Selkirk’s Island

Quercus · 246 pp · 2001

Winner of the 2001 Whitbread Biography Award

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Alexander Selkirk was a buccaneer who sailed the South Seas on looting expeditions for gold and treasure. In 1703 he joined an expedition whose object was to plunder French and Spanish ships. Eventually they reached the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile, where Selkirk opted to maroon himself. Suddenly solitude and silence were imposed, and his only relationship was with the island and with himself. He learnt to kill goats with cudgels and use their skins for coats and shoes. He hollowed out a canoe and circumnavigated the island. In 1709 Selkirk spotted two ships from his cliff-top lookout. They saw his fire and the next morning landed on Juan Fernandez – to be greeted by an unrecognisable savage-looking man incoherent with emotion. He sailed back with them to civilisation where he ‘bewailed his return to the world’. Selkirk died in 1720 back at sea, of yellow fever.

REVIEWS

Souhami skilfully conjures the whiff of raki in strange ports, the comfort of nameless women and the pain of scurvy-swollen gums, opening a window onto the perilous life of the eighteenth-century privateer.

Literary Review


Masterly. Souhami’s excellent book should be read for its insight into a vanished world.

Beryl Bainbridge · New Statesman


Souhami is a wonderful storyteller as she directs her alternately engaging and repulsive cast of seafaring rogues and villains.

Evening Standard


A book that is as hypnotic and compelling as the island that forms its real subject. A great adventure story, a great read and a real advance for the art of biography.

Whitbread Judging Panel


A delight from the moment the reader opens it.

The Independent