time Pirate, Mariner and Island Monarch
Born in Nether Largo
in Fife, Scotland, he ran away from home at 15 after being charged
with “undecent behaviour” in church. He
went to sea and joined the ill-fated Darien expedition of
This was Scotland’s attempt at becoming a colonial
power and they cunningly chose a part of Central America
which was only 40 miles wide (giving Scotland control of
trade between the Atlantic and the Pacific). Disease, starvation
(they asked the English in Jamaica for help, but none was
forthcoming) and then attack by the Spanish ended the venture.
Of the 1200 colonialists sent out, less than 300 returned
but these included Selkirk, now a mariner.
One far reaching consequence of the campaign was that it
nearly bankrupted Scotland and paved the way for union with
England in 1707.
Now a man of the world, he returned home in 1701 only to
violently fall out with his family. This time he accepted his
punishment and promised “amendment”,
and promptly went to sea again, rising to the rank of quartermaster after
he joined the Cinque Ports galley on its ill-fated expedition with the
St George in 1703.
When Straddling took command he was two years younger than Selkirk and
this probably contributed to their strained relationship. Another
major problem with the voyage was the poor way in which Dampier led his
men. Selkirk, knowing
that Dampier knew all about the damage to timber caused by ship’s
worms, never forgave him for not sheathing the ships for protection before
After being marooned on a remote island by Straddling, Selkirk had four
years and four months to dwell upon his bad luck: It’s hard to
imagine what nightmares he must have endured. After Selkirk’s rescue,
Woodes Rogers famously described him as “a man cloth’d in
Goat-skins, who looked wilder than the first owners of them”. Selkirk
had trouble speaking “for
want of use” and “he seemed to speak his words by halves”. Rogers
called him the Governor of the Island and its Absolute Monarch. Dampier
recommended him, and he was appointed Second Mate on the Duke.
Selkirk being rescued from Juan Fernandez Island by Woodes Rogers’ expedition
Rogers and Selkirk got on well and, on reaching Bristol after
the voyage, Selkirk stayed around hoping to get a berth on a new
expedition for the South Seas Company that Woodes Rogers was trying
to bring to fruition (initially staying in Roger's house
in Queens Square). During this time Selkirk wrote a deposition
against Dampier for his role in the St George fiasco. His
stay in Bristol lasted nearly two years until he once again fell
foul of the authorities and ran away after being charged with attacking
a fellow sailor in 1713.
One of Selkirk’s haunts in Bristol (just yards from the Star where
it is alleged that he met Daniel Defoe)
He went back to Largo a wealthy man, with £800
from his share of the Manila galleon and copies of all the books
that had been written about him. He tried to settle and “married” a
local girl, but it didn’t work out. He enlisted in
the navy and served on HMS Enterprise as mate and then HMS Weymouth
as first mate.
|Clad in goatskins, Selkirk awaits rescue in a sculpture by Thomas Stuart Burnett (1885)
Before going on his last voyage he “married” again,
leading to all sorts of problems for his first ‘wife’. The
mission was to protect Britain’s slaving interests in West
Africa , at that time being attacked by pirates, led by “Black
Bart” Roberts. It would be another 100 years before the
Royal Navy would attack the slave stations.
Weymouth’s sister ship, the Swallow, would lead the successful
attack on the pirates, because the crew of Selkirk’s
ship were stricken with disease. The Island Monarch himself
died of the disease (probably Yellow Fever) on 13th December 1721. Coincidently, Woodes
Rogers’ only surviving son, William Whetstone Rogers,
went on a slaving voyage on behalf of the Royal African Company, only to meet
the same fate as Selkirk, off of the same West African coast in 1735.