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

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by Diana Souhami
     
 

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Winner of the 2001 Whitbread Biography Award:Diana Souhami’s gripping true story of the man and the island that inspired Robinson Crusoe

This action-filled biography follows Alexander Selkirk, an eighteenth-century Scottish buccaneer who sailed the South Seas plundering for gold. But an ill-fated expedition in 1703 led to shipwreck…  See more details below

Overview

Winner of the 2001 Whitbread Biography Award:Diana Souhami’s gripping true story of the man and the island that inspired Robinson Crusoe

This action-filled biography follows Alexander Selkirk, an eighteenth-century Scottish buccaneer who sailed the South Seas plundering for gold. But an ill-fated expedition in 1703 led to shipwreck on remote Juan Fernández Island off the coast of Chile. Selkirk, the ship’s master, was accused of inciting mutiny and abandoned on the uninhabited island with nothing but his clothing, his pistol, a knife, and a Bible. Each day he searched the sea for a ship that would rescue him and prayed for help that seemed never to come.
 
In solitude and silence Selkirk gradually learned to adapt. He killed seals and goats for food and used their skin for clothing. He learned how to build a house, forage for food, create stores, plant seeds, light a fire, and tame cats. Then one day, a ship with wooden sails appeared on the horizon. The crew was greeted by a bearded savage, incoherent and fierce. Selkirk had been marooned for four years and four months. Now he was about to return to the world of men.
 
The story of a verdant, mysterious archipelago and its famous castaway is both a parable about nature and a remarkable account of the survival of a man cut off from civilization.

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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 SELKIRK'S ISLAND

"Souhami. . . brings a distinctly modern approach to her biography of Selkirk. . . . With great flair, Souhami gives us a portrait of the man who made the place famous. . . . A vivid survival tale." --New York Times Book Review

"Souhami brilliantly recreates the feel of the high seas and the brave, money-hungry men who sailed them. . . . Rich and vastly entertaining." --The Christian Science Monitor

"Literary history compressed into capsule-size that goes down like a charm."--Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781497683747
Publisher:
Open Road Media
Publication date:
12/23/2014
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
244
Sales rank:
589,766
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Selkirk's Island

The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe


By Diana Souhami

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 2001 Diana Souhami
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-8374-7



CHAPTER 1

THE ISLAND


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

THE JOURNEY


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'.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Selkirk's Island by Diana Souhami. Copyright © 2001 Diana Souhami. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Diana Souhami is the author of many highly acclaimed books: Selkirk’s Island, winner of the 2001 Whitbread Biography Award; The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography and winner of the Lambda Literary Award; the bestselling Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter, winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a New York Times Notable Book of 1997; Natalie and RomaineGertrude and AliceGreta and CecilGluck: Her Biography; and others. She lives in London and Devon. 

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Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1703 an aristocrat and a sea captain cut a deal to pillage the Manila galleon. In 1704, they set sail with one of the sailors being Alexander Selkirk, a poor Scot. Alexander and the officers especially Captain Dampier had several arguments. So the Captain marooned Selkirk on a remote South Seas Island three hundred miles from South America and now owned by Chile and renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe. For the next four years he survived by himself before finally being rescued. Selkirk became a celebrity in England and the model for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, written two decades later. Diana Souhami provides readers with a delightful biography of Selkirk that separate fact from fiction. Ms. Selkirk digs deep into the records of the time so that the audience obtains a complete picture of the man, which is quite different from the legend. The results are a superb biography that showcases Ms. Souhami¿s talent as much as her subject, the ultimate survivor. Readers will enjoy ¿The true and strange adventures of the real Robinson Crusoe¿ as much as the Defoe¿s fictionalized account. Just reconsider the role of those goats. Harriet Klausner
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