“Our pinnace (rowing boat)return’d from shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat skins, who looked wilder than the first owners of them.”
It is a classic start, is it not? I have always been told that to open a novel one must have an irresistible hook; a reason not to put it down, but to fork out the necessary cash to carry it home instead. This must qualify amongst the top ten best openers of all time.
And the writer is not – as some well-read types might at first surmise – Daniel Defoe.
The man who wrote Robinson Crusoe may well have met the wild goat-man when the latter returned to civilisation. There are dark unfounded rumblings that Defoe may even have plundered the goat-man’s diary whilst telling him the story could not possibly sell. But this is probably just malicious tittle tattle.
Defoe started far more prosaically: “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.”
Dull, dull, dull.
No: today’s openning words come from Woodes Rogers, dashing buccaneer and sea captain, contemporary of the goat man who -it must be owned – was once an officer on a ship. Rogers wrote about his encounter with his much-altered fellow seaman in a book which got him out of quite a financial hole: A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712).
Alexander Selkirk, he was, before the goats claimed him as their own.
He was not a particularly nice chap. His story, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, might begin: “I was born in Largo, Fife, the seventh son of a shoemaker; and I was a bold bad boy.”
He was summonsed to appear before the kirk session for the crime of ‘indecent carriage ‘ in church. He ran away to sea before the court date, but returned from his voyage only to fall foul of the authorities once more. His brother set down a tankard of salt water: Selkirk thought it was fresh and took a huge swig.
The laughter which ensued was not to Alexander’s taste and soon a pistol was held to his brother as he demanded satisfaction. Back before the church authorities, he received a strong rebuke.
Surely, then, the buccaneering profession, with its sanctioned piracy, was the perfect route for Selkirk. Yet the arguments continued as he set out as master of the privateer Cinq Ports, which was travelling together with The George. The two boats parted ways amid a whiff of mutiny in which Selkirk was probably involved; and later, he argued with the ship’s captain, insisting the Cinq Ports was unseaworthy.
Thus he sealed his fate.
He told the Captain he would rather leave the ship than sail in her: and so he was set down on an uninhabited island.
Selkirk changed his mind, of course, immediately, and pleaded with the boat to come back: but the Captain had become inexplicably, albeit temporarily, deaf.
Rogers’ account tells of how the recalcitrant Scot avoided Spanish sailors, even when they landed on the island. Of how unappetising the fish and pimento were without bread and salt; of the shoes which wore out, and the feet which became accustomed to running around the island so that five years later, post-goats, when he tried to put shoes on once more, his feet became swollen.
The goats were both dinner and best friends, alongside the cats who – tamed using goat’s meat – kept the uppity rats at bay. He used to have little dances with the goats and the cats, there on the island. He wore a coat and a cap made out of goat skins, but it did not seem to put his dance partners off much.
The sailors remarked his speed at hunting the goats. Agile, he was: and that was a problem the day a fiendish goat led him off the edge of a precipice. He plummeted down and the goat broke his fall: but he was bruised and battered, and lay there at the bottom of the cliff for 24 hours before hauling himself back to shelter.
Buccaneers rescued him, eventually: and when they offered him a dram of whisky he refused because he had been drinking only water for five years. He was barely intelligible, talking in ‘half-words’.
Did it change this wild child? Certainly he would sing psalms and pray on the island, but the habit fell away when he left. His biography hints at bigamy later in life.
A phrase was attributed him by Sir Richard Steele: its provenance is questionable.
Yet it sums up his life rather well: ‘I am now worth 800 Pounds,” Selkirk is reputed to have said, ” but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a farthing.”
The image is mine: a gorgeous mediaeval salt cellar from the 1520s, now living at the V&A museum’s mediaeval gallery. Made a century or more before Selkirk’s adventure, it nevertheless reminds me of him vividly.