’s Island By Diana Souhami Essay, Research Paper
Selkirk’s Island by Diana SouhamiMonsters of the Deep ALL COURAGE left him when the ship was gone. The sea stretched out. The line of its horizon was, he knew, only the limit of his sight. The sea that had beckoned freedom and fortune now locked him in. Thomas Jones, James Ryder, Williain Shribes, John Cobham… He thought they would come back for him. He stayed by the shore, scanning the ocean. Whatever their fate he now wanted to be with them. If their ship sank he would choose to go down with it. It was his ship too. Laurence Wellbroke, Martin Cooke, Christian Fletcher, Peter Haywood… they defined his world. The voyage they had made together was for more than gold: it was to show courage, to have a common purpose, to be men. Without them The Island was a prison and he a mariner without a ship, a man without a voice. The day grew cool, the wind ruffled the water and for a moment a rogue wave or a cloud looked like a sail. His hope was that someone would persuade Stradling to think again. They would come back for him. He would welcome them with fires and food. He waited outside of time, like a dog. Prayer, he had been taught, had a controlling force. He invoked God, to sort this mess out. He prayed in a cajoling way. He felt rage at Stradling. Even Dampier, mad and drunk, marooned Huxford in the company of men. But Stradling had marooned him, Selkirk, with calculated malice and mocked him as the boat rowed off. He did not leave the shore. He clambered over the stone, to the western edge of the bay, wanting the wider view of the ocean. The fur seals bottled and dived, surf broke over the rocks. He was trapped in the bay by sheer cliffs. He clambered back to the eastern edge by the fast-flowing stream where trees grew close to the water’s edge. The sun dipped down, the air cooled, the mountains loured. Dark came and the moon cut a path across the ocean. All night the seals howled. These were monsters of the deep. He feared they would encroach and break his limbs with their jaws. He fired a bullet into the air. For a minute the bay seemed quiet. Then it started again, a croak, a howl. This Island was a place of terror. In his argument with Stradling, he had seen The Island as a place of plenty and comfort. The safe bet. He had reasoned that survival would be possible, even pleasurable. That rescue would soon come. But there was fear in the dancing shadows of night. There was malice focused on him. A hostile presence sensed his every move. He feared cannibalism. That he would be taunted and devoured. The wind surged through the valley, the wind, he was to learn, that was strongest when the moon was full. It uprooted trees. They swished and crashed. The sound merged with the breaking waves, the calling seals and the cries of creatures preyed on at night. Griping of the Guts IT was early spring and around him life regenerated, but he hated The Island, its inaccessible terrain, ferocious waterfalls and gusting winds. A faint breeze at night would stir to whirlwind. It was as if the wind was born in these mountains. Time passed. ‘He grew dejected, languid, scarce able to act.’ He stayed by the shore, drank rum, chewed tobacco, and watched the sea. He stared so hard and long he only half remembered he was searching for a sail. Often he was deceived by the blowing of a whale or the refraction of light. There was a makeshift hut by the shore, of sailcloth, sandalwood and rushes. He put his possessions in it and envied those who had built it. They had got away. He had with him his clothes and bedding, a pistol, gunpowder, bullets, a hatchet, a knife, a pot in which to boil food, a bible, a book of prayers, his navigation instruments, and charts on how to read the imprisoning sea. He had two pounds of tobacco, and a single flask of rum. He had bits of food, enough for three meals – quince marmalade and cheese – but no bread or salt. He suffered when his liquor flask was empty. Liquor brought oblivion. ‘At first he never eat any thing till Hunger constrain’d him, partly for grief and partly for want of Bread and Salt; nor did he go to bed till he could watch no longer.’ He drank from the streams when thirsty, splashed himself with water if he itched, or stank or was hot. He pissed where he stood, shat on the stones, ate turnips and watercress pulled from the earth, picked up turtles and lobsters that crawled the shore and scooped out their flesh with his knife. He became thin and weak. He wanted death and to be gone from this fate. It calmed him to suppose that if no ship came his gun to his temple would end his life. He thought of drowning, of swimming toward the horizon until exhausted. But he had seen sharks devour the corpses of men buried at sea. He had seen a shark tear the leg from a boy who fell from the masthead. And then it seemed The Island would kill him, would do the deed. The turtle flesh ‘occasion’d a Looseness’ that twisted his guts like knives, his shit was liquid, he retched and vomited and supposed he would die. He crawled into his bedding and forgot to hope for the ship’s return. The pain abated, he survived. Survival was all. He collected twigs and branches of sandalwood, started a fire with the flint of his gun, boiled water in his kettle and infused it with mint that grew in the valley and with Malagita pepper which he thought to be good for Griping of the Guts. Alone Upon This Island SELKIRK SUPPOSED in time a ship would come, fatigued by the sea, needing a harbour, but time for him might stop. He had seen bleached human skulls on deserted islands, abiding proof of the marooned. Other men had survived The island: the two who escaped the French. In six months they suffered no extravagant hardship though they did not linger when dubious rescue came. And Will, the Miskito Indian – it was twenty years since his rescue. The remains of his hut and hearth were high in the mountains, engulfed by ferns. Like Will, Selkirk could forge harpoons and lances from the metal of his gun, strike fire from sticks, survive on seal and cabbages and fashion clothes from animal skins. And Dampier had told of a shipwreck, before Will was abandoned, in the Great Bay where only one man reached the shore alive. ‘He lived alone upon this Island five years before any Ship came this way to carry him off.’ Marooned men fended until rescue came: Pedro de Serrano, stranded on a barren Pacific island, drank the blood of turtles and survived seven years without fresh water, though he went insane. Philip Ashton, captured by pirates in 1700, then abandoned on Roatan island in the Bay of Honduras, was attacked by snakes and a wild boar, but did not die. In the manner of counting blessings Selkirk might deem himself fortunate. There were worse scenarios than his own. He was as strong as any man. He could endure The Island for months or even years. He thought of escape, of a raft with branches bound with the entrails of seals, of a hollowed canoe. But the nearest land was Valparaiso, six hundred miles north. Were he by fluke to survive the treachery of this ocean, its capricious currents, the violence of its waves, the appetite of sharks and the heat of the sun, if the guarda costa caught him they would show no mercy. They made it a rule never to allow an Englishman with knowledge of these seas ever to go free. Were he to reach the mainland he would be consigned to the workhouse or the mines, put in leg irons, tortured for information about his fellow privateers. At best, murdered. If a French ship came to The Island he would surrender and hope for mercy, but never to the Spanish. He would make a lair, a hideaway, high in the mountain forest, in case they came. So he hoped for rescue and feared dying uncomforted in this overwhelming place. He looked out over the ocean thinking Dampier, Clipperton, Funnell, Morgan, Bellhash might return him to the world he knew. Their misfortune was his hope. The Cinque Ports might limp back, leaking like a sieve. He supposed there would be further mutinies on both ships. More men would turn on Dampier. He was an adventurer, a seasoned navigator, but he could not manage men. Mutineers would leave him, take prize ships, fly the bloody flag and try their luck. The two ships might now be six. Selkirk’s Island was the best to careen, to water, to eat fresh food. Here was good anchorage. Whoever came, he would give them greens and goat broth to cure their scurvy. His fire would dry their clothes and warm their bones. They would restore in the mountain air. He would welcome any of the men, except Stradling. He would be marooned forever sooner than see Stradling again. And so he became a watchman by occupation. His obsession and abiding fear was that he would miss a ship that passed or be surprised by an enemy. He watched in the first light of the morning, at noon and at dusk. Behind the bay he climbed to his lookout, his vantage point. He scanned the encircling sea. He surveyed The island, its tormented forms, its peaks and valleys, the islet of Santa Clara, the forests of ferns. Day after day he did not see his ship of rescue. He saw no ship at all. Here was a paradox of freedom: he was free from responsibility, debt, relationship, the expectations of others, yet he yearned for the constraints of the past, for the squalor and confinement of shipboard life. Hunger and thirst were diversions. He ate roots, berries, birds’ eggs. He shot seals and sea birds. A goat stared at him with curiosity. He killed it with a cudgel, boiled it with turnips, flavoured it with pimento. Rats scuttled in the undergrowth, waiting their share. The Fragrance of Adjacent Woods DAYS ELIDED into weeks and months. Whatever The Island had, he could use, whatever it lacked, he must do without. He pined with eager Longings for seeing again the Face of Man’. He was alone on a remote piece of land surrounded by ocean. Chile was 6oo miles away, Largo 7000. He was an unsociable man, but disagreement and provocation were preferable to this. Had Stradling left him with a Negro slave, they might have built a boat, farmed goats. Had he left him with women prisoners, he would have peopled The Island and been served. This fate seemed like a curse. His father had warned that his temper would cost him his life, and opposed his going to sea with the privateers. If he returned to Largo he would make amends, work as a tanner, find a wife. His mother, he supposed, would pray for him. Texts from the Bible. All that happened was God’s will. God acted with surprising vengeance, but good intention. The Bible was the word of God. It was the Truth. God created all things, owned and controlled the lot. He made the world in seven days and man in his own image. He was benevolent. He had a purpose, a grand design. ‘It was Selkirk’s manner to use stated hours and places for exercises of devotion, which he performed aloud, in order to keep up the faculties of speech, and to utter himself with greater energy.’ Sometimes as the sun rose lighting the woodland of sandalwood trees and huge ferns (Blechnum cycadifoliurn), their fronds unfurling like wakening snakes, the mountain he called the Anvil rising three thousand feet behind him, cloud trapped on its peaks, he read from the Bible, the only narrative text he had. He read of Sodomie and Beastialitie in Leviticus and of Heaven and Redemption in the Gospels. He mumbled the psalms and appeals of his church: ‘Hear 0 Lord my Prayer, give Ear to my Supplication, hear me in Thy justice, I stretch forth my Hands to Thee; my Soul is as Earth without Water unto Thee, Hear me speedily 0 Lord; my Spirit hath fainted away. Turn not away Thy Face from me.’ Such lamentations yielded no change in his circumstances, but had a consoling force. He did not care too much about the sense of what he intoned. It was vocabulary he would not otherwise have used and feared to lose. He hoped that God was half-way human enough to get him out of this hole. Only God and Stradling knew he was marooned. Withdrawal from tobacco left him light-headed. It had been an addiction for fifteen years. He wondered if there was some substitute opiate on The Island, some other leaf to chew. But he did not experiment. Foxglove and hemlock he knew could kill. Dampier had warned against eating plants that birds rejected. Activity dispelled depression. He kept busy. And on a day when the sky was clear and the valley still, his mood lifted. He felt vigorous, reconciled. He grilled a fish with black skin in the embers of a fire, ate it with pimentos and watercress and forgot to deplore the lack of salt. Around him humming birds whirred and probed. Mosses, lichens, fungi and tiny fragile ferns, epiphytes, hyrmenophyllum and Serpyllopsis, covered the trunks of fallen trees. He resolved to build a dwelling and accrue stores. He chose a glade in the mountains a mile from the bay, reached after a steep climb. Behind it rose high mountains, wooded to the peak. This glade had the shade and fragrance of adjacent woods from woods, a fast, clear stream, lofty overhanging rocks it he had watched mist fill the valley and dissipate with the morning sun. White campanulae grew from the rocks, puffins nested by the ferns. A little brown and white bird, the rayadito, swooped for insects. Clumps of parsley and watercress grew by the stream. Pestered by Rats THiE RANDOM yield of the island became his tools, weapons, furniture and larder. By the shore he found nails, iron hoops, a rusty anchor, a piece of rope. With fire and stones he forged an axe, knife blades, hooks to snare fish, a punch to set wooden nails. He carved a spade from wood and hardened it in glowing embers. He hollowed bowls and casks from blocks of wood. He turned boulders and stones into larders for meat, a pestle and mortar, a hearth and a wall. He liked goat meat, but often the goats he shot crawled to inaccessible rocks to die. When his bullets and gunpowder were finished he felt undefended, on a par with creatures that scurry for cover at a sudden sound. Without gunfire, he caught goats by chasing them. Out of their horns he carved cutlery. On either side of the stream he built huts of pimento wood. He thatched their roofs in a lattice of sandalwood. The cruder hut was his larder and kitchen, the larger was his dwelling. On a wide hearth of stones, he kept a fire burning night and day, its embers banked high. His wooden bed was on a raised platform, his sea chest held such possessions as he had. He scraped, cleaned and dried the skins of the goats he killed, in the way he had learnt from his father. With a nail he made eyelets then joined the hides with thongs of skin. He lined the walls of the hut with these skins. The place smelled like a tanner’s yard, it smelled like home. Home shielded him from squalling winds and the threat of night. From his bed he saw the ocean lit by stars, the morning sun above the eastern mountains. The seals were quieter when they finished breeding. Other sounds amplified: the clamour of birds, the waterfalls. This glade defined where he felt safe, but ‘his habitation was extremely pestered with rats, which gnawed his clothes and feet when sleeping’. Their forebears had jumped from European ships. Pregnant at four weeks, they gave birth after three weeks gestation, had litters of eighteen, became pregnant again immediately, and lived for two years. They ate bulbs, shoots, carcasses, bones, wood and each other. They left spraints of urine wherever they went and their fur was infested with lice and fleas. Their appetites were voracious and their most active time, the pitch of night. The Island housed them in millions, white, grey, black and brown. As he slept they gnawed his clothes and the bone-hard skin of his feet. He would wake to hissing fights. He slung pebbles at them, but in seconds they resumed. Equally fecund were the feral cats. They too came from Spanish, French and English ships. He enticed them with goats’ meat wanting them to defend him against the rats. Kittens in particular within days were tame. ‘They lay upon his bed and upon the floor in great numbers.’ They purred to see him, settled in shafts of sunlight, curled round his legs. To them he was a gentle provider, a home maker. In the face of this feline army the rats kept away. Instead he endured the cats’ territorial yowls, their mating calls and acrid smells. He talked to them, they made him feel less alone. ‘But these very protectors became a source of great uneasiness to him.’ ‘For the idea haunted his mind and made him at times melancholy, that, after his death, as there would be no one to bury his remains, or to supply the cats with food, his body must be devoured by the very animals which he at present nourished for his convenience.’ To ensure his meat supply, he lamed kids by breaking their back legs with a stick. He then fed them oats gathered from the valley. They did not equate their pain and curtailment with him and were tame when he approached them with food. So he became The Island’s man. Monarch of all he surveyed. He swam in the sea, washed in the streams, rubbed charcoal on his stained teeth. His beard that was never cut merged with the tawny hair of his head. His shoes wore out but he did not try to repair them. The soles of his feet became as hard as hooves. He ran barefoot over rocks. ‘He could bound from crag to crag and slip down the precipices with confidence.’ The seals and sea lions ceased to be a threat: ‘merely from being unruffled in himself he killed them with the greatest ease imaginable, for observing that though their jaws and Tails were so terrible, yet the Animals being mighty slow in working themselves round, he had nothing to do but place himself exactly opposite to their middle, and as close to them as possible, and he despatched them with his Hatchet at will.’Their fat was cooking oil, their fur his bedding, shared with pale fleas and ticks that burrowed and blistered under his skin. He gouged these out with a wooden pin. As time passed he ceased to imagine threat from monsters or cannibals. Nor was he troubled by the moan of the wind, the calling seals, the chirps and screechings of The Island. His hut, cats and goats created a semblance of home. He adapted to The Island’s ways.