- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Diana Souhami
Harcourt, $24, 248 pages

By Tim Severin
Basic Books, $26, 333 pages

Both of these worthy efforts of nonfiction explore one of the world's best loved stories Robinson Crusoe, cast shipwrecked on a deserted island, makes a life for himself and discovers his alter ego, Man Friday. A quarter century later he's rescued with suitable drama, and his return to civilization creates a sensation, and a book makes him immortal.
But was the Crusoe story based on real-live experience? Or was it the imagination of hard pressed literary man of all work Daniel Defoe, churning out yet another book to stave off the collectors? And does the island where Defoe set his story exist?
Tim Severin, well known travel author and nature writer, has made a career with books retracing the voyages and adventures of historical figures and his "In Search of" series includes Genghis Khan and Moby Dick. Here his research and painstaking visits to sites all over the world convince him that Robinson Crusoe's model is not Scottish seaman Andrew Selkirk (the generally accepted model for Crusoe) but Henry Pitman.
Selkirk, whose life and death are well documented, was a depressing figure, a small-minded complainer and bar room brawler who was dumped on the Island of Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile in 1704 after arguing with his captain. His rescue in 1709 by the famed British privateers and explorers Woodes Rogers and William Dampier turned him into a celebrity and literary subject.
Pitman was an English surgeon transported to indentured servitude in Barbados after he chose the wrong side in the 1685 rebellion against King James II. He accomplished a remarkable escape with seven companions in a tiny skiff, ending up after hardship and storm at Salt Tortuga, a uninhabited island 300 miles away. When Pitman was taken by visiting pirates for his medical skills and eventually returned to England, he wrote a little book about his adventures, which was published 30 years before Defoe wrote "Robinson Crusoe."
Mr. Severin argues convincingly that Pitman was Defoe's model and Tortuga, an island in the South Atlantic (not Juan Fernandez in the Pacific) was the locale on which Defoe built the tale.
Thus Mr. Severin is able to announce literary news and add a "case closed" to the rest of the book's wandering course among the tropical islands of the world. Mr. Severin's method to travel to every island named or suggested in the literature of "maroons" to look for clues which might illuminate Defoe's thought process seems more of a travel junket than a driven search. But it has its charms, and Mr. Severin makes his point there is much more of Pitman, the educated, skilled, and adventurous surgeon, in the literary Crusoe than there is of the sullen Selkirk, who died in obscurity at sea after his only taste of fame, two wives scrabbling over his few possessions.
The charm of Mr. Severin is that he, an accomplished sailor, a polished narrator, can transmit the air and the feel of the sun blasted islands, the strength of the trade winds, the taste of the salt to his island-hopping research and keep us guessing. With each new island and each new tale of a marooned sailor, the nugget of truth about old Crusoe may just come to light.
It doesn't happen, really, but that's not the point in Mr. Severin's happy, incident-filled telling. The voyage, after all, not the destination, is the important thing here.
In "The Real Robinson Crusoe," London biographer Diana Souhami takes as a given that Selkirk IS Crusoe, and working backward from the island of Juan Fernandez itself, moves through the story of his life and of his great adventure.
To her, the dour Selkirk is a somewhat tragic, lost figure rather than a self-destructive fool; But whatever the worth of Selkirk's literary legacy, Selkirk/Crusoe has captured the imagination of the world for hundreds of years. For that reason alone there is energy in these pages. With careful research, the author unfolds the era in which Selkirk lived, and the careers of the reckless, proud, energetic and risk-taking men who came out from England to raid the Spanish treasure ships which carried gold and jewels from South America to Manila.
Juan Fernandez was a natural stopping place for these English voyagers. Having rounded Cape Horn and likely suffering from scurvy due to poor diet, ships stumbled on the jagged ridge of volcanic stone thrusting out of the sea west of Valparaiso, and used it as a place for rest and repair and fresh water. The author, who spent three months on the island, renders its melancholy wildness and its utter isolation admirably. It is a place where nature is so strong as to overwhelm any of man's attempts to order it.
To this author, there is no doubt that Selkirk is the basis for Defoe's bestselling novel, and her focus, naturally spreads from the rather thin story of his life to the rich and well documented adventures of Woodes Rogers and William Dampier and the privateer's war between England and Spain.
The hardihood and enterprise of these men still astounds the reader. Captains like those who commanded the ship Selkirk sailed on were pure capitalist entrepreneurs. They sought money from wealthy individuals with the promise of vast gains, built little ships and sailed them halfway around the world on the chance of meeting, and attacking, one treasure galleon on the vastness of the Pacific. Amazingly it sometimes worked,
Selkirk, a bit player in the high drama, gives a theme and a continuo to the stories of these English raiders, whose adventures do not suffer by this retelling.
The man Selkirk was one of those unlikely chips in the stream of history and of literature. The author pitilessly follows the sorry end of his life (he was buried at sea at the age of 41, unnoted and unmourned, a crewman who grew sick of fever and died on the British naval vessel Weymouth, in African waters, meriting no more than a single line in a logbook.)
But back in England, the two wives he'd fecklessly married were ready to battle over his remains, and the unfurling of their claims on his back pay (and one silver-hilted sword) fulfil every cliche of chancery law. Yet art made of such a man's life a creation that has never gone out of print.
The island now is dedicated to the fiction of Crusoe and does a modest tourist trade, Diana Souhami writes. There is a cave where Selkirk is said to have lived, there is a lookout he's supposed to have used. Neither make geographical sense. The fiction scribbled hundreds of years ago in London has become the fact. Defoe made up Crusoe, but the island remains the closest thing we can touch to the deathless story.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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