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4 Epic Castaway Tales

Within many of us, tales of castaways marooned on deserted tropical islands and unforgiving expanses of Arctic ice stir deep feelings of adventure, romance and downright dread. 

Hence, books like Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and movies like Castaway starring Tom Hanks are perennial favorites.

But though many stranded wayfarers find themselves in horrible predicaments due to shipwrecks, mutinies, wars, and expeditions gone horribly wrong, some secret themselves away by choice, while others in centuries past were sentenced to their fates for crimes and indiscretions that these days may not warrant more than a raised eyebrow. 

Whatever the case, castaway’s lives are always harsh, and whether voluntary or involuntary often end in death. 

Now let’s take a look at four of history’s most epic castaway tales. 

Alexander Selkrik

For more than four years in the early 1700s, Scotsman Alexander Selkirk lived as a voluntary castaway on an uninhabited island nearly 500 miles off Chile’s west coast.

And though his self-imposed seclusion wasn’t particularly long by castaway standards, his story inspired the aforementioned classic Robinson Crusoe

One of seven children, Selkirk was born in 1676, and by all accounts he was a problem child. 

As a young man he apparently beat up his father and brothers and abandoned two women who claimed to be his wife. 

His abrupt departure from traditional Scottish life was hastened on August 27, 1695 when he failed to appear before an ecclesiastical court that had summoned him to stand judgement for a number of church-related infractions.

Intent on leaving such pettiness behind him once and for all, just days before Selkirk had taken to the high seas. 

It was the era of the pirate, and the fiery young Scotsman signed on with buccaneering expeditions that promised endless adventure and untold riches. 

Fast forward more than half a decade and things hadn’t exactly panned out. 

In 1703, hoping for a fresh start, Selkirk signed on as a crewman with nefarious privateer William Dampier, captain of the Cinque Ports – a 90-ton 16-gun vessel with an infamous reputation. 

As an officially licensed English privateer, the Cinque Ports and her crew preyed on Spanish commercial ships plying their trade between Europe and South America.

But sadly, Selkirk’s maiden voyage on the Cinque Ports was a disaster. 

Dampier was an abominable tyrant, and after sustaining serious damage during numerous battles Selkirk feared the ship was far from seaworthy. 

By late 1704 conditions had become so intolerable that he demanded to be set ashore on the island of Más a Tierra, and Dampier happily obliged.   

He took with him little more than the clothes on his back, grimy bedding, tobacco, a bible, and a musket, powder and ammunition. 

He later mused as the ship sailed away that he was overcome with unbearable regret. 

Nevertheless, he assumed rescue was imminent, but as the endless days dragged on to months and years, he resigned himself to his solitary plight. 

To make conditions as hospitable as possible he busied himself constructing makeshift structures, collecting fresh water, foraging for crayfish and lobsters, and fashioning hunting implements and clothing from whatever he could find. 

With only indigenous cats, goats and rats for company, his life was harsh and painfully monotonous, and violent storms often meant he’d spend days wet and without fire. 

During that time two Spanish ships landed on the island, but instead of throwing himself at their mercy he hid to avoid being taken prisoner, or worse yet killed. 

Then, on February 1, 1709, two privateers dropped anchor offshore, and as luck would have it they were flying Union Jacks.  

Lighting his signal fire to alert the ships, an emaciated, filthy and goat skin-clad Selkirk was subsequently rescued by none other than William Dampier, who having survived the sinking of the Cinque Ports was now sailing with Captain Woodes Rogers.   

After a brief recovery Selkirk was made captain of a recently captured ship and spent another 8 years at sea, during which time he amassed quite a fortune. 

Eventually tiring of life at sea, he returned home to Scotland more than two decades after departing.

Attempting to slip into normal life, he purportedly eloped to London with a 16-year-old dairy maid, only to succumb to the lure of the sea just a year later, this time as an officer in the Royal Navy.  

On December 13, 1721, 45-year-old Lieutenant Selkirk died of yellow fever on board HMS Weymouth off the coast of West Africa.

Leendert Hasenbosch

Dutchman Leendert Hasenbosch was an employee of the Dutch East India Company, who on May 5, 1725 was intentionally marooned on then uninhabited Ascension Island in the South Atlantic as punishment for sodomy. 

Leendert was born around 1695, and as a teen his father and three sisters moved to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) leaving him behind to continue his studies.

Smart, dedicated and hardworking, Leendert eventually became a soldier for the Dutch East India Company and made his way to Batavia where he reunited with his family and served honorably. 

Excelling in writing and with a keen attention to detail, he was promoted to corporal and became a military writer, bookkeeper and accountant, ultimately onboard a Dutch East India Company vessel. 

However during a scheduled stop in Cape Town, South Africa on April 17, 1725, Hasenbosch was accused, tried and convicted of sodomy, and less than a month later he began serving his inhumane and fatal sentence.

Few details of the alleged encounter remain, and it’s not clear whether his sentence was permanent or if he was meant to be rescued after his penal term had been served. 

Either way, the tribunal that convicted him must’ve known they were handing down a death sentence, and perhaps to assuage their own guilt they provided the young Dutchman with a tent, a month’s ration of water, seeds, modest clothing, prayer books and writing materials. 

On the island Hasenbosch spent much of his time searching for sources of freshwater, of which the island had two, though neither was permanent and prolonged periods of drought were common. 

According to his diary he survived by drinking his own urine, and the blood and urine of fish, birds and sea turtles.  

In January 1726 British seamen making a brief pitstop on the island discovered his tent, belongings and diary, but no remains were ever found.

Eventually his diary made its way back to England where it was translated and published under the title Sodomy Punish’d

Over the next few years a number of additional translations were published, most of which contained only a few vague references to the charges for which he’d been accused and convicted. 

Some bizarre entries made references to demons, friends and family members, but most concerned daily island life which was unbearably harsh.  

Then in 1730 another translation was published titled The Just Vengeance of Heaven Exemplify’d, which contained a number of previously unseen “fire and brimstone” passages that were most likely added by the book’s overzealous anti-homosexual publisher. 

More than 200 years later in the mid-’70s, American author Peter Agnos wrote The Queer Dutchman, a fictional novel based on earlier translations in which he embellished accounts of Hasenbosch’s life on the island. 

Ironically, the novel has been erroneously used as a historical source by a number of non-fiction writers, thereby muddying the waters as to the events surrounding Hasenbosch’s supposed indiscretions, trial and forced isolation.

Despite malnourishment, dehydration and exposure to the elements, Hasenbosch wrote in his diary up until the time of his supposed death. 

Pointing to the fact that his remains were never, some suggest it’s possible that he made it off the island, though it’s more likely his body was preyed upon by scavengers and that his bones were either dragged or washed into the sea.   

Tom Neale

Over three distinct periods between 1952 and 1977, New Zealander Tom Francis Neale spent 16 years living alone in the Cook Islands. 

Born in November of 1902, Neale joined the Royal New Zealand Navy as a young man and spent more than four years travelling the Pacific before opting for civilian life, and a chance to experience the exotic tropical paradise on his own terms. 

For the next six years he island hopped, supporting himself by various odd jobs including working on banana plantations and filling in as a storekeeper when regular employees went on leave. 

Near the end of the Second World War in 1945 when he was nearly 43, Neale was tasked with delivering stores for coastwatchers in Suwarrow Atoll when he decided it was where he wanted to live, but it wouldn’t be until late 1952 when he finally set foot on the island that’d been uninhabited since the war’s end.  

With two cats and a few hastily gathered supplies, he landed on the mile long and 200-foot wide islet of Anchorage. . 

Neale quickly found items left behind by the coastwatchers including a damaged boat, water tanks, a few books, and thriving populations of chickens and pigs, the latter of which he hunted to extinction because they devastated the island’s vegetation.  

Subsisting on fish, shellfish, eggs, chicken, breadfruit and coconuts, during his first stint on the island which lasted less than two years, Neale had a few sporadic visitors, at least one of which dropped by at the behest of the British Consul in Tahiti to make sure he was still alive.   

In mid-1954, Neale severely injured his back dropping anchor from his boat. 

Barely able to drag himself back to camp, he lay semi-paralysed for four days when by chance a couple exploring on a yacht came to the island and found him in agony and near death. 

Two weeks later the government of the Cook Islands sent a ship to rescue him for medical care.

In 1956 he married and subsequently had two children, but though his back injury and domestic duties temporarily sidelined him, he’d return to the island again in April of 1960, and spend another 3+ years there living in almost total seclusion. 

In late ‘60 and early ‘61, rumors of his death began circulating, though occasional visitors like an American helicopter crew from a passing warship and a family of adventurous yachters confirmed that he was indeed still alive. 

On December 27, 1963 he voluntarily left the island, partly because visitors had become more common and difficult to tolerate, and because as he’d later admit in his memoirs, he was getting old and didn’t want to die alone. 

But yet again, in June of 1967 at the age of 64 he returned to the island and stayed there for nearly another decade. 

In 1977 he was found with advanced stomach cancer and taken by yacht to Rarotonga where he died less than a year later. 

His autobiography An Island to Oneself has become a cult-classic among adventurers, dreamers and legions of poor souls who bide their time in mundane office cubicles around the world. 

Ada Blackjack

Accompanied only by hungry bears and a frozen corpse, petite 23-year-old Inupiaq woman Ada Blackjack found herself nearly alone on Wrangel Island in the East Siberian Sea in June of 1923. 

Two years before she and four white explorers had been dropped off to claim the island for Britain, but truth be told, Ada had signed on to escape grinding poverty and an abusive husband, and to pay for medical care for her last surviving son who had tuberculosis and was living in an orphanage. 

The expedition’s private organizer and financier provided the team with 6 months worth of supplies and enough money to hire native guides, cooks and porters to get them through the impending winter. 

But due to the risk involved none took them up on their offer, and the five set out on their own. 

After arriving in September of 1921 the men set up camp, ran scientific experiments and hunted, while Ada cooked, cleaned, sewed and fell into a deep despair, largely due to constant verbal abuse from the team’s leader Lorne Knight. 

Yet despite the hardships the first winter and summer passed without incident, by the time the second summer rolled around their supplies were dangerously low.  

Hoping for the best and moderately confident that they’d be relieved as planned in the next few months, by October the realization that they’d need to winter onsite once again set in. 

During the particularly harsh winter they spent much of their time huddled around meager fires dining on walrus stew and boiled bear fat while shivering incessantly from the all encompassing damp and cold. 

In fact little did that they know that the ice that year was so thick, the ship sent to rescue them couldn’t break through. 

Three months later the three junior members set out on dog sleds to find help and were never heard from again. 

Now it was just Ada and Knight, who’d become bedridden with such acute scurvy that his body was covered in sores, his teeth fell out, and blood seeped from his nose, eyes and ears. 

Ada cared for him ceaselessly, even rubbing his feet and emptying his bedpan every morning.

Knight returned her kindness by telling her what a horrible wife and mother she must’ve been and even throwing the occasional book or plate at her.  

Yet when he died in the early summer of 1923, Ada later recalled that she’d wept. 

Unable to move or bury him, she barricaded the tent to prevent animals from getting at him and moved into the adjacent cook tent.

Now all alone on the ice and tundra, Ada spent more and more time writing in her diary and hoping against all odds for rescue.  

Badgered by constant headaches, nagging hunger, a swollen face and her own worsening scurvy, she somehow remained emotionally stable, writing mostly about weather, daily activities, her fervent wishes for her son’s recovery, and her thanks to Jesus for keeping her alive. 

Then, one evening she thought she detected a faint boat whistle through the darkness, though it might’ve just been the wind playing tricks on her. 

But the following day – August 19, 1923 – the Donaldson from Nome appears on the horizon. 

Blackjack leapt, danced, laughed and cried. 

She’d been on the island for 703 days, 57 of them alone. 

Ada Blackjack returned to the civilized world to great fanfare, and to her astonishment newspaper headlines around the world nicknamed her the “female Robinson Crusoe.” 

In Nome, she was reunited with her son Bennett, yet despite her newfound stardom life was never anything but a constant struggle. 

Bennett struggled with tuberculosis and other health issues until he died in 1972 at the age of 58. 

For most of her life Ada refused to talk to reporters, though she was mercilessly criticized for not doing more to save Lorne Knight’s life. 

In the end, though she married and divorced twice more and had another son, she preferred poverty and obscurity to public life.

She too contracted tuberculosis and nearly died from it, however she eventually recovered and supported herself by hunting, trapping, picking fruit and herding reindeer until in 1983 she died in Anchorage at the age of 85.

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