November 22 – Discovery of Robinson Crusoe Island

Posted on November 22, 2014

How do you spot little dots of land out in an enormous ocean?

Many islands are easily seen because they lie quite close to a continent. But the islands that Spanish sailor Juan Fernandez spotted on this date in 1574 lie hundreds of miles off the coast of what is now Chile, in South America.

The truth is, Fernandez probably spotted the islands because of his handy-dandy southward sea route.

You see, near the west coast of South America, from Chile to northern Peru, there is a cold current that runs northward. Fernandez wanted to sail southward, so he went far out, away from the coast – and that's when he spotted the islands.

There are three Juan Fernandez Islands (as the group is now called). Fernandez named the outermost island Mas Afuera, which roughly translates to “Farther Out to Sea,” the innermost island Mas a Tierra, which roughly translates to “Closer to Land,” and the middle island Santa Clara (“Saint Claire”).

For hundreds of years, the islands were rarely visited by humans other than pirates in hiding. In 1703, some privateers (pirates working for their country) ran into problems with a leaky ship. One of the sailors, the sailing master named Alexander Selkirk, demanded that he be put ashore one of those islands (Mas a Tierra)--even though the island was completely uninhabited.

Selkirk was indeed put to shore on that island...and marooned there. He lived on that island alone for about four years!

Later, after Selkirk was rescued and returned to England, he became famous for surviving alone for so long. Scholars believed that Selkirk's exploits were the inspiration for Daniel Dafoe's famous book Robinson Crusoe.

Actually, the name of the book is The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

Because of the fame of that books, the Juan Fernandez Islands were renamed:

Mas a Tierra (the island where Selkirk lived for four years) became Robinson Crusoe Island.

Mas Afuera became Alejandro Selkirk Island.

Santa Clara, however, remained Santa Clara.

Notice that the "fur seals" are not true
seals, but are in fact sea lions.
(You can tell because they have
external ears!)
There are very few land animals on the islands, with no native land mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Some mammals such as goats and rats have been brought to the accident either on purpose or on accident. (I will leave it to you to guess which was brought accidentally!) The native animals are mostly birds, including some nesting penguins! Also, some fur seals live on the islands.

Nowadays, however, some people live on the islands. Alejandro Selkirk is home to around 57 people, and Robinson Crusoe is home to around 843. Santa Clara is still uninhabited.

To learn more about Robinson Crusoe, check out this earlier post

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