Selkirk, Alexander (DNB00)

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SELKIRK, ALEXANDER (1676–1721), prototype of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ born in 1676, was the seventh son of John Selcraig, shoemaker, of Largo, Fifeshire, who had married Euphan Mackie in 1657. Encouraged by his mother, Selkirk—to use the form of name which he adopted—exhibited at an early age a strong wish to go to sea, but owing to his father's opposition he remained at home until 1695, when the parish records show that he was cited to appear before the session for indecent conduct in church. It was found, however, that he had gone to sea, and nothing more is known of him until 1701, when he was again at Largo, in trouble for quarrelling with his brothers, and was rebuked in the face of the congregation. Next year Selkirk sailed for England, and in May 1703 he joined Captain Dampier's privateering expedition to the South Seas. He must have had considerable previous experience, for he was appointed sailing-master on the Cinque Ports, of which Thomas Stradling became captain after the death of Charles Pickering. Various prizes were taken, and Stradling and Dampier parted. In September 1704 the Cinque Ports put into Juan Fernandez, and recovered two men who had accidentally been left on the island some months before. A quarrel with Stradling led Selkirk to resolve to leave the ship, and he was landed, with all his effects, on this uninhabited island. He at once saw the rashness of his conduct, but Stradling refused to take him on board again.

For many days Selkirk was in great distress; but as winter approached he set about building two huts, and in a few months he was reconciled to his lot. The island abounded in goats, and hunting became his chief amusement. After his powder was exhausted, he attained to great skill in running and climbing in pursuit of goats. He made clothes of goat-skins, and tamed cats and goats to be his companions. Knives were formed out of some old iron hoops. Twice ships came in sight, and Selkirk was perceived by one of them; but as this was a Spanish ship Selkirk hid himself, and the ship went on after firing some shots. At length the ships belonging to a new enterprise of Dampier touched at Juan Fernandez (31 Jan. 1709), and, Selkirk having drawn their attention by a fire, a boat was sent on shore and he was taken on board the Duke, commanded by Captain Woodes Rogers [q. v.], who had Dampier as pilot. The character given Selkirk by Dampier caused him to be at once appointed mate. The ships set sail on 12 Feb. Several prizes were taken, and Selkirk was given the command of the Increase (29 March). In January 1710 he was made sailing-master of a new prize, under Captain Dover, and on 14 Oct. 1711, after a long delay at the Cape, they reached the Thames. Selkirk's booty was 800l.

Selkirk had been absent from England for over eight years, more than half of which he had spent on Juan Fernandez, and his adventures excited much interest when described in Captain Woodes Rogers's ‘A Cruising Voyage round the World,’ and Captain Edward Cooke's ‘A Voyage to the South Sea and round the World’ (vol. ii. introduction), both published in 1712. There was also a catchpenny pamphlet, ‘Providence Displayed, or a Surprising Account of one Alexander Selkirk … written by his own hand’ (reprinted in ‘Harl. Misc.,’ 1810, v. 429). Selkirk was introduced to Steele, who knew Woodes Rogers (Aitken, Life of Steele, ii. 195–6), and his story was made the subject of a graphic paper (No. 26) in the ‘Englishman’ (3 Dec. 1713). Steele describes him as a man of good sense, with a strong and serious but cheerful expression.

In 1719 Defoe published ‘Robinson Crusoe’ [see Defoe, Daniel]. Perhaps Defoe's attention was recalled to Selkirk's story by the appearance of a second edition of Rogers's ‘Voyage’ in 1718. Despite some apocryphal stories, there is nothing to show that Defoe knew anything of Selkirk beyond what had been published by Rogers, Cooke, and Steele. Defoe owed little of his detail to this ‘downright sailor,’ as Cooke put it, ‘whose only study was to support himself during his confinement’ (Wright, Life of Defoe, 1894, pp. 171–2, 402; Defoe's Romances and Narratives, ed. Aitken, 1895, vol. i. p. lii).

Selkirk returned to Largo early in the spring of 1712, and there lived the life of a recluse, making for the purposes of meditation a sort of cave in his father's garden. After a short time, however, he met a girl named Sophia Bruce, and persuaded her to elope with him, apparently to Bristol, and thence to London. The records of the court of queen's bench contain a process against ‘Alexander Selkirke,’ of the parish of St. Stephen, Bristol, for an assault on Richard Nettle, shipwright, on 23 Sept. 1713 (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xi. 246). In a will of January 1717–18 Selkirk called Sophia his ‘loving friend, Sophia Bruce, of the Pall Mall, London, spinster,’ and made her his executrix and heiress, leaving her, with remainder to his nephew Alexander, son of David Selkirk, a tanner of Largo, a house at Craigie Well, which his father had bequeathed to him (cf. Scots Mag. 1805, pt. ii. pp. 670–4). Selkirk apparently deserted Sophia afterwards. After his death, a Sophia Selcraig, who claimed without legal justification to be his widow (no date is given), applied for charity to the Rev. Samuel Say, a dissenting minister in Westminster (‘Say Papers,’ in the Monthly Repository, 1810, v. 531).

Meanwhile Selkirk had resumed his life as a sailor, and before 1720 seems to have married a widow named Frances Candis. On 12 Dec. 1720 he made a new will, describing himself as ‘of Oarston [Plymstock, Devon], mate of his majesty's ship Weymouth.’ He left everything he had to his wife Frances, whom he made his sole executrix. He entered the Weymouth as master's mate on 20 Oct. 1720, and apparently died on board next year. In the ship's pay-book he is entered as ‘dead 12 Dec. 1721.’ The will of 1720 was propounded for probate on 28 July 1722, and was proved by the widow on 5 Dec. 1723, when both her marriage to Selkirk and his death were admitted. She claimed the house at Craigie Well, and apparently obtained possession of it. Before December 1723, when she proved the will, she had married a third time, being then the ‘wife of Francis Hall’ (‘Will of Alexander Selkirk, 1720,’ in New England Hist. and Gen. Reg. October 1896, and with facsimile, ib. April 1897). Selkirk seems to have had no children.

Various relics were preserved by Selkirk's friends, and a bronze statue has been erected at Largo. A tablet in his memory was also placed, in 1868, near his look-out at Juan Fernandez, by Commodore Powell and the officers of H.M.S. Topaz, for which they were thanked by Thomas Selcraig, Selkirk's only collateral descendant, then living in Edinburgh (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. ii. 503, iii. 69). But the best memorials are ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and Cowper's ‘Lines on Solitude,’ beginning ‘I am monarch of all I survey.’

[The fullest account of Selkirk, based chiefly on the contemporary narratives already mentioned, is contained in the Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, by John Howell, 1829. An earlier work, Providence Displayed, or The Remarkable Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, by Isaac James, appeared in 1800, and the story was retold in the Rev. H. C. Adams's Original Robinson Crusoe, 1877. The author of ‘Picciola’ (Saintine, i.e. J. Xavier Boniface) professed to base his interesting romance ‘Seul’ (Paris, 1850) upon the true history of Selkirk, and his work was translated as ‘The Solitary of Juan Fernandez,’ Boston, 1851. See also Wilson's Life of Defoe, 1830, iii. 445–57; Sutcliffe's Crusoniana, 1843, pp. 144–52; Collet's Relics of Literature, 1823, pp. 342–4; Funnell's Voyage round the World, 1707; Gent. Mag. xliii. 374, 423, lvii. 1155, lviii. 206; information kindly given by Mr. John Ward Dean of Boston, U.S.A., and Mr. Hubert Hall, F.S.A., of the Public Record Office.]

G. A. A.