Selkirk’s Island


Revisiting the Beginnings: Nature, Man and Selkirk’s Island

      The model for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is generally agreed to be the story of Alexander Selkirk’s solitary sojourn on Juan Fernandez Island, off the coast of Chile. Defoe could have read brief accounts of this in a series of contemporary narratives, and might indeed have talked to Selkirk himself after his return to England. This is the story that is retold by Diana Souhami in Selkirk’s Island (2001), taking us back to before Defoe’s foundation of the castaway story.1 As we have seen, the long history of the castaway story from Defoe to Pratchett is varied with radical revisions and broad-based rethinkings; Selkirk’s Island is just one of these, but it does throw a striking light on one place the story has got to in our day, and it does this, interestingly, by going back to before its beginnings.

Selkirk’s Island revises the castaway story in the light of our intense unease about what we have done to nature, and perhaps our fear of the approaching consequences of this mistreatment. Souhami’s book is not fiction, but it presents an intense reinterpretation whose point and passion cannot be missed. Souhami puts the natural richness and generosity of the island at the centre of the narrative. Selkirk is graced with its benignity during the years that he spends on the island, but does not change it; his life in the human world before and after that time is violent, futile and forgetful, as indeed is that of the pirates he was voyaging with when he was left on the island and that of the pirates who rescue him four years later. The Island (always capitalised by Souhami) is at the spiritual centre of the text; the man is aimless and in comparison insubstantial; humanity’s best hope is to study and catalogue the island’s richness and otherwise to leave as light a footprint as possible.

The first section evokes the place by way of prelude. It establishes a recurring theme: the aliveness and complexity of the island’s life in nature, rich and nourishing. In this life, the sojourn of Selkirk, which is the central event of his biography, is a mere interlude. The island protects and is affected by humans but doesn’t need them and has its own life.

The Island served whatever life arrived on it by chance. If not one form then another. (17)

The Island was inhabited. It hosted, protected and sustained its guests. (18) …

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 casual disaster. A nocturnal seabird, the fardela, screaming in the night like a frightened child (19)

      Selkirk is a violent man, violent in his early years in Scotland (he gets into a fight with his father, mother and brother, 49-50) and among other violent men on the piratical expedition commanded by Dampier. Dampier himself, for all his fame as navigator and writer (see Souhami, 28, for instance), is depicted as treacherous, greedy, lying, and cowardly.2 He figures in Selkirk’s Island as the unregenerate counterpart to Selkirk; having led, or rather misled, the expedition on which Selkirk was marooned (then to find peace and acceptance on his Island), Dampier plays a subordinate role in Woodes Rogers’s later expedition which rescues Selkirk; again he fails as navigator. He remains in the narrow, ignorant world of semi-criminal seafarers from which Selkirk’s sojourn on his island had redeemed Selkirk.

      Selkirk’s quarrel, however, is with Stradling, the captain of the second, smaller ship. Selkirk considers Stradling incompetent and the Cinque Ports Galley destined to founder, and he has good reasons for his opinions. He stays on the island, no one else agrees with him, or agrees enough to choose life with the prickly Selkirk rather than staying on board with Stradling, and the ship sails away (78-9). Later the Cinque Ports sinks, Stradling and his men are captured by the Spanish, and Dampier’s ship has little better luck.

      Then follows the more than four years of Selkirk’s time on the island. Souhami freely imagines what he must have felt – his initial panic and depression, for instance.3 We are given all the vivid details of Selkirk’s making do – hunting and taming goats (he breaks the hind legs of the kids and then feeds them in their lamed and immobile state, 93), sewing himself goatskin clothes (his father was a tailor), heating bits of scrap iron to make tools and weapons, building a hut, domesticating feral cats to protect himself from the myriads of rats, making a refuge up a tree, doing most of this all over again when some Spaniards land and wreck whatever they see of his, so as to make the island inhospitable to English pirates like himself.  He eludes them: ‘Again The Island protected him.’ (110). Much of this goes into Robinson Crusoe, though much of it does not, for instance the way Selkirk ‘uses’ goats for his sexual solace (101), and the way he immobilises the kids. This is the castaway story, but it is not this that Souhami emphasises – not the effects of Selkirk on the island but the effects of the island on Selkirk. When he becomes reconciled to his life on the island, she has its lively detail make its presence felt:

He grilled a fish with black skin in the embers of a fire, ate it with pimentos and watercress and forgot to deplore the lack of salt. Around him humming-birds whirred and probed. Mosses, lichens, fungi and tiny fragile ferns, epiphytes, Hymenophyllum and Serpyllopsis, covered the trunks of fallen trees.

He resolved to build a dwelling and accrue stores. (91) …So he became The Island’s man. (94) …

The Island had offered itself to him and made him safe. He carved
the days of his banishment on a tree in the grove of his home. (99) Whatever he did on The Island seemed neither right nor wrong. (100)

      Souhami’s narrative of Selkirk’s time on the island, then, is the story of a rough, ignorant, violent man become reconciled for a time to a rich and acceptant nature. The island as an appreciative modern visitor, Souhami herself, can know it (‘epiphytes, Hymenophyllum’) assembles itself around him. The Island accepts whatever he does, and nourishes him. This is the context for his activities, his castaway’s industry. What in Robinson Crusoe becomes part of settlement and domination is here part of the opening to nature of a kind of civilized primitive, a violent abusive sailor and pirate who finds peace for a while. Souhami analyses Selkirk’s relationship with The Island; it’s not beauty, it’s the sheer persistence and the sheer fact of the place:

It was as if The Island claimed him with its secrets, its essential existence, made him a part of its rhythms, turned him fleetingly into more than he was. (104)

      Nature waits for us, not exactly maternal, not to be personified, but with dimensions that can’t be plumbed, and somehow beyond our attempts to control it and our ruinous effects on it (the slaughter of the sea lions, the introduced goats and rats and cats).

      It is Woodes Rogers’s piratical expedition that rescues Selkirk, finding a wild-looking creature who has almost lost the use of his tongue, but who recovers enough to cook for them and make them welcome to the island (a bit like Caliban as the latter recalls his first reception of Prospero and later welcomes Stephano and Trinculo) (126-130):

He was The Island’s host. He showed his guests its yield, impressed them with its hospitality. (129)

The expedition continues, and Selkirk with it. Selkirk is now much more disciplined (143), but the expedition is messy and there are casualties. Souhami makes her point:

Thus the life of conquest, the power and glory of slaughter, the pillage, arson, rape and bluster of war. On Selkirk’s Island it was autumn and leaves turned gold. (141)

Later they take one of that year’s Manilla galleons (and Selkirk is made its Master), but lose heavily in a fight with the other, the richer. They journey home very slowly, losing more men, and arrive to legal disputes; but Selkirk and the others will be rich.

      Next Souhami tells us of the early accounts of Selkirk’s time on his island, in particular Woodes Rogers’s, helped by Richard Steele. These accounts weren’t interested in nature (which is the reality and value of the island as Souhami sees it) but in ‘Man’:

It was not The Island that was of interest, it was Man, who in the image of God, got the better of wherever he was. (168)

      Steele in his own later account moralises and idealises, putting Selkirk into a pastoral simplicity. Then later there is Defoe’s remarkably successful novel; now:

What had really happened and who he was were incidental. It was the story that mattered, not The Island or the man. (190)

Souhami will reclaim its rightful place for The Island; she criticises the blankness of the island in Defoe’s novel: ‘it had scant reality of its own. It existed to serve Crusoe.’ (191)

Meanwhile Selkirk gets 800 pounds as his share, and participates in the aftermath of lawsuits and wranglings, happy to condemn Dampier’s conduct of the original (1703) expedition. Thence he returns home rich. He marries, flees town after beating up a local, settles in London, voyages again, leaving his wife with a will but no proof that they are really married, leaves again, marries a woman in Portsmouth so that (Souhami deduces) he can sleep with her; she gets a will out of him; he dies, on a naval cruise to hunt pirates, ironically enough (197-9); the two women contest his property, the second wife, older and more savvy, wins. A sordid story, marked by Selkirk’s propensity to lie and leave.

      Souhami returns us to The Island, for the last section of the book: its history and present condition, status as wildlife reserve:

Man, more pestilential than the rat or rabbit [pests the conservationists try to control], is banned from living in the Reserve. Islanders are accorded what they are deemed to need. (215)

      And finally, with more warmth, the theme of reconciliation with the natural richness of the island is sounded again:

Three hundred years on, it is man’s privilege to leave the seals to graze, arrest erosion, restore the sandalwood trees, extend the forest, guard, protect and defend the endemic species that net living creatures to their past, that net us all together. In such intervention there is a dream beyond the pursuit of gold. There is deference to The Island’s grace and to a marooned man’s heart (216)

– Not that this privilege of leaving nature alone is usually available to modern humans, entangled and embroiled with nature as we are. Nonetheless Souhami’s book is full – perhaps to the point of sentimentality at times – with the sense that Nature has a richness and persistence that humans lack, and in this it marks a cultural moment a very long way from most castaway tales, especially the earlier ones.

Diana Souhami, Selkirk’s Island, London: Phoenix, 2002 (2001)

Souhami gives us a brief account (30-2) of Dampier’s dealings with a New Guinean, Giolo of Mendis, whom Dampier brings back to England and exhibits, till he sells him off and the man dies of smallpox; there is none of the patronage and benevolence of Crusoe’s treatment of Friday in this story.

There are details of much grimmer island experiences on 87, and on 98 an aside about Christopher Martin, the captain of one of the prizes: ‘On a previous disputatious voyage he had marooned himself on the island of Gorgona, then escaped to freedom on a raft of tree trunks with two shirts for a sail and a large bag filled with oysters fixed to the mast.’