Selkirk was an unruly youth, and joined buccaneering voyages to the South Pacific during the War of the Spanish Succession. One such expedition was on Cinque Ports, commanded by William Dampier. The ship called in for provisions at the Juan Fernández Islands, and Selkirk judged correctly that the craft was unseaworthy and asked to be left there.
When he was eventually rescued by follow-on English privateer Woodes Rogers, Selkirk had become adept at hunting and making use of the resources that he found on the island. His story of survival was widely publicised after their return to England, becoming a source of inspiration for writer Daniel Defoe's fictional character Robinson Crusoe.
Alexander Selkirk was the son of a shoemaker and tanner in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland, born in 1676. In his youth he displayed a quarrelsome and unruly disposition. He was summoned before the Kirk Session in August 1693 for his "indecent conduct in church", but he "did not appear, being gone to sea". He was back at Largo in 1701 when he again came to the attention of church authorities for beating up his brothers.
Early on, he was engaged in buccaneering. In 1703 he joined an expedition of English privateer and explorer William Dampier to the South Pacific Ocean, setting sail from Kinsale in Ireland on 11 September. They carried letters of marque from the Lord High Admiral authorising their armed merchant ships to attack foreign enemies as the War of the Spanish Succession was then going on between England and Spain. Dampier was captain of St George and Selkirk served on Cinque Ports, St George's companion ship, as sailing master under Captain Thomas Stradling. By this time, Selkirk must have had considerable experience at sea.
In February 1704, following a stormy passage around Cape Horn, the privateers fought a long battle with a well-armed French vessel, St Joseph, only to have it escape to warn its Spanish allies of their arrival in the Pacific. A raid on the Panamanian gold mining town of Santa María failed when their landing party was ambushed. The easy capture of Asunción, a heavily laden merchantman, revived the men's hopes of plunder, and Selkirk was put in charge of the prize ship. Dampier took off some much-needed provisions of wine, brandy, sugar and flour; then abruptly set the ship free, arguing that the gain was not worth the effort. In May 1704 Stradling decided to abandon Dampier and strike out on his own.
In September 1704, after parting ways with Dampier, Captain Stradling brought Cinque Ports to an island known to the Spanish as Más a Tierra located in the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago 670 km (420 mi) off the coast of Chile for a mid-expedition restocking of fresh water and supplies.
Selkirk had grave concerns about the seaworthiness of their vessel, and probably wanted to make needed repairs before going any farther. He declared that he would rather stay on Juan Fernández than continue in a dangerously leaky ship. Glad to be rid of a troublemaker, Stradling took him up on the offer and landed Selkirk on the island with a musket, a hatchet, a knife, a cooking pot, a Bible, bedding and some clothes. Selkirk regretted his rashness, but Stradling refused to let him back on board.
Cinque Ports did indeed later founder off the coast of what is now Colombia. Stradling and some of his crew survived the loss of their ship but were forced to surrender to the Spanish. The survivors were taken to Lima, Peru, where they endured a harsh imprisonment.
At first, Selkirk remained along the shoreline of Juan Fernández. During this time he ate spiny lobsters and scanned the ocean daily for rescue, suffering all the while from loneliness, misery and remorse. Hordes of raucous sea lions, gathered on the beach for the mating season, eventually drove him to the island's interior. Once inland, his way of life took a turn for the better. More foods were available there: feral goats—introduced by earlier sailors—provided him with meat and milk, while wild turnips, cabbage leaves and dried pepper berries offered him variety and spice. Rats would attack him at night, but he was able to sleep soundly and in safety by domesticating and living near feral cats.
Selkirk proved resourceful in using materials that he found on the island: he forged a new knife out of barrel hoops left on the beach, he built two huts out of pepper trees, one of which he used for cooking and the other for sleeping, and he employed his musket to hunt goats and his knife to clean their carcasses. As his gunpowder dwindled, he had to chase prey on foot. During one such chase he was badly injured when he tumbled from a cliff, lying helpless and unable to move for about a day. His prey had cushioned his fall, probably sparing him a broken back.
Childhood lessons learned from his father, a tanner, now served him well. For example, when his clothes wore out, he made new ones from hair-covered goatskins using a nail for sewing. As his shoes became unusable, he had no need to replace them, since his toughened, calloused feet made protection unnecessary. He sang psalms and read from the Bible, finding it a comfort in his situation and a prop for his English.
During his sojourn on the island two vessels came to anchor. Unfortunately for Selkirk, both were Spanish. As a Scotsman and a privateer, he risked a grim fate if captured and, therefore, tried to hide himself. On one occasion he was spotted and chased by a group of sailors from one of the ships. His pursuers urinated beneath the tree in which he was hiding but failed to discover him. Frustrated, his would-be captors gave up and sailed away.
Selkirk's long-awaited deliverance came on 2 February 1709 by way of Duke, a privateering ship piloted by William Dampier, and its sailing companion Duchess. Thomas Dover led the landing party that met Selkirk. After four years and four months without human company, Selkirk was almost incoherent with joy. The Duke's captain and leader of the expedition was Woodes Rogers, who mischievously referred to him as the governor of the island. The agile castaway caught two or three goats a day and helped restore the health of Rogers' men, who were suffering from scurvy.
Captain Rogers was impressed by Selkirk's physical vigour, but also by the peace of mind that he had attained while living on the island, observing: "One may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was." He made Selkirk Duke's second mate, later giving him command of one of their prize ships, Increase, before it was ransomed by the Spanish.
Selkirk returned to privateering with a vengeance. At Guayaquil in present-day Ecuador, he led a boat crew up the Guayas River where a number of wealthy Spanish ladies had fled, and relieved them of the gold and jewels they had hidden inside their clothing. His part in the hunt for treasure galleons along the coast of Mexico resulted in the capture of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, renamed Bachelor, on which he served as sailing master under Captain Dover to the Dutch East Indies. Selkirk completed the around-the-world voyage by the Cape of Good Hope as the sailing master of Duke, arriving at the Downs off the English coast on 1 October 1711. He had been away for eight years.
Selkirk's experience as a castaway aroused a great deal of attention in England. Rogers included an account of Selkirk's ordeal in a book chronicling their privateering expedition entitled A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712). The following year, prominent essayist Richard Steele wrote an article about him for The Englishman newspaper. Selkirk appeared set to enjoy a life of ease and celebrity, claiming his share of Duke's plundered wealth—about £800 (equivalent to £107,400 today). However, legal disputes made the amount of any payment uncertain.
After a few months in London, he began to seem more like his former self again. In September 1713 he was charged with assaulting a shipwright in Bristol and may have been kept in confinement for two years. He returned to Lower Largo, where he met Sophia Bruce, a young dairymaid. They eloped to London early in 1717 but apparently did not marry. He was soon off to sea again, having enlisted in the Royal Navy. While on a visit to Plymouth in 1720, he married a widowed innkeeper named Frances Candis. He was serving as master's mate on board HMS Weymouth, engaged in an anti-piracy patrol off the west coast of Africa, when he died on 13 December 1721, succumbing to the yellow fever that plagued the voyage. He was buried at sea.
When Daniel Defoe published The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), few readers could have missed the resemblance to Selkirk. An illustration on the first page of the novel shows "a rather melancholy-looking man standing on the shore of an island, gazing inland", in the words of modern explorer Tim Severin. He is dressed in the familiar hirsute goatskins, his feet and shins bare. Yet Crusoe's island is located not in the mid-latitudes of the South Pacific but 4,300 km (2,700 mi) away in the Caribbean, where the furry attire would hardly be comfortable in the tropical heat. This incongruity supports the popular belief that Selkirk was a model for the fictional character, although literary scholars now accept that his was "just one of many survival narratives that Defoe knew about".William Cowper's "The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk" is about Selkirk's feelings as the castaway lived all alone on the island. This poem gave rise to the common phrase "monarch of all I survey" via the verse:
Charles Dickens used Selkirk as a simile in Chapter Two of The Pickwick Papers (1836): "Colonel Builder and Sir Thomas Clubber exchanged snuff-boxes, and looked very much like a pair of Alexander Selkirks—'Monarchs of all they surveyed.'" This is also a reference to William Cowper's poem.
Poet Patrick Kavanagh likens his loneliness on the road to that of Selkirk, in his poem "Inniskeen Road: July Evening":
In "Etiquette", one of W. S. Gilbert's Bab Ballads, Selkirk is used as a model for the English castaways:
Joshua Slocum mentions Selkirk in the book Sailing Alone Around the World (1900). During his visit to the Juan Fernández Islands, Slocum runs across a marker commemorating Selkirk’s stay.
In Allan Cole and Chris Bunch's Sten science fiction series, Book Two, The Wolf Worlds, the Scottish character Alex bemoans their predicament after crash landing: "'A slackit way f'r a mon,' Alex mourned to himself. 'Ah didnae ken Ah'd ever be Alex Selkirk.'"
Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe is a stop motion film by Walter Tournier based on Selkirk's life. It premièred simultaneously in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay on 2 February 2012, distributed by The Walt Disney Company. It was the first full-length animated feature to be produced in Uruguay.
Selkirk has been memorialised in his Scottish birthplace. Lord Aberdeen delivered a speech on 11 December 1885, after which his wife, Lady Aberdeen, unveiled a bronze statue and plaque in memory of Selkirk outside a house on the site of his original home on the Main Street of Lower Largo. David Gillies of Cardy House, Lower Largo, a descendant of the Selkirks, donated the statue created by Thomas Stuart Burnett.
The Scotsman is also remembered in his former island home. In 1869 the crew of HMS Topaze placed a bronze tablet at a spot called Selkirk's Lookout on a mountain of Más a Tierra, Juan Fernández Islands, to mark his stay. On 1 January 1966 Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva renamed Más a Tierra Robinson Crusoe Island after Defoe's fictional character to attract tourists. The largest of the Juan Fernández Islands, known as Más Afuera, became Alejandro Selkirk Island, although Selkirk probably never saw that island since it is located 180 kilometres (110 miles; 100 nautical miles) to the west.
An archaeological expedition to the Juan Fernández Islands in February 2005 found part of a nautical instrument that could have belonged to Selkirk. It was "a fragment of copper alloy identified as being from a pair of navigational dividers" dating from the early 18th (or late 17th) century. Selkirk is the only person known to have been on the island at that time who is likely to have had dividers, and was even said by Rogers to have had such instruments in his possession. The artefact was discovered while excavating a site not far from Selkirk's Lookout where the famous castaway is believed to have lived.