In 1708 two ships set sail from Bristol. They were called the Duke of Bristol and the Duchess of Bristol. These ships would spend four years sailing around the world, taking timely advantage of the War of the Spanish Succession to do a little privateering. The Duke, however, would become famous for something other than the gold it brought back.
In 1709, the Duke’s captain William Dampier dropped anchor at a small island in the St Fernandez archipelago, 420 miles off the coast of Chile. Four years and four months earlier – in 1704 – Dampier had departed this same island in a different ship, leaving behind one member of the crew: a man named Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk had had grave concerns about the seaworthiness of their apparently leaky vessel, and said he would rather take his chances alone on the desert island than spend another day on that death-trap of a boat. Dampier was miffed at Selkirk’s lack of confidence, but forgave him when it turned out Selkirk had been right to be worried. The ship sank shortly thereafter, off the coast of Columbia. A number of the crew – including Dampier – survived, but were captured and ransomed by the Spanish.
Four years later, Dampier was passing through the area again, and stopped by the island to see if Selkirk was still alive and kicking. Amazingly, he was. He had survived by learning to fashion his own shelters and tools, taming some animals (the feral cats were especially useful for keeping the foot-chewing rats at bay) and hunting others (there was a handy supply of wild goats hanging around), and using experience learnt from his father’s tanning business to make clothes from animal skins. Selkirk was elated finally to be amongst other humans (a feeling to which we can all now relate to some degree) and, after restocking Dampier’s dwindling food supplies with a few more goats, they went on their way.
Tales of naval daring-do were all the rage in England at the time, and Selkirk became famous. He settled for a time in Bristol, where legend has it he met an author named Daniel Defoe in the Llandoger Trow pub on King Street (also said to have been frequented by Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard). Defoe was gripped by Selkirk’s extraordinary tale, and turned it into his most celebrated book – Robinson Crusoe.
Right – The Llandoger Trow pub, Bristol
The connection with Bristol Cathedral? When the Duke – Selkirk’s lifeboat – arrived home safely, the extravagant silver candlesticks from the captain’s cabin were gifted to the Cathedral, in thanks to God for the ship’s safe return. The candlesticks remain in the cathedral still, not locked away, but displayed to this day for all to see, atop the altar of the Eastern Lady Chapel (albeit bolted down, behind an alarmed floor!).
So if you’re ever in Bristol, why not wander into the Cathedral to gaze at the lights that once flickered across the faces of William Dampier and Alexander Selkirk, while one of the best stories ever heard was told for the very first time.
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