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The Truth Behind the 'Real' Robinson Crusoe

Oct 04, 2016 05:16 AM EDT
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Nearly 300 years ago, Daniel Defoe wrote a novel about the fictional Robinson Crusoe's adventures as a seafarer and castaway. Wildly imaginative and new at the time it was published, the novel prompted people to be curious about the inspiration behind the titular character.

According to a report from Spiegel, a Scotsman named Alexander Selkirk is widely recognized as "the real Robinson". Compared to the fictional character's 28 long years stranded in an island, his true-to-life counterpart merely spent just over four years on the Mas a Tierra island, which is part of the Juan Fernandez archipelago.

Although many people claim -- or at least believe -- that Robinson Crusoe is directly inspired by Selkirk, scholars disagree. In a report from National Geographic, Andrew Lambert, author of "Crusoe's Island", said that there isn't a single "real" Crusoe. Instead there are a lot of different ones.

Lambert described the famous novel as "a complex compound of all the other buccaneer survival stories."

(Photo : Currier & Ives/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons) Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday. Lithograph, hand-colored.

Many Defoe scholars agree, including Paula Backscheider, an English scholar at Auburn University and author of Daniel Defoe: His Life who said, "Selkirk is definitely not accepted as the major source, or even one of the top five. Robinson Crusoe is a long book and it is incorrect in dozens of ways to give Selkirk as the major source."

She pointed out that there are many other men and women who have been shipwrecked or marooned on islands and share more qualities with Crusoe's experience than Selkirk. Robert Knox is one; he was shipwrecked in Ceylon, was captive for 20 years and began a corn business during his time there.

"He even made little wool caps, and Defoe knew him personally," Backscheider added.

There are countless other significant differences between Crusoe's story and Selkirk's. The former was famously shipwrecked, but Selkirk marooned himself on an island after coming to the conclusion that their ship Cinque Ports wasn't safe enough to sail. Additionally, Selkirk was completely alone, while Crusoe had Friday and a tribe he constantly feared and watched out for.

It's also important to note that Crusoe wasn't a pirate - far from it - and Selkirk was well-known as a ruffin.

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