Where Was Robinson Crusoe’s Island?
Daniel Defoe’s famous story of Robinson Crusoe (first published in 1719) is based on a real island— Juan Fernández. This island lies off the coast of Chile in South America and is now owned by that country. It was the scene of the true adventures of a Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who lived from 1676 to 1721. Selkirk was born at Largo in Fife, became a sailor and, when he was young, took part in private expeditions to the South Seas, as the Pacific was then called. In 1704, he was the mate of the English vessel Cinque Ports. But he quarreled with the captain and was left, at his own request, on the uninhabited island of Juan Fernández.
Before the ship departed, Selkirk begged to be taken on board again, but his request was refused and it was not until four years and four months had passed that he was rescued by the British ship Duke in January 1709. When abandoned he was left with clothes and bedding, pistol, gun-powder, bullets, tobacco, a hatchet, a Bible, mathematical instruments and books. His powder soon gave out, but he learned to capture the goats on the island by running them down. He built himself a shelter and made clothes from the goats’ skins.
Fortunately, Juan Fernández never has very severe weather—only a little frost and hail in June and July (winter in the Southern Hemisphere). It is hot in the summer, but never unbearably so. Selkirk found his island infested with rats, but kept down their numbers round his shelter by taming the stray cats whose ancestors had been left on the island by visiting ships. He kept healthy and sane by working hard and by making companions of animals. But when he was rescued, he could scarcely make himself understood by the crew of Duke, and he had lost all taste for civilized food and drink. He returned to England in 1711 and followed the life of the sea until his death.
The Juan Fernández Islands (Spanish: Archipiélago Juan Fernández) are a sparsely inhabited island group reliant on tourism and fishing in the South Pacific Ocean. Situated 670 km (362 nmi; 416 mi) off the coast of Chile, they are composed of three main volcanic islands: Robinson Crusoe, Alejandro Selkirk and Santa Clara. They are considered part of Insular Chile. Most of the archipelago’s present-day inhabitants reside on Robinson Crusoe Island, mainly in the capital, San Juan Bautista, at Cumberland Bay on the island’s north coast.
The archipelago was discovered on 22 November 1574, by the Spanish sailor Juan Fernández, who was sailing south between Callao and Valparaíso along a route which he also discovered, hundreds of miles west of the coast of Chile, which avoided the northerly Humboldt current. He called the islands Más Afuera, Más a Tierra, and Santa Clara.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands were used as a hideout for pirates, were the site of Alexander Selkirk’s four-year marooning, and provided a location for a penal colony. In the 1740s, they were visited by Commodore Anson’s flotilla during his ill-fated venture to the South Seas. The location of the archipelago was fixed by Alessandro Malaspina in 1790; previous charts had differed on the location.
During the maritime fur trade era of the early 19th century the islands were a source of fur seal skins, and the Juan Fernández fur seal was nearly driven to extinction. In his book, Two Years before the Mast (Chapter VII), Richard Henry Dana, Jr. described the islands as he found them circa 1834. At this time the main island was being used as a penal colony.
However, when Dr John Coulter visited the penal colony in the early 1840s, he reported it deserted after the convicts had risen up and killed the soldiers who had held them captive. The prisoners fled to mainland Chile, where they were later hunted down and shot. The story appears in Coulter’s book Adventures in the Pacific (1845). In 1908, the islands were visited by the Swedish Magellanic Expedition and Carl Skottsberg is believed to have been the last to have seen the Santalum fernandezianum tree alive.
Late in 1914 the islands were the rendezvous for Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s East Asiatic Squadron as he gathered his ships together before defeating the British under Admiral Christopher Cradock at the Battle of Coronel. Following the Royal Navy’s win at the Battle of the Falkland Islands a month later, the only surviving German cruiser, SMS Dresden, was hunted down and cornered at Más a Tierra early in 1915, where it was scuttled after a brief battle with British cruisers.
In 1966 the Chilean government renamed Más Afuera as Alejandro Selkirk Island and Más a Tierra as Robinson Crusoe Island, in order to promote tourism. Incidentally, Selkirk never set foot on Más Afuera, only on Más a Tierra. On 30 July 2007, a constitutional reform gave the Juan Fernández Islands and Easter Island the status of “special territories” of Chile. Pending the enactment of a charter the archipelago will continue to be governed as a commune of the Valparaíso Region.
On 27 February 2010, a tsunami following the 8.8 magnitude earthquake off Maule, Chile struck the islands causing at least 8 deaths. Eleven people were reported as missing. Some early reports described the tsunami wave as being 40 m (130 ft) high, but later reports measured it at 3 m (10 ft). Most of the town of San Juan Bautista on Robinson Crusoe Island was destroyed.