Maritime lore is filled with tales of sailors who found themselves stranded on deserted islands with seemingly no hope of rescue. Most were survivors of shipwrecks or other disasters, but a few were intentionally marooned on island prisons as punishment for crimes. In each case, these castaways faced a constant fight for survival against hunger, wild animals, severe weather and sheer loneliness. Explore six incredible stories of people who were stranded in unforgiving territory and lived to tell the tale.
Scottish mariner Alexander Selkirk’s solitary odyssey began in 1704, when he arrived at an island off the coast of Chile along with a group of British privateers. The men had spent the previous year harassing Spanish shipping around South America, but when they dropped anchor in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, Selkirk got into a dispute with his captain over the seaworthiness of their ship. Fearing the worm-eaten vessel would not survive another voyage, the hotheaded Selkirk elected to stay behind on the island with only a small supply of weapons, food, tobacco and rum to keep him company.
Selkirk may have believed that a passing ship would pick him up in a matter of weeks, but he would eventually spend more than four years and four months alone on the island. He passed the time by notching the days and months on a tree, reading his Bible and chasing goats—first for food, and then merely to have something to do. All the while, he kept his eyes peeled for signs of rescue, but the few ships he saw flew the Spanish flag. On one occasion, he was even forced to hide in a tree when Spanish mariners landed on the island to resupply. Selkirk was finally rescued in February 1709, when a band of privateers led by Captain Woodes Rogers stopped at his island. The wild-haired and bearded castaway initially had trouble remembering how to speak, but he went on to become a minor celebrity in 18th century England, and was likely the inspiration for the title character in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel “Robinson Crusoe.”
Little is known about the life of Marguerite de la Rocque, a 16th century French noblewoman who spent two years marooned on an island off the coast of Quebec. According to most accounts, her ordeal began in 1542, when she accompanied a relative on an expedition to establish a colony in Canada. During the long crossing of the Atlantic, the young and unmarried Marguerite sparked a scandal when she took a fellow passenger as her lover. The tryst outraged the ship’s devout captain, and De La Rocque, her lover and her servant were subsequently banished to the remote Isle of Demons near the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
The trio built a small hut to protect against the blistering cold, and used muskets and rocks to scare off bears and wolves. They soon faced more serious problems when De La Rocque discovered she was pregnant. Amazingly, the young castaway managed to survive the birth of the baby, but after some sixteen months on the island, both her lover and servant had perished. Her young child would follow soon after, yet De La Rocque continued to survive alone until late 1544, when she was rescued by a group of fisherman and ferried back to Europe.
St. Helena is perhaps best known as the place where Napoleon Bonaparte was banished after his famous defeat at 1815’s Battle of Waterloo. But some 300 years before the French emperor arrived, this remote island in the southern Atlantic was home to one of history’s most unusual castaways. Fernão Lopes was a Portuguese soldier who had turned against his homeland and sided with Muslim natives during a conflict in India. When his former brothers in arms captured him, they punished him by lopping off his right hand, ears and nose. Deformed and disgraced, Lopes stowed away aboard a ship bound for Portugal in 1516. When it stopped at the uninhabited isle of St. Helena, he slipped away and hid in the forest.
Lopes would live on the island in self-imposed exile for the next several years, totally alone save for a rooster he turned into a pet. Though he refused to come out of hiding to meet visitors, he eventually became something of a legend among Portuguese mariners, who would leave offerings of food and clothing for the “Hermit of St. Helena” whenever they dropped anchor at his island. As his celebrity grew, Lopes was persuaded to travel to Europe, where he received a pardon from the King of Portugal and absolution from the Pope. The disfigured castaway was offered a place in a monastery, but chose to return to St. Helena, where he continued to live alone until his death around 1545. By that time, Lopes had spent some 30 years on the island, nearly all of it in complete solitude.
In June 1722, Massachusetts-based fisherman Philip Ashton was trawling the seas near Nova Scotia when his schooner was set upon by a band of pirates led by the notorious Edward Low. When Ashton refused to join the buccaneers’ ranks, he was kept as a slave for nine months while the rogues plundered their way across the Atlantic and back again along the coasts of Brazil and Central America. The beleaguered fisherman finally made an escape in March 1723, when he sprinted into the jungle after the pirates stopped for fresh water at a small island off the coast of Honduras.
Though stranded with no food or tools, Ashton managed to construct a crude shelter and ate fruit and raw turtle eggs to ward off starvation. He wasted away on his island alone until November 1723, when he encountered a British man who had escaped the Spanish. The fellow castaway disappeared after only a few days, but left behind a knife and other supplies that Ashton used to continue surviving. He would eventually spend another seven months enduring extreme heat, insects, snakes, hunger, a near-deadly fever and even an attack by the Spanish before he was rescued by a British ship in June 1724. Ashton later wrote a popular book detailing his terrifying days in the company of Low’s pirates and his 16-month stint as a castaway.
Juana Maria was the name given to the famous “Lone Woman of San Nicholas,” a Native American who spent nearly two decades stranded on an island off the coast of California. Juana Maria had grown up on San Nicholas, but most of her tribe was slaughtered in the early 1800s by hostile hunters. Missionaries evacuated the few remaining survivors in 1835, but Juana Maria was left behind when she ran back to the island to locate her missing infant. She never found the child, but when attempts to rescue her stalled, she was forgotten and left to survive on San Nicholas in complete isolation.
Juana Maria spent the next 18 years taking shelter in a cave and fishing with hooks made from seashells. She captured sea birds and seals and fashioned their feathers and skins into dresses, and passed the time weaving baskets and bowls from grasses. Her solitude finally came to an end in 1853, when Captain George Nidever discovered her on San Nicholas. Nidever took Juana Maria to Santa Barbara a few weeks later, and though no one could speak her language, she used hand gestures to relate the astonishing story of her survival. Sadly, she was unable to adjust to the diet of the mainland, and died of dysentery only two months after leaving her island. Her story was later fictionalized in the popular children’s novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”
Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated attempt to cross Antarctica on foot is a classic story of survival, but perhaps even more extraordinary is the tale of his “Ross Sea party,” a supply crew who spent two years as castaways on the other side of the continent. Shackleton’s ambitious expedition had originally called for two separate teams. The first, led by Shackleton himself, planned to land on Antarctica below South America before making a perilous transcontinental crossing. At the same time, the Ross Sea party was to land on the opposite side of the continent and deposit caches of food and fuel for the last leg of Shackleton’s long march across the Ross Ice Shelf.
The crew of the Ross Sea party docked near McMurdo Sound in January 1915 and began the slow, excruciating task of placing supply depots every 60 miles. Disaster struck that May, when the team’s ship was torn from its moorings and blown out to sea by ferocious winds. Despite being stranded at the edge of the world with dwindling resources, the ten castaways continued their mission and successfully laid the necessary supply caches, losing three men in the process. The survivors then spent almost a year confined to a small hut before they were rescued in January 1917. Only then did they learn their deadly ordeal had been in vain—Shackleton’s team had also lost their ship and never started the transcontinental crossing. Speaking of the Ross Sea party’s commitment to his doomed mission, Shackleton would later write, “No more remarkable story of human endeavor has been revealed than the tale of that long march.”