Monday, February 2, 2009

We saw a light ashore

Three hundred years ago today a Scottish sailor called Alexander Selkirk was rescued from a South Pacific Island, having been marooned there for four years, by an English sailor called Woodes Rogers. Selkirk’s ordeal is said to have inspired Daniel Defoe’s now famous character and book, Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, extracts from Rogers’ journal at the time he found Selkirk are included at the back of an 1801 edition of Robinson Crusoe (and this is freely available online).

Selkirk was born in 1676, the son of a shoemaker in Fife, Scotland, but soon went to sea. In 1703, he was appointed sailing master under captain Thomas Stradling on the galleon Cinque Ports, which was sailing with St. George as part of an expedition led by the explorer William Dampier. In October the following year, after an argument with Dampier, Stradling went his own way, subsequently mooring the Cinque Ports near the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernández (not far off the coast of Chile) for supplies and fresh water. A somewhat hotheaded Selkirk then argued with Stradling over the seaworthiness of the Cinque Ports, a dispute which ended with Selkirk being left on the island.

It would be four years and four months before he was rescued, on 2 February 1709 - exactly three centuries ago - by an expedition captained by Woodes Rogers with William Dampier among the crew. Rogers, born just a few years after Selkirk, grew up in the south of England and while still in his mid-twenties inherited a family shipping business.

In 1707, Rogers was approached by Dampier to support a privateering voyage against the Spanish. Rogers led the expedition with two frigates, the Duke and Duchess, returning after three years not only with much captured treasure but with the rescued Selkirk. Later, Selkirk joined the Royal Navy but he succombed to yellow fever in 1721. Rogers, though, was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, an area much plagued with pirates, and lived until 1732.

Wikipedia has biographies for both Rogers and Selkirk. The Scotsman has more on Selkirk. Indeed, in a review of The Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe, by Rick Wilson, The Scotsman says there may have been a journal kept by Selkirk, since this is much referred to in 19th-century accounts. However, it has never been traced. One theory is that it passed into the hands of the then Duke of Hamilton – whom Defoe would almost certainly have known. Apparently, the article adds, Selkirk’s widow, Frances, unsuccessfully petitioned the duke to return the journal.

And there is more on Rogers at the Pirate King website, which explains that Rogers account of the voyage and his rescue of Selkirk were published in 1712 as: A Cruising Voyage Round the World: First to the South-Sea, thence to the East-Indies, and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708, and finish’d in 1711. Containing a Journal of all the Remarkable Transactions. An Account of Alexander Selkirk’s living alone Four Years and Four Months in an Island. It also explains how this account later inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, a book which went on to become a classic of English literature.

The text of A Cruising Voyage Round the World does not seem to be available online, but relatively recent reprints are available from about £30. A 1726 edition is also currently available on Abebooks for £2,000.

However, an 1801 edition of Defoe’s fiction, The Life and Most Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, is freely available online - at Internet Archive - and this contains an annex with the relevant text from Rogers’ journal for 1-2 February 1709, the very days that Selkirk was spotted and rescued three hundred years ago. It’s a good read, and I make no apologies for including such a long verbatim text.

‘On February 1st, 1709, we came before that island, having had a good observation the day before, and found our latitude to be 34 degrees 10 minutes south. In the afternoon, we hoisted out our pinnace; and Captain Dover, with the boat’s crew, went in her to go ashore, though we could not be less that four leagues off. As soon as the pinnace was gone, I went on board the Duchess, who admired our boat attempting going ashore at that distance from land. It was against my inclination: but, to oblige Captain Dover, I let her go: As soon as it was dark, we saw a light ashore. Our boat was then about a league off the island, and bore away for the ship as soon as she saw the lights: We put our lights aboard for the boat, though some were of opinion, the lights we saw were our boat’s lights: But, as night came on, it appeared too large for that: We fired our quarter-deck gun, and several muskets, showing lights in our mizen and fore-shrouds, that our boat might find us whilst we were in the lee of the island: About two in the morning our boat came on board, having been two hours on board the Duchess, that took them up astern of us; we were glad they got well off, because it began to blow. We were all convinces the light was on the shore, and designed to make our ships ready to engage, believing them to be French ships at anchor, and we must either fight them, or want water. All this stir and apprehension arose, as we afterwards found, from one poor naked man, who passed in our imagination, at present, for a Spanish garrison, a body of Frenchmen, or a crew of pirates. While we were under these apprehensions, we stood on the backside of the island, in order to fall in with the southerly wind, till we were past the island; and then we came back to it again, and ran close aboard the land that begins to make the north-east side.

We still continued to reason upon this matter; and it is in a manner incredible, what strange notions many of our people entertained from the sight of the fire upon the island. It served, however, to show people’s tempers and spirits; and we were able to give a tolerable guess how our men would behave, in case there really were any enemies upon the island. The flaws came heavy off the shore, and we were forced to reef our topsails when we opened the middle bay, where we expected to have found our enemy; but saw all clear, & no ships, nor in the other bay next the north-east end. These two bays are all that ships ride in, which recruit on this island; but the middle bay is by much the best. We guessed there had been ships there, but that they were gone on sight of us. We sent our yawl ashore about noon, with Captain Dover, Mr. Fry, and six men, all armed: Mean while we and the Duchess kept turning to get in, and such heavy flaws came off the land, that we were forced to let go our top sail sheet, keeping all hands to stand by our sails, for fear of the winds carrying them away: But when the flaws were gone, we had little or no wind. These flaws proceeded from the land; which is very high in the middle of the island. Our boat did not return; we sent our pinnace with the men armed, to see what was the occasion of the yawl’s stay; for we were afraid, that the Spaniards had a garrison there, and might have seized them. We put out a signal for our boat, and the Duchess showed a French ensign. Immediately our pinnace returned from the shore, and brought abundance of cry-fish, with a man clothed in goats skins, who looked wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the island four years and four months, being left there by Captain Stradling in the Cinque-ports, his name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been master of the Cinque-ports, a ship that came here last with Captain Dampier, who told me, that this was the best man in her. I immediately agreed with him to be a mate on board our ship: It was he that made the fire last night when he saw our ships, which he judged to be English. During his stay here he saw several ships pass by, but only two came in to anchors: As he went to view them; he found them to be Spaniards, and retired from them, upon which they shot at him: Had they been French, he would have submitted; but choose to risque his dying alone on the island, rather than fall into the hands of Spaniards in these parts; because he apprehended they would murder him, or make a slave of him in the mines; for he feared they would spare no stranger that might be capable of discovering the South Seas.

The Spaniards had landed, before he knew what they were; and they came so near him, that he had much ado to escape; for they not only shot at him, but pursued him to the woods, where he climbed to the top of a tree, at the foot of which they made water, and killed several goats just by, but went off again without discovering him. He told us that he was born at Largo, in the county of Fife, in Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was difference between him and his captain; which together with the ship’s being leaky, made him willing rather to stay here, than go along with him at first; but when he was at last willing to go, the captain would not receive him. He had been at the island before, to wood and water, when two of the ship’s company were left upon it for six mouths, till the Ship returned, being chased thence by two French South-sea ships. He had with him his cloaths and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months, had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with pimento trees, covered them with long grass, & lined them with the skins of goats, which be killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound; and that being almost spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of pimento-wood together upon his knee. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals; and in the larger he slept; and employed himself in reading, singing psalms, and praying; so that he said. He was a better Christian, while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than, he was afraid, he would ever be again.

At first he never ate anything till hunger constrained him, partly for grief, and partly for want of bread and salt: Nor did he go to bed, till he could watch no longer; the pimento-wood, which burnt very clear, served him both for fire and candle, and refreshed him with its fragrant smell. He might have had fish enough, but would not eat them for want of salt, because they occasioned a looseness, except crayfish which are as large as our lobsters, and very good: These he sometimes boiled, and at other times broiled, as he did his goat’s flesh, of, which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours: he kept an account of 500 that he killed while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear, and let go. When, his powder failed, he took them by speed of feet; for his way of living, continual exercise of walking and running cleared him of all gross humours; so that he ran with wonderful swiftness through the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceived when we employed him to catch goats for us; We had a bull dog, which we lent with several of our nimblest runners, to help him in catching goats; but he distanced and tired both the dog and the men, caught the goats, and brought them to us on his back.

He told us, that his agility in pursuing a goat had once like to have cost him his life; he pursued it with so much eagerness, that he catched hold of it on the brink of a precipiece, of which he was not aware, the bushes hiding it from him; so, that he fell with the goat down the precipiece; a great height, and was to stunned and bruised with the fall, that he narrowly escaped with his life; and, when he came to his senses, found the goat dead under him: He lay there about twenty-four hours, and was scarce able to crawl to his hut, which was about a mile distant, or to stir abroad again in ten days.

He came at last to relish his meat well enough without salt or bread; and, in the season had plenty of good turreps, which had been sewed there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have now overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage-trees, and seasoned his meat with the fruit of the pimento trees, which is the same as Jamaica pepper, and smells deliciously: He found also a black pepper, called Ma’azeta, which was very good to expel wind, and against gripping in the guts.

He soon wore out all his shoes and clothes by running in the woods; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard, that he ran everywhere without difficulty; and it was some time before he could wear shoes after we found him; for not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he came first to wear them again.

After he had conquered his melancholy, he diverted himself sometimes with cutting his name in the trees, and the time of his being left, and continuance there. He was at first much pestered with cats and rats, that bred in great numbers, from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water: The rats gnawed his feet and cloathes whilst asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats flesh, by which many of them became so tame, that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon delivered him from the rats: He likewise tamed some kids; and, to divert himself would, now and then, sing and dance with them, and his cats: So that by the favour of Providence, and vigour of his youth, being now but thirty years old, he came, at last, to conquer all the inconveniencies of his solitude, and to be very easy.

When his cloathes were worn out, he made himself a coat and a cap of goat-skins, which he stiched together with little thongs of the same, that he cut with his knife, He had no other needle but a nail; and, when his knife was worn to the back, he made others, as well as he could, of some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin, and ground upon stones. Having some linnen cloth by him, he sewed him some shirts with a nail, and stiched them with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pulled out on purpose. He had his last shirt on, when we found him in the island.

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language, for want of use, that we could scarce understand him: for he seemed to speak his words by halve. We offered him a dram: but he would not touch it; having drank nothing but water since his being there; And it was sometime before he could relish our victuals. He could give us an account of no other product of the island, than what we have mentioned, except some black plums, which are very good, but hard to come at, the trees, which bear them, growing on high mountains and rocks. Pimento-trees are plenty here, and we saw some of sixty feet high and about two yards thick; and cotton-trees higher, and near four fathoms round in the stock. The climate is so good that the trees and grass are verdant all the year round. The winter lasts no longer than June and July, and is not then severe, there being only a small frost, and a little hail: but sometimes great rains. The heat of the summer is equally moderate; and there is not much thunder, or tempestuous weather of any sort. He saw no venomous or savage creature on the island, nor any sort of beasts but goats, the first of which had been put ashore here, on purpose for a breed, by Juan Fernandez, a Spaniard, who settled there with some families, till the continent of Chili began to submit to the Spaniards; which, being more profitable; tempted them to quit this island, capable however, of maintaining a good number of people, and being made so strong, that they could hot be easily dislodged from thence.’

1 comment:

Paul Capewell said...

Amazing, thanks for transcribing this, and for the background.