Selkirk's Island

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 10th May 2001

In 1703 Selkirk, a Scottish privateer, joined an expedition, captained by William Dampier, to plunder French and Spanish ships off the coast of South America. Conditions on board were appalling: there was scurvy and dysentery and an acute shortage of food and fresh water. Many of the crew died or mutinied.

When the ship began to leak, the hope was to refit ot on the remote and uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez, 360 miles off the coast of Chile. But the ship’s timbers had bean “eaten to a honeycomb” by worms. Selkirk chose to maroon himself rather that continue on a doomed voyage.

Alone on the island he at first thoguht often of suicide and dared not to sleep for fear of being devoured by wild animals. As months passed, he learned to survive. He killed goats with a cudgel and used their skins as clothes and bedding. He built a hut from branches of sandalwood trees and made fire by rubbing together sticks of dry wood. In time he found that company was not essential, that he was monarch of the island, afraid of nothing it contained, only of who might arrive to challenge his hegemony.

Four years and four months later two ships landed on Juan Fernandez to be greeted by an unrecognisable savage-looking man, incoherent with emotion, who spread his arms and said “Marooned”.