A Tale of Two Robinsons

June 27, 2011

Most people have heard of Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, the fictional autobiography of a man stranded for years on a deserted tropical island. It is believed that the story was perhaps influenced by a real person and a real island.

In 1704 a Scottish seaman named Alexander Selkirk argued with the captain of his ship, the “Cinque Ports,” and asked to be set ashore at the next landfall. The next landfall happened to be the uninhabited island of Masatierra, some 450 miles off the coast of what is now Chile. For over four years he survived in isolation, catching wild goats and ascending each morning to a vantage point (still called Mirador de Selkirk, or “Selkirk’s Lookout”) to search for ships. He was finally rescued by Captain Woodes Rogers in the British privateer the “Duke and Duchess.” Defoe read Woodes  Rogers’s account of the episode, and Selkirk became his character, Robinson Crusoe.

Some years earlier, another sailor on an English ship was inadvertently left behind on the same island after a skirmish with the Spanish navy. The man was a Nicaraguan Indian known as Will the Miskito. Will spent from 1681 to 1684 on Masatierra before his rescue. Defoe went on to immortalize him as “Man Friday.” Interestingly, it would seem that the Nicaraguan was far more adept at wilderness living than the Scotsman. However, in his fiction, the euro-centric Defoe turned the tables, and had Robinson giving Man Friday lessons in island survival.

By the time Chile gained independence from Spain, the novel was famous around the world. Eventually, the new regime decided to re-name the island after the book, and so Masatierra became Isla Robinson Crusoe or RobinsonCrusoe Island.

The island really is a paradise and hardly warrants the adjective desert. The volcanic peaks that thrust 3,000 feet out of the Pacific are covered in lush rainforest. The jungle is full of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.

In fact, the area has been declared a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. There is just one village, San Juan Bautista, which has a population of less than 700 with nearly all of the inhabitants from the Chilean mainland. And there is only one source of livelihood – lobsters. The lobster grounds around the island are amongst the richest on earth. There is a parish church on the island but no resident priest. The Chilean Church occasionally sends out priests for short pastoral visits, and I recently offered myself for the task. With so little contact with the outside world, I expected to find the faith virtually absent. However, I hadn’t reckoned on the passion of a modern day castaway, a remarkable individual by the name of Jorge Palomino.

Jorge is a mainland Chilean, a devoted Catholic layman who, in 1973, found himself studying theology in Santiago. That was the year of a brutal military coup by the infamous General Augusto Pinochet, and like many liberalminded young people, Jorge had to make himself scarce. He took refuge on Robinson Crusoe Island, intending to stay “for a few months.”

Instantly, he fell in love with the place. He also fell in love with one of its female inhabitants, and soon was married with three children. He took a job as the island’s postman. But, he began to increasingly worry at the lack of pastoral care of the islanders. Remembering his earlier theological studies, he volunteered as a catechist. Soon, he was running weekly liturgies and sacramental programs. He began to undertake house-to-house visitations and pushed the bishop on the continent into restoring the neglected and derelict church.

More than 35 years have passed, and Jorge is still there. He is still the postman and the primary catechist. He is the bishop’s righthand man on the island. Thanks to an ingenuity and tenacity that any Robinson Crusoe would be proud of, the Catholic Church is flourishing on this dot in the Pacific.

Jorge was my host when I went to Robinson Crusoe Island. It is a lovely experience, wandering round with him as guide. Everyone greets him. Virtually all of the married couples have been married by him. All those with the sacraments have been prepared by him. Everyone has had their loved ones’ funerals celebrated by him. He is Mr.Catholic Church on Robinson Crusoe Island. On Sunday morning after Mass, I hiked a track originally beaten by the luckless Selkirk, past the site of the lair he huddled in for four years, up to the breathtaking viewpoint that bears his name. From the lookout I was able to see the whole island, from one end to the other. I looked down on the lone village of San Juan Bautista with its tiny church roof, and smiled at the legacies left by these two very different Robinsons.