As some of you are aware, in my other life I am a historian working at the moment on a project on maritime history and the role of privateers. It is not often that my love of history and running combine, but in reading the voyage of Woodes Rogers Life aboard a British Privateer I had the pleasure to read about the famous Scottish mariner Alexander Selkirk who had been marooned on an island for over four years. He became the inspiration behind the character Robinson Crusoe. But his later fame through fictional writings about his adventures is not the purpose of this post.
In the course of the discussion of how he was found and how he had survived, Rogers gives us an excellent insight into Selkirk’s ability as a barefoot runner. There are also valuable lessons here on a low carb, low salt diet, though the vegetarians and vegans amongst you may prefer to focus simply on the running aspects. Tagging this has been fun as it hits so many of the areas held up as Holy Grails in the running world: Barefoot Running, Runstreak, Low Carb etc. But there is really little for me to add than to let you read it for yourselves. Enjoy!
The section falls roughly between pp.56-66 and has been edited down to focuss on the running, though the background places Selkirk’s abilities in context.
“Immediately our pinnace returned from the shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man clothed in goat-skins, who looked wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the island four years and four months being left there by Captain Stradling in the ship Cinque Ports His name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been master of the Cinque Ports, a ship that came here last with Capt. Dampier, who told me this was the best man in her; so I immediately agreed with him to be mate on board our ship.
[…] He told us he was born at Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and his captain. When left, he had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being alone in such a desolate place.
He built two huts with piemento trees, covered them with long grass, and lined them with the skins of goats which he killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound, and that being near spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of piemento wood together on his knees. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals, and in the larger he slept, and employed himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying, so that he said he was a better Christian while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than he was afraid he should ever be again.
The piemento wood, which burnt very clear, serv’d him both for fire and candle, and refreshed him with its pleasant smell. He might have had fish enough, but could not eat ’em, as for want of salt, they made him ill, except Crawfish, which are there as large as lobsters and very good. These he sometimes boiled, and at others broiled as he did his goat’s flesh, of which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours ; he kept an account of 500 that he killed while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear and let go. When his powder failed he took them by speed of foot; for his way of living, and continued exercise of walking and running, cleared him of all gross humours, so that he run with wonderful swiftness through the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceived when we employed him to catch goats for us. We had a bull dog, which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him catch goats; but he distanced and tired both the dog and men, catched the goats and brought ’em to us on his back.
[…] After a while he came to relish his meat well enough without salt and bread, and in the season had plenty of good turnips which had been sowed there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage trees and seasoned his meat with the fruit of the piemento tree, which is the same as the Jamaica pepper and smells deliciously. He soon wore out all his shoes and clothing by running thro the woods; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard that he run everywhere without annoyance, and it was sometime before he could wear shoes after we found him. For not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he first came to wear them. After he conquered his melancholy he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his name on the trees, and the time of his being left and continuance there. He was at first much pestered with cats and rats, that bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water. The rats knawed his feet and clothes while asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with goats flesh; by which many of them became so tame that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon delivered him from the rats.
And by this we may see, that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called, or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was, who in all probability must otherwise have perished in the seas, the ship which he left being cast away not long after, when few of the company escaped. We may perceive also by his story,” adds Rogers, “the truth of the maxim since he found means to supply his wants in a very natural manner, so as to maintain life, though not so conveniently, yet as effectually as we are able to do with the help of all our arts and society.
It may likewise instruct us how much a plain and temperate way of living conduces to the health of the body and the vigour of the mind, both which we are apt to destroy by excess and plenty, especially of strong liquor. For this man, when he came to our ordinary method of diet and life, though he was sober enough, lost much of his strength and agility. But I must quit these reflections, which are more proper for a philosopher and divine than a mariner, and return to my own subject.”