Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Story of Alexander Selkirk
By Richard Steele (16721729)
From The Englishman
UNDER the title of this paper I do not think it foreign to my design, to speak of a man born in Her Majestys dominions, and relate an adventure in his life so uncommon, that it is doubtful whether the like has happened to any of human race. The person I speak of is Alexander Selkirk, whose name is familiar to men of curiosity, from the fame of his having lived four years and four months alone in the island of Juan Fernandez. I had the pleasure frequently to converse with the man soon after his arrival in England, in the year 1711. It was matter of great curiosity to hear him, as he is a man of good sense, give an account of the different revolutions in his own mind in that long solitude. When we consider how painful absence from company for the space of but one evening is to the generality of mankind, we may have a sense how painful this necessary and constant solitude was to a man bred a sailor, and ever accustomed to enjoy and suffer, eat, drink, and sleep, and perform all offices of life, in fellowship and company. He was put ashore from a leaky vessel, with the captain of which he had had an irreconcileable difference; and he chose rather to take his fate in this place, than in a crazy vessel, under a disagreeable commander. His portion were a sea-chest, his wearing clothes and bedding, a firelock, a pound of gunpowder, a large quantity of bullets, a flint and steel, a few pounds of tobacco, an hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible and other books of devotion, together with pieces that concerned navigation, and his mathematical instruments. Resentment against his officer, who had ill-used him, made him look forward on this change of life, as the more eligible one, till the instant in which he saw the vessel put off; at which moment, his heart yearned within him, and melted at the parting with his comrades and all human society at once. He had in provisions for the sustenance of life but the quantity of two meals, the island abounding only with wild goats, cats, and rats. He judged it most probable that he should find more immediate and easy relief, by finding shell-fish on the shore, than seeking game with his gun. He accordingly found great quantities of turtles, whose flesh is extremely delicious, and of which he frequently ate very plentifully on his first arrival, till it grew disagreeable to his stomach, except in jellies. The necessities of hunger and thirst were his greatest diversions from the reflection on his lonely condition. When those appetites were satisfied, the desire of society was as strong a call upon him, and he appeared to himself least necessitous when he wanted everything; for the supports of his body were easily attained, but the eager longings for seeing again the face of man during the interval of craving bodily appetites, were hardly supportable. He grew dejected, languid, and melancholy, scarce able to refrain from doing himself violence, till by degrees, by the force of reason, and frequent reading of the Scriptures, and turning his thoughts upon the study of navigation, after the space of eighteen months, he grew thoroughly reconciled to his condition. When he had made this conquest, the vigour of his health, disengagement from the world, a constant, cheerful, serene sky, and a temperate air, made his life one continual feast and his being much more joyful than it had before been irksome. He now, taking delight in everything, made the hut in which he lay, by ornaments which he cut down from a spacious wood, on the side of which it was situated, the most delicious bower, fanned with continual breezes, and gentle aspirations of wind, that made his repose after the chase equal to the most sensual pleasures. I forgot to observe, that during the time of his dissatisfaction, monsters of the deep, which frequently lay on the shore, added to the terrors of his solitude; the dreadful howlings and voices seemed too terrible to be made for human ears; but upon the recovery of his temper, he could with pleasure not only hear their voices, but approach the monsters themselves with great intrepidity. He speaks of sea-lions, whose jaws and tails were capable of seizing and breaking the limbs of a man, if he approached them: but at that time his spirits and life were so high, and he could act so regularly and unconcerned, that merely from being unruffled in himself, he killed them with the greatest ease imaginable: for observing, that though their jaws and tails were so terrible, yet the animals being mighty slow in working themselves round, he had nothing to do but place himself exactly opposite to their middle, and as close to them as possible, he dispatched them with his hatchet at will.
The precautions which he took against want, in case of sickness, was to lame kids when very young, so as that they might recover their health, but never be capable of speed. These he had in great numbers about his hut; and when he was himself in full vigour, he could take at full speed the swiftest goat running up a promontory, and never failed of catching them but on a descent.
His habitation was extremely pestered with rats, which gnawed his clothes and feet when sleeping. To defend him against them he fed and tamed numbers of young kitlings, who lay about his bed, and preserved him from the enemy. When his clothes were quite worn out, he dried and tacked together the skins of goats, with which he clothed himself, and was inured to pass through woods, bushes, and brambles with as much carelessness and precipitance as any other animal. It happened once to him, that running on the summit of a hill, he made a stretch to seize a goat, with which under him, he fell down a precipice, and lay helpless for the space of three days, the length of which time he measured by the moons growth since his last observation. This manner of life grew so exquisitely pleasant, that he never had a moment heavy upon his hands; his nights were untroubled, and his days joyous, from the practice of temperance and exercise. It was his manner to use stated hours and places for exercises of devotion, which he performed aloud, in order to keep up the faculties of speech, and to utter himself with greater energy.
When I first saw him, I thought, if I had not been let into his character and story, I could have discerned that he had been much separated from company, from his aspect and gesture; there was a strong but cheerful seriousness in his look, and a certain disregard to the ordinary things about him, as if he had been sunk in thought. When the ships which brought him off the island came in, he received them with the greatest indifference with relation to the prospect of going off with them, but with great satisfaction in an opportunity to refresh and help them. The man frequently bewailed his return to the world, which could not, he said, with all its enjoyments, restore him to the tranquillity of his solitude. Though I had frequently conversed with him, after a few months absence, he met me in the street, and though he spoke to me, I could not recollect that I had seen him; familiar converse in this town had taken off the loneliness of his aspect, and quite altered the air of his face.
This plain mans story is a memorable example that he is happiest who confines his wants to natural necessities; and he that goes further in his desires, increases his wants in proportion to his acquisitions; or to use his own expression, I am now worth £800, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a farthing.