On This Day – 2nd February 1709

Alexander Selkirk

On the 2nd of February 1709, Alexander Selkirk (born Selcraig) was rescued from Juan Fernandez Island, now known as Robinson Crusoe Island.

Alexander was born in Lower Largo in 1676. He was the seventh son of the local shoemaker John Selcraig and Euphan Mackie. As a youngster he was so unruly that he was summoned before the Kirk Session for his “undecent carriage” . He took off to sea before the case was concluded.

Alexander enlisted in a privateering expedition led by Captains Dampier and Pickering whose intention was to profit from plundering the Spanish galleons and the rich Spanish colonies. Privateering expeditions were given approval by the government but were, in fact, little more than legalised piracy which was very profitable if the expeditions were successful. Alexander was a first class navigator and was appointed sailing master on the ninety ton vessel “Cinque Ports” which had sixteen guns and a crew of sixty three.

In September 1704, after numerous violent sea battles, Alexander reckoned the “Cinque Ports” was not seaworthy and asked to be be put ashore on the next island. He tried to persuade some of the crew to desert with him, but no one did thus he was left on his own on Juan Fernandez, an island just fourteen miles long, eight miles wide which lies 400 miles west of Chile.

Alexander was proved right, the  “Cinque Ports” sank soon after near the Peruvian coast. Most of the crew drowned but the Captain and seven crew were rescued by a Spanish fleet and held in prison for seven years in Lima.

Alexander lived on the island for four years and four months, eventually being rescued when the Captain of “The Duke” saw smoke coming from a fire that Alexander had lit to attract the ship’s attention. The rescue party met a man dressed in goat skins, which had replaced his tattered clothes. Coincidentally, the pilot on “The Duke” was none other than Captain Dampier who recognised Alexander and vouched for him. Alexander had lost none of his old navigational skills, and by September 1710 he was master of “The Duke”.

By the time he returned to England in October 1711, Alexander had earned £800 as his share of the captured booty. His adventures were published in a political journal in 1713 by Sir Richard Steele, and the tale was later taken up by Daniel Defoe who wrote “Robinson Crusoe” in 1719.

Alexander eventually returned to Lower Largo, but apparently struggled to adjust to ‘normal’ life again and stayed only a few months. In March 1717, he returned to sea.  Wiki states that he eloped to London with a sixteen year old dairymaid, whom he did not marry. He did, however, marry Frances Candis on the 11th of December 1720 at St Andrews, Portsmouth.

Alexander probably contracted yellow fever and died on the 13th of December, 1721. He was buried at sea off the coast of Africa.

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