Tuesday, May 21, 2013 8:05 PM
Published on: Wednesday, March 03, 2010
By Lew Toulmin
Richard Henry Dana, in his classic tale Two Years Before the Mast, describes Robinson Crusoe Island in the South Pacific off the coast of Chile as “the most romantic spot of earth my eyes had ever seen.” My visit made me think that perhaps Dana was right.
Robinson Crusoe Island was originally known as “Mas a Tierra” (closer to land) in the Juan Fernandez group, named after the Spanish seaman who discovered the islands in 1574. The island gained its fame from the Daniel Defoe novel Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1720. Defoe had learned of the tale of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish seaman who was voluntarily marooned on Mas a Tierra from 1704 to 1709, and who survived alone on the island. Defoe changed the true story into the famous novel. In his story, Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on an island in the southeast Caribbean near Trinidad, survives cannibal raids, meets his faithful companion Man Friday and is rescued after an improbable 28 years.
The real story is even more interesting.
Alexander Selkirk was born in Fife, Scotland in 1676, the seventh son of a shoemaker. He was unruly as a child and was disciplined in church for having struck his brother, mother and father. He ran away to sea at age 17 aboard the Cinque Ports, a British privateer fighting in the War of Spanish Succession. The vessel rounded Cape Horn in search of Spanish treasure. But by the time the ship reached Mas a Tierra, 416 miles west of Chile, Selkirk was sick of the captain and afraid the vessel was unseaworthy due to Toredo worms, which devour wood. He asked to be left ashore, and the captain agreed. At the last minute Selkirk changed his mind and begged to be taken back aboard, but the captain smugly refused. Selkirk had the last laugh, however, for the Cinque Ports later sank as he had predicted, although its annoying captain escaped.
To survive, Selkirk had only a gun, knife, hatchet, navigation books, a Bible and three day’s rations. This was actually less gear than the fictional Robinson Crusoe, who was able to salvage much more from his wrecked ship. But Selkirk was very resourceful, and he built a hut, found parsley, watercress and heart of palm to eat, and made fire by rubbing two sticks together. He became dejected but turned to his Bible, found religion and “life became one continual feast.” He got very fit, and chased down and captured goats on steep rocky hillsides for sport and food. Once he fell off a cliff and was knocked unconscious for three days. He raised cats to fend off the rats that gnawed his feet at night. He never met any cannibals, but he did hide in a tree to escape Spanish sailors.
In February 1709, after more than four years on the island, Selkirk was rescued by the English pirates Woodes Rogers and William Dampier. They describe Selkirk as a hairy creature clad in stinking goatskins who could hardly speak English from lack of use. Despite his strange appearance, Rogers and Dampier recognized Selkirk’s navigational skills and local knowledge, and offered him a post as mate. He readily accepted, and together they raided the port of Guayaquil, capturing 19 vessels including a Manila Galleon. In 1711 they returned to England, selling their spoils for 147,000 pounds, of which Selkirk got 800, a princely sum.
Despite his riches, Selkirk was not very happy. He moved into a cave near his mother’s house in Scotland, bewailed the trappings of “civilization” and eventually shipped out again aboard HMS Enterprise. He died of a mosquito-borne disease in 1721, and at the probate court hearing, two women appeared — each producing papers proving that she was his wife and entitled to his remaining wealth. Apparently, Selkirk took the phrase “a girl in every port” a little too literally.
Going ashore on the island from my cruise ship, I was struck by the beauty of the steep cliffs and the tiny town of San Juan Bautista. From the ship’s tender, I could see much of the island’s habitable area. The entire island is only about 15 by 16 miles, but it is so steep that it is like a piece of crumpled paper resting on the sea. The island is green, with more trees than I expected — mostly majestic Norfolk pines and eucalyptus. I stepped ashore at the town dock and was met, of course, by Robinson Crusoe! Clad in goatskins, with a baby goat beside him, he looked very authentic.
I wandered up the town’s wide main street, made of dirt and gravel. A town square contained a statue of the wonderfully named Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the founders of Chile. Chile still governs the island group, and Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva renamed the two main islands Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk in 1966, hoping to draw in tourists.
Next, I bought the obligatory T-shirt, and went in to the small post office to buy some local stamps. The postman kindly offered to stamp my passport, but the ship’s purser was holding it. So I got the postman to stamp a blank piece of paper with the symbol of the island and the legend “Isla Robinson Crusoe.” Later, I stapled the paper into my passport, proof I had visited one of the world’s most remote spots.
A tour guide took me on a tour of the town. The guide gave us some of the local facts: 500 inhabitants, only 10 cars, only two miles of roads, one medical clinic, one dentist, a few shops and 3,200-foot maximum elevation. There is a grammar school, but at age 13 children must go to mainland Chile for education.
We climbed up the hill overlooking the picturesque town to Fort Santa Barbara, a Spanish fortress built of rock, with 15 rusting cannon pointed out to sea. In the harbor below, we could see numerous small fishing boats, which harvest large crayfish, the island’s main export. Selkirk and his contemporaries caught crayfish up to four feet long and made “jelly” out of them. Today’s crayfish are less than half that size.
We walked along the rocky beach in front of the town and were impressed with the flower gardens and attractive chalet-style cottages. Many of these cottages are available for rental to long-term visitors at reasonable rates. Other passengers hiked up towards El Mirador (1,853 feet above sea level) for spectacular views, and some walked along the beach to the right of the town, where they found playful fur seals lounging on the rocks.We ended our tour with a delicious local drink, a pisco sour, at our tour guide’s house. Like most houses, it was right above the beach. As we sat and enjoyed the view, a pair of fur seals swam by and seemed to wave their flippers at us. We smiled and waved back — a fitting end to a visit to one of the most storied and romantic spots on earth.