February 2, 1709 A Real Life Robinson Crusoe

“One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was”.

The Royal House of Habsburg takes the name from Habsburg Castle, built in the 1020s in modern-day Switzerland. It was Otto II who died somewhere around 1111AD who first added the name to his titles, calling himself Graf (Count) of Habsburg. The Habsburg line would grow into a dynasty, one family producing Kings and Emperors ruling over dominions from Bohemia to England and Ireland, to the Second Mexican Empire.

The Habsburg Royal Line ruled from the Kingdom of Portugal in the West to Germany, Hungary, Croatia and several Dutch and Italian principalities.  The throne of the Holy Roman Empire was continuously occupied by a member of this one family from 1438 until the extinction of the male line, in 1740.

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King Charles II of Spain

Political alliances were often sealed during this period, by marriage. The family sought to consolidate power through a number of political unions, such marriages being by definition, consanguineous. Inside the family. Marriages between first cousins or uncles and nieces, were commonplace. Such inbreeding produced any number of genetic disorders and almost certainly brought about the extinction of the line.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the Spanish Habsburgs. A study by the University of Santiago de Compostela examined some 3,000 family members over 16 generations and concluded the end of the Spanish line, Charles II, possessed a genome not dissimilar to that of the offspring of a brother and sister.

King Charles II of Spain was weak and sickly from birth. Known as El Hechizado (the Bewitched), Charles was the recipient of any number of deleterious but recessive alleles, made dominant through generations of inbreeding.

The “Habsburg jaw” was so pronounced, Charles spoke and ate, only with difficulty.  He couldn’t talk until age four.  The man was eight before he learned to walk.  He was “short, lame, epileptic, senile and completely bald before 35, always on the verge of death but repeatedly baffling Christendom by continuing to live.

777px-carlos_segundo801The male line of the Spanish Habsburgs came to an end on November 1, 1700, when Charles II died without heir, five days before his 39th birthday. The will named 16-year-old Philip of Anjou successor, grandson of the Bourbon King Louis XIV of France and Charles’ half-sister, Maria Theresa.

Such an ascension would have consolidated the Spanish and French crowns and disrupted the balance of power, in Europe. The Grand Alliance of England, the Dutch Republic and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold preferred Leopold’s younger son Archduke Charles.  The War of Spanish Succession, was on.

The English dispensed “Letters of Marque and Reprisal”, authorizing private persons to conduct acts of war against French and Spanish interests. Similar to mercenary soldiers, except “Privateers” were not paid, directly. They were in it for plunder.

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East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray

The sixteen-gun Cinque Ports was one such privateer, the English vessel departing in 1703 accompanied by the 26-gun St. George under overall command of William Dampier, the first man to thrice, circumnavigate the globe.

Intending to attack Spanish shipping, the pair rounded the horn and cruised the South American coast as far as Panama, capturing several enemy vessels along the way. The two privateers separated in 1704, when 21-year-old Captain Thomas Stradling put ashore at Más a Tierra island in the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago for fresh water, and meat.  They were 420 miles off the Chilean coast.

Juan Fernandez Archipelago, off the coast of Chile

An 18th century Sailing Master was not so much a military title as a professional seaman, and navigator.  Cinque Ports’ Sailing Master Alexander Selkirk was gravely concerned about the vessel’s seaworthiness.  The hull was deeply worm eaten and Selkirk wanted to stay for repairs.  Stradling would have none of it.  The argument became heated, and Selkirk stated that he’d rather be put ashore, than continue on.

Selkirk would come to regret the comment but that was it for the hot tempered Captain.  He was mocked as a mutineer, put ashore with a musket, a hatchet, knife, some oats, tobacco and a cooking pot, a Bible, bedding and some clothes.  It was October, 1704.

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Selkirk was right.  Cinque Ports would founder, her shipwrecked survivors picked up by their enemy and entering a brutal period of captivity.

Marooned and alone, Selkirk subsisted for a time on spiny lobster.  He spent his days on the shoreline, hoping and praying for a sail.  None came.  He’d shoot the occasional sea lion, but powder and shot soon gave out.  Hordes of these raucous creatures gathered for mating season soon drove him inland, where Selkirk discovered wild turnips, cabbage leaves and pepper berries.  Feral goats left behind by earlier sailors provided milk and meat while he learned to fashion tools out of old barrel hoops, found on the beach.

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Selkirk reads his Bible in one of two huts he built on a mountainside. Drawing by anonymous

Rats attacked him by night, until Selkirk found common cause with feral cats.  They would receive their morsels and he, a sound night’s sleep.

Selkirk built two huts out of pepper trees.  One for sleeping, the other for cooking.  When his clothes wore out he’d fashion replacements from goat skins, sewn together using an old nail.  His old shoes wore out but those needed no replacement.  The man’s feet were as tough as that old nail.

alexander-selkirk-robinson-crusoeVessels came twice to the island, but both proved to be Spanish.  A Scottish privateer could count on torture and worse at the hands of his enemy, and so he hid.  Selkirk was spotted one time and chased by a Spanish search party.  Several stopped for a leak under a tree in which he was hiding, but they never knew.  In time they became bored, and sailed away.

On February 2, 1709, the English privateer Duke spotted a fire where there should be none, and stopped to investigate.  After 52 months alone, Selkirk was incoherent with joy.  Though his language skills were all but gone, Captain Woodes Rogers was impressed with his demeanor.

“One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was”.

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Selkirk, Seated right, is brought aboard the Duke

William Dampier was pilot aboard Duke and vouched for Selkirk’s seamanship.  The agile castaway even ran down several goats, restoring health to a crew then in the grips of scurvy.

Alexander Selkirk was made second mate aboard Duke and returned to a life at sea.  He died on December 13, 1721 off the coast of Africa, a victim of yellow fever.  When Daniel Defoe published his famous novel in 1719, few could miss the resemblance to Alexander Selkirk.

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In the 1960s, Chile changed the name of Más a Tierra, to Robinson Crusoe Island.   National Geographic writes that Defoe’s character was more an amalgamation of shipwreck stories, than one based solely on Selkirk.  The idea makes sense.  The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was based not in the mid-latitudes of the South Pacific but on a Caribbean island, some 2,700 miles distant. Crusoe’s goatskin attire seems ill suited to the heat of the Spanish Main but, no matter. It makes for one hell of a story.

Feature image, top of page: Alexander Selkirk, inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, sculpture by Scottish artist Thomas Stuart Burnett. Located at Selkirk’s birthplace of Lower Largo in Fife.

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