At first sight, Robinson Crusoe Island, formerly known as Más a Tierra, was an unprepossessing speck of rock, picked out from a tiny twin-engine plane. As we came closer, its steep, angular profile, the red desert that occupied half the island and the alarmingly short runway transformed lyrical musings on history and literature into a more pressing sense of adventure. The brand new airport building was empty, the land utterly barren. Nothing was quite as I had imagined.
My journey had begun with a phone call — an invitation to contribute to a German film about the men who discovered the island in the 1570s: Crusoe’s real-life alter ego Alexander Selkirk, British naval officer Lord Anson and Spanish sailor Juan Fernández.
Having safely landed, we hiked down to Horseshoe Bay and caught a boat to San Juan Bautista, the island’s only village. Escorted by dolphins and overwhelmed by the immensity of the ocean, everyone was lost in thought — apart from the boatman, who seemed to find nothing especially profound in his daily commute.
Finally we hove into Cumberland Bay — a strangely English name on a Chilean island — passing over the German cruiser SMS Dresden, which was sunk by the Royal Navy in 1915. Several German soldiers lay in the island’s cemetery, but such distant tragedies paled into insignificance; eight months ago, in February 2010, a massive tsunami had roared into the bay, smashing the beachside buildings, houses, a hotel, bars and the museum to matchwood. There were now fresh graves alongside the German memorial. On the other side of the jetty, a Chilean warship was loaded with bales of wreckage; more lay on the beach, including a large satellite dish festooned with weed.
The sole village of San Juan Bautista includes a church, a modern municipal building and some low-rise housing. The population of around 800 is mostly descended from a small band of the late 19th-century settlers; today, the villagers retain a strikingly small selection of surnames. Everyone was polite, taking our intrusion in their stride, and several got roles in the film we were working on.
The island’s only export, the saltwater crayfish, turns up in every traveller’s account — mute symbols of the culinary riches on offer. Alongside the crayfish, the island has a powerful mythic history, mostly written in English. Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe, the definitive story of castaway redemption, on buccaneer tales, placing Crusoe on a Caribbean island. Readers familiar with Alexander Selkirk and his solitary residence on the island of Juan Fernández imposed the connection, wresting control of the story from the author. Ever since, visitors and islanders alike have melded the two characters into a single occupant. Chile added to the confusion, renaming the isle Robinson Crusoe Island in an effort to boost tourism.
In the 18th century, Commodore George Anson arrived; after ending an epidemic of scurvy, he left to capture the fabled Manila Galleon. Needless to say, there was no treasure — and the Lord Anson Valley Mini Market reminded me how Anson’s voyage (the ultimate tale of tragedy, horror, redemption and riches) was written into history. The English took ownership of the island on the pages of their books, in ways that Spanish — and later, Chilean — authors rarely attempted.
These stories resonate on a tiny, constricted space, the fragmentary wreckage of a remote volcano in the South Pacific. High up on the cliffs, the last remnants of a unique pre-contact ecosystem has survived the ravages of civilisation. The lower slopes are populated by stringy cattle and thin horses. Today, the Chilean Government is making efforts to recover what man has destroyed.
The island works for those in search of mythology, endless skies and ocean. Very slowly, nothing happens. I left after a month. As I watched the island disappear, I thought about English insularity. The obsession with islands and oceans, rather than continents, is something that shaped responses to everything from the Empire to the EU.
But why were the Germans making a film? Read the first page of Defoe’s book…
Professor Andrew Lambert is a naval historian and the author of Crusoe’s Island: A Rich and Curious History of Pirates, Castaways and Madness. Published by Faber & Faber (RRP £20).
Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)