Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe

Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe

3.5 2
by Diana Souhami
     
 

Biographer Diana Souhami tells the story of Alexander Selkirk (1680- 1721), marooned on a remote island west of South America in the early 18th century; his experiences inspired Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe. Souhami draws from several resources, including accounts by Selkirk, his rescuers, fellow crewmen, and eighteenth century writers, petitions by twoSee more details below

Overview

Biographer Diana Souhami tells the story of Alexander Selkirk (1680- 1721), marooned on a remote island west of South America in the early 18th century; his experiences inspired Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe. Souhami draws from several resources, including accounts by Selkirk, his rescuers, fellow crewmen, and eighteenth century writers, petitions by two women each claiming to be Selkirk's wife, and historical maritime documents. She combines these with her own experiences of living for three months on the island to give the reader a sense of who Selkirk was, and what he really experienced during his four, solitary years on the desert island. Illustrated with black-and-white maps, charts, and photographs, this academic work is accessible to the general reader. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Editorial Reviews

New Yorker
In 1704 a Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, was abandoned on a remote South Sea island. Rescued more than four years later, Selkirk became a celebrity, as well as the model for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Diana Souhami's Selkirk's Island separates truth from literature: although the ever-ingenious Crusoe uses the indigenous goats on his island for clothing and food, Selkirk's goats had been brought from Europe, were disrupting the local ecosystem, and were probably used by Selkirk for sexual release.

One of the most famous castaway cases of the following century is covered in two new books, Mutiny on the Globe, by Thomas Farel Heffernan, and Demon of the Waters , by Gregory Gibson. In 1824, an apparent psychopath, Samuel Comstock, engineered a savage mutiny on a whaling ship and headed for Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands. His intention was to establish his own Kurtz-style kingdom; after a bizarre series of killings and desertions that claimed Comstock's life, only two crew members were left, among inhabitants who were unsure whether to trust them or not. The men became expert in the native culture, adopting the local dress and compiling a list of island vocabulary that has elicited praise from scholars of the Marshallese language.

In a shrinking world, castaways are rarer. Magellania, a posthumous novel by Jules Verne translated from the French by Benjamin Ivry, tells the story of Kaw-djer, a mysterious white man who lives among the people of Magellania (at the tip of South America). But the outside world keeps intruding. Chile and Argentina jostle for possession of Magellania, jeopardizing the isolation of a voluntary castaway who does not want to be rescued. (Leo Carey)

Forbes
What kind of a guy was the real Robinson Crusoe?

Alexander Selkirk--the sailor whose true story inspired Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe--was abandoned on a desert island. But unlike Defoe's noble hero, Selkirk had been cast away for good reason: He was a violent, foul-tempered guy. When his shipmates--fellow privateers and sociopaths in their own right--had had enough of him, they put him ashore in 1704 on a 12-mile stretch of volcanic rock off the coast of Chile. Way off: 373 miles.

His provisions included a gun, a hatchet, a knife and enough quince marmalade and cheese for three meals. He made clothes from animal skins, speared fish with homemade lances, foraged for cabbage and black plums, and built a shelter of pimento wood. His feet became hard as hooves. By the time he was rescued by a passing ship over four years later, he could croak out just one word: "Marooned."

In a new book, Selkirk's Island (Harcourt, $24), author Diana Souhami tells Selkirk's story--one that in the hands of fiction writers has been spun into commercial gold, having inspired not just novels but such films as Tom Hanks' Cast Away and the TV show Survivor.

Everybody, it seems, saw money from the start--except Selkirk. Defoe, who made as much as Au325 for Robinson Crusoe and its sequels (the rough equivalent of $33,300 today), wasn't the first to cash in. Two men on the ship that rescued Selkirk wrote and sold accounts. So, later, did journalist Richard Steele (a cofounder of both The Tatler and The Spectator), who described Selkirk as a man enriched by deprivation.

Enriched? He had a funny way of showing it. Back in Scotland he beat a man nearly todeath, then fled to Lon-don, signing on as crewman aboard an Africa-bound ship. Ayear later, in 1721, he died at sea of malaria. He was 41, angry and alone.
—Susan Adams

Christina Hardyment
"Authors without number have tried to repeat the success of Dava Sobel's elegant little book Longitude. I suspect that Diana Souhami may well have done it. Selkirk's Island is a delight from the moment the reader opens it . . . I predict a tourist boom."
Jilly Cooper
"Having adored Diana Souhami's last book on Radclyffe Hall, I was about to seize Selkirk's Island when my husband Leo grabbed it and hardly spoke for 24 hours, saying it was one of the best books he has read in ages. I now entirely agree. It is a miraculously vivid reconstruction of Alexander Selkirk's life on his tropical island and the people with whom he consorted elsewhere. Utterly fascinating and extremely funny."
Beryl Bainbridge
"Souhami's excellent book should be read for its insight into a vanished world".
New Statesman
Guardian
"Souhami begins with a lyrical introduction describing the natural beauties of the island: it is a paradisal episode, a moment out of time… One of the pleasures of this book is the keen, lean freshness of the prose: the narrative zips along like a well-manned clipper."
Publishers Weekly
Daniel Defoe based his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe on the trials and tribulations of Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk. Souhami (The Trials of Radclyffe Hall) draws on journals, maritime histories, and ship and parish records to detail his engrossing story. Born the seventh son of a poor cobbler, Selkirk fought violently with his brothers and dreamed about the "adventure, gold and escape" that the sea seemed to promise. In 1703, at the age of 23, he joined a looting expedition led by William Dampier, an experienced pirate who plundered the treasures of French and Spanish ships on the South Seas. But appalling conditions on the journey scurvy, hunger and a leaky ship (worms ate through its wooden hull) led to mutiny against the drunken and belligerent Dampier. After quarreling with a new captain, Selkirk (who was very belligerent himself) was put ashore on Juan Fern ndez, an uninhabited island hundreds of miles off the coast of Chile. Souhami provides arresting descriptions of the island and the life Selkirk lived on it for more than four years, when hunger and thirst were "diversions" from his solitude. He survived, in part, by eating goats (with whom he also found sexual release), fish and vegetation. Rescued by another Dampier expedition, at first Selkirk was a wild man who had almost lost the power of speech. He did, however, recover from his ordeal: he took two wives, continued to sail and died at sea in 1721. Complete with detailed comparisons between Defoe's novel and Selkirk's life, Souhami's account is a well-researched investigation of a forgotten antihero.(Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Daniel Defoe based his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe on the trials and tribulations of Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk. Souhami (The Trials of Radclyffe Hall) draws on journals, maritime histories, and ship and parish records to detail his engrossing story. Born the seventh son of a poor cobbler, Selkirk fought violently with his brothers and dreamed about the "adventure, gold and escape" that the sea seemed to promise. In 1703, at the age of 23, he joined a looting expedition led by William Dampier, an experienced pirate who plundered the treasures of French and Spanish ships on the South Seas. But appalling conditions on the journey scurvy, hunger and a leaky ship (worms ate through its wooden hull) led to mutiny against the drunken and belligerent Dampier. After quarreling with a new captain, Selkirk (who was very belligerent himself) was put ashore on Juan Fern ndez, an uninhabited island hundreds of miles off the coast of Chile. Souhami provides arresting descriptions of the island and the life Selkirk lived on it for more than four years, when hunger and thirst were "diversions" from his solitude. He survived, in part, by eating goats (with whom he also found sexual release), fish and vegetation. Rescued by another Dampier expedition, at first Selkirk was a wild man who had almost lost the power of speech. He did, however, recover from his ordeal: he took two wives, continued to sail and died at sea in 1721. Complete with detailed comparisons between Defoe's novel and Selkirk's life, Souhami's account is a well-researched investigation of a forgotten antihero.(Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Diana Souhami visited Isla Robinson Crusoe, which is located 360 miles off the coast of Chile. She also searched through numerous diaries, journals, books, and legal documents written in the 1700s. The result is the shocking story of Alexander Selkirk, the man on whom the story of Robinson Crusoe is based. For her efforts, Souhami won the Whitbread Award for Biography. The book begins with a poetic description of the island as it was in 1702. It was "a chip of land," inhabited by seals, hummingbirds, lobsters, goats, mice, rats, and cats. Its mountain slopes were covered with forests of sandalwood trees, and its valleys were lush with grasses, plants, and herbs. It was to become the home, or more aptly, the prison, of Alexander Selkirk for 52 months. Souhami introduces us to Selkirk, "a hardened man...a navigator, fighter, and survivor." He joins the Cinque Ports as Master. The purpose of the voyage is to acquire gold by seizing ships such as the Manila galleon and ransacking towns on the South American coast. For their chance at gold, the crew risked extraordinary hardships. Their journey is a litany of disaster, disease, incompetence, mutiny, and violence. After an argument with the ship's captain, Selkirk is abandoned on the island. With each passing day, his hope for rescue becomes more remote. On one occasion, a ship does spot his signal fire; however, it is an enemy Spanish ship and they would either murder him or make him a slave. He successfully eludes their search, and is, ironically, alone again. When an English ship finally rescues him, the men who found him feared him as some "hybrid of the forest, of a cannibal tribe, a primitive beast." The captain of the rescuing ship,Woodes Rogers, came to see the potential value of the story of this marooned man. The return trip was dangerous and difficult as well. However, through an encounter with the Manila galleon, Selkirk "moved from that invisible world to victory in battle ... and the promise of material wealth." Shortly after his return to England, several versions of his story were published. Woodes Rogers sought the help of Richard Steele (partner of Joseph Addison in the publication of the Tatler). Steele interviewed Selkirk and transformed the story. Selkirk "moved from rape and pillage to a state of grace." After some delays, Selkirk received 800 pounds as his share of the returning ship's stolen treasures. Selkirk soon found himself at sea again. He contracted a virus while sailing along the Gold Coast of Africa and died at the age of 41. Little note was taken of his death except for the two women whom he had apparently married. They fought in court for his inheritance. Daniel Defoe, in need of a financial boost and inspired by the story of Selkirk, wrote Robinson Crusoe. The first English novel was well received. Readers "identified, projected and asked the question, what would I do, if that were to happen to me." Thus, the transformation of Selkirk into Crusoe was complete. As Souhami notes, "What had really happened and who he was were incidental." Her excellent biography reclaims Selkirk from the world of fiction. Today, approximately 500 people live on the island where tourists visit and buy Crusoe t-shirts. Thankfully, much of the island has been designated a Worldwide Reserve of the Biosphere. This book tells the "true and strange" story of Selkirk. It also vividly tells of the life of privateers in the early 1700s. Souhami increases the effectiveness of her work by including numerous direct quotations from her primary sources. No one who reads this biography will ever think of Crusoe in the same light. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2001, Harcourt, Harvest, 246p. map. notes. index., Pucci
Kirkus Reviews
Acclaimed literary biographer Souhami (Gertrude and Alice, 1997, etc.) profiles the island and the individual whose story inspired Daniel Defoe's novel.
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR DIANA SOUHAMI

Diana Souhami is a remarkable biographer."—Sunday Tribune (London)

PRAISE FOR THE TRIALS OF RADCLYFFE HALL

From start to finish of Souhami's book, my lower jaw kept dropping with amazement."—The Daily Mail (London)

A magnificent book. This reviewer was engrossed from page one, carried along at breakneck speed by the pace and wit of Souhami's style."—The Spectator (London)

An outrageously entertaining book."—The Daily Telegraph (London)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786242191
Publisher:
Cengage Gale
Publication date:
06/01/2002
Edition description:
Large Print
Pages:
316
Product dimensions:
6.04(w) x 8.72(h) x 1.09(d)

Meet the Author

Diana Souhami is the author of many acclaimed books including The Trials of Radclyffe Hall (short-listed for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography and winner of the Lambda Literary Award), Gertrude and Alice, Gluck 1895-1978: Her Biography, Greta and Cecil, and the bestselling Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

1. The Island

Molten Stuff
1702

Defined by the vast South Sea, The Island from a wooden craft, far out, was a destination, a place of refuge. At first sight it looked no more than a gray blur. Plying the sea against strong tides and capricious winds, the blur turned to jagged mountains looming form the water. Dark clouds hung over the eastern end. They promised clear streams, meat, and respite from the journey's storms.

Ranging beneath the lee, searching for anchorage, the broken, craggy precipices revealed forests, cut by lush valleys, watered by cascades and streams. The bays of boulders and shingle became harbours of society.

Spewed in the earth's heat, once The Island had been molten stuff beneath the earth's crust. Formed of columns of basalt, it was a causeway of mountain peaks, the highest, shaped like a huge anvil, rising three thousand feet above the ocean. Its rocks were grey, scoriaceous, slaggy, veined with olivine and picrite, coded with skeleton crystals of feldspar, aluminium, potash, lime…Its coast escarpments, high forested ridges and the dry seaward slopes of its valleys, were lava beds, relics from a magmatic flow: magma from the Greek 'to knead". By its shores were lumps of black porous lava, like burnt-out clinker, like a dead fire.

The fire could rekindle. The Island changed with the scudding clouds, the waxing moon, a fall of rain. Sounds that cracked in echo round the mountains, warned of its awesome energy. Mariners told of the earth's explosion, of "A Vulcan casting out Stones as big as a House', of a column that spouted from the sea filled with smoke and flames, of how the sea swept back in great rollers that left the bay dry, then surged in at such a height that trees uprooted and goats drowned.

Classifiers gave their views on geotectonic connections between The Island and the continent of South America and the movement of continental plates. They picked up pieces of rock, sailed home with them in boxes, identified the grains of colour these rocks contained as augite, magnetite and ilmenite and speculated on when the volcano had erupted and the manner in which time turns one thing into another. Their analyses made The Island less remote. If they named it, classified it, they could in a sense possess it and tame it to their will.

Mountains and Gorges
1702

In the scheme of things it was a chip of land - twelve miles long, four across, thirty-four miles round, four million years old. At the low parched western end only dwarf trees grow (Dendroseris litoralis and Rea pruinata). * By a headband was a rocky bay shaped like a horseshoe, where a small boat might land on sand and shingle.

The eastern cliffs rose sheer from the sea. Moss and algae grew where surf drained from the talus' edge. The sea undermined the coastal wall and hollowed it as caves. Along the south-east shore were tufted grasses with high culms (Stipa fernandeziana). Waterfalls washed soil to the sea that stained the surf sepia. Beside a small bay, strewn with lava beds and furrowed by stony streams, two mountains rose, sculpted with hanging gullies carrying water after every rain.

Sea winds met the coast, rose high over the mountain crests, the cooled, condensed and fell as rain which drenched the ridges, gushed in torrents down the mountains, and in the lush green valleys turned to fast-flowing streams. Cloud shrouded the mountains while sunshine bathed the western hills. Winds gusted in the valleys in violent squalls. In the humid spring, rainbows arched the bays. Summer came in December and lasted until March.

In the forests that covered the mountain slopes were sweet smelling sandalwood trees with dark brown bark, pimento with glossy leaves and pungent berries, large mayu trees with jutting roots, mountain palms with long straight trunks, dark green and ringed with scars. Trees uprooted in the squalling winds and thin mountain soil. In the gorges rushes thrived with sword-shaped leaves and white flowers. Gunnera masafuerae spread parchment leaves. Tree ferns more than three feet tall, with dark green fronds grew in groves in the wooded valleys. Scandent ferns trailed over stones and fallen trunks. They clung to threes and branches. Bronze green filmy ferns filled the open glades, the banks of streams, the wet cliff walls.

Light-loving rosette trees grew on low rocks. Three times a year they flowered dark blue. Evergreen myrtles with whit flowers graces the forest's edge, plum trees blossomed in spring. There was brushwood on the rock ledges and lichen on the stones. Luxuriant moss cushioned the boulders at the foot of the waterfalls. Colonies of flowering plants and grasses formed heathland. Herbs thrived by the valley's streams.

In one valley of green pastures, cut by a fast-flowing stream there was a small harbour where boulders shifted under heavy swell. In calm seas a boat could land at the foot of projecting rock, hollowed like a tunnel. The rock led to a cave sixteen feet above sea level. It was a place where a man might shelter.*

But only in one wide bay might a large ship find safe anchorage in deep water and its boats reach the shore. This bay was walled by high mountains cut by gulches. The grassland of its valley was screened by sandalwood trees and watered by streams. It was a place of echoes and fragrance: gentle at dawn and dusk, hostile in gusting wind. By its streams grew turnips and radishes, herbs, wild oats and grasses. Behind the valley were high-walled gorges, dense with tree ferns and giant-leaved Gunnera peltata. From these gorges plunged waterfalls. Through thick forest a steep pass led to the south side of the island. At the summit of this pass, after an arduous climb, a man might scan the encircling sea. He would miss no ship that approached The Island. In times this summit became known as Selkirk's lookout.

And beyond the valley and before it were ten thousand miles of ocean. The ocean was The Island's protection. It kept man (Homo sapiens) away. It carried only the daring or the desperate to its rugged, stony shore. Without intervention from man The Island found its times of burgeoning and times of repose.

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