Friday, 26 February 2016

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Alexander Selkirk (1676 – 13 December 1721)

Perhaps not the most familiar of names to be turning up in these columns, though this is mainly because, when it comes to Academia & the Arts, our man was more your muse or model, rather than an actual Movers and Shakers (a term coined, entirely by-the-bye, in 1874 by Arthur O'Shaughnessy in his poem Ode). Mind you, what Selkirk did do certainly had plenty of – shall we say? – originality about it and the work of art he inspired is so ubiquitous and enduringly popular, even now, that there is not the remotest possibility that this will be your first encounter with it. Let it thus remain anonymous until unfolding events herein reveal its true identity. When you think you know what it is, just shout out but, have a care, it’s the complete title that we’re looking for here.

Our man was born in Fife, the son of a tanner-cum-shoemaker and, by all accounts, was much given to surly and quarrelsome behaviour in his youth – a typical adolescent, you might say – which eventually led to his being summoned to appear before the Kirk Session in August 1693 for what is enigmatically described as his “indecent conduct in church”. What form this heinous piece of devilry might actually have taken has had an impenetrable veil drawn over it, so we can but speculate, though surely it can’t’ve been anywhere near as despicable as the one committed by our own Edward VIII (he’s the Abdicator, if you recall), who scandalised society and all sense of decency when unashamedly appearing – in public, if you please – not wearing a hat. What an unmitigated blackguard, to be sure! Though it does tend to put that business of marrying the gold-digging American divorcee into the shade somewhat. Meanwhile, our Alex decided that, rather than being hauled in front of the Presbyterian beak, the wisest of action would be to head off to sea until the whole thing blew over. Which is what he did. Anything to avoid confinement and the risk of a lengthy stretch of solitary …

Life on board suited him and he did well so, by 1703, it was high time to take the next step in career progression. By engaging in a spot of buccaneering, which was all the rage just then – the word, incidentally, comes from the French, boucanier, meaning to smoke meat, as it was first used for hunters of wild oxen in the Caribbean, who would then enjoy a nice barbie of what they’d bagged, barbecue also evolving from the same root – though our jolly jack tars gave the whole enterprise a veneer of respectability by calling themselves privateers. (Which means they were in the pay of the government. And therefore not terrorists). Anyhow, on September 11 that year, he set sail with an expedition to the South Sea led by William Dampier, though their actual avowed intention was not so much your exploration as one of finding enemy ships, attacking them and then nicking their cargoes. Not just pillaging per se, you understand, but all for Queen and Country (Anne being monarch then), as the War of the Spanish Succession between England and France was just getting into top gear at this point, the French having decided they wanted their man on the Spanish throne and we most definitely didn’t. So the easiest way to settle the dispute was by having a war. One that would last thirteen years. As the voyage got underway, Dampier was captain of St George, and Selkirk serving on Cinque Ports, her companion ship, as sailing master under Captain Thomas Stradling.

William Dampier should be more famous than he actually is, being the first Englishman to explore parts of what is today Australia and the first to circumnavigate the world three times, all of which led him to being described as “one of the most important British explorers of the period between Sir Walter Raleigh and James Cook.” He’s certainly one of the most forgotten. The truth, however, is that he was every bit as thuggish as Selkirk himself and, not unsurprisingly, he had a penchant for upsetting folk – when there was no enemy around to be giving a bloody nose to, our sailors generally fell back on the old standby of bickering amongst themselves – eventually culminating in Dampier’s court martial for cruelty, for which he was fined his entire wages for the whole trip. This particular voyage didn’t get off to the best of starts, seeing they’d left it too late for going via the Cape of Good Hope and had to go round by Cape Horn instead, more than a touch choppy itself at that season, eventually getting to the Juan Fernández Islands (off Chile), where they put in for supplies. As luck would have it, a French merchantman came sailing on by, so they decided they’d have a pop at her and fill the holds that way. As luck would also have it – all bad, it seems – she was heavily armed and doggedly manned so, after seven hours of desperate fighting, our lads came away completely emptyhanded. And a bit cheesed off. 

Still, plenty more fish in the sea. Or, better still, slow little Spanish ships laden down with tempting loot that would make easy pickings for a scurrilous band of vicious cut-throats like our lot happened to be and, indeed, they came across no end of them. Though, for some reason, Dampier let them all go after having only taken a fraction of their cargoes, the reason being that he thought they “would be a hindrance to his greater designs.” Which turned out to be the possibility of a highly lucrative raid on Santa María (Panama), a town supposedly awash with vast stockpiles of gold that it was simply itching to be relieved of and Dampier the very fellow to help them out on that score. Alas, however, the best laid plans of mice and mariners … Mind you, the plans weren’t really all that well laid, as it turns out, and the mice would’ve probably made an altogether better fist of it in the end. Besides which, the way this voyage had been progressing, they surely must’ve suspected that it wasn’t exactly going to be plain sailing. Actually, the sailing part all went off rather tickety-boo – it was once they got ashore that matters took a decided turn for the worse when they discovered that the townsfolk weren’t about to meekly surrender and hand over all their bullion to an ill-disciplined rabble, but were about to give them a darn good spanking before sending them on their way with not even so much as a groat to show for their efforts. They were cheesed off about that one too. 

Captain Dampier was turning out to be appositely named – apart from the Captain bit, of course – being a complete wet blanket and a third rate damp squib. Needless to say, at this point some highly uncharitable opinions were expressed amongst the crews, all of which led to an acrimonious parting of the ways, with Dampier heading off in one direction and Stradling, along with Selkirk, taking a different one altogether. By now, it was September 1704 and, after a year at sea, during which time they had been mercilessly pummelled by elements and enemies alike, the Cinque Ports had developed more leaks than your average government department. High time to put into port for some downtime and to replenish. Which is precisely what they did next. As luck would have it – and, given the state of theirs, which couldn’t’ve been any worse if they’d spent the entire voyage shooting down every last passing albatross, something was bound to go horribly wrong for all concerned – an uninhabited island lying a good four hundred miles off Chile and known as Más a Tierra (to the Spanish, anyhow, who could be sarky blighters when they wanted to be, seeing it means Closer to Land – closer than what, precisely?) happened to beckon to them with open arms at that fateful moment. 

Having stocked up, Selkirk, first and foremost the sailor, thought it might be a wise idea if they took this chance to undertake some much-needed repairs, having grave concerns about the apparent seaworthiness – or lack of it – of their vessel and its continuing ability to carry them across the ocean rather than straight to the bottom of it, so he said as much to his Captain. Alas, however, Stradling was more your committed armed robber, so his chief concern was with giving the gold-laden Spanish and French further opportunities to help those less fortunate than themselves (ie Stradling and his brigands) by parting with their cash. Thoroughly alarmed now, Selkirk expressed himself somewhat more forcefully this time, saying that he would rather be left behind than take to sea again in such a jalopy as the Cinque Ports had now become.

Have you ever, in the heat of the moment, allowed the red mist to get the better of you, from behind which you suddenly hear yourself blurting out a volley of particularly ill-chosen words, only to find yourself thinking, the very second they’re irrevocably uttered, something very much along the lines of, “I really wish I hadn’t said that now”? Just such sentiments must have passed through our man’s mind, first when Stradling readily granted his request, then when they dumped his gear on the beach, and all the while he was watching his erstwhile ship become a dot on the horizon and finally disappear. He couldn’t even console himself with the thought that he now knew exactly how Robinson Crusoe must’ve felt, because that hadn’t actually been written yet, though he might well have derived some sardonic amusement had he known that the Cinque Ports did indeed go down not long later, all hands who didn’t drown ending up being rescued by the unforgiving Spanish and treated to some harsh imprisonment for their trouble.

At first, Selkirk remained close to the shoreline, constantly scanning the ocean for any sign of possible rescue, feeling thoroughly miserable and desperately alone. Mind you, he didn’t want for company very long. Just as he was resolving himself to his situation and – quite possibly – as the very thought was entering his head that, “You know what, there’s something to be said for the serenity of solitude after all, being master of all one surveys, the peace and tranquillity of island life, that the only thing that could spoil it now would be if that massive great crash (or rookery) of sea lions out there decided to come ashore and hold a cacophonous mating party right here on the beach” – he found himself inundated with sea lions in a particularly frisky mood. So he made a swiftish dash for the inland, which was no bad thing, as it turned out, because there he found tribes of feral goats waiting to provide meat for the barbie, a drop of milk and a new outfit for when it turned nippy. There were also cabbages and turnips growing wild, plus pepper berries to spice up the old goat-and-cabbage stew a tad. The downside – there had to be one, didn’t there? – was that, whenever he got his head down for the night, colonies of peckish rats would come swarming all over him to give him a good nibbling. Mind you, on the upside, there also happened to be clowders of feral cats hanging about the place, so he got matey with them and, bingo, rat problem sorted. Plus, he was also getting to know most of the collective terms for the wildlife hereabouts – the big pity being that there were no schnauzers in the vicinity, otherwise he might’ve had a stench on his hands also. Though, for a supposedly uninhabited island, it was starting to get mighty crowded …

Finally, at long last, some good news when two ships could be seen approaching his little island fastness. Accompanied rapidly, and as always, by some bad news when these turned out to be Spanish and, therefore, packed to the gunwales with Spaniards who, understandably enough, were none-too-keen on Scottish privateers who’d spent their former careers robbing the very eyes out of ‘em and then leaving them for dead. The situation called for some subterfuge. So he hid in a tree. Which turned out to be enough to fool the Spanish all ends up and so they sailed away again, defeated. By a tree. Though they’d known someone was in residence as they’d come across his two huts, property that made him the biggest real estate owner for hundreds of miles around. One was used for cooking and the other for sleeping at night and reading his Bible by day or singing psalms. Seems our man had turned religious now and had found peace of mind. 

Quite clearly, there has to be a happy ending to all this – or a rescue, anyhow – otherwise nobody would have heard of him and his story, and the book could never have been written. (Yes, it’s a book). This came on 2 February 1709, when the privateering ships the Duke and Duchess hove into view and, having learned from the previous Spanish debacle, Selkirk climbed up his look-out tree to make sure they really were British this time and, finally convinced and utterly overjoyed, he lit a fire on the beach to attract their attention. Which did the trick. In came a landing party. At last, after four years and four months, his luck had finally changed. Nothing could go wrong this time. Unless – no, Fate could never be so cruel, could she? – unless the Duke happened to be being piloted by that utter cad and bounder of the first water (and every water, it would seem, including Selkirk’s own little patch of private ocean), his old adversary and erstwhile Captain, William Dampier. Which it was. Would you Adam & Eve it? In the end, Selkirk had to be persuaded to come aboard. 

You’d think that, after all his tribulations and having found God, he’d give life on the ocean waves and the privateering lark the old heave-ho, but not a bit of it. It was God that got the elbow and our man was soon indulging in his former anti-social habits. He led a boat crew up the Guayas River (Ecuador) to where a murder (if that’s the correct collective term) of wealthy Spanish ladies had fled in an attempt to secrete their jewels. Alas, they weren’t much cop when it came to hiding booty and our man found it easily enough, and still warm, whilst rifling through their clothing. Next up, he helped to capture the treasure galleon, the Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, which, by all accounts, means something like Our Lady of the Incarnation and Disappointment. Quite what she had to be so disappointed about remains a mystery – Selkirk should’ve known, what with all his Bible-bashing – but, whatever, not being able to get their laughing gear around that mouthful, and with wonderfully sardonic irony, they renamed her Batchelor. Following a jaunt around the Cape of Good Hope, he completed his around-the-world voyage and arrived back in England on 1 October 1711. He had been away for over eight years. Our poacher would eventually turn gamekeeper and, whilst he was engaged in anti-piracy patrols off the west coast of Africa, he succumbed to yellow fever and died, aged about forty seven, on 13 December 1721 – it would have to be the thirteenth with his luck wouldn’t it? He was buried at sea.

Now, hands up all those who’ve guessed that it was Robinson Crusoe we were talking about herein? Well, it’s a big fat raspberry for you lot, we fear. We wanted the full title, if you recall. So, did anyone have down The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe at all? Still no awarding yourself a Jammy Dodger for that one either, we regret to say. What we were really after was (and get a load of this little lot):

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; having been cast on shore by Shipwreck, where-in all the Men perished but Himself. With An Account how he was at last strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

Which was first published on 25 April 1719, only a decade after the rescue and while Selkirk was still alive and robbing. It was a clearly recognisable portrait, with Defoe’s (his name was actually Foe and he only bunged the De in to make himself sound more aristocratic – he also spent three days in the pillory, though that was for something else) with Defoe’s eponymous hero still kitted out in the goatskin togs, even though his island was based on Tobago, which would’ve made them a touch on the warm side for beachwear in such a tropical climate, and he also somehow manages to spot penguins and seals there, meaning he must’ve had remarkable eyesight, seeing they never get any closer than the Galapagos. Still, not altogether a bad little literary effort when you think about it and how it’s lasted so well. Even William Cowper decided to get in on the act and have his own bash at the story – he might not’ve been so hot at spelling Cooper but he was a dabhand when it came to the knocking out poetry caper. In fact, it was he, in his The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk (no lights under bushels with that title) who gave us the immortal line (which opens it), “I am monarch of all I survey.” A fine and noble sentiment indeed, though not much consolation if all that you do survey happens to be nothing but a vast rabble of sex-crazed sea lions, is it?


Edward VIII: By National Media Museum from UK [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Privateer (Kent battling Confiance): Ambroise-Louis Garneray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Dampier: Thomas Murray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Buccaneer: Howard Pyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albatross (engraving for Rime of the Ancient Mariner): Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Selkirk Statue: By SylviaStanley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sea Lions: By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Selkirk Reading His Bible: By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Being taken aboard the Duke: By Robert C. Leslie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Robinson Crusoe (Book Cover): By Unknown Gilberton Artist (Gilberton) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Defoe in the Pillory: By James Charles Armytage (died 1902) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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