The real Robinson Crusoe
The real Robinson Crusoe
By Jan Tunér
(Translation from Swedish)
The Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk is generally considered to be the model for Defoe’s
novel character Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk was washed ashore after a shipwreck on the
uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile. But it is likely that Defoe had
some of his inspiration from the story of a sailor who lived a century and a half before
Selkirk. This is the story of Fernão Lopes, the first Robinson Crusoe.
The year was 1512. The indefatigable Affonso d’Albuquerque had completed a
successful raid on Malacca and was heading back towards Goa. Despite the unparalle led
success in Malacca, “the Great Affonso” was in low spirits. A number of his ships had been
lost in a storm, and a great treasure of slaves and goods belonging to the king of Portugal was
lost. Affonso had also been informed that fort Benastarim in Goa had been recaptured by the
Moslems. To make matters still worse, a number of the Portuguese noblemen to whom he had
left the ruling of the conquered town of Goa in 1510, had converted and were now acting for
the enemy. The conquest of Goa was Affonso’s most highly valued accomplishment, and he
was not prepared to let it come to nothing. His fleet was still powerful enough to force a solution
by negotiation. Rasul Khan, commander at Goa, accepted Affonso’s demands and surrendered.
But he was concerned about what fate would come to those Portuguese who would now be at
Affonso’s mercy. His concern was well-founded. Not only had the men deserted, they had
collaborated with the Moslem enemy and in some cases even converted to Islam. The Iberians
had long and bitter experience of fighting the Moors. For a Portuguese nobleman to cooperate
with the Moslems was considered the ultimate crime. Rasul Khan managed to exact from
Affonso a promise to spare the lives of his countrymen. Affonso grudgingly agreed to this, and
Benastarim was returned to him.
Affonso detested those of his countrymen whom he saw as traitors to their king
as well as to God, and he would have preferred to have them executed then and there. But even
the high-handed Affonso felt bound by a promise. He would let them live, but on his conditions.
For three whole days the traitors suffered the most gruesome torture. Their right hands were cut
off, together with the thumb of the left hand. Their ears and noses were cut off, their hair and
their beards pulled out. More than half of them perished from the torture. One of the few
survivors was Fernão Lopes, the leader of this group of noblemen who had betrayed Affonso.
Lopes was left to manage as best he could, despised by his countrymen and reluctantly forsaken
by his former Moslem friends. For three years he remained in Goa, a miserable beggar.
Affonso d’Albuquerque died in 1515. Contrary to his insistent wish, he was buried
in Goa. He had wished for his ashes to be returned to Portugal, but his superstitious countryme n
would have it otherwise. As long as the bones of the great conqueror remained in Goa, the town
would not be lost. In the spring of 1516, while the town was in a state of commotion following
the death of Affonso, Fernão Lopes managed to steal on board a ship bound for Lisbon. The
stowaway was quickly discovered, but the captain had no choice other than to take him to
Portugal, where Lopes had a wife and family and, perhaps, a forgiving king.
14 years earlier, João da Nova had discovered an unknown island in the south
Atlantic Ocean. The island did not have the makings of a natural harbour, but it was fertile and
the climate was pleasant. There was fresh water, fruits and firewood. It was a perfect place for
ships homeward bound from the Indies to stop and take in supplies.
The island was colonised, but the Portuguese managed to keep its existence a
secret for 80 years. The day on which the island was first sighted was, according to the calendar
of the time, Saint Helena’s day, and da Nova accordingly christened it “Santa Helena”.
On the voyage home to Portugal, Fernão Lopes had begun to doubt his chances
in the old country. Would his wife really accept a dishonoured, crippled man? Would the king
have him punished? When the ship reached St Helena, and the crew went ashore for supplies,
Lopes hid in the forest. A group of men was sent to search for him, but were forced to return
without him. The ship set sail for Lisbon leaving Lopes alone on St Helena. He became the first
resident of what is now the British island of Saint Helena.
Survival on the uninhabited island was not easy, despite the abundance of water,
edible plants and fruits. But his shipmates left valuable gifts – a barrel of biscuits, pieces of
dried meat, salted fish, salt and clothes, and most importantly, fire. The fire was zealously
tended by Lopes, and he dared not leave his seashore camp until he had found some rocks with
which to make his own fire. With his mutilated arms he dug out a cave in the soft volcanic rock,
and then he began to explore his new home.
The coastline of St Helena is steep and forbidding, quite unlike the invit ing
interior. On the North West coast the Portuguese had found two deep ravines, which ran parallel
and whose mouths provided safe landing for a dinghy. In the southernmost of these, which they
named Agoada Nova, they built a small chapel and sowed seeds of plants. To this day, the plac e
is called Chapel Valley, and the capital of Jamestown now stands here. Fernão Lopes
established his new life as best he could in these narrow ravines. He spent one whole year alone,
but he was not entirely unhappy. The first time he sighted a ship on the horizon he was
frightened. As the ship drew nearer, he recognised it as Portuguese. Had it been sent to fetch
him home? He kept in hiding and was not discovered. He was relieved when the ship left the
island after a week. He ventured down to the water’s edge to watch the ship leave in full sail.
At that moment he saw something moving in the water. It turned out to be a half-drowned cock
that had fallen overboard and was struggling to keep alive in the heavy seas. Considering Lopes’
physical condition, it was rash of him to swim out to rescue the cock, but he managed it. He
brought the half dead bird to his cave, but not in order to make a tasty meal of it. Instead, he
looked after it carefully; it became as tame as a dog and followed him everywhere. Lopes
preferred the bird’s company to that of humans. Life on the island became easier, since the ship’s
crew left more gifts for him – biscuits, cheeses, seeds, as well as a letter asking him not to hide
from the visitors in the future, as no one had any intention of harming him.
For 10 years Fernão Lopes lived in solitude on his island. Ships came and went,
but he kept away. Even so, there was a steady exchange of supplies. The plants that Lopes had
sown and tended were sought after by the ships that called at the island. In return he was given
chickens, seeds, clothes and tools. His fame had reached Portugal and even king João III was
keen to meet this extraordinary man. Lopes’ solitude was broken after 10 years, when a young
Javanese slave escaped from a ship and went in hiding on the island. This was a companionship
that Lopes did not appreciate, however, and the relationship was chilly. The boy therefore
decided to show himself when a ship next called at the island. In exchange for amnesty for
himself, he offered to show the captain where Lopes lived, and so captain Pero Gomez Teixeira
found his famous countryman. Lopes was frightened, he cried and pleaded, but captain Gomez
talked to him reassuringly and promised him that no one would hurt him or force him to leave
St Helena. All he asked of Lopes was that he would not hide away when the Portuguese ships
came to the island, but that he would help them, to the advantage of both parties. Lopes finally
agreed to this. Gomez then handed him a letter, stating that every sailor who arrived at St Helena
would cooperate with Lopes and would not force him away from the island against his will.
The captain then signed the letter on behalf of the king of Portugal.
“Home” to Portugal
From this time Lopes no longer kept hidden. The renewed contact with his
countrymen caused him great pain, however. More and more his thoughts dwelled on the crime
of treason which he had committed, not only against his king but also against God. He no longer
had peace in his soul. In spite of his fear and reluctance he finally decided to accompany a ship
back to Portugal, where he would seek pardon for his crimes. He suffered throughout his stay
in Lisbon. He stayed in hiding in the captain’s house and was sneaked out late at night in order
to meet king João III and his queen. The king pardoned his crime against his country and offered
Lopes refuge in a monastery. The monks were delighted to have such a celebrated guest, but
for Lopes even a monastery was too crowded. He had received the pardon of his king, but he
also needed God to forgive him. His serious crime could, according to the rules of the church,
only be pardoned by the pope himself. Lopes asked the king for permission to travel to Rome,
and received it.
Lopes’ crimes were apostasy, having abandoned the true faith, and having taken
up arms against it. These crimes were categorised as special, and absolution for them could
only be granted by the pope himself or a cardinal acting for him. For those who asked for pardon
voluntarily, this possibility existed. At this time it was the custom to hold a ceremony of pardon
during Christmas week. A high throne was erected in the church of St Peter’s, with the pope
seated at the top, and the penitents one by one climbed the steps. In order to hide their remorsestricken
faces, the pope would enfold them in one of his long cloaks. He would then hear their
confessions. A great crowd had gathered this Christmas to get a view of the cripple from St
Helena. No one could fail to recognise him. Haltingly, after 10 years’ silence, Fernão Lopes told
his story to the pope and asked for God’s forgiveness. After a while he came down the steps,
relieved, joyous and without hiding his face. At last he had peace. Later, Lopes was received in
audience by the pope, who asked if he could help Lopes to reenter society. Lopes however had
only one wish – to return to his island. The pope was understanding. He sent Lopes back to king
João III with a letter, asking him to permit Lopes, who was now free from sin, to return to St
At his death on St Helena in 1545, Fernão Lopes had spent nearly 20 years on the
island. After his return from Europe he was more open and was often to be found on shore when
the ships arrived. He received gifts from the sailors, enabling him to grow gourds,
pomegranates, oranges and palms. He kept ducks, chickens, pigs and goats, which all eventually
ran wild and spread over the island. For the sailors, this made St Helena even more valuable as
a stopping point.
Today, St Helena is mainly famous for having housed Napoleon during the years
1815-1821. For the 4000 inhabitants Napoleon is no hero, however. Their hero is ’Dom Fernão’,
the first resident of their island.
Correia, Gaspar (1860). Lendas de India, 2: p.196-197. Lisbon: Academia R. das Siencias.
Clifford, H: The Earliest Exile of St Helena. Blackwood’s Magazine, Vol. 173; May 1903: p.
Gosse, P: St Helena 1502-1938, p. 4-10.