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14 July 2012

Robinson Crusoe Island

Tag(s): Chile, History

In February 2010 Robinson Crusoe Island, in the Juan Fernández Archipelago, was hit by a massive tsunami following the devastating earthquake on the Chilean mainland. Perhaps it is not well known but there are strong ties between the island and the UK and as a consequence the British government has been helping to restore the community.

Robinson Crusoe Island was named after Daniel Defoe’s protagonist, based on Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish sailor whose real life experiences are said to have inspired the novel of 1719. I recently attended a joint lecture by Alasdair Grant, of the whisky family, who had spent part of his student days on the island, and H.E. Jon Benjamin, HM Ambassador to Chile, who described the catastrophic events of 2010 and what the British government is doing to support the islanders.

On 1574 Juan Fernández, a Spanish sailor discovered the islands that now bear his name some 600 kilometres off the coast of Chile more or less due west of the principal port, Valparaiso. The islands were totally uninhabited. He called them Más Afuera, Más a Tierra and Islote de Santa Clara. In the early years of the eighteenth century Alexander Selkirk from Largo in Fife followed his seven brothers who had all gone to sea. He had qualified as a master mariner, then sailed with a privateer to the South Seas. He fell out with the captain and resolved to be put ashore at the first opportunity and wait for a passing vessel. The first land they saw after this was the Juan Fernández Islands and he was put ashore on Más a Tierra with nothing but a musket, a chest of clothes, some bedding and his bible. He of course expected to be rescued in a few days. Every day he would climb the steep mountain to a lookout point and at night light a fire there as a beacon. This continued for four years and four months until he was eventually rescued. By a stroke of good fortune there was a seaman on this ship who had been on the previous ship and so could identify Selkirk despite his by now wild appearance. He could also tell Selkirk that he had survived the sinking of that ship and that most of the survivors had been jailed as pirates by the Peruvians, thus confirming Selkirk’s views on that particular captain.

It took Selkirk a further three years to get home to Scotland. In all he must have been away for over ten years. In 1713 Selkirk published his journals of the experience and we can safely assume that these were the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, which itself has captured the imaginations of generations of adults and children alike. The islands were later used first as a hideout for pirates and then as a penal colony for early fighters for independence from Spain.  They were then properly settled by a small group of fishermen who harvested the abundant lobsters in the local waters. At the beginning of the First World War they saw the sinking of the SMS Dresden. Admiral Maximilan von Spee had assembled his German East Asiatic squadron at Easter Island prior to defeating the British under Admiral Christopher Cradock at the Battle of Coronel. The Royal Navy was affronted by this challenge to its supremacy and chased the squadron to the Atlantic where in the Battle of the Falklands all were sunk except the cruiser SMS Dresden which was finally hunted down and cornered at Más a Tierra early in 1915 where she was scuttled after a brief battle. Prior to this battle the young Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris was sent to negotiate with the British but this was just a ruse. Canaris later headed up Nazi intelligence. Those who died in the battle were buried in a cemetery on the island.

In 1966 the Chilean government decided to develop the tourist possibilities of the islands and so renamed Más Afuera (which just means Further Out)as Alejandro Selkirk Island and Más a Tierra (which just means Nearer Land)which was actually where Selkirk had stayed, as Robinson Crusoe Island. Tourism is not an easy business in these remote islands. There is just one short and terrifying runway with steep cliffs at each end. But the landscape is spectacularly beautiful, the flora and fauna fascinating with many of the endemic species of Chilean flora present in these small islands. A few hotels and hostels opened up and the population of the one town, San Juan Bautista, grew to about 800. The islands have been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site and a National Park and in 2005 were twinned with Selkirk’s home town of Largo.

On 27th February, 2010 the then fifth most powerful earthquake in recorded history occurred off the coast of central Chile at 03.34 local time with a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale. The earthquake triggered a tsunami which devastated coastal towns in Chile. Tsunami warnings were issued in 53 countries and massive damage was caused as far away as Japan on the other side of the Pacific. But in Chile the tsunami warning was lifted after a short time. It was the middle of the night at the end of the summer season and also in the dying days of the administration of President Michelle Bachelet. A blackout affected 93% of the population and most telephone lines were down.

On Robinson Crusoe Island there was no tremor experienced from the earthquake and no official warnings of the tsunami. Fortunately a 12 year old girl took a telephone call from the mainland and rang the town gong to sound the warning. Most of the inhabitants got to higher ground in time. A tsunami destroys everything in its path to its height which was 13 metres above normal sea level. The school was totally destroyed with not a brick or a book to be found. The library and gymnasium and all the hostels were also wiped out. Gruesomely the cemetery was devastated and the coffins of the dead opened up. Eight bodies were found and another eleven were missing never to be found. Poignantly a valuable collection of various editions, including first editions, of Robinson Crusoe in many languages was totally destroyed.

Eight people now face criminal charges for negligence as a result of the lifting of the tsunami warning.

The islanders’ way of life has been severely disrupted. While the lobsters still thrive the fishermen have lost their boats. Tourism has almost disappeared as there are few places to stay. The Chilean navy has done heroic work first in search and rescue, then in dredging the sea and finally shipping materials to the island with temporary accommodation and much needed equipment.

Jon Benjamin, thinking of the close British links based on history and the twinning of the islands with Largo, sought to offer help. President Piñera invited him to visit the island together with him. Benjamin enlisted the support of one of Chile’s leading businessmen, Felipe Cubillos and some of Chile’s TV personalities including the charismatic TV presenter, Felipe Camiroaga. Tragically both of these gentlemen were victims of an air crash along with 15 other passengers and 4 crew on a flight in September 2011 which was to bring help and publicity to the islands.  Members of my wife’s family were close friends with Felipe Camiroaga.

Mr Benjamin has now founded the Alexander Selkirk Foundation (www.fundacion-selkirk.org)

This has to date raised $100,000. He told of us of his attempts to raise money from people and organisations associated with the film Castaway, clearly based on the Crusoe story. The star Tom Hanks, who still receives substantial royalties from the film, declined to give but the CEOs of FedEx and Wilson Sporting Goods, both of which have blatant product placements deals with the movie, gave generously.  The money has been used to help rebuild and equip the school, notably with a state of the art language laboratory to help teach English to the island’s young and thus equip them better for the tourists. They have set up links through Skype to primary schools in Largo to allow the children of these communities to converse. So it looks like the children of Robinson Crusoe Island are going to learn English with the Scottish accent of Alexander Selkirk. Jon has set the ambition for the rebuilt school to be the greenest and most sustainable in Chile. They are also helping to establish a Fire Brigade. Chilean fire fighters are all volunteers and one well established brigade in Santiago has strong British connections.

To see the before and after images of the island please visit the website www.fundacion-selkirk.org

In conversation afterwards I suggested to the ambassador that this admirable project might one day become a model for all remote communities and the special problems that they have even without the devastation of a tsunami.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved




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