16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison

Natasha sheldon - September 21, 2018

Most people know of the fictional story of Robinson Crusoe, the shipwrecked English mariner who survived on an island off the coast of America for 28 years. However, less well known are the real Robinson Crusoes, the real-life castaways who shared a very similar fate. Some of these castaways were not shipwrecked at all, but deliberately marooned. Others chose their solitary island life. Others carved out a whole new existence on their islands and refused to leave them, while others became inadvertent pioneers into little-known lands and cultures. Most of these castaways may not have been alone for as long as Crusoe, but their stories are equally, if not more incredible. Here are just sixteen of the most remarkable historical castaways.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Statue of Gonzalo Guerrero from Akumal, Quintana Roo. Picture Credit: Feliks. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

1. Gonzalo Guerrero: The Shipwrecked Spaniard who went native and fought against his countrymen

In 1511, a Spanish caravel was sailing from Panama to Santo Domingo when they hit a storm. Fifteen of the ships were lost. However, 18 of the crew and passengers from the sixteenth ship managed to board a lifeboat. For two weeks the 16 men and two women drifted without food or water along the Yucatan Peninsula. By the time the current brought them to shore at Quintana Roo in Mexico, half were dead. A local Mayan tribe immediately captured these survivors.

Five years later, the first Spanish Conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes made landfall along the Yucatan coast. The conquistadors initially believed they were the first Europeans to encounter the Mayans. They quickly learned the survivors of the shipwreck had beaten them to that particular accolade. By this time, most of those survivors were dead, carried off by disease or sacrificed to the Mayan gods. However, two of the crew had managed to survive.

One was a friar Brother Geronimo Aguilar, who had steadfastly refused to abandon his religion or his Spanish identity. However, the other, Gonzalo Guerrero had taken a different approach. Guerrero was born in Palos de la Frontera in Spain in 1470. However, after his capture, the 41 years old soldier embraced the culture of his captors. Guerrero abandoned Christianity in favor of the Mayan gods and even “pierced his nose and ears and painted his face and hands in the manner of that people.”

Guerrero had integrated so successfully that he had even married Za’asil, the daughter of the Chief Na Chan Kan with whom he had three children: the first mestizos or persons of mixed Spanish/Amerindian ancestry. Guerrero’s loyalty to his new people was absolute. While Aguilar joined Cortes’s men as an interpreter, Guerrero stayed with the Mayans, commanding their armies and fighting off his former countryman. A Spanish bullet killed him in battle in 1536. The Spanish vilified Guerrero as a traitor and apostate. However, he remains honored in Mexico.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Map of the island of St Helena, c 1598. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

2. Fernao Lopes: The Mutilated Hermit of St Helena

The island of St Helena is one of the most remote islands in the world. It lies in the South Atlantic Ocean, east of Brazil. The island was found to be entirely uninhabited when Portuguese navigator Joao da Nova discovered it in May 1502. Da Nova named it St Helena after of St Helena of Constantine, whose feast day the sailors had just celebrated. For years, St Helena was just a stopover for ships sailing between Europe from Asia and Africa. Today, it is best known as the final place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte. However, long before Napoleon took up residence, St Helena was home to another outcast.

Like Gonzalo Guerrero, Fernao Lopes was a solider that changed sides and fought against his native country. While on campaign in India, Lopes converted to Islam and switched allegiance to fight alongside local Muslims who had rebelled against the Portuguese in Goa. When the Portuguese captured Lopes, they exacted terrible revenge, cutting off his ears, nose and his right hand. Disfigured and disgraced, Lopes knew he could never go home. So, in 1516, he stowed away on a ship bound for Portugal. However, once it reached St Helena, he disembarked and hid in the uninhabited forests on the island.

Lopes staved off loneliness by making a pet of a rooster. However, otherwise, he kept entirely to himself. When sailors landed on St Helena, he hid away, waiting until they had departed to take the charitable gifts of food and clothing they left for him. Somehow the sailors learned of his sad past and back in Europe Lopes acquired a new name: “The Hermit of St Helena.” His story reached the ears of the King of Portugal and the pope who, full of pity for Lopes, offered him a full pardon- and the chance to return home. However, Lopes chose to continue to live on St. Helena, alone, until his death in around 1545.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Marguerite de La Rocque on the Isle of Demons. Google Images.

3. Marguerite de la Rocque: The French Noblewoman Abandoned on Canadian Isle of Demons

At nineteen years old, Marguerite de La Rocque was the Co-Seigneuress of Pontpoint and the ruler of lands in Périgord and Languedoc. However, in 1542, her relative, a French explorer named Jean-Francois de la Rocque de Roberval persuaded Marguerite to join him on an expedition to Newfoundland. De Roberval was also Marguerite’s co-ruler in Pontpoint. So it could be his motive in inviting Marguerite was the hope she would meet with an accident and leave him in sole control of Pontpoint. As it happened, Marguerite played straight into his hands.

The crossing was long, and Marguerite was young- and unmarried. So, she took a fellow passenger as her lover. De Roberval either felt- or feigned- moral outrage. At his insistence, the crew abandoned Marguerite, her serving maid, Damienne and her lover on a small island near modern-day Quebec. Today, that island is known as Harrington Island. However, then it was known as the Isle of Demons. The island was well named. It was remote, numbingly cold and populated by wolves and bears.

The trio was left with some basic supplies including muskets and ammunition and abandoned to survive the best they could. They began well, building a shelter and fending off predators with the occasional musket shot and rocks. However, matters became more complicated when they discovered Marguerite was pregnant. Incredibly, mother and child survived the birth. However, eight months later, Marguerite’s found herself alone when her lover and servant, followed by her child died of sickness and malnutrition.

For the next seven months, Marguerite survived on the Isle of Demons, hunting game using the rest of the ammunition. Finally, in 1544, she was rescued by fishermen and made her way back to her lands in France- no doubt to the extreme displeasure of De Roberval and any other relatives hoping to profit from her death. Marguerite is last recorded as being in Nontron in France, where, after dictating the account of her adventures to the French writer Andre Thevet, she disappeared into the pages of history.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Plate from the Book “The Unlucky voyage of the ship Batavia” c.1647. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain

4. Jan Pelgrom and Wouter Loos: The First European Settlers of Australia

Captain Cook may have claimed Australia for the British when he and his crew became the first Europeans to reach the eastern Australian coast. However, the British were not Australia’s initial European settlers. That distinction fell to a couple of mutineers from the Dutch ship Batavia who in November 1629 were marooned off the coast of Western Australia in reparation for their crimes. The Batavia was on her maiden voyage to the East Indies when she was wrecked off Abrolhos islands on the western Australian coast. While the surviving passengers and crew waited on Beacon Island, the Captain, Francisco Pelsaert took the surviving long boat and 4 of the crew on a 33-day journey to Jakarta in Indonesia to summon help.

However, while Pelsaert was away, some of the remaining crew mutinied. Pelsaert returned in September to find 125 men, women and children dead. He hunted the mutineers down and sent them for trial in Jakarta. There the majority were executed for their crimes. However, Pelsaert spared the lives of two. One was an eighteen-year-old cabin boy, Jan Pelgrom de Bye Van Bemel, who begged for his life. The other was 24-year-old soldier Wouter Loos. Instead of dying, Loos and Pelgrom were sent on a special mission.

That November, the pair were put ashore at the mouth of the Hutt River with a boat and basic provisions and the instructions “to know once, for certain, what happens in the land.”The men were instructed to return to the landing spot in two years time to meet the ship that would pick them up. In the meantime, they were to make contact with the Aborigines and offer gifts of wooden toys, beads, and mirrors so they could “make themselves known to the folk of this land by tokens of friendship.”

In this way, Loos and Pelgrom had become the unwilling first European settlers of Australia. As promised, in 1644, Abel Tasman, (who gave his name to the island of Tasmania) returned for the castaways. However, they were nowhere to be found. They may have been dead or decided against meeting the ship or returning to Europe. However, they certainly seem to have made contact with the Aborigines. For it was rumored that blue-eyed Aborigines were sighted around the Hutt River.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
“Alexander Selkirk reading his Bible.” From “The Life and adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe: a narrative founded on facts ” c 1837. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

5. Alexander Selkirk: The Man who Inspired Robinson Crusoe.

At the age of 19, Alexander Selkirk left his home in Scotland to become a privateer. By 1704, he was the sailing master of The Cinque Ports, a ninety-ton privateers vessel. The Cinque Ports, however, was rotting and unseaworthy. So when the ship moored off the Pacific island of Mas a Tierra, 400 miles off the coast of Chile, Selkirk tried to make the captain see sense and abandon the ship. Mas a Tierra was remote but well stocked with food and water. Selkirk’s idea was the crew waited it out on the island until a friendly ship rescued them.

Instead, the captain abandoned Selkirk with his possessions and some basic supplies and sailed off. For a while, the shaken mariner kept to the seashore waiting for a ship- until the island’s seal population drove him into the interior. There, Selkirk built a shelter and occupied himself by taming the island’s community of wildcats who obliged him by driving off any rats. Selkirk also befriended the island’s goats who became his companions- as well as a source of food and clothing.

Selkirk might have been rescued twice- if the ships in question had not been Spanish. Instead, he had to watch them sail away- or else, risk certain death as an enemy privateer. However, in 1709, he sighted the colors of an English ship. Selkirk lit a beacon, and to his relief, a boat was sent to investigate. As luck would have it, one of the crew, William Dampier had sailed with Selkirk before and so was able to vouch for the wild looking castaway. Dampier also told him he had had a lucky escape from the Cinque Ports. Not long after abandoning him, it had sunk off the coast of Peru, and the survivors had been left to rot in a Peruvian jail.

Selkirk re-embarked on his career as a privateer and finally returned to Scotland in 1712 with £800 in his pocket. His story caused a sensation, and in 1719, Daniel Defoe published his fictionalized version of it: Robinson Crusoe. However, Selkirk did not remain on land long to enjoy his money or his fame. In 1720, he joined the Royal Navy- only to die of fever off the coast of Africa the following year.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Philip Ashton, Google Images.

6. Philip Ashton: The Fisherman who escaped Pirates to become a Castaway.

In June 1722, Massachusetts’s fisherman Philip Ashton set out as part of the crew of the schooner, Milton into the seas of Nova Scotia. It would be sixteen months before he returned home. For while they were at sea, the Milton and its crew was set upon and captured by a band of pirates under the command of Edward Low. When Philip and his crewmates refused to join them, the pirates locked them in the hold and kept them as captives.

For nine months, Philip unwillingly accompanied the pirates while they plundered the seas of the Atlantic and along the coast of South America. Finally, an opportunity for escape presented itself. In March 1723, the pirates stopped for water on Roatan, a small island off the coast of Honduras. Philip volunteered to help-and once ashore, made a break for freedom into the jungle. The pirates eventually gave up looking for him and left the island without him, leaving Philip marooned and alone.

Philip had no tools or food and lacked the knowledge of how to trap and kill animals with his bare hands. So he made do. He managed to make a crude shelter and ate fruit and raw turtle eggs to survive. This meager diet, however, was woefully inadequate. Then in November 1723, another man arrived on the island. He was a British man who had escaped the Spanish. Philip’s new companion disappeared after a few days- but he left behind a knife and other vital supplies. Philip could now kill and cook tortoises. The chance encounter saved Philip’s life.

Finally, after a further seven months in which fever and the extreme heat nearly finished him off, a British ship rescued Philip in June 1724. On his return home, he wrote a popular book about the adventures, which were published in Boston in 1725. However, many people doubted the truth of Philip’s story- because it sounded uncannily like that of the recently released Robinson Crusoe.


16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Copper engraving titled ‘Port View With Two Flute Ships’ by Reinier Nooms ‘Sailor,’ late 17th century. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

7. Leendert Hasenbosch: The Employee of the Dutch East India Company Stranded on an Island because of His Sexual Preferences.

In 1725, Leendert Hasenbosch was a thirty-year-old ship’s officer or bookkeeper on the Prattenburg, a vessel belonging to the East India Company. However, he fell foul of his employers when he was discovered having sex with one of the crew. The assembled captains of the fleet tried Hasenbosch and found guilty of sodomy. His lover, who as an ordinary sailor was probably thrown overboard. However, Hasenbosch was an officer, so he escaped outright death. Instead, he was sentenced to be “set ashore, as a villain” on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

On May 5, 1725, his shipmates abandoned Hasenbosch on the island with nothing but a tent, a few changes of clothes, some seeds, writing materials and books, and a month’s supply of water. Why he was given seeds is questionable as those who abandoned him there must have known he would not last long. For no one told him where to locate fresh water on the island and Hasenbosch could not find it himself. Once his month’s ration of water ran out, Hasenbosch had to drink turtle blood and his urine to survive.

In the meantime, he put the paper and pens to good use, keeping a detailed diary of his stay. He recorded his hope that another ship would find him. In the meantime, he vainly searched for food- and the elusive water supply. “8th, 9thand 10th” read a diary entry made in August,” searched carefully but found no water. Have employed myself in praying and interceding with God to have mercy on my soul.”

The diary ended on October 14th1725. In January 1726, the ship that Hasenbosch had hoped for finally arrived at Ascension Island. However, when the British sailors discovered Hasenbosch’s tent, they found it empty but for his diary which was later published. Of the man himself, commons there was no sign. It is believed that Leendert Hasenboch died alone on Ascension, after being marooned there for just six months.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
John Young, from a sketch by Jacques Arago, 1819. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

8. John Young: The English Sailor who Married a Hawaiian Princess

When John Young left his home in Lancashire for a life at sea, he could hardly have imagined he would end up married to royalty. In 1790, Young was serving on an American fur trading ship, the Eleanora when the boat docked in Hawaii. It was the first time Young had seen Owhyee as the island was known. He had however heard tales of its exotic delights- especially the women.

However, the Hawaiian’s were not entirely well disposed towards European visitors. Only 11 years earlier, the Islanders had killed Captain Cook. Young quickly discovered relations were still uneasy. While the Eleanora was in the harbor, her companionship, The Fair American was attacked. Young was part of a party sent ashore to investigate what had happened. However, the local King, Kamehameha I did not want the Europeans to discover that the attackers were Hawaiian. So Young was detained, and his ship sailed without him.

In 1793, a Captain Vancouver sailed into Hawaii and encountered Young and offered passage out of Hawaii. Young, however, refused as his lot on Hawaii had improved considerably. For the sailor from Lancashire had become Governor of Hawaii and an adviser to King Kamehameha. Young’s knowledge of land and naval strategy was of great use to the monarch- as was his ability to act as a go-between with European powers. Two years after Captain Vancouver’s offer of a lift, Young married Kamehameha’s daughter, Namokuelua. Their descendants still live on Hawaii today.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
“Return of the author’s companions” (woodcut from Barnard’s Narrative). Dictionary of Falklands Biography.

9. Charles Barnard: The Kindly Sea Captain Marooned by those he rescued.

In 1812, Captain Charles Barnard completed a mission of mercy that he would later regret. Barnard was the captain of an American ship, the Nanina, which was hunting for seals off the coast of Argentina. However, as he passed the Falkland Islands, he noticed a shipwreck off Eagle island. Barnard investigated and found that most of the crew had survived. However, it seemed that the ship, the Isabella was a British one. It was an awkward situation because, in 1812, Britain and America were at war with each other. However, Barnard did the decent thing and took the survivors on board his ship.

Barnard soon discovered that the Nanina did not have enough provisions to accommodate her new passengers. So he took a party out to hunt for meat on nearby New Island. However, while he was gone, the crew of the Isabella took over the Nanina, which they turned over to the British navy as a spoil of war. As for Barnard and the rest of his provision party, they marooned on New Island in the middle of winter. They were left to fend for themselves for 18 months on New Island.

Two whalers finally rescued Barnard and his men, the Asp and the Indispensable in November 1814. Somewhat ironically, it tuned out that Barnard’s rescuers were British. Whether or not this in anyway made amends for the ingratitude of their fellow countrymen is unknown. However, after traveling to England to reclaim his ship, in 1829, the Captain published his account of the whole misadventure entitled A Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures of Captain Charles Barnard.”

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
James Riley in the “Sufferings of Africa”. Wikimedia.

10. James Riley: The Shipwrecked Sea Captain who trekked through the Sahara desert after being enslaved by Berber tribesmen.

In August 1815, James Riley was the Captain of the American brig “Commerce” which was making its way from Gibraltar to the Capre Verde Islands. The ship was just off the West African coast when it became lost in the fog and ran aground on the Moroccan coast. Riley and his crew began repairs, but when locals stole their supplies, they found themselves trapped between the sea and the Sahara desert without food and water. The group decided to walk inland in the hope of encountering tribesmen who could help them. They did indeed meet a group of Berber tribesmen. However, instead of helping the American castaways, the Berbers enslaved them.

The Berbers divided the men between them and went their separate ways. Riley and his portion of the crew had no choice but to follow their new masters into the Sahara desert. They became sunburnt, and their masters mistreated them. The Berbers beat and starved them and forced them to drink their own and camel urine. One day, a group of Arabs arrived at the camp. Riley, who had by now picked up some of the rudiments of the language somehow managed to speak to two of them, a man named Sidi Hamet and his brother.

Riley asked the brothers to buy him and his men, assuring them that if they took them to the Moroccan Port of Mogador (now Essaouira), they could be ransomed. Sidi Hamet agreed. So, Riley and his men, with their new masters began the journey out of the Sahara and back to the coast. Water was scarce, and they were in constant fear of attack from rival tribes. However, at last, they reached Mogador.

Riley wrote a note explaining their predicament to the town’s consul, a British merchant named William Willshire. Willshire agreed to pay the ransom and even rode out himself to liberate the men. The grateful Riley and his men then returned to America. Once home, Riley, mindful of his experiences as a slave devoted himself to anti-slavery work before returning to a life at sea.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
A photograph of a Native American woman believed to be Juana Maria. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

11. Juana Maria: The “Lone Woman of San Nicholas” who spent 18 years stranded on a Californian island.

In 1853, Captain George Nidever and his crew of sea otter hunters landed on the island of San Nicholas in California’s Channel Islands. At 61 miles from the mainland, San Nicholas was one of the most remote. So it came as a great surprise to Nidever and his crew when they found that the island was home to a solitary Native American woman. No one could speak the woman’s language. However, once she was on the mainland, the woman who became known as Juana Maria managed to communicate her story through a series of hand gestures.

Juana Maria had lived her whole life on San Nicholas. It had been the home of her tribe, the Nicolenos. However, sometime in the early 1800s, a group of Russian otter hunters came to San Nicholas and killed most of her people. In 1835, missionaries from the mainland came to San Nicholas to evacuate the survivors. It was they who gave Juana Maria the name by which she became known. However, Juana Maria was left behind when she went to search for her missing child. She never found the infant and missed her opportunity to leave. So, she remained on San Nicholas, forgotten and alone.

For the next 18 years, Juana Maria survived by subsisting off the natural environment. She made fishhooks from seashells and wove baskets and bowls from grasses. She constructed shelter from whalebones and the dried blubber of the seals, which along with fish and seabirds were the central part of her diet. The leftover feathers and skins of her prey provided Juana Maria with ample raw materials from which to make clothes.

When he returned to his family in Santa Barbara, Captain Nidever took Juana Maria with him. However, she did not live beyond a few months. For unable to cope with the change of diet, Juana Maria contracted dysentery. Nothing could save her- even her carers’ attempts to recreate the diet she had become used to on the island. No one ever learned Juana Maria’s true, Native American name. Her story, however, lived on in a children’s novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Narcisse Pelletier. Google Images.

12. Narcisse Pelletier: The Fourteen-Year-old French Cabin Boy adopted by Australian Aborigines.

Narcisse Pelletier was just 14 when he set out on what turned out to be the voyage of a lifetime. In August 1857, Pelletier signed up as a cabin boy on a ship, the “Saint Paul.” The “Saint Paul” was leaving the French port of Marseilles for Bombay. There it was to drop off its cargo of wine and pick up a party of 300 Chinese laborers bound for the Australian gold mines. The return journey to Australia began in September 1858. However, when the “Saint Paul” began to run low on the supplies, the Captain decided to take a shorter but riskier route to Sydney.

The gamble did not pay off. Just off the coast of Papua New Guinea, the ship ran aground on a reef. So some of the crew, Pelletier among them set off for nearby Rossel Island for the much-needed supplies. However, when they were violently driven away by the inhabitants of the islands, the party paddled for two weeks before they landed on the eastern Cape York Peninsula of Australia. By this time, Pelletier was dangerously ill. So, no doubt to save wasting resources on a what they believed was a hopeless case, the crew restocked with supplies and then sailed away, leaving the cabin boy behind.

Pelletier, no doubt terrified at his predicament was not alone for long. Three women from a local Aboriginal tribe quickly discovered him. Known as the Sand Beach people, the tribe welcomed and adopted Pelletier, nursing him back to health. The Sand gave him a new name: “Anco” or“Amglo” and learned their language, Uutaalnganu and lived as one of them for the next sixteen years.

In this time, Pelletier had no contact with Europeans. This ended on April 11, 1875, when he encountered the crew of a Pearl Lugger, the John Bell. The crew, no doubt believing they were doing Pelletier a favor ‘rescued’ him. This, however, was not how Pelletier saw it as in his account of events he described himself as ‘kidnapped”. However, he did not return to his adopted Sand Beach family. Instead, after a month in Sydney, in July 1875, Narcisse Pelletier set sail back to France.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Sir Ernest H. Shackleton, British arctic explorer. Wikipedia Commons. Public Domain

13. Ernest Shackleton: The Antarctic Explorer who braved icebergs and scaled glaciers to save his men.

From the age of 22, Ernest Shackleton was obsessed with the idea of exploring the Antarctic. In 1914, he got his wish, when Shackleton embarked upon an expedition to tackle what he regarded as the “one great main object of Antarctic journeyings: the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea.” On August 8, 1914, Shackleton and 23 men left England on their great adventure on the ship Endurance. Their first stop was for Buenos Aires. Then, it was on to South Georgia, and from there, the coast of the Antarctic itself.

In December 1914, the Endurance entered the Weddell Sea on the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. However, winter had come early, and it was unseasonably cold. Progress became increasingly slow until, by January 1915, the Endurance could go no further as it became firmly wedged amongst the ice floes. Shackleton and his men were marooned in a sea of ice. At first, the team made the best of things, passing the time playing hockey and holding dog sled races. Then, in October 1915, Endeavor’s hull caved in.

Shackleton and his men had no choice but to abandon ship. Dragging the Endeavors’ lifeboats behind them, they moved from ice floe to ice floe until finally, they could row in open sea. By April 1916, they had managed to reach Elephant Island. The men built shelters and hunted penguin and seal. However, Shackleton realized that they could not wait there and hope for rescue. So, while most of the crew stayed behind to wait, he and five others set off again in the lifeboat for the Whaling stations in South Georgia.

Shackleton and his small rescue party made landfall at the deserted King Haakon Bay. They then made their way to the whaling station at Stromness, scaling the glaciers that marked the desolate landscape. Finally, they reached their destination, and the Norwegian occupants of the station organized a steamer to rescue the men on Elephant Island. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the whole adventure was that not one of Shackleton’s men died In fact, the biggest collective losses amongst the team were ten frostbitten toes.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Ada Blackjack. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

14. Ada Blackjack: The Inuit Explorer who was stranded on a Siberian Island for two years

On September 16, 1921, Ada Blackjack, an Inuit woman living in Nome, Alaska joined a team of Canadian explorers who were attempting to claim a Northern Siberian Island, Wrangel Island for Canada. Ada was destitute after her husband left her and her only son; Bennett was suffering from chronic tuberculosis. The only way Ada could raise the money for his treatment was to take on the job as the expeditions cook and seamstress. So, placing Bennett in an orphanage for safekeeping, Ada and the rest of the expedition made the journey to the island across the Chukchi Sea.

It quickly became apparent the team was woefully unprepared. They ate their rations too quickly and did not hunt or store enough food. Eventually, three of the men decided to cross the frozen sea to seek help. They left behind Lorne knight, a member of the expedition who was riddled with scurvy and Ada herself as his nurse. The main expedition never returned. Knight although unable to hunt himself, instructed Ada how to trap and kill game- a skill she became remarkably proficient at. She was able to provide for them both, setting traps for small game, shooting other birds and seals and even fending off unfriendly polar bears.

Ada remained with Knight until his death on June 23, 1923. She continued to live alone on the island until August 19, 1923, when the organizer of the expedition finally sent out a rescue party. With her pay- which was less than was promised- Ada was able to retrieve Bennett and take him to Seattle for treatment. She and her family later returned to Alaska where Ada remained until her death at the age of 85.

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
The Robertson Family. Google Images

15. The Robertson Family: The British Family shipwrecked by Whales

In 1971, Douglas Robertson, an experienced British sailor decided to take his family on a holiday with a difference. Using the family’s life savings, Robertson bought a boat the Lucette and the Robertson’s set off on an epic sailing trip around the world. Robertson hoped the trip would prove educational for his teenage son and daughter and his twin nine-year-old sons. It certainly proved to be the case- but not in the way Robertson hoped. For eighteen month into the voyage, two hundred miles from the Galapagos Islands, the Lucetteencountered a pod of killer whales. Within a matter of minutes, the whales had struck the Lucette-and sunk her.

The family scrabbled into a small dinghy that was to be their refuge for the next 38 days. Mrs. Robertson, who was a nurse, collected rain droplets for drinking water. This meager supply was supplemented with turtle blood, which, because it is poisonous if taken orally, she administered in the form of an enema made from the rungs of a ladder. The Robertsons also rendered down turtle fat in the sun to form an oil that they rubbed into their skin to insulate themselves against the cold. Once their basic supply of dried food ran out, they lived on raw flying fish.

In the meantime, Mr. Robertson steered the boat towards South America in the hope of rescue. However, it was not a South American vessel that saved the Robertsons but a Japanese fishing trawler that was heading for the Panama Canal. Robinson, who had been in the royal navy, had previously been sunk by the Japanese during the Second World War. After his ordeal was over, he told his eldest son that the trip had been worthwhile for no other reason that it had enabled him to ‘forgive the Japanese.”

16 Tales of Historic Castaways That Make Robinson Crusoe Pale in Comparison
Still from the Castaway Movie/Cannon Street Entertainment. Google Images

16. Gerard Kingsland and Lucy Irvine: The self-imposed Castaways of Tuin Island

In 1980, an eccentric British writer/adventurer, Gerald Kingsland place a very unusual advert in Time Out Magazine. “Writer seeks ‘wife’ for a year on Tropical Island” it read. Kingsland maintained the experience was meant to be an“experiment in isolation.” However, he must have realized spending a year marooned on an island with a strange man could not have appealed to many women. However, Gerald did receive a reply from the right kind of adventurous soul: 24-year-old Lucy Irvine. So, in 1982, the couple set out to Tuin Island an uninhabited island in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The project did not go well from the start. The Australian authorities that owned the island insisted the couple should marry, a fact Irvine deeply resented. She also resented Kingsland’s advances and his desire to dominate her- despite the fact she was doing all the work while he abused her and complained about his ill health. Then there was the fact the island was far from tropical but instead a more of a “coral atoll… with “lots of rough bush, sand,” and unfriendly animals like redback spiders. The couple had also intended to grow crops but there was barely enough water to sustain them, let alone any new vegetation.

However, Irving rose above it all. In fact, it was she who derived the most from the experience, refusing to leave the island when Kingsland wanted to give up. Finally, however, the project had to be terminated when the dehydrated and malnourish pair had to be rescued by the nearby Badu islanders. The mismatched pair split up- and finally went their separate ways.


Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

Belize Is Cradle Of Latin America’s Mestizo Ethnic Group – Gonzalo Guerrero, Belize.com

The true history of the conquest of New Spain, Bernal Diaz Del Castillo, London: The Hakluyt Society, 1858

La Roque, Marguerite De, R. La Roque de Roquebrune, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003

The Batavia Mutiny And Massacre Of 1629 Is Still Revealing Secrets, Libby-Jane Charleston, Huffpost, 18/07/2016

Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom de Bye, Immigration Place

Alexander Selkirk – the Real Robinson Crusoe? The BBC European Lifeline: History Oddities

Ashton’s memorial. An history of the strange adventures, and signal deliverances, of Mr. Philip Ashton, who, after he had made his escape from the pirates, liv’d alone on a desolate island for about sixteen months, &c. : With a short account of Mr. Nicholas Merritt, who was taken at the same time, John Barnard, Ann Arbor, MI :: Text Creation Partnership, 2004-08.

A Dutch Castaway on Ascension Island in 1725, Alex Ritsema, Lulu, 2010

Boatswan, John Young, His adventures in Hawaii recalled, New York Times, February 14, 1886

Barnard, Charles H, Andrew David and David Millar, Dictionary of Falklands Biography.

Slavery in North Africa – the Famous Story of Captain James Riley, Professor Robert C Davis, The Public Domain Review.

An authentic narrative of the loss of the American brig Commerce, wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the month of August, 1815, with an account of the sufferings of the surviving officers and crew, who were enslaved by the wandering Arabs, on the African desert, or Zahahrah; and observations historical, geographical, &c. made during the travels of the author, while a slave to the Arabs, and in the empire of Morocco, Captain James Riley, 1817

Eighteen Years Alone, Emma C. Hardacre, The Century Magazine, September 1880, pp. 657-663

The Narrative of Narcisse Pelletier, The Brisbane Courier, May 24, 1875

Ada Blackjack, the Forgotten Sole Survivor of an Odd Arctic Expedition, Tessa Hulls, Atlas Obscura, December 6, 2017

Shipwrecked by whales: The Robertson family survival story, BBC News, July 18, 2012

Trial by isle, Stephanie Mansfield, The Washington Post, April 26, 1984