Robinson Crusoe: Life on the real island

Gideon Long explores the island that inspired Defoe's famous novel

Daniel Defoe's famous novel was inspired by the true story of an 18th Century castaway, but the real Robinson Crusoe island bears little resemblance to its fictional counterpart.

Think of the island on which Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked in Daniel Defoe's famous book and you're likely to think of a sun-drenched Caribbean idyll with sandy beaches and palm trees. In short, not a bad place to be shipwrecked.

But the island that supposedly inspired the book is nothing like that. It's in the Pacific, nearly 700km off the coast of Chile, and is frequently shrouded in mist.

Robinson Crusoe Island is the largest of the Juan Fernandez Islands, a tiny archipelago that is now Chilean territory. Its link to Daniel Defoe's book dates back to 1704 when a British buccaneer ship called at the island.

The ship was leaking badly and its crew was sick and exhausted. One of the sailors, a young Scotsman called Alexander Selkirk, said it was madness to continue their voyage and argued his case with the captain.

Gone native

Depiction of Alexander Selkirk

Alexander Selkirk (depicted above), spent more than four years on the Juan Fernandez islands after a dispute with the captain of the ship on which he was serving. His story was the basis for Daniel Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe.

Other travellers who have ended up on foreign shores include artist Paul Gaugin, whose work was heavily influenced by the culture and society in Tahiti and French Polynesia. He travelled to French Polynesia in 1895 and never returned to his native France.

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness drew on the Pole's own travels to the Congo. The title describes Kurtz, a trader who journeys to the centre of Africa and descends into madness and tyranny.

What happened next is unclear. Either Selkirk refused to rejoin the ship, or was forced off it by the captain. Either way, he remained on the tiny, uninhabited island as the ship sailed off into the distance.

Selkirk lived here alone for the next four years and four months, surviving on fish, berries and wild goats until another British ship passed by in 1709. By then, he must have been quite a sight. The captain of that ship described him as "a man Cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who look'd wilder than the first Owners of them".

Selkirk hitched a lift back to London, where he became something of a celebrity. Defoe heard of his story and apparently used it (at least in part) as the basis for Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719.

Defoe made lots of changes to Selkirk's tale. He moved the island to the Caribbean and peopled it with cannibals, one of whom becomes Crusoe's faithful servant Friday.

While Selkirk was stranded for a mere four years, the fictional Crusoe spends 28 years, two months and 19 days as a castaway, as he meticulously notes in his journal.

Defoe clearly took much of his inspiration from the Caribbean, not the southern Pacific. Crusoe's island is covered in tobacco plants, cocoa trees and tropical hardwoods that would never grow here.

Robinson Crusoe island - view of cliffs

But at times when reading the book, you get a sense of the Chilean Robinson Crusoe Island. Crusoe finds grapes, hares, foxes and even penguins on the island, suggesting a temperate rather than a tropical climate.

He describes his island as a "dreadful place, out of the reach of humane kind, out of all hope of relief or prospect of redemption". It is a "dismal unfortunate island, which I call'd the Island of Despair".

Thankfully, things have improved since then. These days, around 800 people live here, surviving on lobster fishing and tourism. It is a stunningly beautiful place of dramatic cliffs and soaring mountains.

There is only one village, San Juan Bautista. Above it, a path winds steeply upwards to "Selkirk's look-out", a vantage point where, according to locals, the lone Scotsman would sit for hours, scouring the horizon for ships.

Robinson Crusoe Island

In Defoe's book, Crusoe slowly warms to his new home. "Could I but have been safe from more savages, I cared not if I was never to remove from the place while I lived," he says.

Crusoe survives an earthquake and tsunami, just as the current islanders did in February 2010.

"I was terribly frighted with a most dreadful surprising thing indeed," Crusoe says, "for all on a sudden I found the earth come crumbling down from the roof of my cave…

"I plainly saw it was a terrible earthquake, for the ground I stood on shook three times at about eight minutes' distance, with three such shocks as would have overturn'd the strongest building that could be suppos'd to have stood on the earth… the very sea was put into violent motion by it; and I believe the shocks were stronger under the water than on the island."

The current residents of Robinson Crusoe Island know all about that. Rudy Aravena, a 35-year-old hotelier, was almost killed by the tsunami of 2010.

Robinson Crusoe, first edition

"We were asleep and a friend of mine who's in the navy woke us up and shouted 'get out, a tsunami is coming!'" he recalls. "We got dressed with anything we could lay our hands on, with no shoes, and we ran for the hills. We got out just in time."

House damaged by 2010 tsunami and earthquake in Juan Fernandez Islands The 2010 earthquake and tsunami left wide-scale damage in its wake

Some of Aravena's relatives were not so lucky. His grandparents and two of his nephews drowned. In all, the tsunami killed 16 people on the islands.

Two-and-a-half years later, Aravena has rebuilt his house and is opening chalets for the handful of hardy tourists who travel to the islands, some of them inspired by the Robinson Crusoe story.

Aravena has a keen sense of local history. On a wall of his house he has carved a map of the island, showing the caves and coves that once made this a vital refuge for British pirates escaping with plundered treasure from Spanish South America.

The islands have largely recovered from the tragedy of 2010. The regional governor, Raul Celis, estimates that 80% of the reconstruction work has now been completed.

The only school on the island was swept out to sea by the tsunami, and four school children were killed. A new school will be built soon, along with a $7m (£4.3m) hospital.

Boat with Robinson Crusoe sign at back Tourism on the island is beginning to return to normal

But it has been a long, slow process. All the building materials have to be brought from mainland Chile, more than 24 hours away by ship. There are only a handful of commercial flights to the islands and the occasional military flight. Building a house here costs four times as much as on the mainland.

Daniel Defoe

  • Born Daniel Foe, 1660, in London
  • Trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy
  • Wrote more than 500 books, pamphlets, journals
  • Robinson Crusoe published in 1719
  • Other novels include Moll Flanders (1721) and Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
  • Died in 1731

"If you look at the various aspects of life on the islands - business, fishing, tourism, education, health, housing - they're starting to return to normal, little by little," says Celis. "We want not only to recover what we had before the earthquake and tsunami, but to improve it."

The locals are proud of their Robinson Crusoe connection. A local brewer even produces a dark beer called Alexander Selkirk stout ale.

And 170km (106 miles) to the west, even further from the Chilean mainland, lies another, smaller, uninhabited rock in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

It is called Alexander Selkirk Island, in honour of the resourceful 18th Century Scotsman who made these islands his temporary home.

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