Inspiration for Crusoe : Change Stirs Castaway's Fabled Isle

Times Staff Writer

In 1704, a Scottish seaman named Alexander Selkirk, who had quarreled with his captain, was put ashore here. Marooned for more than four years, Selkirk gamely fought for survival in a classic contest of man against nature.

He ate the meat of wild goats, used their skins for shelter and clothing and trained them as pets. Two English ships rescued him, strong and healthy, from this remote Pacific island in 1709.

Within three years, the two captains who found him, Woodes Rogers and Edward Cooke, had each published books that included accounts of his experiences. And seven years later came Daniel Defoe's "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner."

Real Experiences

Defoe never acknowledged directly that Selkirk was his model for Crusoe, but he insisted in a later edition that the novel related the real experiences of a well-known man. That man could have been only Selkirk, according to many historians and biographers.

Defoe changed many details. He placed Crusoe's island off the Caribbean coast of South America, marooned his hero for 28 years and introduced a native companion named Friday, although Selkirk found no natives here. But the parallels are unmistakable. Perhaps most notable are the outlandish goatskin hats and jackets made and worn by both fictional and real heroes in their lonely struggles to re-create the trappings of civilization.

Selkirk's goats are almost gone from this storybook island, which takes its name from Defoe's classic. Today it is the site of a Chilean fishing village with 580 people, and its trappings of civilization include airplanes, tourist inns and television.

Big Dish Antenna

New winds are stirring Robinson Crusoe Island, and some islanders are not entirely pleased with the changes they bring. Some say they could do without television, brought in mid-1986 by a big dish antenna that towers over the scrubby village plaza.

"There is no communication any more," complained Ariadne Chamorro, a young homemaker and mother. "You go out on the street now and no one is there. They are all hanging around the television."

But the winds of change keep blowing. Now the Chilean government has a development plan for the island. Although its full extent has not been announced, officials have talked about bringing in international tourist hotels, casino gambling and perhaps even offshore banks with secret, tax-free accounts.

All that has many local residents worried--afraid that the peaceful, easygoing ways of the island will be spoiled. One of them is Mario Contreras, a pilot who flies a small passenger plane between here and the Chilean mainland.

"The island will no longer be the way it is now," Contreras lamented.

The way it is now, the village's pastel-colored houses and tall eucalyptus trees are spread over a narrow plain and foothills around Cumberland Bay, where small, wooden-hulled lobster boats bob at anchor on the tide. Children swim in clear, cool water by the village boat dock, and residents leave their doors unlocked at night.

Three modest inns accommodate between 500 and 1,000 visitors a year, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere summer between December and March.

Innkeeper's View

"To build big hotels would be to lose the island's rustic charm," said Victor Beeche, who operates a rustic inn called Aldea Daniel Defoe.

The first public notice of the new development plan came last July when Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile's president, talked about it in an informal encounter with reporters. He said most of the development would be financed by private investors.

"Those who want to come in will have tax exemptions for 15, 30 or 40 years," Pinochet said. He predicted that the island "will be like a new Nassau," the capital of the Bahamas.

Geographically, the comparison is a long stretch. The Bahamas are within easy reach of Florida's prosperous southeast coast; Robinson Crusoe Island is 420 miles off the southwestern coast of South America.

A jagged uprising of volcanic palisades and peaks, it is the larger of the two main Juan Fernandez Islands, but only a small part of its 23,000 acres is flat enough for any kind of development.

Unique Flora, Fauna

Although most of the island is semi-arid, abundant rainfall on the steep upper slopes of the highest mountains nurtures a dense forest ecology, with many unique plant and bird varieties.

The fragile ecology has already suffered the ravages of human progress. Much of the natural forest has disappeared. The fragrant native sandalwood is extinct, and the chonta palm was endangered before a replanting project began a few years ago.

The island was uninhabited when Spanish navigator Juan Fernandez discovered it in the late 1500s on a voyage from Peru to Chile, the most remote of Spain's new American territories.

Before that trip, because of adverse coastal winds and currents, it took ships several months to reach the Chilean port of Penco from Callao in Peru. By shifting his route far away from the coast, Fernandez was able to make the trip in one month.

His early arrival was so astonishing that he was accused before the Inquisition in Lima of witchcraft and "navigating by diabolic art." The holy tribunal dismissed the charges after Fernandez explained the new route.

Goats Flourish

As part of an unsuccessful attempt to colonize his discovery, Fernandez reportedly took two pairs of reddish-brown Pyrenees goats to the islands. Descendant goats, bearing a characteristic black cross on the shoulders, multiplied and flourished in the wild.

In the 1600s, English and French buccaneers used the Juan Fernandez Islands as a hideaway from which to raid Spanish settlements and ships. Later, English privateers on voyages of contraband and plunder stopped here for rest, water, greens, goat meat and fish.

There are legends, still believed by some, of pirate treasures buried on the island. And there are documented histories of numerous marooned travelers, including five disgruntled crewmen left behind by pirate commander Edward Davis in 1687.

The island was then known as Mas a Tierra, or Closer to Land. The Spanish began to fortify it and use it as a prison colony in 1750.

In 1814, during Chile's war for independence, Spain sent more than 200 political prisoners here, including several prominent patriotic leaders. A dozen caves where the patriots took shelter are preserved in a bluff above the village's main street.

Gold Rush Boom

In the middle 1800s, islanders enjoyed a boom when ships traveling south from California, in the era of the Gold Rush, stopped for provisions and rest. After that, prosperity returned with seal hunting and then lobster fishing.

Juan Fernandez fur seals, a sub-species found nowhere else, are now protected from hunters by law, but spiny lobsters around the islands are still the village's main source of livelihood.

Alfred von Rodt, a Swiss nobleman, rented the Juan Fernandez Islands from the Chilean government in 1877 and spent the rest of his life here, sometimes calling himself "Robinson Crusoe II." When he died in 1905, the island population was about 120.

In World War I, the German cruiser Dresden lost a brief battle to British warships within sight of Robinson Crusoe Island and sank after the crew abandoned ship. One crewman, Hugo Weber, stayed on the island until World War II, living in a rustic cabin two miles from the village. Chileans dubbed him "The German Robinson."

A National Park

In 1935, the Chilean government declared the islands a national park. In the late 1950s, Mas a Tierra was officially renamed Robinson Crusoe Island. The smaller and uninhabited Mas Afuera (Farther Out), 100 miles to the west, became Alexander Selkirk Island.

Robinson Crusoe Island's dirt airstrip was laid out in 1966, and a private airline began flying light passenger planes to the island the next year. The flight from Santiago, the Chilean capital, takes about 2 1/2 hours, and a boat trip from the airstrip to the town takes an additional hour and a half. Passengers to Santiago share the motor launch and the twin-engine plane with cardboard boxes of live lobsters, most of which are exported to Europe and the United States.

A road from the airstrip to the town was begun in the 1970s but was left unfinished because of heavy damage to the craggy backside of the island. The Pinochet government has budgeted about $3 million to enlarge and pave the airstrip this year. More than $4 million has been budgeted to finish the 12-mile road.

Castaway's Lookout

According to a tentative plan, road builders will tunnel through the forested mountain behind the village to keep from destroying Selkirk's Lookout, a promontory from which the castaway watched for approaching ships.

The road inevitably will bring more motor vehicles to the island, which currently has only four.

"This place is going to fill up with cars," said Eduardo Paredes, one of the four Juan Fernandez park rangers. Paredes, 64, said he fears the impact of the planned road project and other development on the natural environment.

"I hope I can retire soon so I don't see the destruction," he said.

The national park service tries to enforce regulations against hunting the Pyrenees goats. Paredes said that no more than 30 of the animals remain on Robinson Crusoe Island, while about 1,000 live on Alexander Selkirk Island, along with other breeds of wild goats.

The park service is also replanting chonta palms and other endangered native species. It recently imported more than 100 sandalwood plants from the Far East in an experimental project aimed at replacing the native variety.

'I'm the Bad Guy'

Most island residents are less concerned about environmental problems than about village life under the administration of Navy Lt. Manuel Hernandez, the mayor. Also the captain of the port and the police magistrate, he acknowledged in an interview that he is unpopular in all three roles.

"I'm the bad guy in the movie," said Hernandez, 32, who has prematurely gray hair and wears white uniform shirts with black ties.

Most of the men on the island fish for a living, and they resent Hernandez's strict manner of enforcing a law against taking undersized lobsters. He also has irritated islanders by making them keep their cows off the streets and by poisoning dogs.

Let loose by their owners, dogs were overrunning the village, gathering in its shaded lanes and roaming in noisy packs. The mayor and some anonymous helpers started passing out pieces of meat laced with strychnine. By the mayor's count, 25 dogs have been killed, to the angry dismay of their owners.

Hernandez, who has been mayor for two years, said he is trying to impose mainland standards of government on an isolated community that was used to having its own lackadaisical way.

Change Foreseen

"I know that the island is going to change," he said. "The mentality is going to change, and the way of life is going to change. But in my judgment, it is better to end the isolation in which the islander lives."

The leaders of the opposition to Hernandez are what he calls "patriarchs," longtime local community leaders. One of them is Reynold Greene, 68, an innkeeper whose father, a Scot, came to the island on a sailing cruise and stayed.

Greene complained that the mayor has alienated islanders with his inflexibility. For example, he has allowed a discotheque to function on weekend nights in the local school auditorium against the wishes of the parents' association.

"When he discusses something, he won't give an inch," Greene said. "That is the problem."

Greene also criticized the government plans for developing tourism on the island. "I hope it fails," he said.

Nevertheless, the process of change in Robinson Crusoe Island is not all bad, Greene conceded.

"I do agree that there were too many dogs, and that a number of them had to be eliminated," he said.

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