En Route to the Real Robinson Crusoe: A Simple Story That Started on Chile's Juan Fernandez Archipelago Spawned a Legend That Has Inspired Numerous Books and Films over Centuries and across Oceans

By Werner, Louis | Americas (English Edition), November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

En Route to the Real Robinson Crusoe: A Simple Story That Started on Chile's Juan Fernandez Archipelago Spawned a Legend That Has Inspired Numerous Books and Films over Centuries and across Oceans


Werner, Louis, Americas (English Edition)


October 1574

When the Spanish captain Juan Fernandez set sail from Lima bound for Santiago, he expected a voyage of no less than three months. Running against the Humboldt Current and contrary winds, ships often took three times that--a female passenger had once conceived and delivered aboard--but the return journey usually lasted no longer than three weeks. Imagine the surprise, then, when the Valparaiso harbormaster saw Fernandez's ship drop anchor before the end of November.

Fernandez had taken a hunch and steered offshore for several hundred miles, seeking and finding there calmer currents and headwinds. In doing so, sailing in from three hundred and sixty miles due west off Valparaiso, Fernandez discovered a group of three islands he named for St. Cecilia, the saint on whose feast day they first came into view. He did not land, but he did mark them on his mental navigational chart, and from then forward the islands became the standard beacon for this faster course down the Chilean coast.

In time, the larger two of the three islands, one ninety miles east of the other, became known respectively as Mas a Tierra and Mas Afuera. Together they were known, as they are today, as the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. The islands were soon explored and found to have valuable resources--sandalwood trees, fresh water, and a safe anchorage in the nearer of the two. In 1591, Sebastian Garcia Carreto was given a land grant there, and he imported goats, pigs, and sixty mainland Indians to build, hunt, and harvest. The colony failed, but the goats mined feral and thrived.

The islands were never again to be considered worth the trouble of the journey until the twentieth century. This may have been due in part to the fact that frequently they were said to disappear under the ocean's surface whenever an earthquake struck the Chilean mainland--not bad for an island whose highest peak is nearly three thousand feet!

One hundred and thirty years after Juan Fernandez first sailed past it, the island of Mas a Tierra received its most distinguished visitor, a twenty-one-year-old Scottish shoemaker's son and seeker of ill-gained fortune, one Alexander Selkirk of County Fife, who set into motion a story that was to reverberate in scores of languages for three hundred years and counting--the legend of Robinson Crusoe.

Selkirk's story was simple and scantily told at the time. He had signed up in London for a pirating voyage led by the chartered privateer William Dampier, sailing aboard the Cinque Ports' galley captained by an incompetent second-in-command. When his ship came into harbor in Mas a Tierra, Selkirk, as ship's master, insisted on a major overhaul of the badly leaking hull. His captain refused, Selkirk asked to be put ashore, and so he was, on the last day of September 1704, left with his ship chest, bedding, and clothes, a flask of rum, two pounds of tobacco, a cook pot, a bible, the Book of Common Prayer, no salt, no bread--but the seventeen Spanish dollars that were his share of booty gained by then.

Mas a Tierra was well known to English privateers as a safe and reliable refuge. Many laid in for water, goat meat, turtle eggs, lobsters, and a hawthorn berry-like fruit from the chonta tree, or so-called cabbage palm. Selkirk, therefore, felt confident that he would soon be picked up by another English ship, and even if he was not, that he could survive for months on local foodstuffs.

Whether Selkirk's time passed fast or slow, we will never know, but one of the first men to talk to him at the end of his banishment had this to say: "After he had conquered his melancholy, he diverted himself with cutting his name on trees, and of the time of his being left, and continuance there ... by the favor of providence and the vigor of his youth, he came at last to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude and to be very easy. …

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