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An 18th Century Voyage of Discovery
Alexander Selkirk and the voyage of the Cinque Ports Galley
Robinson Crusoe is a fictional character in a book written by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1719. In this famous book, Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked and marooned on an island surviving alone until he meets up with Man Friday, another inhabitant of the island.
The story by Defoe, however, was based on the real life experiences of a Scottish seaman called Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk was born in 1676 in Lower Largo, Fife. He was taken on as master of the Cinque Ports, a galley which was commissioned for a privateering voyage in 1702. The owners obtained a letter of marque and reprisal from the Lord High Admiral. These letters enabled merchant ships to be armed for self-defence from foreign ships but also sanctioned attacks on foreign ships, especially those deemed enemies of Britain. In reality, privateering was little more than high seas piracy and the booty collected was another way of making money when ‘normal’ maritime trade was suspended, such as in time of war.
The fate of the Cinque Ports Galley was inextricably bound to a separate privateering voyage led by Captain Dampier of the St George.
In April 1703, Dampier left London in charge of two ships, the other being the Fame with Captain Pulling in charge. However, even before the two ships had left the Downs, the two captains argued and the Fame sailed off, leaving the St George on her own. Captain Dampier sailed into Kinsale, Ireland and there met up with the Cinque Ports under the command of Captain Pickering. The two ships decided to join forces and a new agreement of dubious legality was made between the two captains.
Captain Dampier had been engaged by Thomas Escourt to sail two ships to the South Sea (Pacific Ocean) where they would seek out Spanish treasure ships, plunder them and return to England with the booty to sell for a profit. The two captains proposed to sail down the coast of South America and capture a Spanish treasure ship at Buenos Aires. If the booty from this capture amounted to £60,000 or above, the boats would immediately return to England. If they missed the ship, however, they would plan to sail around Cape Horn to capture Spanish vessels carrying gold to the mines at Lima. Failing that, the ships would sail north and attempt to capture the Acapulco – Manila ship, which was nearly always laden with treasure.
The ships left Ireland in May 1703 and as the voyage progressed, things began to go wrong. There were many arguments between the captains and crew and then Captain Pickering of the Cinque Ports was taken ill and died. His second-in-command, Thomas Stradling, replaced him. The arguments, however, continued. The root of the discontent was the crew’s feeling that Captain Dampier was not ruthless enough in taking opportunities to plunder passing ships and as a consequence, large amounts of booty were being lost. There was also a feeling that, where booty was taken, Captain Dampier and his friend Edward Morgan were taking the prizes for personal gain.
Matters came to head in February, 1704 when the crew of the Cinque Ports mutinied during a stop at the island of Juan Fernandez and refused to get back on board the ship. The crew only returned to the ship after the intervention of Captain Dampier. To make matters worse, the ship left its sails and gear behind on the island after spotting a French ship. As the voyage progressed, opportunities to clean and repair the ships in order to prevent worm damage were lost and two ships soon began to leak. By now relations between the two ships had reached the point where they both agreed that on reaching the Bay of Panama, they should divide the spoils and go their separate ways.
In September 1704, the St.George sailed off and the Cinque Ports returned to Juan Fernandez in an attempt to recover her sails and gear only to find that the French ship had removed them. It was here that Alexander Selkirk, the master of the Cinque Ports, carried out a personal rebellion by refusing to sail on the ship. He felt that the state of the ship was so bad and his relations with Captain Stradling so strained that he would rather take his chances marooned on Mas a Tierra, one of the uninhabited islands of the Juan Fernandez group. He was left with a gun, a knife, a hatchet, some oats and tobacco, as well as a bible, books of devotion and some navigational instruments. At the last moment, Selkirk asked to be taken back on board but Captain Stradling refused to take him back. In the end, Selkirk’s decision, albeit reluctantly, turned out to be a wise one. The Cinque Ports leaked so heavily after leaving Juan Fernandez that the crew had to abandon ship and take to rafts. Only 18 sailors survived to reach the South American mainland where they were captured, mistreated by both the Spanish and the native people and imprisoned.
Selkirk remained alone on the island for four years and four months. He was rescued by another privateering voyage led by Captain Woodes Rogers. In his journal of this famous voyage from 1708 to 1711, Rogers described the moment when Selkirk was rescued in February 1709:
‘We arrived at the island of Juan Fernandez on 31 January. We lay there to recoup ourselves until 13 February. At the island we found one Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman who was left there by Captain Stradling, Captain Dampier’s consort the last voyage and survived four years and four months without conversing with any creature, having no company but wild goats…’
In fact, Alexander Selkirk, despite his enforced solitude, had to be
persuaded to come on board after finding out that amongst his rescuers
was William Dampier, the commodore of the ill-fated voyage of the Cinque
Ports and now the pilot of Woodes Rogers’ voyage. Eventually,
Selkirk was persuaded to join the voyage and on Dampier’s recommendation
he was made mate aboard Rogers’ ship, the Duke. The following year,
after the capture of the Spanish treasure ship, the Nuestra Senora
de la Incarnacion Disenganio, Selkirk was promoted to sail master
on the ship which had been renamed the Batchelor.
Woodes Rogers’s voyage ended in 1711 with their arrival in the Thames. Both Rogers and Selkirk achieved fame on their return. Selkirk, however, was asked to give evidence in a court case brought against William Dampier by Elizabeth Creswell, the daughter of the owner of the first voyage, for the losses incurred in the 1703 venture.
After this, Selkirk sailed on a trading voyage to Bristol where he was
indicted for assault. This charge may have been brought about by supporters
of Dampier but Selkirk was kept in confinement for two years. Alexander
Selkirk, seaman, lone survivor and privateer died at sea in 1721.
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