Are there actual cases of castaways rescued from deserted islands?

December 2, 2005

Dear Cecil:

With shows like Lost and Gilligan's Island, movies like Cast Away and Swiss Family Robinson, and books like Robinson Crusoe, I've been wondering: Are there documented cases of a person or persons being shipwrecked on an uncharted, deserted isle and surviving for some length of time only to be rescued later? Are there a lot of large, uninhabited islands in the South Pacific that could sustain a person indefinitely?

Cecil replies:

As usual, D., first we have to straighten out your question. The answer to the one you asked is is none too surprising: Yeah, lots of folks have survived shipwrecks, and some spent time on deserted islands in the process. To cite a well-known example, U.S. Navy lieutenant John F. Kennedy and the crew of PT-109 were rescued after several days on an island following the destruction of their boat in a nighttime collision with a Japanese warship in 1943.

But that's not what you're after. What you want to know is whether you can survive the classic Robinson Crusoe scenario, to my mind depicted in purest form in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away (2000), which features a (1) solitary (2) product of civilization who is (3) unexpectedly marooned on (4) a deserted island for (5) a year or more with (6) only such resources as you'd reasonably expect to find, i.e., naturally occurring food, water, and so on plus a modicum of junk washing up on the beach.

Has anyone really endured such an ordeal? With one possible exception, no — even the fictional Crusoe caught some breaks. Here's my list of top contenders (I've discounted poorly documented tales plus episodes of less than a year):

  • Alexander Selkirk. Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is widely accounted the first true English novel, one of the greatest adventure stories ever written, blah blah blah. Read it, though, and you realize our hero Rob has it plenty soft. His wrecked ship snags just off the island where he washes ashore; he spends 24 days scavenging tools, weapons, money, food, boards, rope, etc., eventually cobbling together digs that compare favorably with a Holiday Inn. As everyone knows, the real-life inspiration for Crusoe was Alexander Selkirk, who lived a solitary existence on Mas a Tierra Island, about 400 miles off the coast of Chile, from September 1704 to February 1709. What people don't know is that (a) Selkirk wasn't shipwrecked — he asked to be put ashore because he feared, correctly, that his creaky ship was doomed; (b) while he didn't have the army-navy store's worth of stuff that Crusoe did, he had his sea chest, a musket and ammo, flint and steel, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, and so on; and (c) as desert islands go, Mas a Tierra was pretty plush, with a gentle climate, fresh water, and abundant shellfish and other edibles. Selkirk basically vegged on the beach for the first 18 months, although he did stir himself to Crusoe-like feats of industry thereafter.
  • The Miskito Indian Will. Sent ashore on Mas a Tierra with an English foraging party in 1681, Will was left behind when his employers' ship abruptly departed on sighting several enemy vessels. He was picked up in 1684. The Miskito, often hired by Europeans for their hunting skills, were native to the Caribbean coast of Central America, an environment that if anything was harsher than Mas a Tierra.
  • Philip Ashton. Captured by pirates in 1722, Ashton escaped the following year and spent 15 months alone on Roatan Island, off Honduras. Ashton's story, appearing so soon after Robinson Crusoe, struck some as fiction, but the man apparently did exist; if authentic, his is the only account I know of in which a lone unprepared Caucasian survives on an island more than a year.
  • Charles Barnard. Charles Barnard was marooned in the Falkland Islands with four other men in 1813. They had little besides a boat, some knives, and the ship's dog but did have each other, no small asset. They were rescued after 18 months.
  • Tom Neale. After decades of bumming around the South Pacific, Neale realized his life's dream on October 7, 1952, when he was put ashore on Suwarrow atoll in the Cook Islands and took up residence in an old WWII coastal watchers' shack. Subsisting mainly on what he could catch or raise, Neale lived contentedly alone until arthritis sent him back to civilization in 1954. He returned from 1960 to 1963 and again from 1967 to 1977, when cancer forced him to check into a hospital, dying that year at age 75.

As to whether the South Pacific has a lot of large, uninhabited islands that could sustain a person indefinitely — who cares? As Tom Neale showed, all you need is one.

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