Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe Study Guide

The adventures of Crusoe on his island, the main part of Defoe's novel, are based largely on the central incident in the life of an undisciplined Scotsman, Alexander Selkirk. Although it is possible, even likely that Defoe met Selkirk before he wrote his book, he used only this one incident in the real sailor's turbulent history. In these days the island was known as the island of Juan Fernandez. Selkirk was not the first person to be stranded here--at least two other incidents of solitary survival are recorded. A Mosquito (Guyanese) Indian, Will, was abandoned there in 1681 when a group of buccaneers fled at the approach of unknown ships. The pilot of Will's ship claimed that another man had lived there for five years before being rescued some years before. Three years later, Will was picked up alive and well by an expedition that contained William Dampier, a keen observer who was good enough to recount that journey and a subsequent one in 1703, which Selkirk attended.

Dampier was sailing in command of a privateerting expedition that consisted of two ships. Alexander was the first mate on one of them. The purpose was to harry the Spanish and Portuguese shipping off the estuary. Failing this, the buccaneers would try their fortune off the shore of Peru. As they reached the area of the Juan Fernandez islands, the ships could not agree on a course of action. By a stroke of bad luck, the ships were separated. Selkirk's ship, the Cinque Ports, found herself in the Juan Fernandez islands, in great need of repair. Stradling, captain of the ship, preferred to keepn account of the rescue: "Twas he that made the fire last night when he saw our Ships, which he judged to be English...he had with him his clothes and bedding, with a fire-lock, some powder, bullets and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, mathematical instruments, and books....He built two huts with pimento trees, covered them with long grass, and lined them with the skin of goats, which he killed himself...he was greatly pestered by cats and rats...At his first coming on board with us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarcely understand him." Upon returning to England, Selkirk was interviewed by the writer Richard Steele. His story appeared in the periodical The Englishman, and was a source of wonder for many. The bottom line: "he is happiest who confines his wants to natural necessities."