The moment Alexander Selkirk saw the Cinque Ports sailing away, he knew he’d made a mistake. He ran into the sea, but it was too late – the ship’s captain, Thomas Stradling, wouldn’t take him back. Selkirk was a castaway.
As the ship’s master, Selkirk had quarrelled with the 21-year-old captain over the leaking state of the ship. He refused to sail on until repairs were made. Stradling took Selkirk at his word, and marooned the Scot on the island of Más a Tierra, 400 miles off the coast of modern-day Chile in 1704.
For the next four years and four months, Selkirk learned to scavenge and hunt goats for his food. He made rough and ready clothes from the hides and built shelter using the pepper trees on the island. Amusement was limited to reading the Bible and singing to his hoard of feral cats, which he persuaded to protect him from the rats.
Salvation came at the end of January 1709, when the English privateering frigates Duke and Duchess hove into view. Selkirk lit a bonfire to attract the sailors’ attention and on 2 February, Captain Woodes Rogers ordered a landing party.
Once back in London, Selkirk became a media sensation. Captain Rogers cashed in by writing the best-selling A cruising voyage around the world. And of course, Daniel Defoe wrote his famous novel, Robinson Crusoe, said to be based on Selkirk’s time on the island – although the book is set in the Caribbean.
Selkirk struggled to settle back into British life and his new-found wealth was little consolation. He told journalist Robert Steele that even though he was now worth £800, he was never so happy as when he was not worth a farthing. Selkirk tired of his fortune and enlisted in the Royal Navy. He died in 1721.
But Selkirk’s legacy lives on. In 1966, the Chilean government spied an opportunity to attract tourists and renamed Más a Tierra as Robinson Crusoe Island. Another island in the archipelago was renamed in honour of the real-life castaway.
As for the Cinque Ports, the leaking ship sank shortly after abandoning Selkirk to his fate, and the surviving crew were captured by the Spanish. Alexander Selkirk had been right to get off when he did.