January 24, 2015
Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile
Alexander Selkirk started it all. A Scot sailing on a British privateer, he didn’t like the way the ship was being run. He thought it was dangerous and would founder (turns out he was right) and he demanded to be let off the ship. The Captain obliged marooning him on the Juan Fernández Islands with a knife, musket and bible. Marooning was punishment worse than walking the plank because it usually meant slow starvation. The musket generally had only one ball, to use on yourself. As the boat rowed away Selkirk had second thoughts, the Captain didn’t. He was marooned. This was in 1704.
He was also lucky; the Juan Fernández Islands are west of the Humboldt Current and are washed by sub-tropical waters. They have a Mediterranean climate, lots of lobster on shore, at the time it had seals and some earlier ship let out a herd of goats they thought would breed and be available for fresh meat when the ship came back. The earlier visitors also left two other invasive mammals, rats and cats. Selkirk ran down goats for food and domesticated a few. He made sure the cats were happy so they would sleep with him and make sure the rats didn’t. He settled in for 44 months.
Daily he climbed to the highest peak to look for ships. Twice Spanish ships came and he avoided their sailors because he could imagine how they would treat a British privateer. Forty Four months later another British privateer came by and he was rescued. He could barely speak English and he was dressed in goat skins, but he was certainly able bodied.
He was not the only one exiled to these islands. The Spanish established a penal colony in the 1740s that they soon abandoned. In 1814 pro-Spanish patriots ran here from the mainland after Chile declared independence. After the Battle of the Falklands in the First World War the defeated German Cruiser Dresden made for these islands. She was cornered by the Royal Navy and the captain scuttled the ship. Most of the crew turned themselves over to the authorities to be interned for the duration. One sailor made for the hills and held out for 15 years.
Back in Scotland Selkirk became and early 18th century celebrity. He’s the inspiration for “Survivor.” Earlier than that Daniel Defoe adapted his story, re set in the Caribbean, as Robinson Crusoe. My 10th grade English teacher told me this was the beginning of the English novel. In between Survivor and Crusoe we got Desert Island Discs.
We anchored at sunrise and from our room watched the peaks reflect the red of the sun. As with Sitka, some people make the mistake thinking that because the island is remote it is primitive. It’s not. Its citizens enjoy a higher standard of living than those on the mainland and although only 1 tenth the size of Sitka it reminds me a lot of my home town. The cars and trucks look almost identical, well used and rusted. The houses are largely new because a three meter (10 foot) tsunami came in 2010 and took away the old town, much of which was on pilings, killing 16 people. More would have died but an alert 12 year old saw the harbor empty of water, sounded an alarm and most of the town got to higher ground. There are some new buildings below the Tsunami line but the town works its way up the hills much as Sitka does. It is a very pretty island. I felt very much at home here. (Text continues after the picture gallery)
The economy of the town is fishing, lobsters mostly, and tourism. Not many cruise ships call here but it is a UN designated World Heritage Biosphere Reserve because, invasive cats and rats notwithstanding, it has unique species, especially of humming birds sea lions and plants. Climate runs from desert to sub-tropical jungle depending on the side of the mountains. In the 1990s Chile renamed the island Robinson Crusoe Island to attract tourists. Another Island in the group is named after Selkirk. There are several mini marts, cafes, restaurants and a pizza place. A few cater to eco-tourism, scientists studying the effect of the tsunami on wildlife, and divers who look for unique species in the underwater national park or like to dive on wrecks, especially the wreck of the Dresden. There’s a modern dive center in the Tsunami floodplain and a couple of playgrounds. Most of the other businesses are further up one of the hillside roads. There is municipal water from a well and electricity generated by diesel although we saw several solar electric and water heating panels. You cannot miss the Tsunami evacuation signs and mustering points.
Most tourists come by small plane, 2 and half hours from Santiago. (We are a little over 400 miles from the coast.) The airport is on the other side of the island and to get to the town you need to take a small boat. It can take up to an hour and a half depending on the weather.
We got a chance to talk to some of the locals who seem to like showing off the town. There are old cannons all over the island, especially at the old Fort Santa Barbara built by the Spaniards in the 1740s but two in one park intrigued us. The caretaker said they were navel guns from the Dresden.
There are also a series of caves just below Fort Santa Barbara. They may have been natural but they have been very much enlarged and carved out. According to the sign they are the caves of the patriots, where the pro Spanish refugees from the independence war lived. Of course locals talk of pirate treasure. We saw lots of gardens and flowers.
Many of the restaurants have lobstermen came in with fresh catch and cooks prepared lobster and crab for the ship’s passengers in big pots over open fires. Looking at the menu there was nothing that was not seafood, nothing I could eat at all, so I had a coffee and a coke.
The “Location guide” on the ship said there is not much to do here unless you are a hiker and wondered why this was even a port of call. The point is that is really a pretty place with diverse wildlife and plant life. The birders were happy. And we are interested to see how folks living on an island community way more remote than Sitka cope. We are coping very well, thank you, sitting on our verandah, looking at a very pretty island, waiting for the ship to pull anchor. Tomorrow is another sea day. Monday we get to Puerto Montt, the center of the salmon farming industry. I neglected to bring a bumper sticker.