Robinson Crusoe / Alexander Selkirk: The Men Who Were Marooned

April 2022

We explore the astonishing intertwined tales of both Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk, two men marooned on a desert island, one in fiction, one in real life.

Robinson Crusoe was a novel published in 1719 by Daniel Defoe – that supposedly came from the pen of Crusoe himself – and told the story of how he was marooned and spent 28 years on a deserted island in the Caribbean. The book was enormously successful and is widely considered to be the beginning of realistic fiction as a genre – Crusoe’s tale was entirely plausible at a time when ships were regularly sailing from the northern hemisphere to the tropics; when ships were regularly getting wrecked; when pirates were regularly attacking them; when there was still so much to discover about the world’s geography; when the idea of a sailor finding himself accidentally or deliberately abandoned on a desert island made perfect sense.

Crusoe’s story was based on a true story – the story of one Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish mariner who found himself castaway on a remote Pacific island for four years and four months a decade before Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk is a fascinating character – and his history is absorbing, regardless of the fact that he found himself marooned. He was involved in buccaneering and privateering, he rounded the horn and sailed in the pacific where he attacked Spanish ships and towns – and it was here, on an island known as Mas al Tierra, 400 miles off the coast of Chile, that Selkirk chose to be marooned.

To find out more about these two brilliant stories, the way that Defoe intertwined them, and the way that we now believe they are intertwined, Dr Sam Willis spoke with Professor Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King’s College. In 2010 Lambert joined a German expedition to Mas al Tierra – now known as Robinson Crusoe Island, The expedition focused on the relationship between the fictional character of Crusoe, the real character of Selkirk, and the development of British global strategy that culminated in the arrival of Commodore George Anson’s naval expedition in 1741.


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    Sam Willis  00:09

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.


    Sam Willis  00:24

    Hello everyone, and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. This week, we are exploring a topic that blends together maritime history and literature by exploring the tales of both Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk. Robinson Crusoe was a novel published in 1719 by Daniel Defoe that supposedly came from the pen of Crusoe himself, and told the story of how he was marooned and spent 28 years on a deserted island in the Caribbean. The book was enormously successful and is widely considered to be the beginning of realistic fiction as a genre. Crusoe’s tale was entirely plausible; at a time when ships were regularly sailing from the northern hemisphere to the tropics; when ships were regularly getting wrecked; when pirates were regularly attacking them; when there was still so much to discover about the world’s geography; and, when the idea of a sailor finding himself accidentally or deliberately abandoned on a desert island made perfect sense. Now, this is where it really does get a bit muddy, so do pay attention. It’s believed that the bones of Crusoe’s story did not randomly pop up into Defoe’s brain, remarkable as that brain was for being able to imagine the most splendid of tales, but that it was actually based on a true story: the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish Mariner who found himself cast away on a desert island for four years and four months, a decade before Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. Now, Selkirk is a fascinating character, and his history is absorbing regardless of the fact that he found himself marooned. He was involved in buccaneering and privateering. He rounded the Horn and sailed into the Pacific where he attacked Spanish ships and towns. And it was here, in the Pacific, on an island known as Más a Tierra, 400 miles off the coast of Chile, that Selkirk chose to be marooned. To find out more about these two brilliant stories, the way that Defoe intertwined them, and the way that we now believe they are intertwined, I spoke with Professor Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King’s College. In 2010, Andrew joined a German expedition to Más a Tierra, now known as Robinson Crusoe Island. The expedition focused on the relationship between the fictional character of Crusoe, the real character of Selkirk, and the development of British global strategy that culminated in the arrival of Commodore George Anson’s naval expedition in 1741. Here is Andrew and, as ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him.


    Sam Willis  03:25

    Andrew, thank you very much for having me around your wonderful house. I’ve just looked in your study and I want to stay here and look at all of those magnificent books. Let’s talk about Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk. So, I suppose my first question is: knowing a little about Daniel Defoe – he was quite a shrewd chap – what do you think he was up to by writing a book about Willis 03:25 Robinson Crusoe? What was he trying to get across here?


    Andrew Lambert  03:51

    Defoe is writing a lot around this time about Empire, about trade expansion, about commercial development, about a maritime, expansive British worldview. This is the aftermath of the War of the Spanish Succession. The British believe that they’re about to go on a global project. They’ve been looking to get into the Pacific to find ways of opening up this great untapped market of Spanish America. This is, of course, going to be 100-year project. Defoe thought it would be over rather sooner. It’s not until the Spanish Empire collapses that the British actually break that market open. So, he’s writing about economic activity and, in many ways, his day job is promoting an expensive commercial settlement. But, at the same time, he’s come up with a very modern understanding that there are more exciting ways to get your message across. So, Crusoe, in some ways, is profiting from Defoe’s astonishingly broad view of global geography, global trends. He’s talking about piracy, talking about corsairing in the Mediterranean. And he’s situating this in the middle of what is the most successful genre of publishing at the time, which is buccaneer travel narrative. So, he’s read all of the buccaneer travel narratives. They’re in his library, we know this. And what he’s doing is synthesising them into a tale which has a strong moral element to it. It’s promoting a sense of Britishness. But, of course, it’s very subversive, because Crusoe himself is actually half German. His family name is not Crusoe, it’s Kreutznaer, as he admits on page one, so he’s subverting something at the very same time that he’s creating it. So, we’re led to believe that Crusoe is this kind of exceptional English character, but of course, from page one, he’s not, he’s something else. He’s doing a lot of other things. He’s involved in things which are not that exemplary. And, while he ends up doing good things, there are other things in the story which are not so good. So, I think Defoe is subverting the genre. I think he’s come across these narratives. And of course, the Buccaneers are astonishing; almost all of them are literate, and some of them are very clever indeed. And they write very well.


    Sam Willis  06:23

    Let’s just talk about the buccaneers and just make it clear how buccaneering is different to piracy, is different to privateering. Who were these buccaneers?


    Andrew Lambert  06:31

    These are people who are operating in the Caribbean at a time when there is lawless space, there is ungoverned space in which you can operate at the margins of legality. You can occupy territory which no sovereign state has claimed, you can buy and sell products which you harvest from those islands, so the buccaneers are purveyors of smoked meat, or buccan. And then they go off on a rampage, and the buccaneers who matter for Defoe’s story are the guys who crossed the Isthmus of Panama and opened up a new venture: buccaneering in the Pacific. And some of them ended up on Juan Fernandez Island, later known as Robinson Crusoe’s Island.


    Sam Willis  07:18

    Let’s talk about this island then, so off the coast of Chile. Why was it strategically significant? It’s no random coincidence that Selkirk ended up there, is it?


    Andrew Lambert  07:28

    No, Robinson Crusoe’s Island, or Mas Afuera, Más a Tierra: the two islands. Más a Tierra, the nearer one, is Robinson Crusoe’s Island. The other one is actually named for Selkirk, who was never on it because it’s almost inhospitable. And nobody goes that way. It’s important because the Humboldt Current means that sailing south from Peru to Chile is very difficult. And Juan Fernandez, the man who found it, worked out that if you went 200-300 miles offshore, you could pick up a better wind and a better current and you could make that journey much quicker. So, it was discovered as part of a coastal transit expedition which needed to make better time from Carlisle down to Valparaiso. Having found it, the Spanish landed on it, they intermittently lived on it, even the Jesuits lived on it. But it’s very small. The Spanish did what they always do, which is dumped some goats on it.


    Sam Willis  08:31

    Just in case some sailors come by?


    Andrew Lambert  08:33

    Yeah, goat meat is good stuff, apparently. Unfortunately, the goats then ate the island, which had, essentially, a unique ecosystem. They managed to eat most of it. There are very few bits of it left, although efforts are being made to preserve some of it. But nobody in the Spanish world wanted to live there. Even the Jesuits were there and they couldn’t put up with living on this tiny little island.


    Sam Willis  09:00

    Too small? Or was it intemperate, or just too isolated?


    Andrew Lambert  09:03

    It’s very, very isolated. There is not much to do. And today, there’s probably slightly less to do. It has no communications until the modern age, so it’s just not a place where continental people feel at home. It is the last place on earth. And if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s perfect.


    Sam Willis  09:24

    Defoe was looking for that as much as anyone else. I reckon he rubbed his hands with glee when he heard the story of Alexander Selkirk.


    Andrew Lambert  09:33

    He did, and if you live in Stoke Newington, which is a bit rough and tumble even then, I’m sure he did. He lived just opposite the church in Stoke Newington. Which was ironic because, of course, he wasn’t a churchgoer, he was a dissenter. So, Crusoe is a compound of many stories written by men like Lionel Wafer, William Dampier and many of the others. Defoe was using these and he’s So, filtering out some gold from these many hackneyed stories. And there are bits of all of the stories in the book. There are things that you can link into. There’s a famous scene in Crusoe where Man Friday meets his father on the beach. And they then perform a ritual dance of greeting. This is straight out of Dampier’s account. It’s an account of a Miskito Indian, who was with the buccaneers because they always took these excellent fishing and hunting men with them, meeting another man from his tribe on the beach on Juan Fernandez. It emphasises something else which often people mistake: Man Friday is not an African. He’s a Nicaraguan Indian. These are the people who are engaged with the buccaneers in their enterprises. They are an essential part of the crew; without them, you’d go hungry. These people are much better at fishing and hunting than any of the buccaneers. So, that has to be established. When you read the book, you read the description of Man Friday, and he’s quite clearly from Nicaragua. He’s a Nicaraguan Native American. But, Robinson Crusoe, as I learned is, not the scene of the book. The book is actually set on an island which doesn’t exist off the mouth of the Orinoco. Because Defoe is connecting us back to Walter Raleigh. He’s saying: this is the beginning of the British Empire, and this is the location from which the British Empire moves out. It’s Raleigh’s ideas, it’s Raleigh’s vision that he’s using as the lodestone to guide the future.


    Sam Willis  11:46

    So, it’s a British imagination that the link with the Tudors was to the Caribbean, to the East Coast?


    Andrew Lambert  11:55

    Yes, that’s where the money is. Raleigh’s vision is very straightforward: let’s find the gold, use the money to defeat the Spanish, and become the world’s most powerful country. Defoe is playing with that, but that reference to Raleigh is really important.


    Sam Willis  12:11

    Why was he so obsessed with Raleigh instead of others?


    Andrew Lambert  12:15

    Because Raleigh has written the text which sets out what a British Empire should be. Raleigh is now in print, and Defoe has the text in his library. Again, once you have a man’s library list, you’ve got almost a map of his mind and, in Defoe’s case, it’s very, very obvious what he’s reading. So, you can deconstruct his habits and his means of thinking. At the same time, he’s writing great books saying we need to go to this Juan Fernandez Island and use it as a base to move forward into the Pacific. Richard Hawkins learns about the island when he’s captured, when he’s in the South Pacific. He doesn’t use it as a base because nobody in Britain knows about it. He learns about it while he’s in captivity. But once Hawkins is published, everybody else is looking for this island. The Dutch use it in the 1620s. The British are thinking about using it. The buccaneers then do use it extensively, right the way through to the marooning of Selkirk and then his recovery.


    Sam Willis  13:23

    Let’s go to Selkirk then, this true story that it’s all based upon. What do we know about his early life? Did he come from complete obscurity?


    Andrew Lambert  13:34

    The great thing about Selkirk is, of course, he’s not English, he’s a Scot. He’s only become British while he was actually on the voyage that saw him marooned on the island. He left England, as a Scotsman and a foreigner and he returned as a British subject.


    Sam Willis  13:52

    Give us some dates, what dates are we talking about?


    Andrew Lambert  13:56

    1680s through to 1720 when he died off the west coast of Africa. He got back, spent all his money, got involved in a fairly complex relationship, almost certainly married twice, fled to sea, caught one of the dread diseases of the Bight of Benin and died. The great legend that Defoe stole his notes and that’s all that the book is, is complete and utter hogwash. Defoe was far too clever to need to steal anybody’s stuff. He made this up from a lot of different sources. And the Selkirk narrative is pretty short. He went on the island, he got very remorseful, very desperate, very sad.


    Sam Willis  14:40

    Let’s just take it back a step. What was he doing out there in the first place?


    Andrew Lambert  14:43

    So, Selkirk is one of the crew of a buccaneering voyage which goes very, very badly wrong. He falls out with the captain who he believes is substandard. He is a serious professional mariner himself, so he has some justification for this. He thinks the ship is going to sink, and that they will all die. So, he says no, I’d rather stay on the island of Juan Fernandez, where we are now, than go to sea in this rickety ship with this dimwit captain. He’s proved absolutely right; the ship does sink and many of the crew drown and the rest end up mining for silver at Potosi.


    Sam Willis  15:19

    So, they’re captured by the Spanish?


    Andrew Lambert  15:20

    Which is probably the worst fate for a Christian Britain at the time you could possibly imagine. So, instead, he lives a very lonely life on the island with only a few goats and other Lambert 15:20 animals for company. He quite literally forgets how to talk for about four years. When he meets some Englishmen, he has real trouble expressing himself. It takes him several days to recover his language. But, when they get there, he’s got the island under control. I was there for a month and eventually we worked out where he camped out. There was a great story that he lived up on the top of a mountain and he’s looking out to sea. I’ve done that walk several times. He didn’t live up there. There’s nothing to eat up there. There’s not much water. And the view from the top of the mountain doesn’t give you any prospect of the place that a sailing ship would come from.


    Sam Willis  16:16

    Yeah, that’s his priority.


    Andrew Lambert  16:17

    Yes, it’s a complete non sequitur. There’s a Spanish guard post up there from the 1740s but it’s not Selkirk. He lived very near the beach, just behind some rising ground, in a unique place on the island where the soil produces some very interesting white grass, which he used to stuff his mattress with, but doesn’t produce trees. It’s too wet for trees. Everywhere else is forested. So, he’s got this tiny little camp where he’s got his livestock corral, he’s able to grow vegetables.


    Sam Willis  16:49

    So, we’ve got some goats because the Spanish left some goats. He reared some goats because he knew how to do it.


    Andrew Lambert  16:53

    Yes, he lives obviously on goat stew. When the ship turns up, it’s Woods Rogers’ expedition that turns up.


    Sam Willis  17:01

    So quickly, who’s Woods Rogers?


    Andrew Lambert  17:03

    Woods Rogers is the last of the great buccaneers. He sets off on a privateering expedition, and he manages to get into the Pacific and make serious money. The voyage then collapses into legal business which profits the London lawyers rather than the men who are on the expedition, but he picks up Selkirk.


    Sam Willis  17:24

    Do we know why he was going there? Does he know Selkirk was on the island?


    Andrew Lambert  17:28

    He had no idea. No, Rogers doesn’t know that but he knows that the island is meant to be uninhabited and a useful place. Dampier, of course, went there three times and, on one occasion, they left behind a man on the island, the Miskito Indian, and the next time an English ship turned up there Dampier was on it again and they picked up the same fellow.


    Sam Willis  17:51



    Andrew Lambert  17:51

    So, the castaway story has two bases, both Man Friday and Crusoe were castaways but at separate times. So, there are connections there. But Crusoe is not Selkirk, Selkirk is an almost mono-syllabic professional mariner, who is not thinking about creating a grand empire or going on great voyages. He was never enslaved by the Barbary Corsairs, either. So again, at every step, Defoe is subverting the basic story, and he’s creating a different story. You have to read it more than once, really, to pick up all of the things that he’s trying to do. He really is trying to create something else, if you read it alongside his work on economic expansion. So, in the economic expansion books, he talks about this island and how important it is for controlling the Pacific. In Crusoe, we don’t get into the Pacific at all. We’re in the Caribbean. And we have other problems in the Caribbean, which involve the Spanish and religious questions and bit of cannibalism. There’s no cannibalism on Juan Fernandez because there’s nobody to eat.


    Sam Willis  19:10

    Did you find any archaeological evidence of Selkirk’s camp?


    Andrew Lambert  19:14

    We did. We were convinced that we found where the camp was. There is only really one place where it could be. Because we know that as the Woods Rogers expedition sails into the bay, and there’s only one bay with a decent anchorage that’s where the water is, that’s where you can get some shelter, that a fire was lit on the beach. They went ashore and that’s where they found Selkirk. They walked to his camp and it was no more than 20 minutes. That was not walking up the hill to the lookout point, which is Victorian fiction. It was close, and they describe it, and we found this place. We didn’t find much archaeology there for obvious reasons. But it is an archaeological site because the Spanish fortified it. They built a look-out post up the hill. There was also a major naval battle there in 1915. German cruiser Dresden is still at the bottom of the bay where it was put by HMS Kent and HMS Glasgow.


    Sam Willis  20:15

    We have covered that in the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, for you listeners, do check that out.


    Andrew Lambert  20:19

    And the shells that didn’t hit the Dresden are still in the cliffs.


    Sam Willis  20:23

    Are they?!


    Andrew Lambert  20:23

    Yeah, the ships went into the bay, so the overs didn’t go into the village. If you walk past the cemetery to the western end of the bay, you’ll see a whole series of six-inch rounds stuck in the cliff. You can still see the copper driving bands, and the bottom end of the shells. It’s a place with quite a lot of history. And it was then visited over and over again, but by certainly 1800, the association with Crusoe was strong. There was a very strong sense that Crusoe was set on this island. But of course, everybody is reading and conflating rather than reading and respecting the text. So, it reaches a point where everybody’s coming to look for Crusoe’s cave. Selkirk never had a cave.


    Sam Willis  21:13

    This is so confusing!


    Andrew Lambert  21:14

    This is a complete invention. So, Defoe has given Crusoe a cave. There’s plenty of places you could have a cave and eventually some American miners heading to San Francisco in 1849 basically thought they’d found it. They kept digging and they created one. Ever since, everybody thinks that there is actually a cave and it’s this one. It’s not: it was made by Americans who thought there was a cave and, because they were miners, they’d come with pickaxes, and they hacked it out. And, more recently, an American with plenty of money has come along and dug for Lord Anson’s treasure which is also meant to be there. Anson didn’t have any treasure when he was at the island. The treasure comes much, much later off the coast of the Philippines.


    Sam Willis  21:58

    Let’s just talk about Anson quickly, actually. But it is interesting. So, there’s someone who’s gone into the Pacific. I’m wondering whether there’s a bit of a problem with British maritime history in our understanding of British activity in the Pacific. It’s so focused on discovery and Cook and Anson, there’s so much that’s missed, isn’t there?


    Andrew Lambert  22:18

    Well, I think there’s a lot that’s missed, particularly about Anson anyway. Why was Anson given that command? Because he’s a seriously good astronomer. His cousin, Lord Macclesfield, second Earl of Macclesfield, is the leading astronomer in early Georgian England. He went to the same school as Anson, and the two of them are both developing astronomical studies in Britain. They’re both members of the Royal Society. That’s what he sent, just as Cook was sent to take the transit of Venus at Tahiti as an astronomer, as well as a navigator. If you look at what Anson does, it’s quite clear that he has a programme for this voyage. It goes badly wrong, as we know, but Juan Fernandez Island comes to their rescue. They’re looking for it; they don’t happen upon it randomly. This is meant to be the refreshment stop. They get there in a poor condition, but they are saved by the island. The other thing we found when we were there is Anson’s camp. Again, nobody bothered to look for it. There’s a wonderful drawing in one of the non-Anson accounts of the voyage showing the camp and the Centurion anchored in the bay. We ended up standing on the exact same spot. I’ve actually put photographs of it in the book. It turns out – the obvious thing they need is water – there’s a stream right there. Then, we were there and somebody was digging a hole to bury some rubbish, and they came across what was quite clearly the forge from the Anson expedition with bits of scrap iron, and a lot of burnt material, which had just been covered over by soil. So, this is where they mended all the gear on the Centurion while they were at Juan Fernandez. We know where Anson camped out; it’s now called Lord Anson’s Valley. And the convenience store on the island is called the Lord Anson Store. So, when Anson gets back to Britain, what does he do? He oversees the writing of the first essentially official naval history, which is a how-to-do-this-expedition-better-next-time study. He gets Benjamin Robinson from the Royal Society to make sure it’s absolutely right because the parson who was writing it really didn’t understand some of the issues. But Anson understands all of this, he’s thought about all of this, and he’s very, very well equipped to deal with what this island has to offer. He’s not surprised by anything. I think that’s the key to his success: he’s never underprepared. He manages to survive all of the terrors of that voyage in which almost everybody dies. When they get home, nearly half the crew weren’t on the initial voyage, they’d been picked up along the way. The actual survivors of the initial voyages are mostly younger officers, and Anson, and a few of the sailors.


    Sam Willis  25:28

    I don’t know the answer to this. But when did whaling start happening in the Pacific? Do you know off the top of your head?


    Andrew Lambert  25:33

    Yes, I do actually because that comes into this story, because the whalers would stop at Juan Fernandez; they would take some sandalwood, which they would sell in China, or exchange in Vancouver, and then head up into the Bering Straits. That’s in the 1780s, and it’s initially American, and then it’s British. We get a major set of exchanges of ships during the War of 1812. USS Essex captures nearly a dozen British whalers out there and deposits some of them in the Marquesas Islands. Essex tries to get some of them home, most of them are re-captured. Then, the captain of the Essex, David Porter, writes an account of his voyage, which sells the South Pacific to the Americans.  So, if the Americans have a Pacific vision, it’s that of David Porter, who managed to lose his ship while disobeying his orders, and had a lot to try and avoid talking about. And then you segway neatly into the Whaleship Essex narrative.


    Andrew Lambert  26:23

    Which is that vessel which was sunk by a whale.


    Andrew Lambert  26:46

    And that, of course, then segways into Melville, and Moby Dick, because he knew the son of the man who was actually on the Whaleship Essex and wrote that narrative. He had a very scarce edition of the Whaleship Essex narrative. That’s one of the key texts that he’s using to write this great book, which is in American Pacific in which the Pacific fights back. The whaling goes on into the late 19th century in the Bering Straits. It’s largely an American industry from the 1820s onwards.


    Sam Willis  27:23

    This whole area of the Pacific is still very little known to a British audience, which is when Defoe’s writing. I know he’s setting it in the Caribbean, but the true story that he’s basing it on is a very little-known part of the world, isn’t it?


    Andrew Lambert  27:39

    It is and, for me, that was a large part of why the project to write the book went from being “I probably ought to write something about this” to turning into a book that I ended up writing. Like several of the things I’ve written, it started with a voyage, and then the voyage in the library started after I got back. So, while I was there, my reading materials were confined to Crusoe and Anson’s narrative. That was about it, really. So, I had ample time to read and reread the materials and deconstruct them as far as possible, and start some questions running about why the materials work like this. Why is Anson’s narratives so effective? Because it was very carefully controlled by Anson. It was very carefully delivered. It was a runaway bestseller from the start. And so was Crusoe. Part of that is the strangeness of the location. Here’s this amazing little island, which seems to be able to do everything that islands have to do in the British imagination.


    Sam Willis  28:50

    It’s the very definition of strange but true.


    Andrew Lambert  28:52

    Yeah. So, what I ended up writing was a book about the invention of insularity. You couldn’t be further away from Britain. You couldn’t be on a smaller island. And yet, the English/British keep going back to this over and over again. The Challenger Expedition in the 1870s, they went there., and almost all of the scientists are Scotsman and they’re swinging across the Pacific reading Crusoe and thinking they’re going to meet Selkirk. They’re doing that thing; they’re mixing up the man who actually lived with somebody who never got that side of America. Lord Cochran, was there.


    Sam Willis  29:34

    It’s interesting, just the ignorance of how history works, if they actually genuinely believe in this stuff.


    Andrew Lambert  29:44

    Yeah, well history is what we think about the past and that’s never been what happened in the past. It’s always been something that we’ve created. If you ask Vladimir Putin, he’ll tell you that Ukraine isn’t a country. That’s a created history. We do it all the time. We’re endlessly doing it. As soon as world events change, we try and justify them by finding patterns in the past, many of which don’t exist.


    Sam Willis  30:10

    So, people have been doing it for ages with the whole Crusoe and Selkirk myth?


    Andrew Lambert  30:14

    Yes, and they keep on doing it because it’s so much easier to peddle the same old story than it is to go back and ask them different questions. I was surprised how easy it was to have something new to say about such a familiar subject.


    Sam Willis  30:29

    Once you look into it, you sort of knock on the door of it. It’s one of those wonderful ones, I think, that would be brilliant for young postgraduates or undergraduates because you just read any kind of story that comes out of the Selkirk/Crusoe and it just raises questions. Why did that happen? Why is this? Whether it’s about the history of what happened, or about the subsequent story of its fame.


    Andrew Lambert  30:49

    Yeah. It’s a book that is more famous now than it is read. So, a Robinsoniad is any such narrative. But, the critical thing for Defoe is the insularity of the setting. That’s at a time when the future of Britain is very much in debate. It’s a new entity – it’s only 1707. So, by the time he’s writing this, it’s only 10 years old. What prospects has it got? Well, it’s just won a major war and defeated the French so it’s looking pretty good. And what did they get out of the war? Some naval bases, including the odd island like Menorca, and a trade treaty with the Spanish to open up Spanish America. The South Sea Company is this great thing and, of course, shortly after Kreutznaer was published, it goes pop and lots of other things change. Insularity is the key; finding a world in which you don’t need to dominate great continental spaces, but you can harvest the riches of the world from the sea, whether by plundering as a buccaneer or a pirate, or indeed as a privateer, like Woods Rogers who’s out there with a commission.


    Sam Willis  31:59

    There is an interesting narrative as well about Selkirk being strangely satisfied with his lot after four years of isolation, which I think is really interesting.


    Andrew Lambert  32:09

    I think that with the narrative of Selkirk, the thing that really strikes home is he’s been waiting for the ship to turn up and, within a day of getting on the ship, he’s somewhat regretting that he’s leaving. Now that he’s been at peace with himself on this island, which he clearly hasn’t been at any other stage in his life, his shipmates find him rapidly returning to old habits. By the time he gets back to Britain, he’s entirely recovered from being an island castaway.


    Sam Willis  32:43

    I’d love to know how much the ships, and ship life and the culture of being a seaman, had changed in those four years. Whether he got back on the ship and was like, “Oh, this is exactly as I knew it,” or whether it was fundamentally different.


    Andrew Lambert  32:55

    It doesn’t seem to have been very different. There were people on the voyage who’d been on the voyage that he was on.


    Sam Willis  33:02

    Old friends?


    Andrew Lambert  33:03

    Not all of them. But I think Selkirk was a man who had many arguments with many people, including himself, and certainly with his God, whoever that was. So, he’s a difficult man and Defoe does not make Selkirk central to Crusoe. Crusoe is occupying a space that many buccaneers have carved out. And yet, in reality, he’s not actually a buccaneer, he’s rising up through the social ranks. He’s going to be quite somebody. After the success of this, Crusoe writes a couple of more which nobody bothers to read because they’re not very good actually. Crusoe wanders off across Europe like Marlborough, conquering stuff and fighting wolves. The wonder of the original book is completely lost in the sequel. But, we’re all familiar with that in the 21st century; the sequel is or is always a disappointment, whatever it is. The story has been captured and retold and occupied by other people and been used for very different purposes. So, if we go back, this is about how English insularity is going to make Britain into a great power around the world. It’s about maritime trade. It’s about opening markets. It’s about how the English have a way of dealing with problems which is not shared by everybody else. So, all of the other groups in this story need Crusoe to solve their problems for them. He manages to reconcile the different peoples; he manages to reconcile different faiths. When he leaves the island, he leaves it under the government of some Iberian Catholics. He’s not holding out for a Protestant vision because that isn’t Defoe’s vision either. He’s not signed up to the established church, he’s signed up to the peoples; other way of doing things. And he’s fairly flexible too. We don’t know whether somebody paid him to write some of the commercial material, but certainly he was moving in circles where that would have been likely. He was writing for the government for much of his career, and he never seems to have been short of money. So, there’s a possibility. But this is something spun out of his very well-informed mind; he’s creating a story on the basis of a great deal of information. He’s not making it up. He’s bringing together things from different places to create something which is not a true story. But it’s a story full of truth.


    Sam Willis  35:44

    Yeah, and there are so many different things that people can latch on to and it will ring true with them. All of the ingredients for a best seller. Andrew, thank you very much indeed for sharing this wonderful story.


    Andrew Lambert  35:58

    My pleasure.


    Sam Willis  36:04

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now, do please find the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast on social media. We’re on Instagram, of course, and we have just launched on TikTok. We’ve had nearly a quarter of a million views in the first five days alone. So, do please enjoy the content we are posting there. Please also leave us a review. If you’re listening on iTunes, it’s very easy to do: scroll down in the app, hit ‘five stars’ and tell us what you think! I will read out all reviews. Best of all, however, please join the Society for Nautical Research. Your modest subscription will help support this podcast. It will get you four copies a year of the printed Mariner’s Mirror Journal, and online access to the entire back-catalogue – that’s over a century’s worth – and it will help support the preservation of maritime heritage. All great things that will help you sleep well in your hammock at night.

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