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Inspiration for Daniel Defoe's famous fictional character: Robinson Crusoe

PUBLISHED: 01:16 03 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:05 20 February 2013

Inspiration for Daniel Defoe's famous fictional character: Robinson Crusoe

Inspiration for Daniel Defoe's famous fictional character: Robinson Crusoe

The story of Alexander Selkirk isn't that well known today. We are instead far more familiar with the fictional character he inspired, Robinson Crusoe.

October is the 300th year anniversary of Alexander Selkirks return to British soil, when he finally stepped onto the Kent coast at Erith in 1711. And who was Selkirk? Only the man who inspired Daniel Defoes famous fictional character Robinson Crusoe.


The story of Alexander Selkirk isnt that well known today. We are instead far more familiar with the fictional character he inspired, Robinson Crusoe. And yet, the inspiration for Daniel Defoes classic novel was a man whose life was in many ways just as remarkable as Crusoes.


October marks the 300th year anniversary of Selkirks return to British soil, when he finally stepped onto the Kent coast at Erith in 1711.Unlike Crusoe, Selkirks stranding seven years earlier had been self inflicted. Concerned about the sea-worthiness of the Cinque Ports (the privateering vessel he was serving on), Selkirk tried to convince some of his crewmates to desert with him on the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernndez off the coast of Chile, where the ship had laid anchor for a mid-expedition restocking of supplies and fresh water.


Sadly for Selkirk, his crew mates opted to stay on and he was stranded alone on the island, his belief that another ship would soon arrive proving unfounded.During the following four years he survived by eating what meagre food supplies the island had to offer and staved of boredom and loneliness by reading his Bible.


Amazingly, there were two opportunities for his rescue during his early years on the island but the ships that offered this were Spanish and being both Scottish and a privateer, it would have meant a terrible punishment had he revealed himself to them.His rescue eventually occurred on 1 February 1709 by way of The Duke, a British privateering ship.


It was an event that according to accounts left him incoherent with joy but one accompanied by the sobering news that the Cinque Ports had later foundered, losing most of its hands.


Although you would think that an ordeal such as that would have put him off sailing for life, by 1717 Selkirk was back at sea again. The last known record of him occurred in December 1721 when the ships log of the Royal ship Weymouth reported that Lieutenant Selkirk had died.


We thought that the Alexander Selkirk story, and the wonderful novel that it inspired, is quite a remarkable one and because of this and his connection with Erith its something that should be celebrated, says Tony Williams, one of the brains behind the towns Selkirk Celebrations.


Rather than just organising a single days celebration to mark the 300th-year anniversary of his return to English soil, the people of Erith have gone further and used their association with the real Robinson Crusoe as a way to engage local people in the history of the town.


There is still a large section of the older population who remember Erith in its heyday, but many people, specifically younger members of the community, dont. So we got together to try and make the 18th-century history of the area and also other aspects of the Selkirk story more accessible and provide these people with a reason to feel connected to where they live, says local councillor Margaret ONeill.


Different Selkirk-related events have been held during the year, giving people the chance to learn more about the story, the clothes, the people and the food of the 18th century. The project has also tried to be a constant presence at local ftes and festivals throughout the summer.


This has given local people the chance to learn more about Alexander Selkirk and about the towns past, adds Tony.


Although these community events have been important, most of the projects efforts over the last few months have been geared towards local schools, where they have sought to weave aspects of the Selkirk story and local 18th-century history into the curriculum.


There are lots of subject areas where we have been able to do this, says local student and the projects youth representative, Robyn Drummond.


The most obvious is history. But whereas traditionally the subject has seemed a little dry to some children, we have sought to make it relevant to them.


For example, when talking about the South American shipping routes of the 18th century we have related this to some of the foods that the children eat today and which come from that part of the world.


Other parts of the curriculum have also been touched by the Selkirk project, such as English with Defoes novel, art with the making of a tableau of Selkirks life and geography, through learning about the sea and the island.


The whole process has really got the children engaged and provided them with a genuine insight into local history and an understanding of this remarkable story, continues Robyn.


As well as teaching people about the history of their town, these local projects are also aimed at building publicity for the main event, which is the towns Selkirk festival; a commemoration of his landing at Erith 300 years ago, which will take place on 15 October.


The day itself is going to be fantastic, a real festival, adds Tony. There are going to be people in 18th-century costume walking around the town, stalls selling historically authentic food, activities for younger kids and treasure trails for people to follow around the town.


During the day the organisers will also be announcing the results from the artistic competitions that the children from local schools have taken part in.


The centrepoint of the celebrations will be a re-enactment of Selkirks landing at Erith continues Tony. At high tide people dressed in authentic costume will come in by boat and land at the jetty, giving locals and visitors an idea what the original landing, and one of the towns most important historic events, would have looked like.


The Selkirk Celebration will be a real community endeavour. Along with local school children, several community groups, such as The Rotary Club, the Erith and Belvedere History Society, Erith Rowing Club, the Erith Yacht Club and the local army cadets will be involved in this day.


It illustrates how energised the local community has been by this, says Robyn Drummond excitedly. Across the age groups, people have become really engaged, something which makes all the effort we put in worthwhile.


The celebration in October will be a great way to top this project off as well as being a wonderful occasion for people who live both locally and elsewhere in Kent to come along and have a great day out.


For all supporting web links and to read more exciting tales about Kents history, visit: kent.greatbritishlife.co.uk and go to Links.


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