Acclaimed literary biographer Souhami (Gertrude and Alice, 1997, etc.) profiles the island and the individual whose story inspired Daniel Defoe’s novel.
The author begins her narrative not with the man but with the place: Isla Juan Fernandez, “The Island,” a volcanic crag off the coast of South America teeming with flora and fauna in the early years of European exploration. She then turns to the world of late-17th and early-18th-century seafarers, in particular one William Dampier, a privateer able to con respectable Londoners into financing his semi-legal operations in the South Seas. Highest on any pirate’s list of targets was the legendary ship known as the Manila galleon, which plied its trade between ports in the Philippines and Mexico. Dampier engineered a two-ship voyage whose primary goal was the capture of this galleon; a seaworthy Scotsman named Alexander Selkirk signed on as master of the second ship. The expedition met with little success. Their pursuit of the galleon became an exercise in frustration, the few spoils that were seized caused divisions among crewmembers, and Dampier’s ineffectual leadership turned the other officers against him. In the fall of 1704, Selkirk was accused of inciting mutiny and abandoned on The Island; he remained there over four years. In 1709, he was rescued by a scouting crew from yet another Dampier-led voyage. Readers back in Europe could not get enough of the firsthand narratives about such disastrous voyages; Dampier himself wrote several about previous trips, and two men from the expedition that saved Selkirk wooed the public appetite with books about his tribulations and theirs. Robinson Crusoe, the fictional version Defoe wrote in a matter of months, appeared in April 1719. Souhami’s account is brief yet dense with catalogued arcana. Her speculations about Selkirk’s thoughts may be her own, but she brings the man and his shipmates to life.
Literary history compressed into capsule-size that goes down like a charm.