Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Selkirk’

John Howell: The Life & Adventures of Alexander Selkirk

October 7, 2017

life_adventures_alexander_selkirk_1301Daniel Defoe‘s novel The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is generally acknowledged to have been the first novel in English. Published in 1719, it is based on and inspired by the sojourn of a Scots sailor and buccaneer, Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years voluntarily marooned on the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile.

Defoe was also a journalist, and certainly succeeded in making his fictions appear to be factual, as did many writers in those early days of the novel, when this new form was gradually being developed and its potential discovered. A Journal of the Plague Year reads convincingly as an account by someone who lived through the London events of 1665, yet Defoe had not even been born in that year. And Jonathan Swift went out of his way in 1726 to try and lend verisimilitude to the far more outlandish Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s clear that Defoe would have had access to accounts of Selkirk’s stay on the island, which is quite sketchy, but mentioned many of the things that Defoe was skilfully to develop and enhance: the need for shelter, how to feed and clothe himself, fear of strangers landing on the island and capturing him – though, of course, Defoe makes the strangers savages and cannibals rather than mere French or Spanish sailors – and the comfort brought to a solitary man by his faith in God. Defoe’s hero remains on the island for far longer, and is assisted by the shipwreck which provides him with all sorts of useful supplies and equipment that Selkirk never enjoyed; his stay on the island lasts over twenty years, and he eventually gains the companionship of the faithful Friday… you can see how a novelist puts his imagination to good use with his source material.

John Howell, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, thoroughly researched Defoe’s source material, tracing Selkirk’s life and interviewing surviving relatives, as well as mining archives of obscure magazines and other publications; in this relatively short account – an excellent Librivox production – he gives us all the material with a commentary. No aspect of Selkirk is left untouched, and we have clearly laid before us the bare bones from which Defoe worked to produce his masterpiece. If you’ve enjoyed Robinson Crusoe, you may enjoy this…

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Buccaneer Explorer: William Dampier’s Voyages

July 5, 2016

516mwIMxYxL._AC_US160_I’m still unclear exactly what a pirate or a buccaneer is, even after reading this book, and it’s evident that the boundaries in the past were a lot more fluid and vague than we think nowadays. A good deal of William Dampier‘s career was official, and a certain amount of it was not. What comes out from this book, an abridgement of several that he wrote, is that he was an interesting and learned character, as well as, for someone allegedly piratical, a touch cowardly… He seems not to have been a good commander of men, and a fairly disastrous privateer, although some of these aspects of his life are rather open to dispute among those that research such things.

The book I read is a reprint of an earlier Folio Society volume that annoyingly only reproduced three of the five maps accompanying that volume.

Dampier travelled widely in the lawless and not very knowledgeable late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; he’s the first recorded Englishman to have set foot on and recorded his visit to New Holland, the landmass that we now call Australia.

The most striking thing about this pirate – if he really was one – is his observant nature: he observes and describes carefully, in a scientific manner, all sorts of unknown flora and fauna he encounters in various lands whilst travelling: sloths, alligators, various sorts of monkey, hummingbirds… there is much new knowledge in what he records, which was taken seriously by savants back home. He discovered, by observing its production, what cochineal really is. And, it is clear that, in the days before Harrison‘s famous clocks and the later work on longitude, that what he was best at was navigating; various of his charts and observations were in use long after his time. His writings on navigation and his other scientific research influenced later scientists like Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt. He also wonders about time zones…

Dampier was living in very interesting literary times, too, and his accounts of his voyages certainly seem to have precipitated the eighteenth century interest in travel writings and stories of desert islands; he encounters Alexander Selkirk, whose true story is the origin of Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe; shortly after that novel came Swift‘s Gulliver’s Travels. The line between true and invented was very blurred in those days. Not a terribly exciting read, but fascinating from a number of angles.

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