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In Search Of Robinson Crusoe

In Search Of Robinson Crusoe

by Tim Severin

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Insightful travel writing, riveting narrative history, and clever scholarly discoveries make this a remarkably rich and varied book. Tim Severin has once again demonstrated a superb ability to bring together literature and adventure in an engrossing narrative.


Insightful travel writing, riveting narrative history, and clever scholarly discoveries make this a remarkably rich and varied book. Tim Severin has once again demonstrated a superb ability to bring together literature and adventure in an engrossing narrative.

Editorial Reviews

Vito F Sinisi
Acclaimed travel adventure scribe Tim Severin is back with this revealing look at the world behind that most famous of Defoe creations, Robinson Crusoe. No one does "literary sleuthing" better than the amazing Tim Severin, and this visit to the wonderful world of Crusoe will not disappoint his legion of fans.
Los Angeles Times
Blending travel narrative, maritime history, and a literary mystery, [Severin] pores over the exploits of eighteenth-century pirates, deftly pieces together clues...and has a few adventures of his own. A fascinating read.
National Geographic Adventure Magazine
It's hard to say which is more interesting—the history Severin so capably writes or his own adventures in the odd, forlorn places his research takes him to. He knows how to blend his ingredients to generate the kind of heat a reader wants from a book.
Publishers Weekly
In 1711, sailor Alexander Selkirk returned to his London home after being marooned on an island for nearly five years. Originally having asked to be abandoned on the isle, Selkirk piqued popular interest and his life story was eventually hammered into a novel by Daniel Defoe. Examining the fictional Crusoe alongside the historic realities of colonization and human ingenuity, Severin's (In Search of Moby Dick) modus operandi is as simple as it is enjoyable. Readers learn about the history of marooning among plunderers, blockade navies and other piratical sailors, as well as the ethnography of the so-called "Moskito Man" (aka Man Friday) and all the ways to provide for oneself on a deserted island. But the crown jewel in this adventure is the author's travels to remote places while investigating the Where Is It Now? angle. Severin trips to Caledonia, Honduras and several Caribbean islands, looking for the most likely dwelling place of the world-famous shipwrecked sailor. Although he has made a name for himself with such stylized examinations, Severin sometimes, in offhand remarks, sounds disgruntled at being shuttled to the far corners of the world. Nevertheless, the work is energetic and Severin is an ideal guide to the world behind the word. This will surely appeal to the lovers of maritime history. Illus. and maps. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Severin, who has written books on the Crusades, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and Moby Dick, sets out on the trail of Daniel Defoe's inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Relying on the seamen's tales used by Defoe for his story, Severin traveled to remote parts of South America where he sought out details of geography, weather, sea travel, and native peoples. There is no index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
The entertaining Severin (The Spice Islands Voyage) is off on another fact-finding mission, this time to take the measure of Robinson Crusoe. Though it has been contended that Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish privateer marooned on Juan Fernandez for over four years, was the model for Crusoe in Defoe's classic, Severin is not so sure. Wishing to know more about such figures, not all that uncommon in the buccaneering days, Severin "resolved to visit the scenes of their adventures and see those places in the context of being a maroon or castaway in the early eighteenth century." To that end, he follows in the wake of people like George Shelvocke, who also washed up on Juan Fernandez, and of a Moskito man from the Nicaraguan coast-where fine fishermen lived who sailed with pirates to help provision ships during their long voyages-who was likely the prototype for Man Friday. There is also Captain Nathaniel Uring, who started a Scots colony in Panama after being shipwrecked, and Henry Pitman, a doctor transported for being a part of the rebellion against James II, who set up shop on Salt Tortuga. Severin even finds a contemporary castaway from a fishing boat whose travails are great but whose luck and mettle are typical of those who lived to tell their stories. Severin reads all the material that would have been available to Defoe—picaroons frequently wrote of their exploits and adventures—and travels to the islands where they were waylaid, returning with descriptions of lands often enough still lawless and decidedly elementary in their lifestyles. He concludes that Crusoe is a pastiche, a creation from a number of chronicles, with Pitman being a source for much of Defoe's subject. As he typically does, Severin takes a fanciful story of adventure on the high seas and makes it delightfully real through exacting research and personal observation.

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Read an Excerpt





            The Batchelor’s Delight found Man Friday on a Sunday.  


            It was 23rd March 1684.  The model for Defoe’s native hero had been on Juan Fernandez, marooned and solitary,  for more than three years.  Yet he was remarkably nonchalant when the landing party from the Batchelor’s Delight stepped ashore and ended his long solitude.   He greeted the piratical crew as if he had been expecting them, and he had a meal ready  - three goats cooked with some white leaves of cabbage palm. It was as though they had come to the island with the express intention of finding him, and he thanked them graciously.  In a sense, he was right to do so.


            Man Friday’s story is in the fourth chapter of  the richly-bound volume which Dampier holds, spine towards the artist, in his portrait by Thomas Murray. When Murray painted the picture, the book was an obvious prop.  ‘A New Voyage round the World’ had recently been published, and so great was demand that three editions were printed in the first year. Its far-travelled author was the talk of London society. Dampier’s true-life mix of first-hand adventure, travel and geography was so exotic that it was natural that Defoe, twenty two years later, would take inspiration from Dampier’s absorbing tale.  Defoe’s concept of Man Friday was to be shaped by events that Dampier witnessed, beginning on the shores of the Caribbean in the spring of 1680.


            A flotilla of seven small ships was anchored in the lee of Golden Island.  The anchorage is a few miles north of what is now the border between Colombia and Panama, and was a favourite rendezvous for pirates or,  as their unofficial historian called them more genteelly, ‘buccaneers’.   331 heavily armed men had disembarked,  ready for a route march into the rain forest. The standard equipment  each man carried was a ‘fuzee, pistol and hanger’; that is, a musket, a hand gun, and a short sword or cutlass suspended from the belt. Many wore ‘snapsacks’ on their backs to carry their spare clothing, gunpowder and shot.  The ships’ cooks had made three or four ‘doughboys’, small loaves of bread, for each man as his marching rations.  For water they anticipated drinking from the numerous streams which drain the mist-covered mountains lying ahead of them.   


            The intention was to launch a hit-and-run raid on the Spanish mining town of Santa Maria. The town lay on the far slope of the continental divide which forms the narrow waist of Central America. If they did not find enough loot in Santa Maria, they would continue on to the Pacific shore and strike at an even more ambitious target, the city of Panama. The raiders made little pretence of having the correct privateering documents to legitimize such an assault. Their ‘commissions’, one of their leaders put it, would best be read by the light of the muzzle flashes from their guns.



            The raiders formed up in seven companies, each company approximating to the crew of the ship that had brought them.   In the van came Captain Bartholomew Sharp. He had recently been ill  and was still feeling very faint and weak, and had contributed forty men to the expedition.   Their marching flag was red with a bunch of green and white ribbons. Next came Captain Richard Sawkins with thirty men forming up behind a red pennant striped with yellow. Captain Peter Harris’ ship had the largest crew, 107 men.  Those who were picked to go on the raid, marched as two companies, each with a green flag. Behind them came the man elected as overall commanderof the enterprise, Captain John Coxon.  His war band was boosted with volunteers from two of the smallest ships whose captains were staying behind to look after the invasion fleet. The seventh company followed a red banner striped with yellow.  On this background Captain Edmund Cook had emblazoned his personal emblem - a hand and a sword.


            The colourful quasi-military array masked the fact that the expedition was little more than a smash-and-grab raid by a gang of amphibious brigands.  ‘Gold was the bait that tempted a Merry Pack of Boys of us’ was how one ruffian jauntily described their motives.   Their rule was to be the ‘Jamaica discipline’:  All decisions were to be made by vote of a general council; the men would elect or dismiss their leaders; and they would divide any booty equally and immediately.


            Several members of the column had no vote nor any share in the booty.  They were the prisoners and slaves, mostly Indian or black.  They were treated as pack animals to portage the extra munitions and supplies.  Nor did the Indian auxiliaries have any votes.  The local Indian tribe, the Kuna,  had suggested the attack on Santa Maria and Panama, and only the Kuna were capable of conducting the expedition through the difficult tangle of muddy footpaths  leading up over the central cordillera and down the far slope to the South Sea.  But very few of the Kuna spoke English.  This was a disadvantage when the entire business of the expedition was conducted in English, the votes of the general council were called in English, and the raiders themselves were proud of their Englishness. Two more pirate captains had promised to provide men for the project, but had backed out at the last moment because, as one of the desperadoes scathingly wrote, their crews were ‘all French and not willing to go to Panama.’ 


Meet the Author

Acclaimed adventure writer and explorer Tim Severin has made a career of retracing the journeys of literary or historical figures in replica vessels. These experiences have been turned into a body of captivating and illuminating books, including The Brendan Voyage, In Search of Genghis Kahn, and In Search of Moby Dick. Severin has received numerous awards for exploration and geographic history, including the Founder's Medal of England's Geographic Society. When not traveling, he lives in County Cork, Ireland.

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