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The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe
By Diana Souhami
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2001 Diana Souhami
All rights reserved.
1702 Molten Stuff
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 grey blur. Plying the sea against strong tides and capricious winds, the blur turned to jagged mountains looming from 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 safety.
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.
1702 Mountains and Gorges
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 grew (Dendroseris litoralis and Rea pruinata). By a headland 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, then 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 trees 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 white flowers graced 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 a 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 time 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.
1702 Seals and Hummingbirds
The island served whatever life arrived on it by chance. If not one form then another. Gusting winds brought flies and bees. Plankton survived hurricanes. Spiders and the pupae of butterflies travelled unharmed in driftwood over vast stretches of ocean. Worms came in on the shoes of transient sailors, cats and rats sprang from anchored ships. There were forty-six kinds of mollusc and fifty sorts of fern.
A boa constrictor arrived coiled in the hollow of a cut tree. It had journeyed from Brazil for seven weeks over choppy seas. The tree washed ashore with the turning tide. The snake slithered over the stones of the bay and into the wooded valley. It found food – birds, seal pups, goats – shelter and sunshine, but no company. It sloughed its skin and danced alone.
Living things that reproduced without a partner colonised in a way the boa could not. Seeds survived the digestive tracts of thrushes, they stuck to the feet of albatrosses, they were carried from one part of The Island to another trapped in the fur of mice.
Fur seals (Arctocephalus philippii) with brown coats chose The Island for its stony bays, its deep water close to the shore and for the abundance of its fish. Agile in the sea, they dived and glided and lolled on their backs with folded flippers. On coastal boulders and islets they lumbered and wallowed in the sun. Their wet fur blended with the dark volcanic rocks. At times they appeared to weep. In November they came on shore to breed. Each mother gave birth to a single black-wool-covered pup.
There were huge sea lions (Otaria jubata) twenty feet long with furled snouts. In seasonal ritual to assert mastery they bellowed, fought and gored each other. Scars of sexual battle ringed their throats. The victor fathered a herd.
On every sea-washed rock, crabs scuttled. Beneath these rocks, lobsters grazed. They lived for decades and grew to three feet long. Pike shoaled at the sea's surface and at night seemed to fly, sand smelt spawned in seaweed, perch lurked near rocks for crabs, bacalao fish bred in deep water by the northern coast, bream scraped algae off the rocks with sharp teeth. There were cod and cavallies and blotched and spotted eels.
Goats came in on Spanish ships. Mariners released a few into the valley by the Great Bay, wanting meat when they careened their ships. The goats were small, dark brown, with curled horns and white marks on their foreheads and noses. They made for the hills and multiplied.
The Island was inhabited. It hosted, protected and sustained its guests. In the undergrowth in the valley were rats (Rattus rattus), mice (Mus musalus), cats (Felis domestica). To all that holed up on it The Island offered sunlight, water, food and shelter. It gave the means of life.
The stars guided in birds. Hummingbirds with copper breasts and tiny pin-like beaks probed nectar from orange flowers. They wove hanging nests in the ferns. A bird that glistened like metal built its nest of moss in the fern groves and laid white eggs. Grey and white petrels swerved over the sea. Flycatchers darted in the valleys. Thousands of pairs of migrating puffins dug burrows in the cliffs. Two black-necked swans arrived, confused by a storm. They lived their life but did not breed.
The Island was never quiet, never still. There was the chatter and whirr of hummingbirds, the barking of seals, the squealing of rats, the susurrus of waves, the wind in the trees. There were sounds of contentment, of killing and of casual disaster. A nocturnal seabird, the fardela, screamed in the night like a frightened child.CHAPTER 2
1703 Profits and Advantages
Six thousand miles away, in London in a house in St James's Square, two men talked of gold. Thomas Estcourt, twenty-two, heir to his father's title, a gentleman of means, an entrepreneur, wanted to make a fortune.
William Dampier 'the Old Pyrateing Dog' was with him. He was thin with dark hair and eyes, thick brows and a slippery manner. Addicted to adventure, he had been a gunner in Sumatra, a logwood cutter in Mexico, a salvage merchant of Spanish wrecks off the American coast, a roving buccaneer. He had a wife, Judith, whom he seldom saw, a passion for sea travel and a recurring need for money.
Dampier urged Estcourt to finance a booty-seeking voyage to South America. He promised him 'vast Profits and Advantages', riches beyond his dreams, if he would fund an armed and fitted ship and a fighting crew.
Gold was the prize. He told Estcourt of the mines of Bahia, Potosi, Santa Maria, of nuggets the size of hens' eggs, hacked from rocks with iron crowbars, of gold washed by rain from mountains into river beds.
This gold, he said, was all going to the Spaniards. They had a monopoly of the wealth of the South Sea lands and a stranglehold on its trade. 'They have Mines enough ... more than they can well manage ... they would lie like the Dog in the Manger; although not able to eat themselves, yet they would endeavour to hinder others.' They were an arrogant colonial power, despised by the indigenous people whom they exploited and abused. They had taken land and riches from them and made them into slaves.
Dampier put to Estcourt his plan to seize their treasure galleons and ransack the towns they occupied. He claimed they could not defend themselves: They had only three patrol ships to guard the coast from Chile to California. His ships would sail to Buenos Aires and capture the King of Spain's Treasure Fleet – two or three galleons bound for Spain loaded with mined gold. If that failed he would sail round Cape Horn, up the coast of Chile and attack the treasure galleons that regularly made for Callao, near Lima where the Spanish Viceroy resided. 'To this Port is brought all the Gold, Silver, Pearls, and Stones with Guineas and other Rich Things that the South part of the World Affords.'
He would raid coastal towns of Chile, like Guayaquil, where houses and churches were filled with gold. And best of all, he would seize the prize of all the oceans – the great Spanish trading galleon that each June plied between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico. Its voyage took six months. It carried goods to the value of fourteen million Pieces of Eight from China, India, Persia, Japan. It was laden with diamonds, rubies and sapphires from the East Indies, with spices and carpets from Persia, ivory from Cambodia, silks, muslins and calico from India, gold dust, tea, porcelain and furniture from China and Japan. Its cargo was of 'prodigious Value'. When it arrived in Acapulco a market was held which lasted thirty days. Its riches were carried by ship to Peru and by mule train across Mexico to Vera Cruz, then Europe.
On its return to Manila the galleon was loaded with gold and silver coin and plate. It was the 'most desirable Prize that was to be met with in any part of the Globe'. Only once had an English ship taken it, in 1587 in a battle that lasted six hours. The captain Thomas Cavendish and his crew returned home as heroes. When they sailed in triumph up the Thames they flew a standard of blue and gold silk and hoisted sails of blue damask. Each sailor wore a gold chain round his neck. Queen Elizabeth greeted them at Greenwich.
Such was the pride of conquest. If the Acapulco galleon could be taken, or even with a lesser prize, Estcourt's fortune was assured. This was more than a crude raid for plunder. To be a privateer was qualitatively different from being a buccaneer, pirate or Mere Theaf. Here was a patriotic venture in the service of Queen Anne. England, in alliance with Austria and Holland, was at war with Spain and France. Royal Proclamation legitimised 'Reprisal against the sea-borne property of Their Catholic Majesties, the Kings of France and Spain'. The High Court of Admiralty would grant a licence, a 'letter of Marque', for this assault on the enemy which coincidentally would make its perpetrators rich.
Estcourt, though nervous of the heavy cost of failure, was seduced. He paid for the Nazareth, a ship of about 200 tons, spent four thousand pounds to have it fitted out as a privateer, renamed it the St George and engaged William Dampier as its captain.
1698 A Daring Man
Dampier knew well the risks and rewards of his proposed adventure. More, as he put it, 'than a Carrier who jogs on to his Inn without ever going out of his Road'. For thirteen years, in a series of voyages, he had circumnavigated the world. He had sailed cruel seas in wooden ships called Loyal Merchant, Defence, Revenge, Trinity and Batchelor's Delight. He had survived storms, torture, shipwreck, mutiny, gun-battles, disease and near-starvation. 'Hardened to many Fatigues', inured to rough living, he called himself 'a daring man, such as would not be easily baffled'.
An experienced pilot and navigator of the South Sea, it was proof of his cunning that the Spaniards feared his name. He was a strategic thief, an able chronicler of what he saw, and a store of information. He interrogated prisoners: how many families were in their town, what guns, lookouts, small arms and sentinels did they have, were they 'Copper-colour'd as Malattoes, Musteseos or Indians', were they rich, what did their riches consist of, what were the chief manufactures of the region, where was the best landing, was there a river or creek nearby, could the area be attacked without notice ...
He always took the Pilot-books of ships he captured. 'These we found by Experience to be very good Guides' and he charted the 'Trade Winds, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides and Currents'.
In all my Cruisings among the Privateers, I took notice of the risings of the Tides; because by knowing it, I always knew where we might best haul ashore and clean our ships.
He kept journals of his Cruisings and in 1697 an edited version of these, A New Voyage Round the World, went into four editions. Its title-page lured with the scope of his travels:
the Isthmus of America, several Coasts and islands in the West Indies, the Isles of Cape Verd, the Passage by Terra del Fuego, the South Sea Coasts of Chile and other Philippine and East-India Islands near Cambodia, China, Formosa, Luconia, Celebes, &c. New Holland, Sumatra, Nicobar Isles; the Cape of Good Hope, and Santa Helena.
Here were undreamed-of places, journeys of wonder and terror, beyond the reach of most. Safe in their Armed chairs, Dampier's readers might brave a tornado in a canoe 'ready to be swallowed by very foaming Billow', survive storms that 'drenched us all like so many drowned Rats', hear how undrowned rats aboard ship ate the stores of maize, how men died of scurvy and 'malignant fever', got eaten by sharks, attacked by snakes and murdered by the Spaniards 'stripped and so cut and mangled that You scarce knew one Man'.
Excerpted from Selkirk's Island by Diana Souhami. Copyright © 2001 Diana Souhami. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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