Book review: Crusoe's Island by Andrew Lambert

The sight of a dust jacket in blue with a compass and a sea chart, and a sub-title promising ‘Pirates, Castaways and Madness’ raises hopes of an entertaining account of adventures on the high seas.

Book review: Crusoe's Island by Andrew Lambert

But this is serious naval history, unfortunately intertwined with tired old theories about the importance of the island and the castaway, in particular Robinson Crusoe, to British cultural identity.

But Crusoe as the original coloniser and Friday as the colonised has long been recognised: James Joyce discussed this in a 1911 lecture. Lambert is sound on naval history, but should leave the cultural stuff to those who know their literature.

Crusoe’s Island is in the South Pacific’s Juan Fernández Archipelago, named after the Spanish mariner who discovered it, 670km off the coast of Chile. The Spanish navy did its best to keep the existence of the archipelago’s largest island a secret, deliberately charting it inaccurately.

The island, with its safe anchorage, easy access to water and plentiful supply of wild fruit and vegetables was a boon to ships after the long voyage from Europe around Cape Horn, which regularly took more than 100 days. Here the exhausted mariners could anchor safely and recuperate, leading to what seemed to many a ‘magical’ recovery of their health.

While the original Robinson Crusoe was a work of fiction written by the journalist Daniel Defoe from several different sources, including sailing master Alexander Selkirk’s memoirs (he sailed from Kinsale in 1703 with the privateer William Dampier, as those who have read Tim Severin’s Seeking Robinson Crusoe will know), many people assume Robinson Crusoe was a historical figure.

Over time, Selkirk and Crusoe have become hopelessly conflated.

The link is more Selkirk than Crusoe: The island Defoe describes was in the Caribbean, not the Pacific. However, Juan Fernández was indeed the island on which Alexander Selkirk chose to be cast away from a ship he deemed unseaworthy. He survived largely due to his own resourcefulness, and was rescued some four years later — not 28 as in the novel.

Lambert covers other famous voyages to this region, including a major British navy expedition of six boats and 1,500 troops in 1741, commanded by George Anson. This was decimated by scurvy, which Lambert documents in painful detail.

While 18th century mariners knew how scurvy affected the body, causing loose teeth, swollen limbs, bleeding in old wounds, and loss of strength, nobody knew what caused it, beyond long sea voyages.

Another feature of scurvy was a mental imbalance that led to depression, home sickness, and disproportionate raptures at the sight of land, such as often greeted Crusoe’s Island.

The suffering of sailors from dysentery, typhus, hypothermia, and exhaustion on early voyages to the South Pacific makes painful reading.

Thus, the arrival of a sloop in Anson’s expedition after some 148 days at sea: “The sloop had lost 34 men from a crew of only 100. Most of those still living were close to death; they lay on the deck, literally awash in their own excrement, amid the wreckage of the rigging, alongside the unburied dead.”

The thriving seal population of the islands was quickly annihilated, with one New York sealing ship alone taking 38,000 skins home in 1792. The island was also frequented by whalers, and Lambert gives a good account of this abhorrent trade which prospered in the Pacific only from the 1830s to 1869.

The archipelago is now a Chilean national park, and in 1966 one of the larger islands was named for Selkirk, and the other for Crusoe, hoping to attract more tourists. In 2010, the remote island’s only settlement was devastated by a tsunami, and repairs are still underway.

Crusoe’s Island: A Rich and Curious History of Pirates, Castaways and Madness

Andrew Lambert

Faber & Faber, £20

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