedition. He leads boat crews on raids along the rivers and is appointed to command one of the prizes. By the time the Duke and Duchess eventually drop anchor in London, having sailed right round the world to get there, Selkirk’s share of the prize money is calculated to be worth £800. This is a very considerable reward at a time when a shopkeeper might expect to earn £45 a year, though just how much of the £800 he actually receives is uncertain because the division of the expedition’s spoils will be contested through the courts for years to come. Selkirk himself has been away for eight years, one month, and three days.

The successful return of the privateers in October 1711 causes a sensation. There are excited reports that the original investors will make more than 500 percent profit. Dr. Dover, for example, eventually collects £2,755, including “storm money” (£100) and “plunder money” (£24). Tavern gossips savor the tales of desperate battles and the whiff of gunpowder. Educated society picks over the descriptions of strange lands, their plants and animals, and the hitherto unknown customs of their natives. Edward Cooke, second captain of the Duchess, quickly publishes a book about his experiences on the expedition, A Voyage to the South Sea, and soon afterward Woodes Rogers does the same; his volume is titled A Cruising Voyage Round the World. Both volumes describe the bizarre episode of picking up the solitary islander dressed in his goatskins, and Selkirk becomes a celebrity. The essayist Richard Steele will claim in issue number 26 of his magazine The Englishman, published on 3 December 1713, that he met and interviewed Selkirk, though this may have been a journalistic fabrication. Steele writes that even if he had not known Selkirk’s story before he met him, there was something about the Scotsman’s demeanor that suggests that the man had been “much separated from Company.” There was a “strong but cheerful seriousness in his Look, and a certain disregard for the ordinary things about him as if he had been sunk in thought.” Steele makes the point that it must have been an extraordinary experience for a mariner like Selkirk who had spent his working life in the close company of sailors crammed aboard ship, suddenly to be left to live on his own. Steele also publishes the surprising assertion that Selkirk did not want to be rescued by the Duke and Duchess. All he wanted was to help the sailors with the gift of fresh supplies and send them on their way. According to Steele, now that the Scotsman was back in normal life, he felt he was worse off than when he was on the island. Steele quotes Selkirk as saying, “I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy” as when I was not worth a Farthing.”

Steele has his own reasons for portraying “the Governor” as a disillusioned man. Steele is promoting the theory that a man is most content when he lives a simple life. According to Steele, Selkirk managed to survive cheerfully on his island with only rudimentary food and shelter and therefore “this plain man’s story is a memorable example of that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural necessities.” Steele underlines his message by claiming that when he met Selkirk in the street some time later, the process had been reversed. Selkirk had readapted to society, just as he had grown accustomed to wearing shoes again. Day-to-day contact with people had removed all trace of loneliness, and Steele scarcely recognized him.

Alexander Selkirk should now have faded into the background. He was not the only mariner to be rescued from a lonely shore and to tell of his adventures, and the remainder of his life was away from the spot- light. He went to Scotland to visit his family and stayed there for about two years, presumably living off his prize money as it was dribbled out to former crew members by the shareholder consortium. By March 1717 he moved to London, where he entered into a “marriage”—whether formal or informal is not clear—with a Scottish girl, Sophia Bruce.

So he was probably in London when advertisements began to appear in the London newspapers announcing the publication of a romantic novel. The picture on the front page of the book bears a conspicuous resemblance to Selkirk himself. The engraving is the book’s only illustration and shows a rather melancholy-looking man standing on the shore of an island, gazing inland. He is dressed in a goatskin coat belted at the waist over shaggy breeches, his feet and shins are bare, and he has a heavy beard. On his head is an odd-looking conical hat. The man carries a flintlock musket on each shoulder—one more gun than Selkirk possessed—and the barrel of a pistol can just be seen, tucked into his belt. A bowl-hilted sword hangs behind him and completes his armament. Even if Selkirk himself did not recognize the resemblance, others certainly did. As far as they were concerned, Alexander Selkirk, former sailing master of the Cinque Ports, was the true-life model for The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe . . . etc etc Written by Himself.

In a drawer in a second-floor office in the Old Customs House in Edinburgh lies a small cup. Six inches high, it is shaped like a burgundy glass. But it is not made of glass. The bowl is fashioned from the thin shell of a nut. It has a warm sheen, the color of café au lait, and resembles a small hollow Easter egg with its top neatly sliced off. Someone has scratched a simple chevron pattern around the outside of the bowl with the point of a knife. The stem and base of the cup are of fine rosewood, turned and polished, and were clearly added much later to create the resemblance to a wine goblet. Riveted around the upper rim of the cup is a silver band. It bears the inscription THE CUP OF ALEX. SELKIRK WHILST IN JUAN FERNANDEZ 1704–07.


On Sale
May 22, 2003
Page Count
344 pages
Basic Books

Tim Severin

About the Author

Acclaimed adventure writer and explorer Tim Severin has made a career of retracing the journeys of literary or historical figures in replica vessels. These experiences have been turned into a body of captivating and illuminating books, including The Brendan Voyage, In Search of Genghis Kahn, and In Search of Moby Dick. Severin has received numerous awards for exploration and geographic history, including the Founder’s Medal of England’s Geographic Society. When not traveling, he lives in County Cork, Ireland.

Learn more about this author