The Real Robinson Crusoe
Who was the Real Robinson Crusoe?
The 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe that traces the tumultuous voyages and ultimate survival of a man with a lust for the ocean, has sparked many a debate as to who may have inspired the novel’s main protagonist, Robinson Crusoe.
Crusoe, despite the strenuous objection of his parents who urged him to study law, instead follows his passion for sailing the oceans and sets sail for London in August 1651 from Kingston upon Hull. A severe storm causes his ship to be wrecked. Undeterred, he attempts a second voyage, but this ship is set upon by pirates and he becomes their prisoner. He manages to escape two years later accompanied by a boy named Xury and they are ultimately rescued by the captain of a Portuguese ship bound for Brazil.
Years later Crusoe suffers yet another shipwreck and is marooned on an island. The novel details his resourcefulness in surviving amid the threat of hostile native visitors, his meeting and further adventures with an escaped prisoner who he names, Friday, and his religious awakening. Many believe that Defoe based his tale on the real-life experiences of a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk.
Selkirk was an unruly sailor who had encountered his own storms at sea largely due to the animosities between England and Spain. His 4-year experience as a castaway on a remote island located in the Juan Fernandez archipelago was due to his belief that the ship on which he served as sailing master in 1704 was no longer seaworthy. His request to remain behind rather than entrust his life to a leaky ship saw the captain provide him with the bare essentials for survival and abandon him there. His means of feeding and clothing himself closely resemble those of the character, Robinson Crusoe. However, similarities are also seen between Crusoe and other real-life seafarers.
A further serious contender for providing Defoe with inspiration is Henry Pitman, who had been surgeon to the Duke of Monmouth. He too had escaped after being stranded on a Caribbean desert island following a shipwreck. On his return to England, Pitman had written a book detailing his survival techniques and had it published by J Taylor. It was this publisher’s son who would later publish Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe. Scholars are quick to point out that Pitman had also resided in an apartment above the publishing house and may very well have encountered Defoe to whom he may then have related his experiences.
Another possibility for the Robinson Crusoe hat was a Moskito Indian named William the Mosquito. William had been left on the Isle of Juan Fernandez in 1681. The buccaneers he had been with on the island left in a hurry leaving him only the clothes he stood up in and a shot-gun. In 1864 Captain Cook was passing the island and sent some of his men ashore to find William. Find him they did, dressed in nothing other than goatskins. He had fashioned fishing line from seal skins and managed to cannibalize his shotgun into harpoons, lances and hooks among other things. His exploits were detailed in the journals of William Dampier which were published in 1697 and 1699, so Defoe would undoubtedly have seen these publications.
Lastly, Robert Knox, Captain for the East India Company, was en route to Persia in 1658 when his ship suffered the consequences of a severe storm. Being ordered into Ceylon for repairs, he and his crew (including his son, Robert Knox) were subsequently held captive for 19 years by natives of the Island of Ceylon. Captain Knox did not survive his imprisonment and died within a year. His son, Robert Knox junior was eventually able to flee to a Dutch-controlled island. From there he was then able to return home to England where his experiences were conveyed into a book, which was widely publicised and read.
Perhaps each of these men played a part in inspiring Daniel Defoe to write about his castaway. The book has gone on to become one of the most widely published books in history, and it has been the inspirations for many other books, films, television series and radio programmes.