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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Cruising for Crusoe

Air Date: Week of

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The most famous castaway in English literature was actually based on a real-life marooner. But one adventure writer finds that it’s not who the literary world thinks it is. Host Steve Curwood talks with Tim Severin, author of "Seeking Robinson Crusoe."


CURWOOD: Tim Severin is not your average travel writer. He makes his living retracing famous literary voyages, including the epic journeys of Ulysses, Marco Polo, and Sinbad the Sailor. Tim Severin travels all over the globe in replicas of old boats.

And his most recent book follows the story of, perhaps, the most famous castaway in English literature. It’s called "Seeking Robinson Crusoe." Tim Severin joins me now from Cork, Ireland to talk about his book and about a discovery he made along the way that may redefine the origins of "Robinson Crusoe." Welcome to Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Tim, how did you get into this line of work?

SEVERIN: I’ve virtually done nothing else since I left university. As a student I was doing geography, and we geographers, I thought, got a very raw deal because we were the only students who had to do a summer vacation project. I wanted to travel like all other students so I proposed following the route of Marco Polo to explain, sort of, the practical difficulties. And to my delight, the Board of Studies accepted that notion and I’ve never looked back.

CURWOOD: Could you briefly tell us the story of Robinson Crusoe?

SEVERIN: The central part of the Robinson Crusoe story is the one that we learn as children. It is this sole survivor from a shipwreck on a desert island and has to sort of make do. And he is extremely competent, you know. He sort of builds his home in a cave. He catches and tames wild goats. He plants crops. He makes pottery. It’s a, sort of, self-help castaway story.

CURWOOD: Tell me, why Robinson Crusoe? What inspired you to investigate his story?

SEVERIN: Well, I was told at school and it is received wisdom that, yes, there is a real character behind Robinson Crusoe-- a Scotsman by the name of Alexander Selkirk who was stuck in an island off the coast of Chile, about 400 miles off the coast. And his experiences were the basis for the figure of Robinson Crusoe.

And I thought, well, I’m going to go and look at this and see if that is actually the case. Is it the real person that we’ve identified. And, to an extent, I’ve discovered that it’s true. But I found that there was actually a huge divergence between what happened to Selkirk in reality and what happens with Crusoe in Defoe’s novel, because Selkirk was not a self-help expert. And, amazingly, he never even explored the island he was on, and yet it would take five days to explore the length and breadth of the island. And in the four years and four months he was there, he never explored his island.

CURWOOD: So, the conventional wisdom that Alexander Selkirk, the Scotsman, was the prototype of Robinson Crusoe, according to you, there’s not a whole lot of weight to that. You have found the true Robinson Crusoe, you believe?

SEVERIN: In the sense that Alexander Selkirk dressed in his coatskins is the image of Crusoe. But what Crusoe actually does, how he behaves, all the things that we think of as the castaway, the survival expert, most of them are taken from the story of Henry Pitman. He wrote his own account right at the end of the 17th century which described how he had been a rebel. He had joined the rebellion in England against the crown. He had been caught, convicted, and, with hundreds of others, shipped out to Barbados in the role of, essentially, white slaves. He organized his escape from the island, purchased a small boat, and he put together this little gang of former rebels. And, again, this extraordinary parallel.

As the prepares their boat, he lists the sort of things that they got hold of. And lo and behold, the same list appears in the story of "Robinson Crusoe" when Crusoe, before he is shipwrecked, he is also made a prisoner, works as a slave, runs away in a small boat, exact parallel to what Pitman and his colleagues did.

CURWOOD: What was the most exciting part of this journey?

SEVERIN: Definitely, going to the island of Salt Tortuga with the information containing Pitman’s book, which is so colorful. You think, this cannot be true. Go around the island and identify every single place that he mentions in his narrative. I mean, he had to have been there. He couldn’t have made this up. And then, the ultimate excitement was actually not on the journey, but in a library, in the British Library in London.

CURWOOD: This is a true scholar at work now.

SEVERIN: [LAUGHTER] Well, there I was. I proved that Pitman’s story was correct. And there are astonishing parallels with what happens to Crusoe. You know, Pitman and his companions try to make pottery. They have a man Friday figure with them who helps them catch fish. And, above all, they are rescued by pirates in exactly the same way that Crusoe was rescued by pirates. And even the names--there’s a Jeremiah Atkins, who’s a famous pirate in Pitman’s story, and there’s a Will Atkins in Crusoe’s story. I mean, the names even crop up the same. The overlap is astonishing.

So I come back to London to write my book and I check Pitman’s narrative. The last page there was an advertisement and it was by Pitman who was a surgeon. And he had come back to London, set himself up as an apothecary, and he gave the address of the shop where you could go and buy his medicine.

And I looked at the address, and it was familiar. It was the address of Daniel Defoe’s publisher for "Robinson Crusoe." And it turned out that Pitman had come back from the Caribbean where he had been a castaway on a desert island, and he had lived with the family that then published "Robinson Crusoe" for Daniel Defoe. And if that ain’t the smoking gun that links the two stories, I don’t know what else could possibly be.

CURWOOD: If this had all happened today, the Pitman family would be suing the Defoe estate for a lot of dough.

SEVERIN: [LAUGHTER] We don’t know what happened to Henry Pitman. I think that now that his importance perhaps is being underlined as a wellspring for literary inspiration, I’d rather hope that some PhD student is going to track down the further life of Henry Pitman.

CURWOOD: Tim Severin is an adventure writer and explorer who has made a living of recreating the adventures of famous literary characters. His latest book is called "In Search of Robinson Crusoe." Thanks for joining me today.

SEVERIN: Okay. Bye, for now.



Click here for our extended interview with Tim Severin
Author Tim Severin’s website


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