13th December 1721

Fife-born ‘Robinson Crusoe’ dies

Fife-born Alexander Selkirk had spent much of his life at sea and, at the age of 28, he was abandoned on the uninhabited Mas a Tierra, part of the Juan Fernandez Islands in the south Pacific.

He’d fallen out with Thomas Stradling, captain of the boat on which he was serving. When they’d stopped for supplies in the archipelago, Selkirk had somewhat rashly said he’d rather be left there, on his own, than get back onto Stradling’s ship, which was leaking and not fit for purpose. The captain had taken him at his word.

A well-stocked island

Fortunately for Selkirk, the island was well stocked, with a wide variety of seafood, edible plants, and even goats that had been left there by a previous ship. The goats not only provided meat: they were also a source of milk and skin, from which he made clothes.

Two ships are said to have stopped at the island during his time there but, as reported by the Leeds Intelligencier of 6 August 1782, “they were Spaniards, some of whom landed and shot at him before he was aware of them, so that he had much ado to escape. Had they been French, he would have submitted to them; but he rather chose to risk the chance of dying in that desolate place, than trust to those he apprehended [who] would either murder, or send into the mines, any stranger who had knowledge of the South Seas.”

Rescue arrives

His rescue came in 1709 when, after close to four and a half years of living as a castaway, he was discovered on 2 February by William Dampier and his crew on the ships Duke and Duchess. Dampier and his crew stayed at Mas a Tierra a little less than a fortnight while they replenished their stocks before setting sail.

Selkirk is cited as inspiration for the titular character in Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which was first published in April 1719 – two years before Selkirk’s death. The first edition was published under Crusoe’s own name, as though it had been written by the titular character. It was therefore a surprise – and disappointment for some – when this was eventually revealed not to be the case. In the book, Crusoe’s travails last two decades, not the four and a bit years Selkirk spent on his own.

Memorial tablet

In 1868, a tablet was placed on Mas a Tierra in Selkirk’s honour. As reported in the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on 23 December that year, the inscription erroneously read, “in memory of Alexander Selkirk, mariner, a native of Largo, in the county of Fife, Scotland, who lived on this island in complete solitude for four years and four months. He was landed from the Cinque Ports galley, 96 tons, 18 guns, AD 1704, and was taken off in the Duke, privateer, 12 of February 1709. He died Lieutenant of HMS Weymouth, AD 1723, aged 47 years. This tablet is erected near Selkirk’s look out by Commodore Powell and the officers of HMS Topaze, AD 1868”.

Mas a Tierra was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in the 1960s.



Other events that occured in December

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