• search-icon

This Is What It Was Like To Be Marooned In The Age Of Sail

Alexander Selkirk was left ashore an uninhabited island by his captain.

Marooned. Left on a sandbar or other island in the middle of nowhere with just a little food, water, and a loaded pistol to end your suffering. In the world of pirates, it was a punishment for breaking the pirates' code—and was usually fatal. But the real-life Robinson Crusoe survived his marooning and lived to tell the tale of life on an island in the middle of nowhere, completely alone.

Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish sailor with William Dampier's second expedition to circumnavigate the globe. As they traveled, the expedition supported themselves–and secured the sailors' futures–by privateering: legally pirating Spanish ships. Selkirik was aboard a 16-gun ship named Cinque Ports, a ship that was rather unseaworthy. When Selkirk repeatedly complained to Dampier and the captain of the Cinque Ports about the ship's marked issues with sailing, the men decided to maroon him on an island off the coast of Chile.

Related: Lost at Sea: What Happened to the Mary Celeste? 

Selkirk didn't die there, however. While the Cinque Ports later sunk with almost a total loss of her crew, Selkirk survived and was rescued by English privateer Woodes Rogers... four years later. All that for wanting to make repairs to the ship—a ship he was right about needing repairs. The crew that did survive the ships founding off of Colombia were captured by the Spanish and imprisoned.

The islander spent much of his time at first at the shoreline, scanning for ships and eating seafood. But eventually, the sounds of mating sea lions drove him further inland. Despite suffering from crippling loneliness, he managed to domesticate the island's wild goats and cultivate the local vegetation. He was eventually attacked by the island's wild rat population, but domesticated feral cats to stave off the attackers. He even built two huts from the trees that grew pepper plants and forged a knife from barrel hops that had washed up on the beach.

Related: The Long, Strange History of the Maunsell Sea Forts 

He soon began to hunt by hand and spear, as his gunpowder was in limited supply anyway. He also began to make new clothes from the skins of his goats. The only ships that stopped on his island were Spanish. Not only did he not get a rescue, he had to hide for fear the men would torture and imprison him. But eventually, nearly five years later, he was rescued by British seamen.

marooned alexander selkirk
  • Selkirk reading his Bible in one of two huts he built.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The British sailors were astonished at the life Selkirk made for himself. He had survived an accidental fall from a cliff, learned to hunt and clean the wild animals of the island, and was the picture of physical fitness. Selkirk was even able to address the ships' illnesses and clear its sailors of scurvy. Selkirk was able to maintain his sanity because the captain of the Cinque Points left him a bible to read and entertain himself. By the time the English came for him, he was still of sound mind, able to command a prize ship and even returned to privateering against the Spanish.

Related: 6 Famous Explorers Who Vanished from the Face of the Earth 

Selkirk was even one of Daniel Defoe's inspirations for the title character of Robinson Crusoe. The story of the marooned sailor just goes to show no matter how tough things might seem, a little perseverance might see you through. Alexander Selkirk became a national hero while the people who marooned him died tragically, despite his warnings.

Published on 26 Aug 2019

scroll up