|Recovering Robinson Crusoe:
Professor Andrew Lambert
In December 2010 I joined a German documentary/academic expedition to Robinson Crusoe Island one of the Juan Fernandez Islands, 400 miles west of the coast of Chile. The expedition focused on the relationship between the fictional character of Crusoe, one of the best known of all literary inventions, the story of Scots sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on the island for four years in the early eighteenth century, and the development of British global strategy that culminated in the arrival of Commodore George Anson’s naval expedition in 1741.
While Selkirk actually lived on the island, unlike the fictional Crusoe, who Daniel Defoe located on a non-existent tropical island off Orinoco River, the two stories formed only part of a far larger body of literature, largely factual, but containing elements of self-deception and fiction that focussed on the South Pacific, the Juan Fernandez islands and the alluring prospect of trade and plunder in Spanish America. These writings coincided with a popular genre of survivor narratives, amongst which Selkirk’s story was mainly noteworthy for not being his own composition. Defoe had a long interest in the two literary genres, and used elements drawn from his extensive library of history, geography, memoir and fiction to create his character, the setting and the lessons of redemption, colonial profit, and religious tolerance that inform the text. So successful was Defoe’s text that once the association with Selkirk was made the island on which Selkirk had lived between 1704 and 1708 was immediately, if erroneously associated with the literary character. By the late eighteenth century the two stories had become intertwined to the point where Selkik’s only role was to locate Crusoe on Juan Fernandez. In this way Crusoe, by far the more memorable figure, became real.
By the 1830s a variety of suitably romantic sites on the island had become associated with Selkirk, in order to make him more like Crusoe. These became must see items for early tourists and were soon validated by the failure of the few people who managed to reach the islands to challenge long held assumptions. By the 1860s the key sites had been thickly encrusted with graffito proclaiming their connection with Selkirk. Standing on one such location, ‘Selkirk’s Mirador’ I was struck by the irony that we had come all this way to climb a mountain, and take in a glorious, romantic view. The value of the exercise only became obvious when I realised that the prospects it offered were utterly useless: the mountains blocked the view in the only direction that mattered; the one from English ships might come. Even so the Miradaor has many Selirkian graffito dominated by a large cast iron plaque, installed by a British warship in the 1860s to commemorate the real Selkirk, who died at sea off the West coast of Africa while serving in the Navy.
Research in London and the opportunity to inspect the sites along with academic experts on the natural history of the island it became clear that while these sites had many qualities, they were highly unlikely to have been used by Selkirk. They belonged to Robinson Crusoe. To add another layer of confusion Selkirk’s island, previously known by the prosaic descriptive name of Mas a Tierra (nearer the land), was re-named Robinson Crusoe in 1967 by a Chilean President seeking to promote tourism. At the same time the other large island in the group, Mas Afuera, (further away) was named for Selkirk, who never visited it!
Selkirk’s arrival on Mas a Tierra and his recovery can only be explained in the context of a sustained effort by the English to master the navigation of the South Pacific. From 1680 Royal and commercial sponsorship propelled voyages of discovery and plunder into a hitherto closed Spanish ocean. The cartographic records of these expeditions were carefully drawn, while the presence of navigator William Dampier on both Selkirk voyages and in the literary resources Defoe exploited in his novel, emphasised the continuity of the English effort that culminated in the ill-fated South Seas Company, another project that linked Defoe to Selkirk and Juan Fernandez. The island provided the only safe anchorage in the South Pacific where British ships could anchor without meeting Spanish forces, find fresh food and water, and refit after the demanding voyage around Cape Horn. The Juan Fernandez Islands were essential: without them it would have been impossible for English ships to operate in the South Pacific, for profit, or war.
When Britain declared war on Spain in 1739 the results of this sustained intelligence gathering exercise was translated into strategy. A naval task force would sail round Cape Horn, stop at Juan Fernandez to recover from scurvy, capture a base in southern Chile, plunder its way along the coast of Peru and Mexico, and finally capture the fabulous Manila treasure Galleon. Some of Commodore George Anson’s ships reached the island in 1741 and refitted there for three months, before capturing the treasure ship and circumnavigating the globe. While it is well known that Anson anchored in Cumberland Bay, the precise location of his two camps, his landing place, the stream he used to water the ships and the location of key facilities used to bake bread, mend equipment and heal the sick were never fixed on contemporary charts. Anson was far more concerned to locate the island in the ocean, and establish where to anchor. Archaeologists have begun to locate the early history of the island, and this expedition provided an opportunity to examine the landscape in the light of evidence drawn from several disciplines, and discussions with local people.
Much of that early history can be read in the devastation of a unique and astonishingly rich ecosystem. Uninhabited until the 1570s the Juan Fernandez Islands developed a unique range of plants that reflected the absence of mammals. When man arrived the devastation began. The low crowned trees were initially savaged by the Pyrenean goats introduced by early Spanish settlers to provide meat, and then clear felled for charcoal in the late nineteenth century. Few specimens survived, most trees in the island today are invasive, highly aggressive species like eucalyptus that out grow and shade indigenous types. Local experts are re-introducing many of these plants where possible, making it possible to imagine how the island looked and worked in Selkirk’s time. However, the situation has been greatly complicated by massive levels of erosion across large parts of the island, where the goats, and in the 20th century rabbits, destroyed the vegetation, allowing annual heavy rainfall events to strip away the topsoil. Fully half the island is little more than a desert. Here the charts produced by early English navigators proved very useful in dating the ecological catastrophe, demonstrating that the western half of the island was largely desertified by the 1680s.
Finally the only settled part of the island, the small town of San Juan Bautista (pictured) has been devastated by tsunami on three occasions. In 1751 a brand new Spanish settlement and fort, built the previous year to prevent the British returning, was wrecked. A second wave in 1835 devastated the small Chilean settlement, and in February 2010 the town was hit again, killing 18 people and devastating the tourist and commercial section of the town.
This expedition provided a unique research opportunity, to spend three weeks working on an island that occupied a remarkable place in British naval history and imaginative literature between 1680 and 1748. Defoe’s novel and Lord Anson Narrative were the best selling publications in their respective genres in this period, achieving striking international success, widely translated and extensively emulated they helped drive home British dominance of the oceans, in an easily accessible and highly structured way. The relationship between the two texts, the island and the ocean will form the basis of a chapter in a book dealing with the British response to the sea across the ages. Eighteenth century Britons had the confidence to project themselves onto an island on the other side of the world, and these two works, and the genres they effectively created, were essentially British cultural productions, although they quickly would be translated, copied, emulated and developed into truly international possessions.
I am deeply indebted to Caligari Films for opportunity to visit this unique place, and debate the island with scholars from other disciplines.
Professor Andrew Lambert, January 2011