Have you ever lived on an island?

The real story of Robinson Crusoe

"Robinson Crusoe" is the classic adventure novel. The writer Daniel Defoe invented Robinson, the savage named Friday and life on the desert island. However, there actually was a sailor who was abandoned by his crew on an island: the Scot Alexander Selkirk had to fight for survival in the wild for over four years. Unlike the fictional character, he did not experience any romantic adventures in a South Seas paradise. Neither Robinson nor Selkirk lived on what is now Robinson Crusoe Island.

He was old, he was broke, and he needed money. His daughter wanted to get married, but the companies he founded were all bankrupt. He had failed as a stocking and brick manufacturer, a perfume manufacturer, newspaper publisher, secret agent and tax collector. Daniel Defoe, son of a candle maker from London, groaned “13 times rich and poor again” in his exciting life. But the pious man was really good at one thing: writing. He had an exuberant imagination and a nimble pen; he knew how to skillfully mix little that was true and much that was invented. And above all: He had an incredible nose for what people wanted to read. The top journalist of his time had written hundreds of pamphlets and religious treatises, political diatribes and satires, mostly under one of his 198 pseudonyms.

There was no novel when he wrote an adventure story at the ripe old age of 59 that England, indeed Europe, had never read before. The message of his book was short: “Help yourself, then God will help you!” The title was long: “The life and strange adventures of Robinson Crusoe from York, sailor: What eight and twenty years all alone on an uninhabited island lived on the American coast, near the mouth of the great Oroonoque River; on whose beach he was thrown after a shipwreck in which the entire crew except himself was killed. Along with a report on how he was miraculously saved by pirates. Written by himself. "

That was of course a lie. There was no Robinson who could have written anything down, Defoe had invented the character. There was no island where naked cannibals ate their enemies, and there was no Friday, no obedient savage Robinson could have raised to be a God-fearing Protestant. What there was, however, was a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk, who had survived from 1704 to 1709 alone on a remote island called M.s a Tierra in the Pacific. He was the talk of the town on the Thames when he returned to London in 1711. It can be assumed that Defoe met and interviewed the seaman.

What is true about the adventurous story he then wrote, where his information comes from, who the role models were for his fictional character and where she lived is something scholars argue to this day.

Because Defoe set the scene in the Caribbean, it was believed at that time (some researchers even to this day) that Tobago near the Orinoco estuary was the real Robinson Island. But the fact is: Tobago was neither small nor lonely nor inhabited by ogres. There slaves toiled on the sugar and cotton plantations of the British.

The rich flora that Defoe conjured up in his novel was also fictitious. Nowhere in the Caribbean did grapes, lemons, date palms, melons or cocoa trees grow. There were also no penguins or seals, as in the novel, and the mild climate that Robinson enjoyed there either - the Caribbean is tropical hot and humid.

True or false? The readers at the time didn't care, they devoured the book. The first edition of 1000 copies in April 1719 was immediately sold out. In Germany, five editions were printed as early as 1720, because "in the German soul ... there has always been a similar enthusiasm for loneliness and will always be," as one reviewer wrote at the time. Even in Catholic countries where it was banned, the book sold well. In Spain, Robinson was on the index until 1842 because of his penetrating Protestant passages.

Defoe's real name was Foe, but before he turned 40 he put a De in front of his name because he thought De Foe sounded somehow more noble, more aristocratic. It was only after his “Robinson” success that it became Defoe. He was a master at intertwining timeless, elementary topics with the latest political issues. He skillfully served the imperial longings of his contemporaries, who longed for a greater role for England in the world.

Buccaneering with the help of the monarchy

The rising sea power England found itself in an undeclared economic war with the declining world power Spain, which had plundered the South American continent largely undisturbed for 200 years. Because they did not dare to attack the Spaniards openly, the loot was left to private investors from the City of London.

The state-recognized buccaneer worked like this: A “letter of piracy” was obtained from the king, in which the crown allowed to attack foreign ships in return for a share of 20 percent of the booty. With this document, the investors then sent captains they had hired on a pirate voyage. 150 such permits were issued in 1703 alone. The weaker Spain became because it could no longer hold the huge empire together, the greater the greed of the others - French, Dutch and, above all, English. The raids were shamelessly trimmed with Christian charity: It was felt as a moral, God-commanded duty to take away the stolen goods from the arrogant Iberian world power.

Her Majesty's privateers were the heroes of their time, they not only increased the wealth of the crown and city but also provided adventurous reports from the most distant parts of the world. William Dampier was an exceptional figure among them. No one else had circled the earth as often as he did, namely three times, and no one else pursued the pirate trade so systematically, almost scientifically.

Wherever he showed up, he had maps made, questioned locals, examined ocean currents, weather, flora and fauna and wrote detailed reports on them for his financiers. In it he described how to cook penguins, treat scorpion stings and prepare flamingo tongues. In April 1703 the "London Gazette" reported that Captain Dampier "on the occasion of his imminent departure for another sea voyage to the West Indies" even had the honor of "kissing Her Majesty's hand". Dampier was an unspeakable predator, he was hated by the seafarers because he was a drunkard, tyrannical and brutal. But investors fought over him because he promised them high profits.

In July 1703 Daniel Defoe was pilloried again for having published a satirical poem about the rulers. In three different places in London he was publicly beaten in irons so that people could throw rubbish, stones and rotten vegetables at him, as was the custom at the time. To avoid a long prison sentence, Defoe undertook to spy for Queen Anne of England in Scotland. At the same time, another man embarked on a journey that would change Defoe's life and inspire him to do his most famous work.

With two small ships, the "Saint George" and the "Cinque Ports", Captain Dampier set out from Ireland, roughly direction: the Pacific. A crew of 180 had been hired, three times as many as one actually needed, because they were preparing for a particularly long, loss-making journey. The object of desire was a fabulously richly laden ship of the Spaniards, which brought gold and silver coins worth many millions of reals from the Spanish Pacific port of Acapulco across the ocean to Manila, to the colony of the Philippines, every June.

What was left of the booty after the king had arrived should be divided as follows: two thirds for the owners, one third for officers and sailors. As was customary at the time, they received no pay, only a share of the booty. “Nothing caught, nothing earned” was the maxim, as the English journalist Diana Souhami writes in her book “Selkirk’s Island”, which is well worth reading. The aim was to encourage them to be as daring and brutal as possible.

There were always enough adventurous and runaway convicts who wanted to get rich quickly. It was more difficult to find good officers. Dampier considered himself lucky to have hired the 27-year-old Scottish helmsman Alexander Selkirk, a raw, argumentative journeyman who left two women ashore and was considered an experienced navigator.

The 11,000 nautical mile journey was even more arduous than had been feared. The mood on board was miserable, because the booty that was made on the voyage west was meager, and people beat and stole from one another. As a punishment, people were whipped and cured with blood, that is, the wounds were sprinkled with salt and vinegar. Those who did not survive were thrown overboard.

When the two ships finally turned up in the Pacific, the real target, the gold ship, was long gone. The sailors were sick, many died of scurvy, diarrhea and fever, mutinies and the rum made things worse. They parted in a dispute off the Chilean coast. Dampier continued to hunt on the coast with the “Saint George”, Thomas Stradling, the despotic, only 21-year-old captain of the “Cinque Ports” decided to first get provisions and fresh water. In October 1704 he anchored off a lonely island that Dampier had told him about. It was discovered by Captain Juan Fernández in 1574 and was located 650 kilometers west of the Chilean port city of Valparaiso in the middle of the Pacific. "It was of inestimable strategic value to the English privateers," says British naval historian Andrew Lambert, "because it was the only place far and wide where they could stash fresh water and food without encountering the Spanish military."

An island destroyed by human hands

It rose almost a thousand meters high from the sea, had never been inhabited by humans until 1574 and had a unique flora and fauna. Many species were endemic, including a tiny hummingbird and a fur seal species that has now been severely decimated. The steep mountains were covered with low forest, bent crooked by the eternal wind. Precious sandal trees grew on the slopes near the sea. In winter it rained incessantly

It was cool and stormy, but in the summer it was mild and sunny. The young island, which had only risen out of the sea during a volcanic eruption five million years ago, had resembled a Garden of Eden - until man came. Then the disaster took its course immediately. The first Spanish settlers in 1591 brought a couple of goats with them, which multiplied explosively. Within a few years the low, southern part of the island was devoured.

If you visit it today, more than 300 years after the “Cinque Ports”, you will still find a lunar landscape there - in the middle of a temperate, rainy zone. "This is a particularly drastic example of how man destroys the environment," says Kiel ecology professor Hans-Rudolf Bork, who has been studying the island for 14 years: "It's as if there was a desert in Schleswig-Holstein." The erosion researcher can even see the bald spot in the Pacific from satellite photos. What earthquakes, tsunamis, storms and forest fires hadn't achieved in five million years, humans did in the twinkling of an eye. Killing fur seals was a popular pastime, "we usually had fun for two or three hours," as an English pirate reported. The lobsters were once abundant and over a meter tall. Today they are not even half as long, and it is only thanks to strict fishing laws that they still exist.

The Spaniards, who later settled the island, cut down the forests on the mountains for shipbuilding. The precious sandal trees were made into chopsticks for the Chinese market. "No seed has remained, the species has been extinct since 1910," complains Bork. For this purpose, eucalyptus trees have been planted en masse, which take away the light and minerals from the indigenous, evergreen rainforest because they grow higher and have deeper roots. The “most devastating of all imported plants,” says Professor Bork, is the Mediterranean blackberry. It grows over the low trees and takes their light so that they die: "Even if you spent a billion dollars - you can't get the blackberry from the island any more."

Neither did the greatest plague introduced by a German-born settler in 1935. His six rabbits multiplied as fast as they say rabbits, and now eat what the goats have left. While almost all of the goats have now been killed, the rabbits are a nuisance for eternity. For a while the state paid a catch premium of 60 cents for each tail of a specimen shot, but humans cannot shoot as often as the animals bang: "Today there are well over a hundred thousand, and no one has a solution," says Bork .

A life in the wilderness and solitude

Back then, in 1704, no one worried about goats, they were welcome fresh meat. After the men had recovered, the young captain wanted to leave immediately with the "Cinque Ports" in order to finally get to the pots of gold. His helmsman Selkirk was against it. The ship would go under, he warned, it would have to be repaired because the wooden hull had been eaten away by the worm. There was an argument, Selkirk refused to sail on. The captain suspended the cross driver in October 1704 and set off. The ship was already sunk off the Chilean coast, and Selkirk was alone on the island, all he had was a mattress, a musket, a pistol, some gunpowder, an ax, a knife, his navigational instruments, a saucepan, two Pounds of tobacco, some cheese and jam, a bottle of rum and a Bible.

He was convinced that he would get away soon, but it turned out to be four years and four months, a terrible time that had little to do with the jungle camp romance from the "Robinson" novel. He was eaten by rats at night, and during the day he was busy trying to find something to eat. He suffered from diarrhea and almost died from it. It took him months to get out of his deep depression and start taming goats. Unlike Robinson, he had no parrot to talk to, and no loyal savage to teach English. In his boundless solitude, he sang hymns so as not to lose speech and reason. When English privateers spotted him on the beach on February 1, 1709, gesticulating wildly, with matted hair and clad in stinking goat skins, they wanted to shoot him because they thought he was a monkey-like monster. Captain Woodes Rogers wrote in his diary: "Our pinasse returned from the bank, laden with lobsters and a man in goat skins who looked wilder than the original owners."

Two years later, on October 14, 1711, the privateer ship entered London, eagerly awaited by investors. At the wheel Selkirk, who had been harnessed by his rescuers and whose adventurous story got around quickly and was retold by all the newspapers. The articles were brightly decorated, sometimes fictitious and, as was customary at the time, oozing morality. Selkirk's fate shows "how much a simple and measured way of life is conducive to the health of the body and the resilience of the spirit, both of which we all too easily destroy through debauchery and lushness, especially when enjoying strong brandy".

For three years they fought over the booty, which was extremely meager at 147,975 pounds, twelve shillings and four pence. Almost 30,000 pounds went to the king, the rest still had to be bribed with customs officers, harbor masters and court servants. The simple sailors ended up with almost empty hands. Her journey to hell around the earth was rewarded with a ridiculous 42 pounds, six shillings per man. The now prominent Alexander Selkirk, however, received "800 pounds, four gold rings, a silver tobacco box, a stick with a gold knob, two gold candlesticks and a sword with a silver handle," as his biographer Souhami writes.

He was satisfied: "I'm now worth 800 pounds, but I'll never be as happy as I was when I wasn't worth a fart," he is reported to have said. In fact, unlike his alter ego in the “Robinson” novel, Selkirk was never happy again. He drank and fought like before, had to flee the judiciary and in 1720 was hired as first mate on the HMS "Weymouth". During a trip to the West African coast, he contracted a tropical disease. At 13th.In December 1721, Selkirk was bleeding from his eyes and nose, and that evening he was thrown overboard dead. The man who was called Robinson in his literary life and was immortal only lived to be 45 years old in real life. He died poor. His two widows fought over his last wage of 35 pounds.

In the novel, of course, the story ends with a happy ending. Robinson marries, has three children, owns an estate in Brazil and an island in the Caribbean, and looks back proudly on his “providential life”, which is so “foolish "Had started, but" ended much happier "than he could ever have hoped. D.he success of the book stimulated the search for the real places where Robinson / Selkirk could have lived as early as the 19th century. Since 1860, a plaque has shown tourists on the Pacific island a spectacular vantage point called “Robinson's View”. At the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, the skeleton of a goat was exhibited, which was claimed to have been found in the "Robinsons Crusoe Cave". In 2005, Japanese researchers discovered the remains of an old wall in the undergrowth near Aguas Buenas and declared it to be Selkirk's hut.

Life today on Robinson Crusoe Island

“It's all nonsense,” says Bork, who has explored these sites on three expeditions, “the cave didn't even exist in Selkirk's time. It was only opened by the English around 1760, probably with explosives. ”The house at Aguas Buenas“ was not the place where Selkirk lived, ”says Bork,“ the remains of the wall date from 1750/51 and were Part of a Spanish fortification ”. And the beautiful view? "Certainly not the place Selkirk went to to look for ships," says Bork. "Why should he laboriously climb the steep mountain for two hours and then only be able to look in a direction from which an English ship would never have come?"

The hopes of the Chilean government that the sleepy island could be revitalized with a little Robinson tourism and that its 650 residents could get a little extra income have never been fulfilled. The weather is moody, the locals like to say: “With us you can experience all four seasons in one day.” In the summer season only a few hundred tourists dare the dangerous flight to the island. The short runway lies between rocks that drop vertically into the sea, stormy updrafts make landing difficult: “You land steeply, almost like a helicopter. The planes need extra strong shock absorbers, ”says Bork. A plane belonging to the Chilean military crashed on approach in November 2011. 22 people who were supposed to help rebuild the island after a tsunami last year (16 dead) died.

Unless giant waves have penetrated 300 meters into the country and destroyed the only town of San Juan Bautista, as happened in 2010, the life of the locals is tranquil. There is almost no crime, the police rarely deal with more serious crimes than “horse jumps over fence and eats the neighbor's garden empty”. The consumption of cannabis is officially forbidden, but the locals like to smoke weed, they grow their hemp stalks hidden in the thicket. Two dozen rusty cars share a few meters of bumpy road, the island is too steep and inaccessible to be explored with off-road vehicles. You live from fishing for fish and lobster or you work for the Chilean nature conservation authority, which tries to clear invasive plants and cultivate native ones again. It is a Sisyphean task - nothing tastes as good to the rabbits as the young, newly planted shoots. The sturdy, small goats are no longer a problem, the species has become so rare that it has to be protected today. The few surviving animals hide in the inaccessible cliffs. The seals have also learned something new. They used to lie where their butchers came. Today they are shy and quickly disappear into the sea when a two-legged friend approaches.

One of the biggest employers on the island is a Chicago obsessed man. The American multimillionaire Bernard Keizer has been digging up the island since 1998 because he is convinced that a fabulous treasure is hidden in the Bahia Ingles, the “English Bay”. English privateers are said to have buried more than 800 gold bars there in 1761. Alleged value today: ten billion dollars. In 2005, a Chilean company claimed that a robot named "Arturito" discovered the treasure 15 meters below the surface. The sensational report was even printed in specialist journals such as the "New Scientist", it was as false as the footprint of Friday, which one also claims to have found once.

Keizer, on the other hand, conducts the search scientifically, he employs historians and archaeologists and relies on old documents that he has tracked down in English and Spanish archives. Of course, one of the most important documents, in which a captain Webb reports in spooky capital letters how he stored the treasure, is believed by naval historian Lambert to be a forgery. For the past 18 years, other, genuine documents have been fueling the hope that the treasure might still exist. After that, the hiding place should be marked on two maps, which were welded airtight and watertight in two lead boxes. In fact, Keizer found such a flat lead container, but it was crushed by a large stone and leaked, and the site plan was destroyed by the water.

He also found peach tins, cufflinks from the English military, shards of Chinese porcelain, all sorts of things - but not a gram of gold. The American still does not want to give up, in the summer in the southern hemisphere he lets dig every day, the ten local treasure hunters get 80 dollars a day, a good fee on the island. And when he gets tired of finding nothing, Keizer makes himself a coffee and takes a nap. In the famous cave that neither Robinson nor Selkirk have ever lived in. This is how the small island at the end of the world keeps its secrets. It would soon take another genius liar like Daniel Defoe to tell us what it really was like.

(NG, issue 5/2016, page (s) 42 to 67)