The real Robinson Crusoe

Alexander Selkirk was marooned for 52 months in the South Seas

In September 1704, a ship by the name of Cinque Ports rowed into the bay of a tiny island 300 miles west of Chile. Its sailors were exhausted and mutinous with frustration. They had been at sea for the better part of a year searching for Spanish galleons to pillage with little to show for their efforts. Their stay on shore would be short, just long enough to refit their ships and gather food stores. When their captain gave orders to sail just one month later, a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk protested, claiming that their vessel was rotted and sure to sink. He would not board.

And so they left him there.

Selkirk spent the next 52 months marooned on that island until another ship stopped to resupply and discovered him, wild and gaunt, yet alive. The story of his ordeal eventually reached Daniel Defoe and inspired the writer to pen his classic novel, "Robinson Crusoe." Thanks to it, people soon forgot there ever was an Alexander Selkirk. Now, with her fascinating biography, "Selkirk's Island," British journalist Diana Souhami peels back Defoe's artifice to reveal the life of a swashbuckling man whom she dubs the real Robinson Crusoe.

Like the late Patrick O'Brian, Souhami brilliantly recreates the feel of the high seas and the brave, money-hungry men who sailed them in the 1700s. Quoting generously from journals, ship records, and maritime histories, she describes a time when pirating was a kind of freelance patriotism. England was at war with France and Spain, and enterprising men who knew their way around the South Seas could make a killing lining up investors to fund excursions to rob Spain's infamous galleons.

The seventh child of a cobbler, Selkirk was just the kind of poor and ill-tempered youth willing to risk all for the possibilities of adventure and untold wealth. At 23, he signed on to be the master of a ship escorting a self-promoting captain named William Dampier and his ship, the St. George, to the West Indies.

Racked by mutiny, drunkenness, and disease, Dampier's voyage went horribly awry. Selkirk was lucky to have jumped ship when he did, as the vessel that forsook him soon sank. After a period of despondency, he adjusted to life on the island, honing tools, constructing a home from sandalwood, and eating what nature provided: lobster, goat, herbs, and plums. In a few years, Selkirk became a kind of Tarzan of the island. "He swung from lianas with the grace of an ape, ran faster than any creature on The Island, got the fruits of the cabbage palms by climbing. No creatures preyed upon him."

Leaving this peaceful but lonely paradise four years later was the beginning of the end for Selkirk. It's an evolution Souhami scripts with knowing detail. Selkirk returned from the arduous journey home £800 richer but alienated and addicted to drink. He settled briefly in Scotland only to flee after bludgeoning a man.

Meanwhile, writers were looting his life for their own purposes. One account of Selkirk's experience transformed him into a paragon of Christian values. Defoe, it turns out, borrowed Selkirk's story for a less lofty goal: He needed money for his daughter's wedding.

In the end, two women - one rightful, the other greedy - fought over Selkirk's estate the way his old shipmates squabbled over treasure. It's a sad ending to this tale, but also a fitting one. The island, not the sea, Souhami believes, was Selkirk's great mistress, and all the treasure in the world was naught when compared with it. As she writes, "The Island claimed him with its secrets, its essential existence ... turned him fleetingly into more than he was. In his piratical soul he knew he would die in this place, whether he was rescued from it or not." With this rich and vastly entertaining book, Diana Souhami gives him his proper burial there.

• John Freeman is a freelance writer living in New York.

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