Debunking the Myth of the ‘Real’ Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe published his book Robinson Crusoe in 1719, at a time when stories of shipwrecks, pirates, and castaways were hot, and there were plenty of narratives available. His book survived better than other accounts because it was particularly well-written and gripped the public’s imagination. And it was fiction, so therefore not constrained by actual events. After Defoe’s death, scholars pointed to the true story of pirate Alexander Selkirk as the main inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. But that’s not the whole story. According to Auburn University professor Paula Backscheider, there were other influences that can be traced directly to Defoe.

Take Robert Knox, for example. After his shipwreck on Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, he was held captive for 20 years (closer to the amount of time that Crusoe spent on an island).

“He started his own little corn business,” Backscheider says. “He even made little wool caps, and Defoe knew him personally.” This and other tales suggest that there were many people who influenced Defoe.

Backscheider says Defoe scholars are tired of the assumption that Selkirk’s story was the inspiration for Crusoe, rather than just one of many survival narratives that Defoe knew about. When people bring it up to them, “we just giggle,” she says.   

National Geographic explains several of the ways the tale of Robinson Crusoe differed from that of of Alexander Selkirk, and more about the other stories that were just as influential.

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