The entertaining Severin (The Spice Islands Voyage, 1998, etc.) is off on another fact-finding mission, this time to take the measure of Robinson Crusoe.
Though it has been contended that Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish privateer marooned on Juan Fernandez for over four years, was the model for Crusoe in Defoe’s classic, Severin is not so sure. Wishing to know more about such figures, not all that uncommon in the buccaneering days, Severin “resolved to visit the scenes of their adventures and see those places in the context of being a maroon or castaway in the early eighteenth century.” To that end, he follows in the wake of people like George Shelvocke, who also washed up on Juan Fernandez, and of a Moskito man from the Nicaraguan coast—where fine fishermen lived who sailed with pirates to help provision ships during their long voyages—who was likely the prototype for Man Friday. There is also Captain Nathaniel Uring, who started a Scots colony in Panama after being shipwrecked, and Henry Pitman, a doctor transported for being a part of the rebellion against James II, who set up shop on Salt Tortuga. Severin even finds a contemporary castaway from a fishing boat whose travails are great but whose luck and mettle are typical of those who lived to tell their stories. Severin reads all the material that would have been available to Defoe—picaroons frequently wrote of their exploits and adventures—and travels to the islands where they were waylaid, returning with descriptions of lands often enough still lawless and decidedly elementary in their lifestyles. He concludes that Crusoe is a pastiche, a creation from a number of chronicles, with Pitman being a source for much of Defoe’s subject.
As he typically does, Severin takes a fanciful story of adventure on the high seas and makes it delightfully real through exacting research and personal observation. (Line drawings)