2 February 1709
I can only imagine that sinking feeling that Alexander Selkirk had as he watched his now-former shipmates on the Cinque Ports sailing away over the horizon, leaving him all alone on Más a Tierra island, some 400-plus miles west of the Chilean mainland. After having voiced his concerns to the captain - a 21-years-young former Lieutenant named Thomas Stradling - about the seaworthiness of the ship, an argument ensued between the two. When Stradling refused to careen the ship and make the necessary repairs, Selkirk said he'd rather maroon himself on the island than sail any further with them. This appears to have initially been a bluff by Selkirk, who had hoped that the rest of the crew would follow his lead, but it was a bluff that was ultimately called by Stradling. When Selkirk, standing on the island all by himself, saw that the crew wasn't following his lead, he immediately regretted his decision and pleaded with the Captain to let him back on board. As both Selkirk and Stradling were known for their hot-headedness, Stradling decided to leave him on the island and sail away without him.
(Más a Tierra, as seen depicted in an 18th Century French map; a satellite view from above showing impressive accuracy of the French cartographer; and present day, with a small port village)
Más a Tierra island is the second-largest island in the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile. It was completely uninhabited during Selkirk's tenure as the island's only resident, but it hadn't always been that way. Previously, it had been home to a small colony of Spaniards after being settled by the Spanish explorer Juan Fernandez in 1574. Additionally, a Moskito man named Will had been marooned there about 20 years prior to Selkirk from 1681-1684.
While being marooned on a deserted island is never a good thing, Selkirk did have a few factors that fell in his favor. First and foremost, he was able to unload some of his provisions from the ship, among which included a flintlock pistol/musket and gunpowder, a hatchet and a knife, a cooking pot, a Bible, some bedding, and even some of his clothes. Additionally, wild goats were present on the island - either left there by previous passing sailors or perhaps from the earlier Spanish settlements - which provided him with access to fresh meat and milk for the duration of his time on the island. Using the tools he had handy, he was able to harvest wild radish as well as the leaves from the indigenous cabbage tree for additional sustenance. The cabbage trees provided further value as lumber that he used to build himself two huts on the island: one for sleeping in, and the other for food storage and cooking.
To be sure, this was not an island vacation for Alexander Selkirk; he battled agonizing loneliness and utter boredom during his entire stay. He did his best to keep his wits sharp by reading his Bible and even singing the hymns out loud. Feral cats that were present provided not only companionship, but also practical use: a colony of rats existed on the island that would nip at his feet during the night while he slept, but once he "befriended" some of these cats, they started hanging around his hut, which proved effective in keeping the rats at bay.
Eventually, the clothes that he had with him were so tattered and torn that he once again turned to the goats. Childhood lessons from his father - a tanner - enabled him to turn the hair-covered goatskins into rough clothing that he would wear during the remainder of his stay on the island. Later renditions of Alexander Selkirk often show the castaway clad in those same goat skins, as pictured below:
(Statue of Alexander Selkirk in his home town of Lower Largo, Scotland; a literary rendition of the famous castaway)
While Selkirk was marooned on that island for over four years and four months, there were two separate occasions where a ship did weigh anchor and the crew come ashore for provisions and fresh water. Unfortunately, both of those ships were Spanish, and had he been discovered by them he would very likely have been taken prisoner and ultimately hung. In fact, the crew from one of the ships did spot him during their time on the island and give chase, but he was able to use his knowledge of the terrain to evade and escape until they gave up and returned to their ship.
Finally, salvation arrived by way of a privateering ship named Duke, which was piloted by William Dampier and captained by Woodes Rogers. In an amazing coincidence, Dampier had also been present during the initial marooning of Selkirk; he had been the captain of the 26-gun St. George, which led the 1703 expedition that included the Cinque Ports. On this day, however, there was cause for celebration, as he had successfully caught the attention of the Duke, as well as its companion ship Duchess, by lighting a signal fire from shore. The ships had made the decision to stop for provisions and fresh water, due in part to many of the crew suffering from malnutrition and scurvy. Selkirk quickly proved his worth to Rogers by capturing goats over the next few days and feeding them to the hungry crew, which helped them regain their strength significantly. That, along with additional validation by Dampier, saw Rogers not only welcome Selkirk aboard the Duke, but also name him Second Mate.
In an impressive feat of resilience, Selkirk returned to his old privateering ways immediately upon his rescue, remaining a member of the crew of the Duke as it raided Guayaquil, sacked the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, and eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope on its way back to England. When the ship finally made port on 1 October 1711, he been away for eight long years. Interestingly, his return to England also marked a successful, albeit lengthy, circumnavigation of the globe - a remarkable feat for any sailor of that era. His story was recounted in published works by Woodes Rogers, William Dampier, and Edmund Cook, and his story is often credited as one of the principal inspirations for the title character in Daniel Dafoe's 1719 novel, The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
Alexander Selkirk continued his career at sea by enlisting in the Royal Navy in 1717. While on an anti-piracy voyage off the coast of Africa aboard the HMS Weymouth, Selkirk succumbed to yellow fever on 13 December 1721. His body was buried at sea.