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Cover Art: Crusoe,
        Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail
Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail
By Mike Rendell
Pen & Sword, 2019, ISBN 978-1-52674-747-1, US $39.95 / £19.99

Reviewed by Irwin Bryan


This book’s magnificent cover art has a chart-like island in the center of the page, containing the title. Surrounding this are pictures of some of the shipwrecks mentioned in the text, a compass rose used for navigating, and a trail of bare footprints in the sand. Together these images point to some fun and interesting reading between the covers.

First, there is a brief biography of Daniel Defoe and notes on his literary career. This is followed by a separate history of his novel, Robinson Crusoe, giving information on the many reprints, plays, and movies made since the original story was published in 1719. Its full title is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

Although sailors had been marooned before the novel’s publication, no one can say who was the model for Defoe’s Crusoe. Rendell writes of three people who were castaways like Crusoe. But no one’s story is a perfect match.

It is “generally accepted that Defoe was inspired to write Robinson Crusoe after hearing the extraordinary tale of survival of Alexander Selkirk.” (16) Selkirk was marooned in the Juan Fernandez Islands in 1703 for over four years. However, the topography of Selkirk’s island had a much rockier coast than Crusoe’s island with its sandy beaches. But there certainly were plenty of goats.

There is reason to believe that Defoe met and probably spoke with Selkirk and the buccaneer doctor who helped save him, William Dampier. Both men had gone on a privateering voyage to the Southern Ocean (Pacific Ocean) in 1703. But Dampier and Selkirk did not sail on the same vessels. A combination of Selkirk’s cantankerous attitude and his lack of trust in the seaworthiness of his vessel led to his being left alone on an island. Woodes Rogers’ visit to the island in 1709, with Dampier aboard, guaranteed his rescue.

Henry Pitman was shipped to Barbados as an indentured servant in 1685. He joined others desperate to leave their servitude and make their escape. They compiled a detailed list of must-have items to gather before making their move. This “is similar to the list which Defoe has Crusoe prepare when he is thinking of escaping by a small boat.” (26) After fleeing in May 1687, Pitman and the other escapees landed at what is now called Salt Tortuga, the type of island described by Defoe in his novel. The group was luckily joined by an Indian who was very helpful to them, especially in preparing food and tending the fire. This may well have inspired Defoe to add a native to his own creation. Pitman finally returned to England in 1689.

Robert Knox, taken prisoner on Ceylon in 1661, although not alone, experienced some things that made it into Defoe’s Crusoe. An extended autobiography of Knox’s further escapades and travels with the East India Company, including being taken prisoner again, formed the main events in another Defoe novel, The Life, Adventures & Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton.

Separately, these three castaways provide the landscape and incidents that Crusoe experiences in Defoe’s story. Together, they help provide the ingredients that are molded into Crusoe’s thoughts, speech, and mannerisms.

Years before Robinson Crusoe was created, there was an intense storm that lasted for days on the British Isles and became known as the Great Storm of 1703. Many ships were wrecked, and many lives were lost on land and sea. Defoe wanted to make a lasting memory of the storm and placed newspaper ads soliciting firsthand accounts of events that had transpired. He received many replies over the succeeding weeks.

At 325-pages, The Storm was the first substantial work of modern journalism. It helped Defoe to become known in scientific and literary societies and to improve his own writing skills as well. (The Storm is available as a free eBook and I thought it was an excellent read.) Rendell devotes a full chapter to this event and Defoe’s book.

A two-page chapter entitled “By Way of Background…” explains some of the perils of sailing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including few or no charts or maps, no way to find your longitude or accurate location, and small ships sailing on big seas in all kinds of weather.

Some wrecks from early maritime history are also presented in Rendell’s book. The first group of shipwrecked vessels all meet their fate from the reasons above. This includes Admiral Shovell’s fleet that wrecked on the Scilly Islands in 1707, the loss of the original HMS Victory with all hands in 1744, and at least ten Royal Navy warships lost in the Caribbean Sea during hurricanes in 1780 and 1782.

Several warships fell victim to rocks hidden just below the surface. Other vessels were lost due to human error. None was more embarrassing than the tragic loss of the Royal George and the deaths of hundreds of people in her home port in 1782.

HMS Boyne, was also lost in her home port, but this occurred after a fire broke out onboard in 1795. As the heat and flames spread many of the still-loaded 98 guns fired their projectiles throughout the harbor and struck people who had gathered to watch the fire. A similar fate befell the Queen Charlotte while at Livorno in 1800, and Captain Israel Pellew’s HMS Amphion exploded at Plymouth in 1796, killing most of the crew and their families.

In some ways, both Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian were shipwreck survivors after the Bounty mutiny in 1789. Bligh and his loyal men were cast adrift hundreds of miles from land and made a miraculous 3,000-mile voyage to safety. Christian and his followers found an island that was not charted, Pandora, and went there to live. But before any tools or supplies were brought from the ship, she was set ablaze by one of the mutineers. This meant the group was marooned and faced a very tough future.

There were also more castaways during the Age of Sail and some of their stories are recounted here as well. This includes the surviving crew and passengers of the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia, who battled horribly among themselves after their ship ran aground in 1629; and Philip Ashton, a fisherman who was captured by pirates in 1722 and managed his escape, only to be marooned on an island (Roatan) for about sixteen months.

A Dutch sailor named Leendert Hasenbosch kept a journal while marooned on Ascension Island. He perished there, but his journal was found and later published in Dutch and English.

Finally, the story of Charles Barnard and three others marooned in the Falkland Islands during the winter of 1813 is recounted. Of all the castaways mentioned in the book, these are the only ones who dealt with harsh winter conditions. Ironically, Barnard is the only individual marooned due to the actions of others and he was fated to be marooned twice in this manner.

This entertaining book comes with eight pages of colored pictures, a detailed bibliography, and an index. If you’re at all familiar with Robinson Crusoe, this book will interest you by explaining how the fictional Crusoe was created and some of the real-life incidents that appeared in Defoe’s novel. Anyone with an interest in seafaring or the calamities of shipwrecks is sure to enjoy reading this great new book.

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Review Copyrighted ©2019 Irwin Bryan

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