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Inspiration for Crusoe : Change Stirs Castaway's Fabled Isle

January 12, 1988|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

ROBINSON CRUSOE ISLAND, Chile — 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.

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