Selkirk’s Island

‘Selkirk’s Island’ by Diana Souhami

Quercus · 246 pp · 2001

Winner of the Whitbread Biography Award 2001

Alexander Selkirk was a buccaneer who sailed the South Seas on looting expeditions for gold and treasure. In 1703 he joined an expedition whose object was to plunder French and Spanish ships. Eventually they reached the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile, where Selkirk opted to maroon himself. Suddenly solitude and silence were imposed, and his only relationship was with the island and with himself. He learnt to kill goats with cudgels and use their skins for coats and shoes. He hollowed out a canoe and circumnavigated the island. In 1709 Selkirk spotted two ships from his cliff-top lookout. They saw his fire and the next morning landed on Juan Fernandez – to be greeted by an unrecognisable savage-looking man incoherent with emotion. He sailed back with them to civilisation where he ‘bewailed his return to the world’. Selkirk died in 1720 back at sea, of yellow fever.

In Selkirk’s Island I hoped to stretch the boundaries of biography. The hero is the island not the man marooned there. I went to Crusoe Island to write this book.


Read an excerpt

The Island · 1702

The Island on which Alexander Selkirk was marooned for four solitary years lies in the eastern Pacific Ocean at latitude 34 south, three hundred and sixty miles west of the coast of Chile. In 1966 the Chilean government named it Robinson Crusoe Island in tribute to Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, who inspired Daniel Defoe to write his famous novel in 1719.

But Crusoe was a fiction and his island a fictional place. He and Selkirk, though both marooned, as men were not alike. In imagining the reality of Selkirk’s abandonment I referred to his own scant testimony, to that of his rescuers and fellow crewmen, to contemporary eighteenth-century writers and to petitions from two women who each claimed to be his wife. I turned also to The Island whose storms and daunting mountains evoke the ordeal of solitary survival more forcefully than archives of inventories and depositions, or the journals of privateers who voyaged the world in wooden sailing ships in search of gold.

Molten Stuff

Defined by the vast South Sea, The Island from a wooden craft, far out, was a destination, a place of refuge. At first sight it looked no more than a grey blur. Plying the sea against strong tides and capricious winds, the blur turned to jagged mountains looming from the water. Dark clouds hung over the eastern end. They promised clear streams, meat, and respite from the journey’s storms.

Ranging beneath the lee, searching for anchorage, the broken, craggy precipices revealed forests, cut by lush valleys, watered by cascades and streams. The bays of boulders and shingle became harbours of safety.

Spewed in the earth’s heat, once The Island had been molten stuff beneath the earth’s crust. Formed of columns of basalt, it was a causeway of mountain peaks, the highest, shaped like a huge anvil, rising three thousand feet above the ocean. Its rocks were grey, scoriaceous, slaggy, veined with olivine and picrite, coded with skeleton crystals of feldspar, aluminium, potash, lime… Its coast escarpments, high forested ridges and the dry seaward slopes of its valleys were lava beds, relics from a magmatic flow: magma from the Greek ‘to knead’. By its shores were lumps of black porous lava, like burnt-out clinker, like a dead fire.

The fire could rekindle. The Island changed with the scudding clouds, the waxing moon, a fall of rain. Sounds that cracked in echo round the mountains, warned of its awesome energy. Mariners told of the earth’s explosion, of ‘A Vulcan casting out Stones as big as a House’, of a column that spouted from the sea filled with smoke and flames, of how the sea swept back in great rollers that left the bay dry, then surged in at such a height that trees uprooted and goats drowned.

Classifiers gave their views on geotectonic connections between The Island and the continent of South America and the movement of continental plates. They picked up pieces of rock, sailed home with them in boxes, identified the grains of colour these rocks contained as augite, magnetite and ilmenite and speculated on when the volcano had erupted and the manner in which time turns one thing into another. Their analyses made The Island less remote. If they named it, classified it, they could in a sense possess it and tame it to their will.

Mountains and Gorges

In the scheme of things it was a chip of land – twelve miles long, four across, thirty-four miles round, four million years old. At the low parched western end only dwarf trees grew (Dendroseris litoralis and pruinata).* By a headland was a rocky bay, shaped like a horseshoe, where a small boat might land on sand and shingle.

The eastern cliffs rose sheer from the sea. Moss and algae grew where surf drained from the talus’ edge. The sea undermined the coastal wall and hollowed it as caves. Along the south-east shore were tufted grasses with high culms (Stipa fernandeziana). Waterfalls washed soil to the sea that stained the surf sepia. Beside a small bay, strewn with lava beds and furrowed by stony streams, two mountains rose, sculpted with hanging gullies carrying water after every rain.

Sea winds met the coast, rose high over the mountain crests, then cooled, condensed and fell as rain which drenched the ridges, gushed in torrents down the mountains, and in the lush green valleys turned to fast-flowing streams. Cloud shrouded the mountains while sunshine bathed the western hills. Winds gusted in the valleys in violent squalls. In the humid spring, rainbows arched the bays. Summer came in December and lasted until March.

In the forests that covered the mountain slopes were sweet-smelling sandalwood trees with dark brown bark, pimento with glossy leaves and pungent berries, large mayu trees with jutting roots, mountain palms with long straight trunks, dark green and ringed with scars. Trees uprooted in the squalling winds and thin mountain soil. In the gorges rushes thrived with sword-shaped leaves and white flowers. Gunnera masafuerae spread parchment leaves. Tree ferns more than three feet tall, with dark green fronds, grew in groves in the wooded valleys. Scandent ferns trailed over stones and fallen trunks. They clung to trees and branches. Bronze green filmy ferns filled the open glades, the banks of streams, the wet cliff walls.

Light-loving rosette trees grew on low rocks. Three times a year they flowered dark blue. Evergreen myrtles with white flowers graced the forest’s edge, plum trees blossomed in spring. There was brushwood on the rock ledges and lichen on the stones. Luxuriant moss cushioned the boulders at the foot of the waterfalls. Colonies of flowering plants and grasses formed heathland. Herbs thrived by the valley’s streams.

In one valley of green pastures, cut by a fast-flowing stream, there was a small harbour where boulders shifted under heavy swell. In calm seas a boat could land at the foot of a projecting rock, hollowed like a tunnel. The rock led to a cave sixteen feet above sea level. It was a place where a man might shelter.†

But only in one wide bay might a large ship find safe anchorage in deep water and its boats reach the shore. This bay was walled by high mountains cut by gulches. The grassland of its valley was screened by sandalwood trees and watered by streams. It was a place of echoes and fragrance: gentle at dawn and dusk, hostile in gusting wind. By its streams grew turnips and radishes, herbs, wild oats and grasses. Behind the valley were high-walled gorges, dense with tree ferns and giant-leaved Gunnera peltata. From these gorges plunged waterfalls. Through thick forest a steep pass led to the south side of The Island. At the summit of this pass, after an arduous climb, a man might scan the encircling sea. He would miss no ship that approached The Island. In time this summit became known as Selkirk’s Lookout.

And beyond the valley and before it were ten thousand miles of ocean. The ocean was The Island’s protection. It kept man (Homo sapiens) away. It carried only the daring or the desperate to its rugged, stony shore. Without intervention from man The Island found its times of burgeoning and times of repose.

Seals and Hummingbirds

The Island served whatever life arrived on it by chance. If not one form then another. Gusting winds brought flies and bees. Plankton survived hurricanes. Spiders and the pupae of butterflies travelled unharmed in driftwood over vast stretches of ocean. Worms came in on the shoes of transient sailors, cats and rats sprang from anchored ships. There were forty-six kinds of mollusc and fifty sorts of fern.

A boa constrictor arrived coiled in the hollow of a cut tree. It had journeyed from Brazil for seven weeks over choppy seas. The tree washed ashore with the turning tide. The snake slithered over the stones of the bay and into the wooded valley. It found food – birds, seal pups, goats – shelter and sunshine, but no company. It sloughed its skin and danced alone.

Living things that reproduced without a partner colonised in a way the boa could not. Seeds survived the digestive tracts of thrushes, they stuck to the feet of albatrosses, they were carried from one part of The Island to another trapped in the fur of mice.

Fur seals (Arctocephalus philippii) with brown coats chose The Island for its stony bays, its deep water close to the shore and for the abundance of its fish. Agile in the sea, they dived and glided and lolled on their backs with folded flippers. On coastal boulders and islets they lumbered and wallowed in the sun. Their wet fur blended with the dark volcanic rocks. At times they appeared to weep. In November they came on shore to breed. Each mother gave birth to a single black-wool-covered pup.

There were huge sea lions (Otaria jubata) twenty feet long with furled snouts. In seasonal ritual to assert mastery they bellowed, fought and gored each other. Scars of sexual battle ringed their throats. The victor fathered a herd.

On every sea-washed rock, crabs scuttled. Beneath these rocks, lobsters grazed. They lived for decades and grew to three feet long. Pike shoaled at the sea’s surface and at night seemed to fly, sand smelt spawned in seaweed, perch lurked near rocks for crabs, bacalao fish bred in deep water by the northern coast, bream scraped algae off the rocks with sharp teeth. There were cod and cavallies and blotched and spotted eels.

Goats came in on Spanish ships. Mariners released a few into the valley by the Great Bay, wanting meat when they careened their ships. The goats were small, dark brown, with curled horns and white marks on their foreheads and noses. They made for the hills and multiplied.

The Island was inhabited. It hosted, protected and sustained its guests. In the undergrowth in the valley were rats (Rattus rattus), mice (Mus musculus), cats (Felis domestica). To all that holed up on it The Island offered sunlight, water, food and shelter. It gave the means of life.

The stars guided in birds. Hummingbirds with copper breasts and tiny pin-like beaks probed nectar from orange flowers. They wove hanging nests in the ferns. A bird that glistened like metal built its nest of moss in the fern groves and laid white eggs. Grey and white petrels swerved over the sea. Flycatchers darted in the valleys. Thousands of pairs of migrating puffins dug burrows in the cliffs. Two black-necked swans arrived, confused by a storm. They lived their life but did not breed.‡

The Island was never quiet, never still. There was the chatter and whirr of hummingbirds, the barking of seals, the squealing of rats, the susurrus of waves, the wind in the trees. There were sounds of contentment, of killing and of casual disaster. A nocturnal seabird, the fardela, screamed in the night like a frightened child.

* Classification of The Island’s flora and fauna began in the nineteenth century. There were expeditions by a Scottish horticulturist, David Douglas, in 1824; an Italian botanist, Carlo Bertero, in 1830; a Chilean botanist, Federico Johow, in the 1890s; a Swedish scientist, Carl Skottsberg, in the early 1900s. It continues with the work of a French botanist, Philippe Danton; a Chilean botanist, Clodomiro Marticorena.

† It is called Selkirk’s Cave, though he never sheltered in it, or stayed in the bay where it is, now named Puerto Inglés.

‡ It seems that birds are often marooned on The Island. In December 1999, when I was there, a storm-battered penguin was washed ashore, and a black swan, blown in on the wind from a lake south of Santiago, was escorted home by plane.

Praise for Selkirk’s Island

Souhami skilfully conjures the whiff of raki in strange ports, the comfort of nameless women and the pain of scurvy-swollen gums, opening a window onto the perilous life of the eighteenth-century privateer.

Literary Review

Masterly. Souhami’s excellent book should be read for its insight into a vanished world.

Beryl Bainbridge · New Statesman

Souhami is a wonderful story-teller with a predatory eye for detail as she directs her alternately engaging and repulsive cast of seafaring rogues and villains. With an admirable lightness of touch, she moves comfortably from hilarious one-liners to more thoughtful reflections on the nature of island solitude, which is at once liberation and terrifying imprisonment.

Evening Standard

The story of the original Robinson Crusoe, Selkirk’s Island is a book that is as hypnotic and compelling as the island that forms its real subject. A great adventure story, a great read and a real advance for the art of biography

Whitbread Judging Panel

Authors without number have tried to repeat the success of Dava Sobel’s elegant little book Longitude. I suspect that Diana Souhami may well have done it. Selkirk’s Island is a delight from the moment the reader opens it… But the real heart of this book, the memory that lingers most, is the island itself.

Christina Hardyment · Independent

It’s beautifully written and brings this rather dark, rocky island to life. The thing that amused me most was that Selkirk was such a pain in the arse that they left him [there] and sailed away.

Michael Palin

A swashbuckling yarn of booty and shipwreck… forms the subject of Diana Souhami’s new book. From storms and scurvy to salt pork and weevils, the chaotic shipboard life of the South Seas is brought pungently alive as the reader is press-ganged on to one of the notorious piratical expeditions of the early 18th century… Souhami’s account of Selkirk’s voyage… is masterful… Souhami’s description of Juan Fernández is so evocative that I had half a mind to pack my bags to try to reach it.

Giles Milton · Sunday Times

Souhami… is excellent on the grim, yet ever-hopeful lives of mariners in the eighteenth century, and gives a sharp picture of the exploits of privateers in the period, and the State’s rapacious involvement.

John Mullan · Times Literary Supplement

Diana Souhami’s meticulously researched and well-written book fills [a] gap in our knowledge and in the process provides excellent ammunition for those who claim that truth is stranger than fiction… a great story of a man’s will to survive, full of fascinating details of the horrors of life at sea in the early 18th century. Above all, it has one great advantage over Defoe’s version: it’s all true.

William Hartston · Sunday Express

Souhami begins with a lyrical introduction describing the natural beauties of the island; it is a paradisal episode, a moment out of time… One of the pleasures of reading this book is the keen, lean freshness of the prose: the narrative zips along like a well-manned clipper.

Greg Dart · Guardian

Selkirk’s isolation is central to Souhami’s book, as it is to the legend that accreted around him like a barnacle, but Selkirk’s back and future story is meticulously plotted from original sources, and the island itself is given as much of a personality as Selkirk’s associates. It is a virtue in this sort of narrative that it throws up characters that cry out for their own Souhamite biographies.

Iain Finlayson · The Times