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The Comfort of Strangers

A straight line can be drawn from “The Odyssey” to “The Tempest” to “Robinson Crusoe” to “Castaway” and to “Lost”.  What they all share in common is a ship (or plane) wreck, and survivors being forced to endure despair, deprivation, isolation, inhospitable surroundings, madness, and perhaps even worse than death, declining ratings.

In its own way, each story explores the theme of a “civilized” human reduced to something less than that, and along the way, discovering something profound about humanity, be it the importance of social rules, belief, stamina, or simply the variable comforts afforded by others.  Luckier souls do not have to get shipwrecked to discover that.

The Real Crusoe

Published in 1719, incredibly, almost 300 years ago, Daniel Defoe’s “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” is perhaps above all the most recognizable of our survivor tales.

Ever since its publication at a time when myriad stories of marooned seafarers had seized the Western public’s imagination, much speculation has existed over who the “real” Crusoe was.  Until recently, many had taken it to be Scottish “privateer” (read pirate) Alexander Selkirk (aka Selcraig), the son of a shoemaker who as a mere teen had apparently rejected the shoe repair trade and ran away to sea.  At 28, after a quarrel with his pirate captain, he was at his own request put ashore alone on the uninhabited Más a Tierra Island, (since renamed Robinson Crusoe Island), 400 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile.  We can only assume that what the Captain had in store for young Alex was a tad more extreme than that.

That Selkirk survived alone on the island for over five years, and after being found, brought safely back to England, fired the civilized imagination in the same way that Aron Ralston’s tale of survival and self-dismemberment in Blue John Canyon, Utah, inflamed ours, leading to the retelling of his ordeal in the movie “127 Hours”, with a game James Franco as his arm-sawing alter-ego.

As a contemporary of Defoe’s, it’s easy to consider the audacious Selkirk as the writer’s proto-survivor.   The timing, character, and outcome of the true story seem to lend themselves to that conclusion.  But a new source has recently surfaced, in the person of marooned 18th century seafarer, Robert Knox.

Whiteman Tree

In 1659, the very same year that the fictitious Robinson Crusoe himself washed up on his island off the coast of Trinidad where he would be marooned for 28 years, the 19 year-old Knox, a crew member aboard the Anne, an East India Company ship captained by his father and bound for Persia, was battered at anchor off the south coast of India.  The ship staggered into Kottiyar Bay in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and after a diplomatic miscue with the reigning king’s men, its crew was taken prisoner, the site of their kidnapping going on to be memorialized by locals as “Whiteman tree”.

The Odd Wild Elephant

While his father was less lucky and succumbed to malaria less than a year hence, Knox, incredibly, survived 18 years of captivity by adopting the ways of the locals, dressing like them, sporting uncut hair and even speaking the language of the Sinhalese.  Knox became a successful farmer, lender and trader, even learning to tell the time from the deep purple-blossomed “Four o’ clock flower”, which opened every day at four and stayed open until the next morning when it would close, only to open at four again.

Once you abandon your silver pocketwatch for local flora, you can officially be considered to have “gone native”.   But not enough to give up the dream of escaping home, which Knox did, in his own words, after much “calculation, cunning, patience and stamina,” not to mention the odd wild elephant.

Though Selkirk’s narrative would seem to hew more closely to Crusoe’s than Knox’s, some are suggesting that Knox’s captivity inspired Defoe to write the classic because he (Defoe) was also a prisoner, having done hard time in London – in a dreaded debtor’s prison. The idea being that “lessons learned the hard way”, about facing down dark forces and despair – whether in prison or on a remote desert island – could have been Defoe’s creative engine.

But no matter; the debate over sources is in all ways academic.  The inspiration for the tale is less important than its import and endurance, which, over the centuries, seems indelible.  Where does the appeal of the survivor story lie?

Cheating Death

If you spend any amount of time outdoors facing the elements, it becomes impossible not to consider worst case scenarios.  What if I get lost on the trail?  What if I fall?  What if my car gets stuck?  What if a wild animal attacks?  We like to measure ourselves against iconic survivors like Ralston, Shackelton of “Endurance” fame, or even their mythical counterparts like Crusoe.

Do we have the stamina, the strength of character and sheer guile to survive, alone, against the elements?  And if so, for how long?  Would we make the same mistakes as those who do not triumph?  Or be capable of the same heroism as those who do?  Could we forage, fend and build shelter?

Fearful of the answer, many fail to venture much further than a small radius from the place they were born.  Yet some like to test themselves, without necessarily tempting fate, to see how close to the edge they can get without actually falling off the cliff.  The imagination will always dare us to tread where our fears keep us from going.

When we are able to transcend our limitations with necessary acts of daring, we as members of a physically challenged species (at least compared to other mammals), perhaps feel a bit more aggrandized, immortal, like the gods we know we are not.  We are able to cheat death.

Stirring the Pot

But for all their accomplishments surviving the elements, no matter who was Defoe’s true Survivorman, Knox should retain far more notoriety than Selkirk, his Scottish counterpart.

Because after copious and continuous use, it was he who brought back to the UK a little weed known as “hemp”, and introduced it to the English for the very first time.  Perhaps that is why, according to Knox’s lifelong friend, Robert Hooke, in the seafaring survivor “there was no cause of Fear, tho’ possibly laughter.”

Knox lived to tell a tale of hard “knocks”, and while he never abandoned his native Christianity for the locals’ Buddhism, he did learn how to take the edge off.