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Was Robinson Crusoe a Pirate

Author: Krzysztof Wilczynski

An article published recently ( December 2008) in the Journal of Post-Medieval Archaeology renewed an interest in the famous character from the 18th century novel: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

The authors of the article undertook an archeological expedition to research theory that Alexander Selkirk a privateer, who very likely was a prototype of Robinson Crusoe character, actually lived on the Robinson Crusoe Island (formerly Aguas Buenas) off the coast of Chile. The authors provide archeological evidence that at the beginning of the 18th century (around the time Selkirk was marooned there) a European actually lived there.

Selkirk, was a lowborn son of a shoemaker from Scotland who escaped to sea to become a privateer under the patronage of the British Crown. England was at that time engaged in so called Queen Anne’s War with the French and all sort of privateers, including infamous Edward Teach (Blackbeard) were helping with the war effort as privateers. Selkirk decided, as a result of a quarrel with his captain, during a privateering voyage on the Cinque Ports, to leave the ship and stay on an uninhabited tropical island (Aguas Buenas). Cinque Ports was visiting the island for resupply and some maintenance (worm infestation) and Selkirk was already a ship’s navigator – a highly skilled and experienced sailor. From the ship he took all he thought would aid him in survival on the island. This included gun and powder as well as his navigational instruments. A part of a contemporary to Selkirk navigational instrument was unearthed by the latest expedition.

During his almost five years of solitude on the island Selkirk would kill goats (introduced there by the Spaniards) and catch fish and crabs to stay alive. He would also build himself a habitation which, as confirmed by the aforementioned dig, was surrounded by a palisade. When he was discovered by the British privateer Duke, he was covered in a goat’s skin and mumbling unrecognizable words. The captain of the Duke, Woodes Rogers, gave a detailed account of the encounter including description of Selkirk’s possessions. Selkirk was accepted by Rogers as a worthy sailor and served on the Duke’s crew as a privateer navigator before returning to England where his story became very popular. It was during his stay in England (he later enlisted as a lieutenant in the English navy) when he probably met the author of Robinson Crusoe and relayed to him his unusual story. Anyway, Defoe must have heard the story which was very popular at the time. Defoe, obviously, left out Selkirk's past as a privateer, but apparently used many other details, from his story, to create his immortal character.

Selkirk died, aged 45, from a yellow fever which he contracted during his last sea voyage. He was buried at sea.

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