Robinson Crusoe—Fact and Fiction
Robinson Crusoe is one of the most popular novels of all time. Written by the 17th-century Englishman Daniel Defoe, its story of a castaway surviving by his own ingenuity on a desert island has been widely read in many different languages. Of course, the story itself is just fiction. But did you know that an island called Robinson Crusoe exists today and that Daniel Defoe based his famous story on the adventures of a real man on that island? Let us find out something about it.
ABOUT 400 miles (640 km) from the Chilean seaport of Valparaíso, is an archipelago called Juan Fernández. The archipelago is composed of just three small specks in the vast Pacific Ocean: Isla Santa Clara; Isla Más Afuera, or Alejandro Selkirk, and Isla Más a Tierra, or Robinson Crusoe. Seals, sea lions, fish, and the Juan Fernández lobsters abound there.
An Unexpected Discovery
How did anyone ever stumble onto such tiny islands in all that ocean? They were found about 1563 by a Spanish ship’s pilot after whom they are named, Juan Fernández. He worked a shipping route between Callao, Peru, and Valparaíso, Chile. Usually the southward journey took from three to six months, partly because of adverse winds and partly because of the mighty Peruvian, or Humboldt, Current that moves northward along the coasts of Chile and Peru. Ships, fighting both the winds and the implacable current, used to edge their way southward, weighing anchor each night whenever possible.
Juan Fernández apparently guessed the existence of this current and went some distance from the coast to avoid it. Thus he reduced the travel time to just 30 days and, as a bonus, discovered the islands. However, he was accused of being a brujo (witch) and was threatened with an investigation by the Catholic Inquisition in Lima. To defend himself, he made available his navigational diary. The matter was cleared up and his secret revealed.
So the archipelago entered history. In the 17th century, it became a center of operations for pirates such as Henry Morgan and Barthome Sharp, who found it an ideal base for launching raids as far apart as La Serena in Chile and Guayaquil in Ecuador.
Robinson Crusoe Enters the Story
But what about Robinson Crusoe? Well, a Scotsman named Alexander Selkirk was aboard a ship that called on the Más a Tierra island in 1704. Reportedly, he had dreamed that he was going to be shipwrecked, and he had also quarreled with the captain. Hence, Selkirk asked to be left ashore. His adventures there provided the inspiration for Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe.
At first Selkirk felt a deep loneliness and read the Bible for consolation. Soon the problem of survival demanded that he use all his resourcefulness. He invented a number of utensils to make life more tolerable, and some of these are still preserved in Edinburgh, Scotland. The umbrella is said to have been one of his inventions. Reportedly, he made the first one from the skin of a female sea lion.
After more than four lonely years, two English ships under the command of Captain Woodes Rogers arrived, and Selkirk was taken aboard and returned to England. Seemingly he missed the tranquillity of his Pacific island, however, and he is reported to have said: “Oh my beloved island! I wish I had never left thee!” It is doubtful that he would have said that if he could have foreseen future developments.
Times Have Changed
Because of the strategic importance of the islands, the Spanish, in 1750, attempted to establish a permanent colony there. In the course of time, a penal colony was established there. Prisoners who had committed atrocities such as murder were confined to a fort. Those found guilty of blasphemy or other “crimes of faith” by the Catholic Inquisition in Quito, Lima, or Santiago suffered inhumane treatment and were kept in caves infested with rats.
And what of the island today? The penal colony has gone. The archipelago is sparsely populated, peaceful, and advertised as a vacation spot. In 1979 one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, an elder from a congregation in Valparaíso, went to Robinson Crusoe Island in connection with his secular work. He asked the guide about the local religions and heard that the Catholic priest came only once in a great while and the Protestant minister had left for good. “That doesn’t affect me,” said the guide. “I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” What a surprise for the elder who thought he was going to virgin territory!
The elder learned that a small group was studying the Bible with a woman who had previously been contacted by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Santiago. On his second visit a few months later, three of the group were baptized. At present, several Witnesses preach fearlessly to the 450 inhabitants of the islands.
So peace has returned to the island where Alexander Selkirk found refuge so long ago. With its two sister islands, it has taken its place among the “many islands” that rejoice to hear that Jehovah has become King.—Psalm 97:1.
[Maps/Picture on page 27]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Juan Fernández Islands
Alejandro Selkirk Island
Róbinson Crusoe Island
Isla Santa Clara
From: ROBINSON CRUSOE, illustrated by Milo Winter © by Rand McNally & Company