The Real Robinson Crusoe

Maybe the small print did it. Maybe  the yellow-stained cover looked a little bleak. Maybe the cover description sounded boring. Whatever the reason, Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years before the Mast sat on my parents’ shelf for years without grabbing my interest. Last year my mother became friends with a town librarian who alerts her whenever the library sells off nicely-bound classics. She picked up a gorgeous two-volume folio edition of Two Years before the Mast for $2 and gave it to me. I finally picked it up this week and can’t figure out why I waited so long.

In the 1830’s Richard Dana, Jr. fell ill with the measles, damaging his eyesight. Hoping for rehabilitation Dana broke off his junior year at Harvard and shipped out on a merchant vessel as a common sailor. The narrative follows his sea voyage from Boston around Cape Horn to the then-Mexican territory of California and back. Not only is it entertaining, I’m actually learning a lot along the way.

One rabbit trail started when Dana mentioned stopping at the island of Juan Fernandez for water after rounding Cape Horn:

“I did then, and have ever since, felt an attachment for that island, altogether peculiar. It was partly, no doubt, from its having been the first land that I had seen since leaving home, and still more from the associations which every one has connected with it in their childhood from reading Robinson Crusoe…

Not this member of “every one.” What associations with Robinson Crusoe? Enter Wikipedia.

The Juan Fernandez archipelago is a Chilean territory composed of three small islands about 300 miles off the coast of Chile. In 1704 the privateer galley Cinque Ports dropped anchor at the largest island to restock water and supplies. A crew member named Alexander Selkirk had grave concerns about the vessels sea-worthiness* and tried to convince fellow sailors to desert with him. They refused, but the captain cheerfully marooned Selkirk on the island with a musket, gunpowder, carpenter’s tools, a knife, a Bible, some clothing and rope.

Selkirk lived the next four years and four months alone on the island. At first he nervously hugged the coast and lived off shellfish. Over time he explored the interior and learned to fend for himself as gunpowder ran out. Selkirk built huts, made weapons, learned to forage for food and hunt with a knife, domesticated animals, and sewed clothes. No man Friday or savage cannibals interrupted his stay, but he had to hide from the two vessels that stopped at the island during his stay; both were Spanish and a threat to any privateer or Scot.

The English buccaneer and explorer William Dampier finally rescued Selkirk in 1709 and carried him back to civilization. Ten years later Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe; it’s believed he used Alexander Selkirk’s adventure as a source. In 1966, the Chilean government re-named the site Robinson Crusoe Island to honor Selkirk and his literary twin.

Also, did you know that the original title of Robinson Crusoe was “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates” ? With a title like that, why read the book? You’ve got the whole story.

[*Selkirk was right – the Cinque Ports later foundered. Most crew members died]

Picture sources here and here


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